At 500, John Calvin holds relevance in social, theological thought

Agree with his doctrines on the sovereignty of God and direction for Christianity or not, John Calvin still draws a crowd. In addition to Martin Luther, Calvin is the figure most closely associated with the Protestant Reformation of the 15th century. Worldwide celebrations and academic forums alike have trumpeted Calvin’s 500th birthday this Friday, July 10. Geneva is most closely associated with Calvin where he did the bulk of his writing and preaching throughout his career, and it is marking the anniversary with a great deal of fanfare. But beyond the mere milestone, Calvin’s relevance and place in 21st century theology and politics is debated both in its scope and in its place in society. Doug Phillips unapologetically sees Calvin as the central figure behind the thought processes of the Founding Fathers and a blueprint for change in American culture. Phillips is the director of San Antonio-based Vision Forum Ministries. Vision Forum sponsors a large Christian film festival every year and extols the virtues of the traditional nuclear family and the necessity to adhere to biblical teachings. “As an example, the film festival motto is to take every frame and to make it captive to the obedience of Christ,” he explained. “We see film as a way to impact the culture and to nurture a community of filmmakers with a biblical world view of Christianity. We see a crisis of the family and the fundamental need for fathers to live up to their responsibilities. … We do believe the Reformation was integral to encouraging the development of the Christian family and placed a heavy emphasis on family worship and for fathers to lead the family in worship together.” The importance of corporate worship and submission to God’s authority in all aspects of life are often identified as central to Calvin’s theology, which Vision Forum celebrated with a four-day festival in Boston concluding on Independence Day. The location and timing of the event was not an accident. The four-day event was attended by over 1,000 Christians from across the nation, many with a homeschooling background, Phillips said. It featured academic discussions on Calvin’s influence as well as a patriotic parade which included characters dressed as Calvin and Scotch reformer John Knox. “The difference between what is going on in Geneva this week and what we did is that we made ours more accessible to everyday people,” he said. “We did have discussions, but this was about a celebration of Christian thought and what the Reformation means to the average American in the pew.” The highlight was what was billed as a “boxing match” between Calvin and Charles Darwin held at the Boston Common. A pastor and a church historian dressed in period costume for Calvin and Darwin debated back and forth about the role of God in the development of the natural world. Phillips said the opportunity to stage the debate was “too good to pass up” with this year also being Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of Origin of the Species, which makes the case for evolution and natural selection. “As entertaining as it was, both dealt with foundational issues of philosophy and theology from the historical standpoint of each man. In our view these are the two most influential views in the past 1,000 years of Western civilization.” Phillips firmly believes contemporary mainline Protestant denominations and non-denominational evangelical churches have strayed too far from observing the sovereignty of God which Calvin promoted. He also said the influence of Calvin on John Adams in particular and the Founding Fathers in general were evidenced in their writing and promotion of representative democracy and the separation of church and state under God. “The notion of separation of church and state being mutually exclusive that we have is false. Calvin said and the Founding Fathers understood that separation was under the hand of a sovereign God that rules all. That is a significant difference from what is espoused today. “I do believe there is a revival of Calvinist orthodoxy, although Calvin would have been uncomfortable with the term Calvinism because his first priority would have been to follow our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “The time for a rebirth is right because in my opinion American evangelical Christianity has lost its bearings. “It has assimilated into culture to the point where there is very little difference between it and modern American society. The quality of preaching and teaching is in sync with culture. When you go back and ask why an average farm boy could understand the Federalist Papers in the 1780s is they had the experience of reading the Bible every day growing up with the systematic experience of hearing the Word of God that came from a Calvin tradition. Today what we have is a Coca-Cola Christianity, try Jesus and you’ll like it.” Phillips praises Calvin for illustrating ways which aspects of ordinary life – from representative government to the idea of children being a blessing from God – can be interpreted. He credits Calvin with showing how people can use their occupations and their lives as a service to God. “Under the influence of Darwinism over the past 100 years we have had such an emphasis on selfishness and me, me, me rather than God. We are living in the most morally bankrupt season of American Christianity. This is what (minister and Calvinist writer) John Piper and others are saying when we need to look at the world from the perspective of a sovereign God. This revival is timely and needed.” Calvin’s legacy is further ensconced in the name of Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Mich., with about 4,100 students. It was founded in 1876 with one professor and seven students in a one-room schoolhouse with early links to the Christian Reformed Church of the Netherlands, said Phil de Haan, public relations officer for the school. Today the school has grown into a private liberal arts school with a broad range of academic offerings, although it maintains strong ties with a seminary that was once under its purview and doesn’t hide its theological roots. “The life of the mind was certainly important to John Calvin,” de Haan said. “As a college which is unabashedly Christian, we also offer a first-rate academic education. We don’t want to put Christianity in a box. We see it interacting with any occupation, whether that means a Christian physician practicing medicine, a business leader living by Christian principles and so forth.” Theology studies at the school certainly discuss Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, but exploring a broad base of Christian thought is part and parcel of the curriculum and the academic outreach. “We just had a couple of professors release a book on (Thomas) Aquinas that was publisher by University of Notre Dame Press and written with a colleague at St. Louis University,” de Haan said. “Our professors are really first-rate and very familiar with the theological landscape.” Included in that group is Karin Maag, Director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies. She said she sees a wide range of experience of knowledge of Calvin and Calvinism amongst the student body. “When you recruit 4,000 students some are quite knowledgeable, some think they know a lot and others know very little,” Maag said. “There are some fairly strong stereotypes, negative and positive, and some myths that become unraveled when you study the complexities of what Calvin is really about and what he is compared to what he might be.” Common misconceptions range from giving Calvin too much credit for the Reformation to painting him as a theological dictator, Maag said. One of the strongest incorrect negative views, she added, is that Calvin was solely responsible for the Geneva execution of Michael Servetus, a theologian who disputed traditional Trinitarian doctrine. “One of the positive myths is that somehow Calvin was a reformer all by himself and he has something to say about every topic,” she said. “This idea that he is somehow a Mr. Wonderman is focused on older scholarship and not terribly helpful in understanding him. “Negative myths point to him being a dictator of Geneva and an intolerant tyrant who forced his will and killed Servetus for his beliefs.” Maag did say Calvin is deserving of the credit he receives for being a spark – among others such as Luther and Heinrich Bullinger. “He was a very successful reformer in Geneva and the Reformation managed to spread from Geneva and elsewhere to Scotland to France to Hungary to the Netherlands and so forth,” she said. “In terms of the impact outside Geneva, Calvin’s many writings were translated into other languages. Tracing his legacy from how it was written in other languages offers a systematic theology of working out why we believe what we believe.” Maag stopped short of making the same assertions as Phillips of the direct link between Calvin and the birth of American representative government. “What you find in the time gap between Calvin’s death in 1564 and even the Puritans coming to New England, there many different influences in there,” she said. “I think people who want to draw that connection leave off so many of the intervening personalities and issues. “Calvin and his connection to predestination are overly emphasized. To say it is somehow tied back to one person is not accurate. Calvin was a prolific writer, but even in his own time he was out-published by Bullinger, who had a greater influence over the English church.” Extending Calvin’s reach directly and exclusively into the minds of the Founding Fathers is a stretch, Vincent Bacote said, although his influence is undeniable. Bacote is the Associate Professor of Theology and Director of Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., a Chicago suburb. “There is a sense that the Reformation creates a context that sets up the Enlightenment and the idea that there is more than people just living under the hierarchy that is above them,” Bacote said. “People gain a sense of their own personal responsibility. “After the printing press, more and more Bibles are put in the hands of more and more individual people. This creates the idea that you don’t need an intermediary between you and God, people can have their own interpretations of the Bible. This sets the stage for people to think about things like how they should be governed. “When you get to the Founding Fathers, you are talking about 200 years after Calvin’s death and thought has gone through a lot of different avenues. It is certainly possible to think that Calvin was one of many influences on the Founding Fathers. The world of Calvin’s Geneva was quite different from colonial America.” Bacote sees the “neo-Calvinism” of Piper and Mark Driscoll, the popular pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, as more of a movement toward reforming the church rather than overtly altering the culture at large. “Driscoll was a guy that was identified as emergent in the past and now he’s kind of this hip alpha male who preaches a contemporary view of Calvin,” Bacote said. “When you look at his congregation it looks like the rest of Seattle, so I don’t know if the emphasis is as much as changing the culture and the emphasis on how you do church and the emphasis on the sovereignty of God and how we’re recipients of God’s grace.” He also agreed with Maag that trying to put Calvin into a neat theological box is a mistake. “The biggest misconception is the fixation on predestination and that it is not strictly a wedge between a Calvinist point of view and other Protestant views. Predestination may have influenced the start of a different way of looking at public life. Also the idea that Servetus was put to death solely because of Calvin simply isn’t true. Servetus was viewed as a heretic and this was a point in history where heretics were put to death, not just in Geneva. For someone who spoke as he did, it would have happened almost anywhere.” Steve O’Malley agrees that understanding Calvin is essential to gaining a well-rounded perspective on Christian theology. O’Malley is the John T. Seamands Professor of Methodist Holiness History at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. Asbury is a Wesleyan seminary. Wesleyan and Methodist denominations can trace their roots to Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian viewed as a counterpoint to Calvin. O’Malley regularly teaches a seminar on Calvin. “It’s important to understand Calvin from the standpoint of his writing and to have empathy for his work and scholarship,” O’Malley said. “You do find there’s a lot of correcting various forms of Calvinism which confused their own understanding of him from sources or parties that claimed his identity. “The important part of citing Calvin’s views is finding much in congruity with Wesleyan tradition which otherwise might escape the attention in looking only from an ecumenical perspective.” O’Malley sees similarities in interpreting the importance of biblical teaching and Christian community. “There is congruity in appreciating the Scriptures and a willingness to forgo rational adherence if it goes beyond the text and is helpful to establishing salvation. … In terms of themes showing an awakening of the spirit leaves room for such developments as an emphasis on hope and the completion of the work of Christ on Earth. “A strong point of Reform communities is their existence apart from favored state status with the exception of Holland and its colonies. This enables Christians to see themselves living in a state of being marginalized from the culture with a hope and a sense of greater purpose is history to identify with the larger purposes of God.” O’Malley agreed with Maag and Bacote that giving Calvin sole ownership of the theory of predestination and that God elects those who will enter his Kingdom are blown out of proportion. “Predestination was mentioned by Calvin at the end of the third book of the Institutes,” he said. “We can read (from Calvin) that in the light of salvation we can be identified as a child of God. Where he places that understanding is more in continuity with what Wesleyans acknowledge that there is a conditional sentence God elects to as a condition of faith and the appropriation of God in Christ which occurs in a life of repentance.” Links: Vision Forum Ministries: http://www.visionforumministries.org/events/r500/ Calvin College: http://www.calvin.edu/ Wheaton College: http://www.wheaton.edu/ Asbury Theological Seminary: http://www.asburyseminary.edu/

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