Sunday, January 2, 2011

John Calvin

Geneva Switzerland – Visited May 2007

Portrait of John Calvin by Titian

I thought I’d start off 2011 with a personal hero – John Calvin – the generally acknowledged father of the Reformed Christian tradition. Calvin was born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France. His vocational direction was the opposite of his theological predecessor, Martin Luther. Luther was intended by his father to be a lawyer, but instead committed himself to the priesthood. Calvin was intended by his father for the priesthood but wound up pursuing the law. As a young man John Calvin came under the influence of the humanistic Renaissance thinking of his time. His vocational desire was (really to the end of his life) to live the life of a scholar and writer. But God’s plans worked out in him not in the contemplative world of the university, but in the turbulent and at times dangerous world of pastoral ministry in a divided city.

Calvin's Pulpit at St. Pierre - Geneva
Calvin experienced an ‘unexpected conversion’ around age 24, which led him slowly but convincingly away from humanism to a Biblical worldview. He found himself numbered with the heretics in a France hostile to the Reformation and eventually found his way to the city of Geneva, Switzerland. His intent was to find a place to study and write. But the spiritual leader of the city, William Farel, persuaded Calvin to stay in Geneva and pastor the church. So in 1536 John Calvin began his pastorate – only to be rudely interrupted eighteen months later when he was kicked out of the city by a government unhappy with his efforts. While he was exiled in Strasbourg, the scholar in him found expression, and the man found a wife. However, in his absence Geneva went down the tank and the city pleaded for Calvin to return. So in 1541 John Calvin resumed his pastoral ministry in Geneva, where he remained the rest of his life.

Statue of Calvin at the Reformation
Wall in Geneva
The church in Geneva was notable because of its overlapping influence and jurisdiction in the affairs of the city. It was the goal to make Geneva a Protestant city where church and state existed in cooperative promotion of Gospel truth and life. And to an extent under Calvin that was achieved. John Knox, the Scottish Reformer who fled to Geneva to avoid persecution, called Calvin’s Geneva ‘the most perfect school of Christ’. And as experiment in Christian government it was a remarkable endeavor. But the experiment was not without challenges in the form of continual controversies over doctrine and practice and, sadly the persecution of Anabaptist believers whose practices and doctrine raised suspicion about their participation as citizens in the city.

My wife Jill doing her killer Calvin imitation

In the center of it all was the tirelessly prolific John Calvin. Over the course of a quarter century in ministry Calvin preached an average of five times per week. In addition, he wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible, numerous other theological works and ministry letters that total eleven volumes. And this does not include his magnum opus, what we know as the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which Calvin first published in 1536 and continued to expand and revise until 1559. It is Calvin’s prodigious theological outworking of Reformed theology that is ultimately his greatest legacy.

Calvin’s life and ministry ended in 1564 with him, predictably, hard at work writing and pastoring his people. Upon hearing of his death, Pope Pious IV, his greatest enemy, reluctantly had to admire, ‘If I had such servants my dominion would extend from sea to sea’. Reflecting on his imminent departure Calvin feared that he might be venerated and therefore requested to be buried in an unmarked grave in the city cemetery.  However…. If you go to Geneva to the city cemetery you will find a grave that has been marked for generations as the final resting place of the Great Reformer. Who’s to say it isn’t. 

With my brother John at the reputed final resting place of J.C.

For some great thoughts from John Piper on Calvin's legacy check out What's intriguing about John Calvin.  My favorite John Calvin quote, from the beginning of the Institutes.

Calvin as we've come to know and love him

“Our Wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself”

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