This year marks the 450th anniversary of the death of John Calvin (1509–1564). In three articles we will look at the relevance of Calvin’s teaching for our situation today.
Admittedly there is always a danger in trying to make a figure in history ‘relevant’ to the present day. Calvin was born over half a millennium ago. His concerns as a man of the sixteenth century are not necessarily those of today’s church.
We don’t know what he would have to say on the challenge of evangelism in a ‘post-Christian’, multicultural society. He was blissfully unaware of the threats and opportunities presented by the internet.
Would the Reformer have accepted your Facebook friend request? I doubt it, but who knows? That doesn’t mean that Calvin is ‘old hat’. In so many ways, the Reformer transcends his own time, because his life and thought were radically shaped by the living and active Word of God. He was not often sidetracked from the big and central themes of biblical revelation.
These are not biographical articles, but rather an attempt to provide an outline of Calvin’s key teachings. But do we all know what the great Reformer stood for? The famous ‘Five Points of Calvinism’ are total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints?
Commonly summarised under the acronym TULIP (from the first letter of each of these phrases), the five points originally materialised at the Synod of Dort, in 1618. This synod was called to respond to the Arminians’ five point Remonstrance.
I believe I’m right in saying that Calvin would have subscribed to all five points, although ‘limited atonement’ was not the burning issue of his day. However, if you want to understand Calvin’s teaching more fully, you need to get beyond TULIP.
Calvin was the preeminent theologian of the Reformation era. Indeed, he can be ranked alongside Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine as one of the great theologians of the church, in all ages.
In our exploration of some of the main themes in Calvin’s theology, we will follow the contours of his Institutes of the Christian religion. The Institutes began life in 1536 as a brief outline of Protestant doctrine. But, over the years, Calvin updated and expanded his work, until it reached its final form in the massive, 1200-page, 1559 edition.
In the fully expanded Institutes, Calvin intended to provide a summary of the Christian truth in all its parts. With that summary in mind, believers could then read their Bibles with greater understanding. Also, because he had discussed doctrinal issues at some length in the Institutes, he did not feel obliged to go over such points again in his Bible commentaries.
The Institutes is Calvin’s theological masterpiece. While he did not set out to write a complete systematic theology, in the Institutes he gives us a thorough, warm and clear exposition and defence of Reformation doctrine that is both steeped in Scripture and informed by the theological heritage of the church.
Here, then, is a brief tour of some key themes in Calvin’s theology.
Calvin wrestles with big issues, such as, ‘Can we know God, and how?’ He opens the Institutes with this statement: ‘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 of ourselves’. For Calvin the whole point in doing theology was to gain wisdom that we might live for the glory of God.
God has revealed himself to us in creation. Each human being has an awareness that God exists. In our sin, we distort and suppress this sense of God, but its witness cannot be totally eradicated from the human heart. We know enough to be held accountable for our unbelief and idolatry.
But if we are to be delivered from sin, we need knowledge of God the Redeemer. In Holy Scripture, God accommodates himself to our capacities, that we might know his saving power.
God is infinite and we are finite; God is holy and we are sinners. Yet, in Scripture, God has stooped to reveal himself to us in a way that we can understand. In the Bible, we are not given knowledge of what God is in his divine essence. Rather, Scripture shows us what God is for us as our Saviour.
We cannot conceive of how an omniscient Spirit knows all things and is everywhere present. But we take great comfort in the fact that ‘the eye of the Lord is upon the righteous’ and that he ‘holds us in his hands’.
Similarly, when God is said to ‘repent’, he does not really change his mind, but it may seem as though he does. When we turn from our sin and seek his mercy in Christ, God relents from his threatened judgement.
The eternal purposes of the Lord are not subject to change on the basis of human actions, but when Scripture that says that ‘God repented and did not destroy Nineveh’, it helps us to grasp how an eternal and unchangeable God relates to his time-bound creatures. The Bible is divine self-revelation that is suited to our capacity.
Calvin says, ‘For who, even of slight intelligence, does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express what God is like [in himself] as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness’.
But we are only able to receive Scripture as God’s Word through the witness of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit authenticates the Scriptures to the believer, so that the Bible is received as the very Word of God.
The Spirit also enables us to understand the essential message of Scripture concerning salvation in Christ. For Calvin, Scripture is the final court of appeal.
The Reformer valued the work of those who went before him, especially Augustine, the best insights of medieval theologians and Luther, but above all he insisted that the church must submit to the authority of God in Scripture. We must not dare to go beyond what the Lord has revealed in his holy Word.
It could be argued that the doctrine of the Trinity has been neglected in contemporary evangelical Christianity. We are ready to defend the doctrine in the face of attacks from so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islam, but is the biblical revelation that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit a defining feature of the teaching, life and worship of our churches?
To all intents and purposes are not many evangelicals practical Unitarians? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard believers begin their prayers by addressing the Father and then go on to thank him for dying on the cross!
Calvin can help us here. In the Institutes, you could almost say that the doctrine of the Trinity is his doctrine of God. The Reformer does not reflect on the Trinity after prolonged discussion of the being and attributes of God. He simply introduces the subject in Book I, Chapter 13, as, ‘The unity of the divine essence in three persons taught, in Scripture, from the foundation of the world’.
Calvin would have preferred a minimalist doctrine of the Trinity, saying, ‘I wish, indeed that such names [theological terms like “person” and “substance”] were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but each has his peculiar subsistence’.
But in order to clarify and safeguard the truth, in the face of heresy, Calvin was willing to employ the traditional formula that in the one divine essence there are three persons.
Contrary to more speculative teaching on the begottenness of the Son, the Reformer stressed that the Son did not receive his deity from the Father. He is God in his own right, alongside the Father and the Spirit.
Says Calvin, ‘The Godhead is absolutely of itself. And hence also we hold that the Son, regarded as God, without reference to his person, is also of himself; though we also say that, regarded as Son, he is of the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning, while his person has its beginning in God’. In other words, Jesus is Son in relation to the Father, but he is God because he is God.
In the Godhead there is an order of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but no gradations of deity. Thus Calvin helped to correct subordinationist tendencies in the church’s doctrine of the Trinity.
The Reformer shows us that the Trinity of the Godhead must be central to the teaching, life and worship of the church. We should rejoice in the fact that by grace we have been brought into communion with the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
To be continued
The author is pastor of Providence Baptist Church, Westbury, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, West Lavington, Wiltshire