Monday, May 25, 2009

Misunderstanding Calvin's Legacy

I was disappointed to discover the linked article (link) in which the "Reformed leader" (so called in the article) identified wheat he saw as three important aspects of Calvin's legacy:

1. Ecumenism

2. Social Justice

3. The Environment

Now, I should point out that the "Reformed leader" did recognize that (for example), John Calvin could not really qualify as "green." Additionally, it may be that the speaker further qualified his lecture than appears in the article.

Nevertheless, these are hardly the most important or relevant teachings of John Calvin today. The title of the post is accurate: "Reformed Leader Urges Church to Mine Calvin's Legacy." That's what the person is doing who tries to find modern trends in Calvin's theology - it's what our Amyraldian friends do when they try to find Universal Atonement in Calvin - and it's what we must not do if we want to treat Calvin fairly.

What, to Calvin, was most important? We can see it, at least in part, from the outline of the Institutes of Christian Religion, which may be summarized, thus:

a) God is Creator;

b) God is Redeemer;

c) Salvation is by Grace; and

d) The Church Preaches the Gospel.

Those are what Calvin views as the main points. Certainly, for Calvin many things are important. Under the fourth heading, Calvin does address that in fact the Church is Catholic (not Roman Catholic). Thus writes Calvin:
Hence the Church is called Catholic or Universal, (August. Ep. 48,) for two or three cannot be invented without dividing Christ; and this is impossible. All the elect of God are so joined together in Christ, that as they depend on one head, so they are as it were compacted into one body, being knit together like its different members; made truly one by living together under the same Spirit of God in one faith, hope, and charity, called not only to the same inheritance of eternal life, but to participation in one God and Christ. For although the sad devastation which everywhere meets our view may proclaim that no Church remains, let us know that the death of Christ produces fruit, and that God wondrously preserves his Church, while placing it as it were in concealment. Thus it was said to Elijah, "Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel," (1 Kings 19: 18.)
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 1, Section 2.

As a result of the true Catholicity of the faith, we should seek harmony with fellow believers, even when there are things that divide us. That must not, however, involve compromising the gospel. While Calvin was in some sense "ecumenical" he properly acknowledged that the church of Rome is not a part of the Catholic church of Christ:
Since this is the state of matters under the Papacy, we can understand how much of the Church there survives. There, instead of the ministry of the word, prevails a perverted government, compounded of lies, a government which partly extinguishes, partly suppresses, the pure light. In place of the Lord's Supper, the foulest sacrilege has entered, the worship of God is deformed by a varied mass of intolerable superstitions; doctrine (without which Christianity exists not) is wholly buried and exploded, the public assemblies are schools of idolatry and impiety. Wherefore, in declining fatal participation in such wickedness, we run no risk of being dissevered from the Church of Christ. The communion of the Church was not instituted to be a chain to bind us in idolatry, impiety, ignorance of God, and other kinds of evil, but rather to retain us in the fear of God and obedience of the truth.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 2, Section 2.

Likewise, Calvin does certainly suggest that provision should be made constantly for the poor:
That such was the practice of the Apostolic Church, we are informed by Luke in the Acts, when he says that "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers," (Acts 2: 42.) Thus we ought always to provide that no meeting of the Church is held without the word, prayer, the dispensation of the Supper, and alms. We may gather from Paul that this was the order observed by the Corinthians, and it is certain that this was the practice many ages after.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 17, Section 44.

Nevertheless, it is not the focal point of the work of pastors and teachers, but instead:
Next come Pastors and Teachers, with whom the Church never can dispense, and between whom, I think, there is this difference, that teachers preside not over discipline, or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers. But all these are embraced in the pastoral office.
, Book 4, Chapter 3, Section 4.

Finally, Calvin certainly recognized that we must not be wasteful:
And the Lord God took the man. Moses now adds, that the earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation. Whence it follows that men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. This labor, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness; since however God ordained that man should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned in his person, all indolent repose. Wherefore, nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do. Moses adds, that the custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition, that being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits to be marred or ruined by neglect. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let every one regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.
Calvin's Commentary on Genesis 2:15.

Nevertheless, Calvin also clearly stated that the creation was made for man and that man has been given dominion over the creation:
And let them have dominion. Here he commemorates that part of dignity with which he decreed to honor man, namely, that he should have authority over all living creatures. He appointed man, it is true, lord of the world; but he expressly subjects the animals to him, because they having an inclination or instinct of their own, seem to be less under authority from without. The use of the plural number intimates that this authority was not given to Adam only, but to all his posterity as well as to him. And hence we infer what was the end for which all things were created; namely, that none of the conveniences and necessaries of life might be wanting to men. In the very order of the creation the paternal solicitude of God for man is conspicuous, because he furnished the world with all things needful, and even with an immense profusion of wealth, before he formed man. Thus man was rich before he was born. But if God had such care for us before we existed, he will by no means leave us destitute of food and of other necessaries of life, now that we are placed in the world. Yet, that he often keeps his hand as if closed is to be imputed to our sins.
Calvin's Commentary on Genesis 1:26.

So, Calvin may indeed touch (to some extent) on topics that are the center of ministries like those of Rick Warren, but Calvin's focus was elsewhere. Calvin's focus was on preaching salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who is the only Creator and Redeemer of mankind.


H.T. to C.T. of the "Plain Path Puritan" and to Matthew Lankford for bringing this article to my attention.

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