May 27 – John Calvin

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Calvin,   Reformer of the Church

In May 2009, the 500th anniversary of the birth of the French Reformer Jean (John) Calvin 1509-1564 was acknowledged in Geneva and around the world.  Calvin helped consolidate the Reformation movement. He was “second generation” to Martin Luther’s initial protest against Catholic indulgences in 1517. John Knox of Scotland (1514–1572) was another contemporary. Calvin was educated for the Catholic priesthood at the University of Paris and later in law at Orleans.

Calvin’s influence as a Reformed theologian was significant in Europe during his years in Geneva. His theology particularly emphasized two central themes: salvation by grace alone, and the Kingdom of God. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, first written in Latin in 1536 following his break with Catholicism, are still regarded as a clear authority in some Protestant churches today. In his many confessional documents and other writings, Calvin tried to meld together gospel and practical Christian living.

For Calvin, the Bible was the focal point of church life. All members were to be lifelong students of the Scriptures, which  “should be read with a view to finding Christ in them.” He wanted to inject conviction and the presence of the Holy Spirit into liturgy and divine worship. Calvin believed that while the Lord’s Supper should be central to each worship service, its mystery required protection from profaning sinners. This “godly discipline” led to a tightened access to Holy Communion within the Genevan church.

Calvin also attempted to transform the civil society of his time. He (and other Reformed leaders who lived in Geneva) cooperated with the town council to define the civil codes of the day. Some historians have pointed to this period between the mid-1550s and Calvin’s death as one of moral austerity and political control.

Calvin remains controversial. For some, the principal concern is with the emphasis of Calvin’s successors on an expanded doctrine of predestination, which led to a fear of hell. Other adherents have seen material prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing and its recipients as predestined for salvation. Later, Max Weber named Calvin the “father” of capitalism.

To mark Calvin’s 500th anniversary, the General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Dr. Setri Nyomi, reminded WARC’s member churches (Presbyterian, Congregational, Reformed, and Uniting/United), of their origins in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. Dr. Nyomi invited us to reflect on three themes from Calvin’s life and ministry.

First, Calvin professed a strong call to compassion and social justice. This may have been engrained in him through his flight from persecution, or from his ministry with expelled French refugees in Geneva. He believed that “Where God is taken seriously, humanity is cared for as well.”

Second, Calvin wrestled with “the question of whether, and how, the law of God revealed in the Bible . . . was to be obeyed in the political and social order.” For him, reconciliation involved justice in society and “the rejection of war [between nations] as a means to serve the Gospel.” Calvin believed that ”we must live together in a family of brothers and sisters, which Christ has founded with his blood.” To Calvin, this family included “barbarians and Moors”—an unpopular view in his day.

Third, despite the realities of the period of the Reformation, Calvin was committed to visible unity through the “one Lord of the one church”. He was willing to mediate matters of division to minimize “scandalous” schisms. Historically, however, Reformed churches do not have a good record on visible unity, and commitment to ecumenism is often undermined by internal division. For Calvin, such circumstances were a poor witness to the gospel and inhibited the church’s mission in the world as well as the lives of its members. Visible unity remains a challenge for churches to demonstrate the one body of Christ.

Judi Fisher (alt)