Celebrating the Legacy of John Calvin, Part 2

Like every other spiritual leader in church history, Calvin was a flawed saint. He was shy but not dour. He was very sick later in life and sometimes referred to his idiotic body. He regretted he had trouble controlling his temper. He was very much a man of his age. But for all his shortcomings, Calvin had an extraordinary impact. Not just as a pastor, preacher, educator, theologian, reformer and a tireless apologist for Reformed Christianity. He also had a huge impact on the way Christians think about culture.

An Influencer of Culture There are many varieties of Christianity that separate Christ and culture. Some hold that culture is a waste of time. Others think that culture is evil. Anabaptists rejected the world as the domain of darkness. Luther accepted the world as a necessary evil in which we have to co-exist. Calvin, on the other hand, looked at things through the grid of the sovereignty of God over all, and the Biblical story line of creation/fall/redemption. Human activity, i.e. the life of a people, matters (be it in science, art, philosophy, government or technology). All life matters. Cultural activity is not a waste of time. God is sovereign, not just over spiritual things, but over everything. Calvin emphasized the wholeness of life. We are to glorify God in whatever we do. Calvin had a view to transform and re-form the world on the basis of God’s purposes in creation and redemption.

Some in the reformed tradition have referred to this as “total Christianity,” where everything is important because Christ is Lord of all. Others speak of it as “the cultural mandate,” or “cultural commission” which Adam had before the Fall. Once we are “in the new Adam,” we are to live and rule over whatever area God calls us to, as his representatives, under his reign. In so doing we anticipate the day when all things are restored in Christ.

An Influencer of Government Although he never held an elected office in the government of Geneva, Calvin had a great influence on how people understand government. There are three driving thoughts that shaped his thinking: the kingship of God, the fall of man, and the natural equality of man.

Calvin’s starting point was the absolute sovereignty or kingship of God. Every human government is accountable to and under God. In this respect, Calvin condemned both anarchists and absolute monarchs. The anarchist sought to get rid of government. The absolute monarch abused government.

Calvin rejected all notions of sovereignty apart from the sovereignty of God. When rulers violate God’s commands, they betray their office, which is a trust from God.

Furthermore, even kings and popes are fallen—no human can be trusted with absolute power. This thought contributed later to the idea of separation of powers and a more representative government. For these reasons, Calvin distrusted concentrated authority in the state and in the church. Those who followed him came to distrust absolute monarchs of any stripe. In the political realm, this worked against the idea of the divine right of kings, and towards either constitutional monarchs or republics. In the ecclesiastical realm, it led to a suspicion of popes and bishops, and towards the idea of a plurality of leaders (presbyters). There is a clear interrelatedness of his ideas of civil and ecclesiastical government. They clearly led to a religious and social revolution in the way many think of government and helped to plant the seeds of representative democracy.

Because of the impact of his ideas, and because of the fact that so many American colonists were trained in schools or churches influenced by Calvin, (of the 3 million colonists, two thirds had a reformed background), historian Merle D’Aubigne called Calvin “the virtual founder of America.” In the same vein, some British referred to the American revolution as “the Presbyterian revolt.”

The Father of Capitalism? Was Calvin the father of capitalism? His influence on its rise was immense, as noted by Max Weber in his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber said that Calvin’s teaching provided the ideological impetus for the development of capitalism. It promoted the values of self discipline, hard work, thrift, worldly asceticism, saving, and the teaching that it is okay to receive a moderate rate of interest on loans. The propagation of these values created a social ethos favorable to capitalism’s rise. So too did the reformed idea that all vocations must be lived out to the glory of God. Nevertheless, it is a stretch to call Calvin the father of capitalism. There were many other factors besides Calvin that influenced its rise. Yet he certainly contributed to its growth and development.

An Educational Pioneer The influence of Calvin on the rise of public education was also huge. Calvin believed strongly that all people needed to be able to read the Bible for themselves. To help children become good citizens and good Christians, he founded schools in Geneva. The Geneva model was then copied in places like Scotland and New England. This was the origin for the public school movement. It explains why a country like Scotland was the first country in Europe to attain universal literacy. It also explains why New England towns had at their center a court house (representing Christ’s office a king) a school house (representing Christ’s office as prophet) and a church meeting house (representing Christ’s office as priest). In New England and early America, sections from the Bible, and the entire Westminster Shorter Catechism (deeply Calvinistic) were included in the New England Primer, America’s first school book used for generations.

To learn more about the influence of Calvin, you might consult the following recent biographies:
John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God, John Piper (Crossway), 59 pages.
John Calvin: His Life and Influence, Robert L. Reymond, (Christian Focus), 148 pages.
John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, Robert Godfrey (Crossway), 199 pages.
John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhuis, (IVP), 259 pages.

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