This is a follow-up to what I put up two posts back (ignore the middle one, please). We’re considering how building fences applies to these three things named in the title. One of my most loved, most hated Reformed Pastors, John Piper, said the Christian church has a duty to build fences around certain beliefs, and that these must be protected. It wouldn’t take vast study to understand that much of what is wrong with missions, worship, and Christian living today is that certain ideas about God and salvation haven’t been protected with the vigor which they deserve. And even though words like “calvinists” and “calvinism”, and even men like John Calvin should be pretty easy to part with, when things come to a head, it becomes us to reexamine the worth of these particulars concepts. The words may be dropped without firing a shot; we may be more reluctant to give ground on realities. I don’t want anyone to look at what I have written here as anything but a prompting to look at what others have said, and to read their Bibles; I am no authority, or very knowledgeable.
Calvin: So, the second heading at which we must look is this whole business of the man John Calvin. For the sake of fairness, we should immediately disconnect the man from his followers. What we are looking at is a historical figure, and all historical figures are open to criticism: but we must look also at his memory as one who was anointed of the Lord, and through lenses of a continuation of Hebrews 11. In this category we must place many, even such men as John Wesley. There may be those whom we must criticize greatly, along with their works; (I think here of the grandfather of modern evangelical theology, Charles Finney). But I am convinced that we should hesitate to place Calvin within this camp.
As to the benefit of his works, any one who has treated themselves to them cannot debate this point. I have yet to complete a reading of his Institutes, but my study of the work thus far has not been without benefit. But why this work should be branded as the epitome of necromancy is completely foundation-less. It was originally written as a small booklet which Calvin wrote to encourage his French brethren, who were then under intense persecution. It was expanded over the course of his life time, but the purpose remained the same: a systematic explanation of clear Christian doctrine, ethics, and ecclesiastical form; the effects of its bible-saturated and scripture-rich worldview can be seen if we look at the effect on Geneva under Calvin’s preaching. It remains an unparalleled manual to springboard eager students into realms of doctrine, apologetics, Christian conduct and a God-centred civil government, not to mention church structure. As for his commentaries, they are as fallible as any man’s, but helpful as man’s best. Jacobus Arminius himself said that there was no volume more valuable to the Christian, other than the bible, than the commentaries of John Calvin.
We cannot judge this Reformer of the church only according to our particular doctrinal beliefs. He was just that: a reformer. Nick Needham said that just as Luther’s passion was after a pure doctrine of Justification, Calvin’s passion was a pure church. God used Luther to open the door; but He would not have His glory stolen, therefore the Reformation was not consolidated to the work of one man. Luther fell short on the Church in many areas, (though his work is not to be underestimated) remaining in a hangover from Catholicism, but God used Calvin more so in the area of practice. And essentially, the ideas of both men can be traced through one source to another. They both inherited their views, which we have a fearful habit of pinning merely on Calvin, to Saint Augustine, and all three of these drank deeply of the fountain of Paul’s writing, especially in Romans.
There is so much that I could write along these same lines, but this isn’t meant to be an extensive paper on the life of Calvin. One incident that ought be briefly addressed is the burning of Michael Servetus. As Andrew Davies well said, with the benefit of hindsight we see the folly and perhaps the wrongness of this action. But to single out Calvin as perpetrator of the action is highly unjust: to use this particular incident to assail Reformed doctrine is madness. First, it must be pointed out that John Calvin was not the one who condemned Servetus: you have the Geneva Council, of which Calvin was not a member, to thank for that. Also, after the sentence, it was the prominent preacher in Geneva who sought to lead Servetus to repentance, pleading with him as a pastor. And in the end, when Servetus refused to comply, Calvin sought that he should receive an easier method of execution, namely beheading, that he might not be subjected to the torture of burning. This practice of burning of heretics was something engrafted into church practice, and would eventually be eliminated under the influence of the Reformation of the Church under God’s Truth; the whole of this work was not expected to be completed in the lives of a few men. And most obviously, we had better condemn all of Europe, Catholic AND Reformed, along with Calvin, for it was the popular cry that this man Servetus be executed.
Well enough on that matter. It follows, then, that we ought be extremely careful in our view of this man. There seems to be no middle ground between falling down and worshiping him, or despising him as a demon. He was a man of God, and a Theologian of a first class.He is NOT all-knowing, and he is NOT infallible. But most of what is said of him is used as a bridge to assault a set of doctrines, which is a much weightier issue. Therefore, if God leads you to become a disciple of this man to the extent that one is made a disciple of Whitefield, Edwards, Taylor, Carrey, Augustine, Tozer, or Lloyd-Jones, than so be it. But Remember, imitate him, and He imitates Christ, Who is indeed the ultimate end of all things.