500 years ago today—on July 10, 1509—one of the most important theologians in Christian history was born. John Calvin.
A second-generation reformer during the Protestant Reformation, Calvin was a scholar out of the Renaissance humanist tradition and produced a striking amount of scholarly output, including commentaries on most books of the Bible and his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion—one of the most significant systematic theologies ever written.
But he’s also known for Calvinism—the theological approach (also known as Reformed) that emphasizes things like God’s sovereignty, predestination, and the inherent depravity of man. And Calvinism, strange as it may seem to some, is now more popular than ever.
Back in March, I wrote a blog post about why I think Calvinism is increasingly resonant and attractive to younger generations of Christians. I mentioned such things as the fact that Calvinism is about certainty, that it doesn’t shy away from talking about sin and yet also emphasizes grace, and that it views God in the highest way possible. Read the whole post here.
I would consider myself Reformed, Calvinist, whatever you want to call it. I believe God is huge and in complete control and worthy of all praise. He’s God. All notions of truth and justice begin and end with the reality of his being. In other words: what he does—whatever he does—is true and just, even if it sometimes doesn’t seem that way from our perspective. Would it be just if God decided to condemn every human to hell for eternity and didn’t save any of us? Yes. He can and should do whatever he wants. But that he DOES save some of us, in spite of our sin, is truly remarkable. He’s a loving God.
Anyway, in as much as I agree with Calvinism and most of its controversial points, I have to say that the “neo-Calvinists” and the current crop of Reformed defenders do sometimes annoy me. It sometimes seems like they love Calvin more than Jesus, and elevate TULIP above even the Bible. They know who they are. They’ve pit themselves against “the rest of the world” in a sort of battle mentality, cloistering together with like-minded comrades, and it isn’t doing anyone any good. Calvin would not be pleased with the way that some Calvinists have commandeered his theological namesake.
And another thing that annoys me is the way that some Calvinists and Reformed types have misinterpreted sola scriptura. One of the five solas that are associated with the Reformation, sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”) was meant to articulate that scripture held the final and only infallible authority for Christianity, not that it was the only thing that mattered or the only thing that held any truth. Some neo-Calvinists act as though the Bible is the only thing that a good Christian ever needs, that they should just study it and look to it alone for all questions and matters of import.
But none of the Reformers would have agreed with this “just me and my Bible” approach to the faith. They all thought that it was important to have theological guidance and that we should build on the orthodox beliefs that the church had already established. The Bible was the most important thing, yes, and its authority superseded everything else… but it wasn’t the only thing. Calvin was all about the Bible and wanted it to be held in high esteem (much higher than himself), but he also understood that it was a document that needed to be thoughtfully interpreted and systematically analyzed through lenses and thoughts that others had articulated before (like Augustine, for example).
The Bible is completely and utterly true and authoritative, but it is not necessarily self-evident. It needs human minds to makes sense of it, and many minds throughout history have taken up the task. Calvin was one of them, but he wasn’t the only one. There are many others who have looked at the Bible and made different insights and saw different, though equally helpful patterns and themes. And Calvin would be the first to point this out.