Friday, July 10, 2009

Happy Birthday... John Calvin, who was born 500 years ago today!

There are TONS of blogs, websites, and other resources that are devoting huge amounts of attention to Calvin’s 500th birthday. There is even a celebration trip/tour going on right now
in Geneva, where most of the Reformed preachers I’ve ever heard of are teaching, preaching, and reflecting on Calvin’s life, ministry, and contribution to theology.* I’m not going to try to pretend that I have anything to contribute to the mystique or biographical evaluation or anything else regarding John Calvin.

Instead, I want to offer three basic reflections about why I admire John Calvin and am thankful for him:
  1. A lot of people think of Calvin primarily as a leader of the Protestant Reformation (which he was), a theologian (which he was), or a Bible scholar (which he also was). But thinking of Calvin only in one (or even all three) of these ways is an inappropriate limitation of who Calvin was. He was all of these, but they were actually the fruit of something more that he was: a Pastor.
  2. Calvin the Pastor was a fairly amazing man. He preached frequently, at times almost daily, and sometimes multiple times a day, and regarded preaching as not merely the delivery of a message but a “pastoral event.” In addition, he also was active with pastoral visitation of his flock, devoting individual attention to their faith and sanctification. Beyond that, Calvin was a teacher, working with education at all levels (including the seminary level, where he taught John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism-- thus our close roots with Calvin), and a social reformer, working to bring about civic and economic reform as the result of a theologically Reformed worldview. He wrote profusely, penning commentary on the entire Bible, works of catechetical instruction, much theology, and his most well-known work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. All of this he accomplished while nurturing his marriage to his wife Idelette, and the children of her first marriage (she was a widow at 31 when he married her). Incidentally, both John and Idelette Calvin were frail in health, which presented a difficulty that he seldom allowed to interfere with his pastoral work. Calvin was the very model of a Reformed Pastor.
  3. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is often looked on as a daunting and unapproachable work of theology. In many ways, it is-- with the translations of the final version (Calvin re-wrote it several times throughout his ministry, with the first edition being only 20% of the final version) hitting 1800 pages, it does not make for a short read; and as content goes, it is probably a notch or two higher than most Christians are accustomed to. However, Calvin’s goal was not to write a difficult seminary textbook; on the contrary, the goal for the Institutes was to offer the common Christian a guide to thinking and living according to their faith, and it is still quite useful for that purpose. (Let it be said that some of the difficulty in reading comes in the fact that there are no recent translations, and an up-to-date translation would inevitably result in a more approachable book.)

If you are interested in a good biography that will introduce you to all of the aspects of John Calvin’s life, you might try Robert Godfrey’s
John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor.

Happy birthday, Pastor Calvin-- your ministry continues to bless Christ’s church today, and I join thousands-- if not millions-- of others in giving thanks and praise to God for your work. I look forward to our fellowship in the new Jerusalem together!

*Check out Reformation 21’s ongoing reports of the Calvin 500 conference/trip. Also, the guys at Reformation 21 have been “blogging” through Calvin’s Institutes all year, and it has made for interesting reading (no, I haven’t read the whole blog).

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