Friday, July 10, 2009

W. Robert Godfrey: "Calvin: Why He Still Matters"

Calvin: Why He Still Matters
by W. Robert Godfrey, Ph.D.First published in Evangelium, Vol. 7, Issue 1

There can be no serious doubt that Calvin once mattered. Any honest historian of any point of view and of any religious conviction would agree that Calvin was one of the most important people in the history of western civilization. Not only was he a significant pastor and theologian in the sixteenth century, but the movement of which he was the principal leader led to the building of Reformed and Presbyterian churches with millions of members spread through centuries around the world. Certainly a man whose leadership, theology, and convictions can spark such a movement once mattered.

Historians from a wide range of points of view also acknowledge that Calvin not only mattered in the religious sphere and in the ecclesiastical sphere, but Calvin and Calvinism had an impact on a number of modern phenomena that we take for granted. Calvin is certainly associated with the rise of modern education and the conviction that citizens ought to be educated and that all people ought to be able to read the Bible. Such education was a fruit of the Reformation and Calvin.

Others have insisted that the rise of modern democracy owes at least something to the Reformed movement. One historian said of Puritanism that a Puritan was someone who would humble himself in the dust before God and would rise to put his foot on the neck of a king. Calvinists were strongly persuaded that they must serve God above men, and that began to relativize notions of superiority and aristocracy. King James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, once remarked as he looked at Presbyterianism in Scotland: “No bishop, no king.” If the Church is not governed by a hierarchy, certainly the political world does not need to be governed by a hierarchy either. Such Calvinist attitudes toward kings helped contribute to modern democracy.

Calvinism contributed to modern science with an empirical look at the real world. Calvin contributed to the rise of modern capitalism in part by teaching that the charging of interest on money loaned was not immoral. He was the first Christian theologian to do so.

When we look at that list—theology, church, education, science, democracy, and capitalism—here was a man that mattered. He had a profound influence on the development of the history of the West. But does he still matter? Should we care today to revisit John Calvin—who he was, what he thinks—and believe that what he taught is still significant, still valuable? Yes, he still does matter. John Calvin matters still above all because he was a teacher of truth. If truth matters, then John Calvin still matters because he was one of the great teachers of truth, one of the most insightful, faithful teachers of truth, one of the best communicators of truth. He was a teacher who had taken to heart the words of Jesus: “You will know the truth and the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Mr. Leon Panetta was interviewed on television recently when it was announced that he was going to be appointed by president-elect Obama to be the head of the CIA. In his brief remarks, Panetta commented intriguingly that in the entrance of the old CIA building were the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” That verse from Scripture has probably been wrenched out of context and been misused more than most verses of Scripture. Often people who are concerned about the truth and quote this verse are interested only in an abstraction about truth, or only interested in turning this verse into a poetic slogan. It sounds great: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” They seem seldom to quote the verse in context, where Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” John Calvin knew the context of that verse. He knew the only way to know the truth was to know Christ’s word. And it was because he knew Christ’s word—because he studied Christ’s word, because he treasured Christ’s word—that Calvin was such a great teacher. John Calvin was a teacher of the truth of God’s Word.

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