The Irrelevance of John Calvin – Murray Rae

Murray Rae is Professor of Theology at Otago University and a Presbyterian Minister.  He was also an editor of Candour in the 1990s.

When we look back to the sixteenth century, to the time of the Reformation, we see a world vastly different from our own. The great Reformer, John Calvin, could hardly have imagined the world we now inhabit. He might have struggled to recognise as well the present reality of the church — its form, its daily life, its existence on the margins of society. The form of society itself is also very different now than it was in Calvin’s day, and so the church faces challenges in mission that Calvin is unlikely to have envisaged. It is curious then to look back at reformers like Calvin, to figure out what made them tick, and to try to understand the concerns of their own time.

Calvin is easily caricatured as a grim-faced and intolerant dogmatist, but the caricatures frequently conceal his deep concern for the well-being of the people of Geneva. It was for their sake, for instance, that Calvin encouraged compulsory school education — for boys and girls — and free education at that, so that it would be accessible not just to the aristocratic elite as it had been previously, but also to the poor. The education offered in the Academy that Calvin founded in Geneva covered a range of disciplines, but Calvin was especially concerned that all should learn to read the Bible for themselves. Reading the Bible well involved more than the capacity to make out the words on the page. Calvin knew the dangers of superficial reading, of finding in Scripture texts that suited one’s own purposes, and of distorting Scripture in order to confirm one’s own prejudices. It was important to attend to the literary genre, to the nuances of language, and to the historical circumstances of a text’s production. It was necessary, as well, to be theologically informed, to have a good understanding of the overarching trajectory of the Biblical story and of the essential content of the Gospel. Calvin accepted that ordinary folk would need good teachers to assist with such reading, but his concern that ordinary people should themselves become good readers of Scripture was one of his highest priorities.

Calvin was also concerned for the true worship of God, or, we might say, he was concerned that people learn to worship the true God. Calvin thought that people of his day were prone to idolatry. They were inclined to construct gods in their own image, or gods who would serve their own interests. They were inclined to confuse the purposes of God with particular political, ideological, or even ecclesiastical interests, and so worship a false god. The only antidote to this, Calvin supposed, was to return again and again to the crucified Christ, to the place where the true God is revealed. Calvin thought that Christians were as prone to idolatry as anyone else, so the daily discipline of repentance, and a return to Christ, was commended especially to them.

It is well known that Calvin had much to say about human sinfulness. The idolatry just spoken of was one of the marks of sin. In Calvin’s view, however, the most damaging effect of sin is the havoc it plays with human perception. It distorts our vision and messes up the way we see things. It blinds us to where God is at work in creation and makes us resistant to God’s good purposes for the world. Sin produces as well rather too much confidence in our own judgements and intelligence, and causes us to trust far too much in our own capacity to put right the things that are wrong in the world. At the same time as Calvin urged his fellow Christians in Geneva toward a greater recognition of their sin, therefore, he also urged much greater humility in their judgements and in their claims to intellectual prowess. We all see through a glass darkly; we all understand only in part. Even those engrafted in Christ, Calvin taught, were prone to misunderstanding and so continued to need forgiveness and the renewal of their minds.

The misreading of Scripture, idolatry, intellectual pride, and human sin: these are but a few of the concerns that appear frequently throughout Calvin’s writings. But of course, Calvin lived in a bygone age and in a vastly different world. It is just as well we have moved on since then.

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