Reconsidering Calvin and Calvinism
It is much easier to mock and ridicule John Calvin than it is to read him and seriously consider his insights in the light of Scripture. That is why today there is no shortage of disinformation about the man and his teachings. In some sectors of Christianity vilifying him has almost become a sport.
I well recall seminary professors who dismissed Calvin and his writings as irrelevant because, as they asserted, "he burned at the stake those who disagreed with him" or "he was an authoritarian tyrant who ruled Geneva with an iron fist" or "he baptized babies." Further, students were warned against imbibing his theological insights lest we become like him in all of these ways.
Those accusations typify the conflation of myth and truth that fills the thoughts of many when they think of Calvin. Yes, he advocated paedobaptism, but he hardly ruled the city of Geneva, not even being granted citizenship until five years before his death. Regarding the death of the heretic Servetus, Calvin cannot be exonerated for his part in that sad, heinous act. But it is stupifyingly simplistic to overlook the fact that Calvin was a man of his times and his times were brutal.
Even today there are some Baptist leaders and teachers who seem intent on keeping caricatures of Calvin alive and whose warnings about the man and his doctrine border on the apocalyptic. These modern alarmists have little in common with the rich stream of Baptist heritage that viewed these matters in a completely different light. In his magisterial Baptist Encyclopedia William Cathcart numbers Calvin among "the greatest workers in Christ's vineyard" and the great Baptist champion, Charles Spurgeon, writes, "The doctrine which I preach is that of the Puritans: it is the doctrine of Calvin, the doctrine of Augustine, the doctrine of Paul, the doctrine of the Holy Ghost."
John Calvin was a great man. But he was just a man. To ignore him or dismiss him thoughtlessly is to waltz merrily down the path of ignorance not only of historical theology, but of western civilization. Thoughtlessly to accept all that he taught would be to dishonor him and, more importantly, the Scriptures that he loved and sought to expound.
One of the great benefits that we who live in this year of the 500th anniversary of his birth are receiving is the collective insight of fresh evaluations of the man and his teaching. This issue of the Founders Journal includes some of those evaluations.
The articles by Frank James and Michael Haykin should forever put to rest the false charge that Calvin's theology is inherently opposed to bold evangelism. Erroll Hulse gives a wonderful summary of Calvin's Calvinism demonstrating the reformer's integrated understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
Spurgeon well-understood that to appreciate Calvin and Calvinism is not to denigrate the Word of God at all. Rather, it is to recognize that, to the degree that the man accurately understood and taught God's Word, he has served and continues to serve the people of God well.
In this assessment, Spurgeon speaks for many, including this writer:
We only use the term "Calvinism" for shortness. That doctrine which is called "Calvinism" did not spring from Calvin; we believe that it sprang from the great founder of all truth. Perhaps Calvin himself derived it mainly from the writings of Augustine. Augustine obtained his views, without doubt, through the Holy Spirit of God, from diligent study of the writings of Paul, and Paul received them from the Holy Ghost and from Jesus Christ, the great founder of the Christian Church. We use the term then, not because we impute an extraordinary importance to Calvin's having taught these doctrines. We would be just as willing to call them by any other name, if we could find one which would be better understood, and which on the whole would be as consistent with the fact.
1 The Baptist Encyclopedia, ed. William Cathcart (Philadelphia, PA: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 365.
2 C. H. Spurgeon, The Early Years (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 364.
3 Ray Van Neste also refutes that unwarranted but pernicious accusation in his excellent article "John Calvin on Evangelism and Missions" in The Founders Journal 33 (Summer 1998), 15-20.
4 C. H. Spurgeon, The Early Years, 162.