Essay / Theology

John Calvin, 500 Years Old

Tomorrow is John Calvin’s quincentennial birthday! He was born July 10, 1509. We’ll have a headline post from Allen Yeh on his legacy.

Meanwhile from the archives, some older Scriptorium essays on Calvin:

1. The Reluctant Reformer: How Calvin got bullied into the active ministry.

2. A Reader’s Guide to the Institutes: Greg Peters’ brief review of a new book.

3. The Terrifying Presbyterian John Calvin Mask. Print it out, cut it out, say BOO! Or don’t.

4. Calvin’s Brief Autobiographical Remarks: Hidden away in his Psalms commentary.

5. The Conspiracy to Make Everybody Hate Calvin: American history textbooks played an important role.

As far as I’m concerned, Calvin’s greatest contributions to Christian thought can be summed up in the following three accomplishments:

1. The Institutes.
Calvin’s masterpiece, first drafted when he was 26 years old, but revised and expanded until the end of his life. Reading most systematic theologies is like consulting a handbook to get the most important information. But the book that Calvin wrote is something different: Using his training as a Renaissance literary scholar, Calvin wrote a book that engages readers directly and pulls them into a living conversation. He doesn’t just announce finished results, but shows how he got those results. He points out the dangers that he is trying to avoid, the Biblical evidence he is trying to do justice to, and even the obedient response to God that is required if his conclusions are right. In the medieval guild system, you learned a trade by being apprenticed to a master practitioner, not by consulting a handbook. Reading Calvin’s Institutes attentively is, somehow, more like being apprenticed than like consulting a manual.

2. Calvin’s Bible Commentaries.
The Institutes is a biggish book, about 1,500 pages long. But Calvin refers to it as a brief introduction to how to read Scripture. If that seems contradictory, you have to remember that Calvin was calling his book little compared to the voluminous commentaries he wrote on nearly every book of the Bible. They fill 22 volumes in their modern printing, and the commentary on Job alone is as big as the Institutes. From 1540 to 1562, Calvin produced volume after volume of commentaries. This wall of commentary is not just an extended example of Calvin imposing his “theological system” on the text of Scripture, either. Instead, it is a patient, careful, attentive reading of what is to be found in Scripture. He is widely recognized as an early practitioner of historically and grammatically sensitive exegesis. Jacob Arminius, famous as a later opponent of the five points of Calvinism, recommended the commentaries warmly: “Next to the perusal of the Scriptures, which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s commentaries…for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the Library of the Fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent gift of prophecy.”

3. His Theological Emphasis. A fair reading of Calvin will show that the central emphasis of his theology is the glory of God, with the corollary of a human response of obedient worship. Marilynne Robinson says: “His theology is compelled and enthralled by an overwhelming awareness of the grandeur of God, and this is the source of the distinctive aesthetic coherency of his religious vision, which is neither mysticism nor metaphysics, but mysticism as a method of rigorous inquiry, and metaphysics as an impassioned flight of the soul.”

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