“Sure glad I’ve got that over with.”
The joke is almost as old as, well, Calvin. Now that we’ve gone through the required celebrations for his 500th birthday (he was born July 10, 1509), we now can say, “Sure glad we’ve got those celebrations over with.”
Not so fast!
We ought not to race by those celebrations. For one thing, commemorative events continue through the end of the year. For another, the retrospectives on Calvin have been uncovering too many important insights and too many lessons to be learned.
And, too many thoughtful students of Calvin have been raising really good questions, the kinds that lead not to a punch line but to weighty and self- critical discussions.
The best question I’ve heard so far: “Who would Calvin recognize as his heirs?”
Posed by Stephen Ray at the Calvin Jubilee (see pp. 10, 11), that question pressed the participants to climb a rung higher than most of us do when citing Calvin as the presby-papal endorser of our theological idiosyncrasies or missional eccentricities. The prolific reformer gets quoted incessantly to validate a plethora of prejudices. But would Calvin recognize those beliefs and practices as his own offspring?
According to Serene Jones, secular humanists can claim to be his progeny. His relentless search for truth even inspires folks who don’t believe in God. However, if we could ask him, Calvin might say that they missed the point.
Calvin’s popularity among fundamentalists has been surging as the New Calvinism, one of the “10 ideas changing the world” according to Time magazine. But he might question their understanding of the covenant, of the role of the sacraments, and their “doctrine of the autonomous local church.”
Who of us can feel confident that the Reformer would proudly show off our pictures in his I-phone?
Those who are working to promote social justice — an expression of common grace — can feel confident that they would make Calvin beam like a proud grandfather. The Reformer would applaud the mission service of so many reformed Christians showcased at the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women (see pp. 6-8). Modern day Christian leaders trying to create a theocracy, collapsing civil government into ecclesial oversight, probably would get chided by Calvin for misconstruing how his company of pastors exercised influence, not contol, in the city.
Those promoting liturgical renewal would catch a few smiles peaking through the Reformer’s beard. His heart would be warmed by earth-shaking proclamations of the gospel being confirmed and enacted by frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.
No doubt, Calvin would be stunned to see the fragmented state of the church. He would hang his head in embarrassment upon hearing his teachings and actions cited as a defense for the separatism that has repeatedly refuted his commitment to the church’s catholicity. We’d all catch a scolding for our lack of effort in reversing the pattern. He’d upbraid us for taking zero initiative to reunite with his Dutch offspring in our country!
We can’t say for sure, because his exegesis of gender-related texts mostly matched those of his culture, but methinks he’d quickly embrace as offspring in ministry the 51 percent of us who were excluded in his day. He’d first want to study the theological turns taken through the past century that led to the ordination of women. But in all likelihood, he’d conclude as we have and enjoy the fruits of the enlarged ministry impact that has resulted.
Believers’ passion for earth care would surprise and at the same time thrill him, given that environmental theology as a discipline arose centuries later in response to the unintended consequences of the Industrial Revolution. But no doubt he’d recognize it as a direct outgrowth of his extensive writing on God’s providential care of creation.
Most of all, those of us who are proclaiming the glory of God – the awesome, amazing, wondrous glory of the sovereign of the universe – would evoke Pentecostal “Amens” from the man.
Who would Calvin recognize as his heirs? A brief editorial can only speculate a few categories. But it’s a question we all do well to ask.