But I have looked in vain for ones focused on three of Calvin’s themes — perhaps because they are so uncomfortable to American society today.
The first of these is Calvin’s teaching against what he called ostentatious living.
He thought it was outrageous for Christians to have fancy clothes when others in the community had barely enough to cover them in winter. He also thought it wrong for Christians to have multiple-course dinners while others were starving or just scraping by. In a time when many have second (and third) homes, how does this teaching of Calvin play out? In a world where thousands of children die each day because they do not have clean water to drink and many among us have pools to fill, lawns to water, and drink designer bottled water, how does this teaching of Calvin play out? When the majority of the world will go to bed tonight without having enough to eat while many of us spend many of our dollars eating out, how does this teaching of Calvin play out? Secondly, Calvin insisted preachers should use the sermon time as a teaching time.
I once was astonished when an associate of mine, a graduate from a Presbyterian seminary, turned to me and said, “When are you going to stop teaching and preach?” Calvin declared the preacher first and foremost a teacher, and a teacher with zeal who would present the teachings of Scripture with fervor. Once he said bluntly “the congregation must be pricked by exhortation and summoned to the judgment seat of God so that they may not sleep in their errors.”1 He said pastors must, “exhort more vehemently to rouse hypocrites and the obstinate from their torpor.2 “They must admonish, exhort, and deprecate … remove the excuses and pretenses with which hypocrites cover themselves and drag them from their hiding places!”3 Pastors, “must dare to reprove, freely and with intrepid spirit, both kings and queens, for the word of God is not to be limited to people or humble men but subjects to itself all, from least to the greatest.”4
And lest you think he was naive he said that any minister who performs his duties faithfully will be “loaded with much abuse and called contentious, morose, a disturber of the peace.”5 “Wicked men will find many occasions to censure them, and as soon as any charge is made against them, it is believed as surely and firmly as if it had been already proved.”6
Finally, I’ve heard little this year about Calvin’s teaching of how the “Sovereignty of God” affects the life of the Reformed Christian in daily life.
Sovereignty — giving loyalty and devotion to what is at the top of one’s list — in Calvin’s teaching is God. It means that all else in life comes after that. As this plays out in his teaching it means that the Reformed Christian is already sure of his salvation and therefore does not have to sit around worrying about it. Instead the Christian is expected to go forth and infiltrate the world, subvert it to be more like the Kingdom of God for which the church member prays, saying, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. If God is sovereign, then none of the systems of the world are sovereign. They come from the minds of humans and are therefore flawed and in constant need of reform. Social, political, economic systems all need to be judged and made constantly more humane.
I’ve gotten tired of the old bromide that the preacher should, “just stick to the Bible.” The prophets and Jesus insisted that believers become involved in life beyond the church. And where I live, inside the Washington beltway, there are many who say that the pulpit should stay clear of politics, of favoring Democrats or Republicans. Nonsense. If the pastor preaches the teaching of Jesus it is the teaching of Jesus, not some partisan position.
One of my favorite descriptions of Reformed Christians comes from Ernst Troeltsch:
“In Calvin’s view the individual is not satisfied with mere repose in his own happiness, or perhaps with giving himself to others in loving personal service; further, he is not satisfied with an attitude of mere passive endurance and toleration of the world in which he lives, without entering fully into its life. He feels that, on the contrary, the whole meaning of life consists precisely in entering into these circumstances, and, while inwardly rising above them, in shaping them into an expression of the Divine Will. In conflict and in labour the individual takes up the task of the sanctification of the world … ”7
So, honoring the 500th year of Calvin, I want to stand and cheer old John. He had a right side brain to use. He would not have wanted us to get stuck in what some Calvinists claim to be “orthodox Calvin.” One of his favorite texts was from Jesus when he told his disciples, When the sprit comes, the spirit will lead you into all truth,” and Calvin would have concluded that that means we have to keep our minds open in order to hear that word from the Spirit. Calvin would have been all in favor of using our God-given intelligence to interpret the teachings of Jesus and the prophets in creative new ways in our society even though we have a completely different worldview than John did. We must be “Reformed, but always being reformed by the Spirit.”
As was said in the concluding stanzas of the play, “The Human Face of John,” which several of us wrote back in 1991:
John Calvin, Hey!
John Calvin, Ho
Somebody you should know.
William R. Phillippe is a retired Presbyterian minister living in Alexandria, Va.
1 Commentary on I Thessalonians, 2:12.
2 Commentary on Deuteronomy, 32:42.
3 Commentary on Isaiah 58:2.
4 Commentary on Jeremiah 13:18.
5 Commentary on Jeremiah 15:10.
6 Commentary on I Timothy 5:19.
7 The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. Ernst Troeltsch. Vol. 2, pg. 588.