I consider myself a conscientious objector in the Calvinist/Arminian wars. First of all, it’s because I find the issue more complicated than such partisanship can convey, and I think both sides are right at certain points. Second, I find the polemics rather boring compared to the glory of the big scope of God’s kingdom. Third, I don’t think the distance between mainstream Calvinists and mainstream Arminians is really all that great. And, finally, because I find the professional Calvinists and professional anti-Calvinists to be shrill and exhausting.
So when my friend John Mark Reynolds (an Eastern Orthodox dispensationalist; and I thought I was eclectic!) asked me to write an essay on Calvin for his new volume on the great books, I hesitated. But Calvin is more important than the coffee shop debates over the extent of the atonement and how many elders can dance on the head of a pulpit. So, here’s what I had to say about Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:
If today John Calvin were discovered alive and in suspended animation, frozen in a block of ice somewhere in the French Alps, most people probably wouldn’t consider this good news. After all, the unfrozen Calvinist lawgiver rarely is thought of as the kind of figure modern audiences would want to drag back up.
His writings don’t have the wink-of-the-eye puckish grin that even his contemporary Martin Luther seems to sometimes communicate in his many writings. Moreover, Calvin, although associated with some bland but commendable features such as hard work and thrift, is mostly known for all kinds of awful things: such as burnings at the stake and the predestination of people to hell.
Calvin is too important, though, to leave him frozen in caricature, and he’s too significant to leave him simply to his tribe of theological partisans. John Calvin—most significantly in his Institutes of the Christian Religion—offers insight to all in the Christian tradition, including those who consider themselves the furthest away from “Calvinism.”
The Institutes was written first in 1536, with the final version completed in Latin in 1559. Calvin, a French convert from Catholicism to the ideas of the Protestant Reformation, quickly established himself as the early protest movement’s most influential theologian. While those who have never read Calvin firsthand often assume the volume is obsessed with speculative notions about divine sovereignty and the order of God’s decrees of election and reprobation, the excerpt in this volume better represents something of the tone and substance of the Reformer’s thought.
The initial sentence of the volume establishes a core theme in Calvin’s work: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” At first glance, this statement might seem to be exactly what one might expect from one so often associated with coldly cerebral Christian rationalism and abstract speculation. But the discussion Calvin begins on “knowledge” in this work is far more complex, and far more engaging, than that.
First of all, Calvin here is setting the context for a vision of all of life as theological. By this, I don’t mean merely that Calvin believes there is what some would call a Christian “worldview,” a theologically informed way of thinking about all aspects of existence. Calvin means more than this. He means that every human being is, by definition, a theologian. Every “word”—that is, every means a person has for making sense of his reality—is inescapably a “word about God,” a theology.
For Calvin, this truth is grounded above all in the creaturely nature of humanity. Referencing the Apostle Paul’s speech to the Athenians at Mars Hill, Calvin notes that it is in the Creator God, by necessity, that every human person “lives and moves” (Acts 17:28). For Calvin, the universal impulse of humanity to worship gods or ideologies or themselves is hardly a coincidence of evolution. The sense of the divine is embedded in all human persons, as part of the image of God itself. This awareness is activated by the icon of God’s glory present in the created cosmos all around us. If we do not acknowledge this primal reality, we simply cannot apprehend ourselves as we really are, or the universe as it really is.
For Calvin, it is not simply that all persons ought to be able to realize that there is a God, if they were only to pay careful enough attention to the evidences for his existence. It is instead that all persons do, immediately, recognize this. Moreover, they recognize not only the existence of God, but they recognize, personally, the God who is. So why is there not a universal worship of the God in whom Calvin believes, the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the God of Jesus of Nazareth?
This is where Calvin’s view of sin emerges. Again, Calvin is often misrepresented as having a gloomy, world-denying pessimism about humanity. Some of his followers throughout the centuries have yielded to this caricature of the Reformer. But Calvin’s view of sin isn’t censorious or cranky. Instead this doctrine explains why worship is so difficult for humanity as it is. It is not, in Calvin’s view, that we sin because we believe the wrong things. It is instead that we believe the wrong things because we sin.
In other words, human persons, in our fallenness, crave our own autonomy—the illusion that we are gods to ourselves. In order to protect this delusion, and remain free from our Creator, we convince ourselves of what deep in our consciences we cannot deny—the reality of God, his moral law, the coming judgment.
Calvin here, echoing Paul, anticipates some of the psychological theories of centuries later in presenting a picture of the role the affections play in shaping the way we think. Sigmund Freud may have been quite wrong about many things, but who can deny the fact that human persons are motivated by more than merely rational impulses but also by an often dark and nearly incomprehensible psychic undertow? Calvin would root this in the fallen nature of the human condition. In order to know God and to know ourselves, Calvin insists, we must face this ghostly truth.
This is hardly a “pessimistic” picture, though, in the larger mosaic of Calvin’s thought. Human persons can rightly read the cosmos, and ourselves, through the revelation God has disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ and in the “spectacles” of the Scriptures.
Calvin’s view of revelation, and of knowledge as fundamentally a question of worship, grounds the importance in Protestant Christianity of preaching and widespread reading and study of the Bible in the languages of the people. This Christian tradition, as it expanded in missionary movements and revivalist awakenings, shaped much of the trajectory of modern European and American thought.
As you read Calvin’s Institutes, you will probably find points of disagreement, perhaps even major disagreements. But you will probably—whatever your religious communion—find the insights of a mind shaped by immersion in the Scriptures, in the church fathers, in Western classical thought. And you will find behind that a man who recognized something of what it meant to be a creature, and to look in worship and humility for the Creator in whom he lived and moved.
The above is adapted from a contribution I made to The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization, edited by John Mark Reynolds.