Wednesday, May 6, 2009

John Calvin : A Pilgrim's Life by Herman Selderhuis

John Calvin is one of those figures in Western Civilization who is either lionized or vilified, but rarely treated with neutrality or much objectivity. In Herman Selderhuis’new work John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, a lot of the Calvin mythos is given a second look and either disposed with or put into it’s historic perspective. One example of this is the notion that John Calvin was obsessed with the doctrine of election and predestination. In reality, Calvin wrote way more on the subject of prayer than he did on providence. Calvin also did his theology with a different background. Those of us who live in the Protestant world forget that Calvin was a first generation reformer and was looking at things largely in light of Roman Catholic teaching. In the case of Predestination, this had a focus on the assurance of the believer. In Medieval Catholic theology so much depended on the believer and his efforts to choose a godly life and deal with his sins through the sacramental system. In this setting the Christian was always left with the question “have I done enough to please God?”. But when the believer looks to Christ alone, His work on the cross and His choosing of the believer, there is assurance because salvation in no regard depends on human effort. Another of the myth’s about Calvin is that he held great power over Geneva and fashioned it into a virtual theocracy. The reality is that prior to Calvin’s arrival, the city had made a commitment to live by the Gospel and was ruled by a city council in which Calvin not only had no seat, but was dismissed by them from his post for a period of three years. That said, Calvin did engage in regulating the lives of Christians through Church discipline and ordinances that the modern reader would find intrusive today. For example there were limits placed on the amount of plates and cutlery a household could possess to discourage gluttonous eating and ostentatious entertaining. Activities such as dancing, card-playing, dating were also discouraged on the basis that they often led to other promiscuities. What is missed in all this abstentious thinking however is that Calvin wasn’t wrong in most cases. His mind was saturated with the Word of God and his heart cared deeply to shepherd his flock in the right paths. Calvin was keenly aware of man’s fallen nature and knew there was and is wisdom in safeguards. Christianity in our present world emphasizes grace and rightly so, but it has failed to emphasize a disciplined life and this has led to a lot of spiritual failures. Calvin’s life is portrayed by Selderhuis as a pilgrimage largely because he lived his life as an exile from his homeland of France and was on a continuous journey until he reached his true homeland with the Lord. John Calvin is best known for his theological magnum opus Institutes of the Christian Religion, but his own life is also a worthy example of serving God promptly and sincerely in every regard; something we could use more of today.

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