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Advanced Historical Theology - The Reformed Theology of John Calvin - by C. Matthew McMahon

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Part 22 – Advanced Historical Theology – The Reformed Theology of John Calvin

There were attempts made at joining the Lutherans and the Reformed churches together. Martin Bucer (c. 1491-1551) in Strasbourg tried with the Wittenberg Concord, and in 1549 a Zurich Consensus was reached by several German and Swiss leaders, among them Henry Bullinger (c. 1504-1575). However, it was finally left to John Calvin (c. 1509-1564) to give Reformed theology its shape and distinctions.

Calvin’s educational life commenced in his tenure at the university of Paris. He attended the College de la Marche at the age of 14, then moved to the College de Montaigu, though some historical evidence is lacking to piece together exactly how these educational movements shifted, or if there is insufficient evidence to make the case that he ever attended Montaigu in the first place. It seems a summary of his stay in Paris may be said to 1) have taught Latin grammar for a time, 2) then may have been formally affiliated with the College de Montaigu, and 3) studied arts (philosophy) there. It is sure that Calvin’s father initially wanted him to study theology in Paris, but then moved him to study law instead for future financial reasons. He was influenced greatly with Aristotelian philosophy, something he would carry with him into his theological formulations seen in his commentary of Seneca’s de Clementia, and in his Institutes, as well as being introduced into the school of Augustine’s thought, which later carried over into the Institutes. There is overall, an uncertainty as to the exact nature of Calvin’s sojourn in Paris, though through his writings and through the accounts of his life (especially Beza’s) traces can be found to piece together a possible coherent “life of Calvin” during this period.

Calvin left Paris sometime in the 1520’s with his degree in the arts in order to start his work at the university of Orleans in law (where he came face to face with an aspect of humanism that would shape his thinking for the rest of his life). The University of Orleans was not a collegiate university, and only had a course of study surrounding law (with a stress upon civil law) which had undergone radical revisions in 16th century France under the writings of men like Guillaume Bude. The humanism encountered here was not that of the 21st century “man is the measure of all things without God” concept. Rather, it was “how ideas were obtained and expressed” with an emphasis on going “back to the sources” (ad fontes) concerning the meaning of a given thing. For instance, Erasmus, in his Enchiridion, said that the church ought to go back to the scriptures and the early fathers in order to reform itself (i.e. back to the sources). It was not, however, the intention for Calvin, at this time, to go back to commentaries, or the Latin text of the Bible, but the original sources, the Greek and Hebrew text. Calvin’s first formulations from these influences would demonstrate themselves after he had graduated Orleans in 1531, and then dedicated two years of his life to researching and writing his commentary of Seneca’s de Clementia.

Calvin moved from humanist to reformer by a “sudden conversion” (subita conversione as Calvin calls it). It was both revelatory for him (as with the manner in which he parallels his conversion with the Apostle Paul’s in many ways) and enigmatic for any researcher of his life since little is given on that subject in his own writings. He left Paris after another stay for a time, went to Noyon, and then quit Noyon for Basel, thinking it wise to leave France for a time due to a tumultuous air surrounding the reformation that was underway through other reformers. Here, in his hermit-style retreat in Switzerland, he penned the first edition of the Institutes for French evangelicals. After this, he was forced to move back to France for a time in order to settle family affairs. He then decided to set out for Strasbourg, but the road there was hindered and he stopped over in the little city of Geneva to stay the night.

Reformation, at this time in history, was a city phenomenon. First there was a sense of community in a given geographical area, second, economic and social struggles saw victory in partaking in the freedom of the Reformation (purported by Thomas Brady’s analysis of Strasbourg), and thirdly, urban communities centered upon the doctrine of justification by faith alone. There was a pressure to have a social change due to the circumstances of time. It was not as though the “Hollywood” version of the stalwart reformer who stormed the city for the cause of reformation had historical veracity. Political, economic, social and military considerations were the cause of many of the Swiss Cantons to begin to embrace the “symbiotic” relationship of city and reformer. In like manner, Geneva, for instance, would have such a relationship with Calvin as the Magistrate and Council would move ahead for the good of the political-religious state under the guidance of Calvin’s theological-socio-economic writings and counsel. And Geneva was primed and ready for this kind of relationship based on the history of a Swiss confederacy coming to light over the last sixty years before Calvin ever arrived, and then adopting many of the same reformation principles other Swiss cantons had already implemented. Farel, the city’s former “reformer,” cornered Calvin on his stay and convinced him to remain and continue the work. Unfortunately, his first tenure there did not go well and in 1538 he was exiled (along with Farel and Courault) due to a practical difference in implementing the Lord’s Supper to wayward and unruly members of the city, though the Council insisted. Calvin spent three years in exile (1538-1541) where he wrote a new version of the Institutes, as well as a tract against the Catholics for intruding into Geneva in his absence in his Reply to Sadoleto. In 1541 he returned reluctantly, again by Farel’s pressure to continue what God had started through him.

Calvin, upon return to Geneva after his Strasbourg exile, formulated a church-state relationship with the Magistrate of the city, or the senate, much like the Graeco-Roman city-state. The Institutes remain his theological powerhouse of reform, but his Ecclesiastical Ordinances (written in 1541 for the express purpose of structuring discipline and orderliness in Geneva) was the “backbone of the his ecclesiastical organization.” This consistory was created in order to “police” religious orthodoxy. Such trials as the “Servetus affair” demonstrated the civil-religious power of the Consistory when they burned him at the stake for heresy, and this has certainly “colored” Calvin’s posthumous character for the last 450 years. However, as other countries and cantons had acted in thus manner with heretics, so the Genevan Council felt obligated to uphold the same religious convictions with Servetus. Yet, Calvin’s role in all this was more akin to “technical advisor or expert witness” rather than the prosecutor that was left in the hands of Geneva’s civil authorities. Though this mark upon “the Reformation” stands in the sight of its critics, Calvin can be said to be exceedingly successful in his subsequent work during his time in Geneva (over the paralleled work of Vadian in the city of St. Gallen who had a different idea of reformation, though similar circumstances as Calvin).

Concerning the message of Calvin’s Christianity found in the Institutes, one does not find a basic central core doctrine from which all others emerge. Calvin’s main doctrine is not predestination, for instance. Rather, Calvin’s Institutes demonstrate a cogency about biblical doctrine as a whole, and the Bible as a whole affecting the Christian’s view of Jesus Christ and every doctrine connected to Christ. Christ, then, should be said to be the center of Calvin’s thought, but many doctrines surround Him as the central figure of God’s redemptive history. Book 1 demonstrates the idea of how human beings can know anything about God. Book 2 demonstrates how human beings know God surrounding the person and redeemer Jesus Christ. Book 3 demonstrates how human beings obtain favor, blessing, grace, benefits and effects of grace through the redeemer Jesus Christ. Book 4 centers around the remaining theological issues of the church itself, and the outward means by which the church is called into fellowship with Jesus Christ.

Calvin taught that knowledge is divided into two parts – knowledge of God and knowledge of self. There is in every person the awareness of divinity, even as the practice of idolatry testifies. In the revelation that God has given us we find the specifics we need to know about our condition (which is one of sinfulness) and who God is. The true God is seen there distinguished from idols. Everything in creation is separate from God since He is the Creator and we are the creature. Men were made, though, with the image of God in them (imago Dei). Calvin says the image is actually the authority that God gave Adam over creation to rule – which included the will. This was marred, because of the fall, and man now lives in darkness. Adam was created in original integrity and fell because of disobedience. Now men are fallen and have original sin – the affects of the fall imputed to them. The human intellect is not entirely destroyed, but it leads us to pride and vanity instead of worship of the Creator. God gave men the Law to know His will, and the law has various purposes. The first purpose is to show our sin and misery. The second is to restrain wickedness on the earth. The third is to reveal the will of God to those who believe. Here there is a fundamental continuity between the law and the Gospel, one which points to the need of the Savior and the other to demonstrate the fullness of the Savior. Jesus Christ is the great Prophet, Priest and King sent by God to redeem his elect. He is the God man whose divine nature is everywhere, while His human nature resides in heaven at the right hand of God. Jesus Christ came to die as a satisfaction for the sins of His people. Men must believe in the Gospel in order to be saved and justified. There is a cognitive element that must not be displaced. Justification is a legal declaration on behalf of the sinner because of the work of Christ. Without this doctrine, Calvin says, there is no true religion.

Justification by faith does not mean that after man has this imputed righteousness given to him that he can now stay in his sin. Rather, it means he has been released from sin to pursue righteousness and righteous living. The justified sinner does not cease to be a sinner, but he is now a regenerated sinner who is able to work to please God, not for justification, but for sanctification. Yet, even this sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit. The basic rule, then of the justified sinner, is that he does not belong to himself, but to God in all things.

Calvin is also known for his elaborate and precise doctrine of predestination. God’s decree of election does not depend on divine foreknowledge (which is Semi-Pelagian) but on God’s personal decision and good pleasure. The same is true for the reprobate. God actively decides not to grant them salvation. But they are not able to know their non-election. The elect, on the other hand, can be certain of their election based on the promises of the Word, the fruit of their life and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with their spirit that they are sons of God.

In terms of his views of the church, Calvin establishes a clear distinction between the invisible and visible church. Only the elect form the invisible church. Professing believers and their children, who may include the reprobate, form the visible church. The visible church is given to men now to demonstrate the reality of the invisible church for all time. Where the Word of God is not honored, there is no church. But where the Word of God is preached, and the sacraments administered by God’s institution, there is not to be doubted that the church exists. The appeal solely to apostolic succession is not enough for Calvin. The other two marks must accompany this succession as well. Calvin paid much more attention to the organization of the church than Luther did. Together with Zwingli and Bucer he attempted the restoration of Christianity as required to the primitive organization of the church as in the times of the early church and apostles. Part of the nature of the church is its organization (cf. Institutes 4:2:1-4, 11-12). There should be no misunderstanding here – Calvin believed the local church was the church. The church is not a superstructure embracing the whole world. Each church, though, must be measured as to its lawfully called ministers, preaching, sacrament administration, and structure. Thus, local churches elect pastors, who are exemplary in doctrine and life, and other pastors must coincide with this judgment in order that each church does not go astray from its directive before God. This, then, is the Presbyterian form of church government and is typical of Reformed churches.

Against Zwingli and the Anabaptists, Calvin argues for the efficacious nature of the sacraments. Baptism is to be administered by either immersion or sprinkling, and the Lord’s Supper is to be administered to members of the local body. Both are New Testament sacraments in place of the Old Testament sacraments of the Passover and Circumcision. This is not replacement theology as if baptism replaced circumcision (which it did not) but an “in place of” theology that recognizes new sacraments for the New Covenant. These are visible signs of communion with Christ, and are received by faith.

In terms of the relationship to church and state, Calvin demonstrates there are different jurisdictions between the two. Christians should view the state in a manner ordained by God with the sword to enact justice on secular wickedness. The state can impose the death penalty, raise taxes, and wage just wars for the good of the commonwealth. The church is to care for the spiritual well being of all its members, not to impose civil sanctions or justice.

Of all the Reformation documents written and published, the Institutes of the Christian Religion have weighed in by far as the most read text of the Reformed church.

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