I significantly revised my class on the theology of John Calvin this fall. It’s a lot more work but also a lot more fun, as I’m using some of the helpful books that were published last year to celebrate the 500 year anniversary of Calvin’s birth. Our class is enjoying:
1. The 1541 Institutes. I sort of dreaded reading through the 1559 Institutes again, and I’m glad to use the earlier Institutes that were in play for most of Calvin’s life. Reading the 1541 Institutes is a bit like wondering into Michelangelo’s studio and watching the great artist at work. I see a line here or a phrase there that Calvin will more fully develop in 1559. I’m not sure why, but it seems more interesting to read an unfinished work (maybe it really is about the journey).
2. Bruce Gordon’s magisterial biography on Calvin. Gordon’s Calvin is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and it far surpasses all the other bios on Calvin. Gordon is balanced and informative. He appreciates Calvin but he doesn’t glorify him. He explains Calvin’s personal issues without bashing him.
A couple of interesting points so far: Gordon observes that Calvin struggled with pride (because he thought he was smarter than others) and ferocious outbursts of anger (for the same reason). But he didn’t struggle with lust. Can you imagine an evangelical pastor today saying this? “Lack of sexual continence would not be the reason I would point to for marrying. No one can charge me with that.”
A young Calvin had “dissembled” during his early evangelical years in Roman Catholic France. He had pretended to be a loyal RC when he really wasn’t. Calvin later regretted his lack of courage, and he repeatedly implored his evangelical followers in France to publicly leave the RC church. His critics noted that it was easy to say this from his refuge in Geneva!
Calvin started his ministry on the wrong foot. He fell under the spell of the fiery Farel, which led to both of them being ousted from Geneva. The other Reformers thought that Calvin and Farel were a bad influence on each other and ordered them to be separated. Calvin went to Strassburg, where he was mentored by Martin Bucer, who more than anyone else tempered Calvin’s temper and view of the church and made him into the Reformer we remember.
Calvin had little patience for Bucer’s willingness to compromise with the Roman Catholics, but he never stopped trying to persuade the Lutherans that he and they were more alike than different. Calvin’s overtures toward Wittenberg frightened Bullinger in Zurich and failed to persuade Melancthon, who informed him that their differences were greater than Calvin wanted to admit.
If you like Calvin and Reformed theology and are within driving distance of Grand Rapids, you should consider attending the “Young and Reformed” conference next weekend (October 22 and 23) at Corinth Reformed Church in Byron Center. Kevin DeYoung, David Murray, and myself will be presenting, and it’s only $10 ($5 for students).
The reason for the conference is to celebrate the power and beauty of Calvinism and its promise for the next generation. It will be a provocative and productive time if you can make it. You can access all the conference information here.