John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition
The Reformed Tradition
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is one of the family of churches that trace their heritage back to John Calvin. John Calvin published his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion in Geneva, Switzerland in 1534. Calvin was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and shared many beliefs with him. But while Luther founded What the Germans would come to call the “Evangelical” movement, Calvin took a slightly different path, and founded what is called the “Reformed Tradition.” Churches in the Reformed Tradition include the Scottish Presbyterians, English Puritans who later split into Presbyterians and Congregationalists, Dutch and German Reformed Churches, and French Huguenots.
John Calvin was a great light of the Sixteenth Century. The Sixteenth Century was arguably the greatest century in human history. It was the age of Reformation. It marked the end of the dark ages in Europe. It also marks the birth of the Age of Discovery, and the final flourish of the Renaissance.
In Calvin’s day, the authority of the church sprang from fifteen hundred years of church tradition and the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Calvin’s theological work was based on a rediscovery of the Bible, and the development of modern theology and biblical studies. In an age when the typical Roman Catholic priest would be illiterate, Calvin taught himself Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, so that he could study afresh the scriptures of the Old and the New Testament in their original languages. He put his fresh ideas to the test as a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland, where he lead a community of faith that became the fountainhead of the Reformed Tradition.
Calvinism speaks eloquently to 21st Century Christians. Modern followers of Calvin are not antiquarians, but pioneers. Calvin’s issues from the 16th Century are not necessarily those of the 21st Century. Calvin is important to us not so much for what he believed, but rather for the way he taught us to think about the scriptures and the journey of faith. The Church is not a museum of ancient doctrines, from Calvin, or anyone else for that matter. Rather, the Church is a base camp on the journey of faith.
The motto of the Reformed Tradition is,
Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda
which translates as,
The Church, having been reformed, always being reformed
But Calvin did not confine his interests to the religious realms. He, like Leonardo da Vinci was a “Renaissance Man”, with broad interests. From this pivotal century in history, Calvin truly became the father of the modern (post 1500) world.
SOLA SCRIPTURA Calvin vs. Luther
One of the amazing theological concepts lifted from this study is that Calvin, even though he was a great biblical scholar, never limited his efforts to understand God to the Bible alone! Calvin always used every faculty and insight that he could discover in order to know and follow the creator. He never had his nose “buried in the Bible,” oblivious to the world around him. He could never engage in any form of biblical “proof-texting.” Revelation to Calvin included science, nature, logic, and the study of human behavior, all of which are part of the created order.
Calvin on the Natural Sciences
Calvin believed that humanity could understand the creator by studying creation. This was a radical notion at the time. Before Calvin, the world was seen as a spooky and unknowable place. Life was at the mercy of chaotic events and unseen forces, such as diseases and storms, none of which could be understood. Hence, pre-Reformation cathedrals often had gargoyles to protect the buildings and their occupants from evil spirits.
Calvin found divine order throughout the universe. To know that ordering of the universe was to know God. In this respect, Calvin gave the theological underpinnings for all of modern science.
The first great test of Calvin’s understanding of nature occurred when Galileo confirmed the hypothesis espoused by Nicolas Copernicus that the world revolved around the sun! and not vice-versa. The Roman Catholic Church branded Galileo a heretic and subjected him to house arrest. Galileo was officially forgiven for his “heresy” some 350 years later! Calvinists, however, understood that Galileo had discovered one of the divine mysteries of the creation, and thereby brought us closer to knowing the almighty Creator.
In 1859 Charles Darwin made his breakthrough discoveries that lead to the Theory of Evolution 1) . Since that time, backward thinking people in the church have condemned him for his discovery. Modern day Calvinist have embraced Darwinism and found therein another demonstration of the divine order of creation.
1) Note: When scientist use the word “Theory,” they do not mean some “guess” as to how the universe works. Rather, “Theory” means an established system or construct. Evolution is not a “guess” but a natural law. It has survived over 140 years of scientific scrutiny. Evolution is as real as gravity. There are many things we still do not understand about gravity, even after Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. But no one would argue against its existence.
SOCIAL SCIENCES Political science and Economics
Calvin on Democracy and Politics
For Calvin, the reformation was as much political as it was religious. Calvin refused to be dominated by tyrants, whether they be secular or religious. He opposed domination by kings, lords, and knights just as vociferously as he opposed domination by popes, bishops and priests. Calvin founded his church on radically democratic foundations. He wrote that the will of God is best discerned by people living together in community, studying God’s word and living out the Gospel together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is only is such a community of faith that divine truths could be discerned and tested.
Calvin wrote his great works on democracy, both civil and ecclesiastical, centuries before John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, or Thomas Jefferson. The American form of government was a civil expression of Calvinism, brought to this country by English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. The Constitution of the United States is a grand expression of pure Calvinism.
Calvin on the Market Place
Calvin was fascinated by business and economics. He studied the market place and learned its laws. To Calvin, economic laws, such as the “time value of money,” or the “law of supply and demand” are simply part of the created order! He felt that economic laws were as solid and real as was the law of gravity!
He began with a study of “usury”, or the notion that lending money at interest was a sin. He differentiated lending money at interest for investment purposes from the truly usurious practice of lending money at interest to someone who was starving and needed food. He came to understand that money really does have a “time value”, and that interest charged is simply an expression of that concept.
Calvin for the Twenty-First Century
It is exactly such issues that make Calvin an excellent guide for the Twenty-First Century as well as the Sixteenth Century. In dealing with even troublesome issues, true Calvinists will open themselves up to all forms of secular knowledge, the natural sciences, social sciences, wisdom and intellect, as well as the scriptures, in seeking to understand God’s will as expressed in God’s creation.
For the Calvinist, the walk of faith is a pursuit of wisdom and understanding. We study the scriptures, but also avail ourselves of all forms of secular exploration. We study the universe and the human community as God’s creation. In knowing the creation we come to know the creator. We never claim to have captured the truth, but are continuously seeking new revelations. We use all of our faculties and intellect in the pursuit of Truth.