Category Archives: Church History & Theology

Sacred Origin of the Dollar Sign


 

 

Offering Plate from Cokesbury catalogue


I believe I know the origin of the peso/dollar sign from my research. There are many popular theories on the origin of the dollar sign.  Some have said that it comes from the Spanish royal coat of arms, which features the two vertical Pillars of Hercules, plus some fabric swirls that, with a lot of imagination, could just possibly be taken as an “S”.  But this seems farfetched.

Another common theory in the US is that the dollar sign is composed of the “U” and the “S” printed in overstrike, with the bottom of the “U” cut off.  The problem with this theory is that the dollar sign was not an American invention.  It first appeared as a symbol for pesos in several Hispanic colonies.  It is also used in several former British colonies, including Canada and Australia.

The explanation that I have come up with allows for the presence of the in both English and Spanish-speaking countries. You will not find this answer published anywhere except for my blog site.

In Greek, the first three letters of Jesus’ name are IES. The Greek letter for the long-E sound is Eta, which is written as “H”. Christian iconography often uses IHS as a symbol of or abbreviation for the name Jesus.

Shown above is a typical American offering plate.  This plate displays the IHS logo, in stylized lowercase lettering and without the overstrike (ihs).  It does show that the IHS symbol is practically the standard for church offering plate logos.

Often the IHS is formed in overstrike mode. IHS in overstrike mode becomes a “$” with three vertical bars. This overprint form of the IHS can be found throughout Europe, and it seems to be a common emblem since the 1700’s.

European churches have used the IHS in overstrike mode for centuries in the bottom of church offering plates. Once you see one these, and think about what you are looking at, it becomes clear where the “$” comes from. Also, this theory confirms why the “$” sign is found both in Spanish and English languages to represent money.

 

 

 

Preaching on Noah’s Ark Without Falling Into Fundamentalism


 

I will begin by saying that the story of Noah’s Ark is patently absurd by any standard.  I have no trouble teaching or preaching this story as mythology.  I believe that the most significant portion of this story is the rainbow covenant at the end.  The rainbow covenant is a symbol of God’s grace and redemption, not just for humanity, but for all of creation.

There is no reason to disparage mythology or even a mythological interpretation of parts of scripture.  Myth is often “truer than true.”  The best way to explain this is to point to the American psyche and the Paul Bunyan myths.  What better way to explain a country that invented heavier-than-air flight in 1903 and then went on to land a man on the moon in 1969.

There is nothing wrong with teaching or preaching scriptures from a mythical or mythological basis.  Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?  But that is not to say that we should make up or distort facts in order to “prove” a story.

To try and defend the story as history is simply indefensible.  I am reminded of a fundamentalist preacher who once declared that, “Satan planted all the dinosaur bones just to confound the faithful!”

The story of Noah’s Ark is greatly similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh and several related myths, such as the epics of Atrahasis and Ziusudra from early Mesopotamian literature.  It is possible that the root event for all of these epic legends was the inundation of the Black Sea around the year 5,600 BCE. But this inundation is disputed. And, even if this inundation was the seed of these epics, this certainly does nothing to confirm the historicity of the epics themselves. What these epics do prove is that the story of Noah’s Ark was not Hebrew in origin, but was drawn from the rich soup of Mesopotamian mythology.  One common recurring theme throughout these epics is that people had very long lives before the flood, and shorter, “normal” lives after the flood.

At one point it was believe that the accounts of the Trojan War were thought of as totally mythical.  Later, the city of Troy was found in what is now Northwest Turkey.  But the discovery of Troy does not prove the historicity of The Odyssey and the Iliad.  In the same manner, the new theory of the inundation of the Black Sea does not prove the historicity of the Genesis account of Noah.

Whatever scientific accounts of floods that we might choose to present as background for a sermon, it does not change the fact that the story of Noah’s Ark is simply absurd on its surface, and I will begin with that assumption.

Traditional accounts and depictions of Noah’s Ark seem to contain perhaps a dozen species.  But a literal interpretation of a global flood requiring the rescue of every terrestrial animal requires a much larger effort than that.  There are over ten million species on planet earth.  And beyond that there are many varieties within each species.

To fill the Ark with one (or seven? [Gen 7:2]) breeding pairs of every living creature would involve the capture and containment of as many as tens of millions of breeding pairs.  And, these would need to be captured from every corner of every continent on the earth.  Such an endeavor has never occurred.  We could do perhaps do it today, at least for the known species and varieties.  But the cost and complexity of this endeavor, even with our 21st Century technology and resources, would be roughly the equivalent to building a permanent base on the moon.  I believe that we can safely conclude that Noah and his three sons did no such thing.

Preaching on the Noah’s Ark story is about presenting it as mythology.  In teaching mythology, the focus is not on the “historic” details, but rather upon the message that the author, in this case the Yahwist, is trying to teach us.

The early chapters of Genesis contain a collection of “sin stories.”  These sin stories begin with the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and continue with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God sees that the world is evil and considers destroying it.  But then he considers Noah and considers him righteous.

Because of this God decides on a “warm boot” to restart creation.  As any computer user knows, the best fix for a glitch computer is to do a warm boot. With the operating system, software and files reloaded, a myriad of computer problems will simply disappear.

The “sin stories” describe the depth of human sin, and the effect that one righteous man can have.  The Yahwist is teaching us about the struggles of human life, and what it is for us to know God (Yahweh) and to understand what God desires of us.

The Story of Noah’s Ark concludes with the rainbow covenant.  This is God’s first covenant with God’s creation.  In it he promises to sustain the earth and all of its creatures.  And God seals this covenant with the sign of the rainbow.  This frequently observed phenomenon becomes the sign of God’s ultimate grace and redemption over the whole creation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update on Guinea-Bissau Water Project 06-09-12


The Guinea-Bissau project is running into difficulties due to a recent coup beginning in May 2012 in that country.  This coup has essentially shut down the government and has brought the economy to a standstill.  There is no diesel for transportation or for water pumps.  Food is in critically short supply.  This makes it exceedingly difficult to travel to or within this country, and even harder to construct a factory for ceramic water filters. The coup wiped out the planned trip in May 2012, and it is now the rainy season and the roads are quagmires.

But during this pause in activity, this is a good time to give more background on this project.  This project is being undertaken by two PhD chemists from the Healdsburg Community Church (HCC) in Healdsburg, California.  HCC has a sister church in Guinea-Bissau, the Central Evangelical Church of Bissau.

HCC has already founded an orphanage and vocational school at its sister church in Bissau, and maintains a special fund for future mission there.  At present HCC is waiting to continue the development of the ceramic water filter factory and its related programs. The next trip to Guinea-Bissau is scheduled for December 2012.

Just as the fundamental forces of the Universe bind it all together, so the love of God binds us to our sisters and brothers in the global village.

HCC is a merged congregation belonging to both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church.

HCC supports a large group of missionaries around the world, some of whom cannot be named because they are carrying out precarious ministries in Islamic areas.  In June 2012 HCC sent twenty of its members to Costa Rica for a building project at a church related school.

Cosmic Creation and Calamity


I once had a question about volcanoes that launched a spiritual inquiry. Why are their volcanos? They cause so much death and destruction. What purpose do they serve? And, why are they allowed to exist at all? It seems hard to fathom the destructive forces of nature.

We expect to be safe and comfortable in our “normal” lives. Then suddenly we are overcome by a volcano or another natural disaster. Is this any way to run a planet? But as I delved into this issue, it slowly became clear that the forces of destruction are also the forces of creation and regeneration.

Ask anyone living in Hawaii or Iceland about volcanoes. Without volcanoes neither group would have a place to stand. Volcanoes create new land, but they do much more as well. They release water vapor and various chemicals into the atmosphere. They nourish and enrich the soil with their minerals. They bring diamonds to the surface from their birth place deep in the mantle.

Of course, volcanoes are not alone in their destructive power. When I first moved to California my family back in Iowa thought it was very unwise to move to earthquake country. But then I thought about my boyhood days in Iowa. Iowa has tornadoes, thunderstorms, ice storms, blizzards, and flooding. California mostly has earthquakes. I guessed that more people die in Iowa blizzards each year than have ever died in a California earthquake, mostly from shoveling three feet of wet snow off of their driveways.

From this I conjectured that there is no safe place on the planet. There are hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, avalanches, landslides, killing droughts, crop failures, floods, meteor impacts, not to mention diseases and epidemics all with the potential to do us in.

Where you live determines which perils you will face, but no place is safe. California does not have hurricanes because of its cold ocean, but it does have earthquakes. Life on earth has its perils. And, when we take a big picture view it becomes apparent that these are just a normal part of the circle of life, of the paradox of creation.

Everything is being created and destroyed, and we are living in the construction zone without a hardhat.

And now, here is the rub. Earth is not the only hazard zone in the universe. Space can host as many natural disasters as can our lowly planet. There are asteroid bombardments which I have already mentioned, gamma ray bursts that can fry a planet from thousands of light years away, coronal mass ejections from the sun. There are blowtorch like jets streaming from pulsars that can destroy whole solar systems from a great distance.

The universe was created from the Big Bang. Does that tell you something? Every element except for hydrogen and helium must be produced in stellar furnaces. The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, and the oxygen that we breathe are all born of stardust.

Once a star produces iron it is doomed. It then explodes sending its detritus across the heavens. New stars and their planets are then formed from the debris. Elements heavier than iron cannot be formed inside of a star. The heavier elements can only be formed by the supernova explosion itself, an explosion which blows the star apart. This exemplifies the paradox of creation.

Even the cells of our bodies are dependent upon past disasters. And speaking of disasters, did you know that disaster came from the Latin for “bad star?”

Some four billion years from now the Andromeda Galaxy will collide with our own Milky Way Galaxy, and we have no idea how it will affect the earth. In the swirling maelstrom we might be ripped from our sun and flung into the cold darkness of interplanetary space. Or, we might smash into our sun or another nearby object. There is no way to predict the outcome of a galactic collision between two galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars.

And, since we are dabbling in classical languages, did you know that the word galaxy comes from the Greek word for “milk?” We all know that our galaxy is called the Milky Way because it looks like milk spilled across the heavens. But what you may not know is that galaxy means “milk,” and is related to such English words as lactose and lactation.

Even if we should survive this cosmic collision with the Andromeda Galaxy, we know the fate of the earth and it is tragic. In some five billion years the sun will swell up into a red giant. It will expand to fill the earth’s orbit. But long before, earth will be nothing but a burnt out cinder, scorched by heat and sterilized by radiation.

Creation and destruction, two names for the same processes. So how can we survive in this ongoing train wreck? The answer is simple and profound. . We are a part of this cosmic maelstrom. We were born to survive. Life is tenacious and so are we.

The American Heritage of Religious Dissent


Conservative Christians, especially those of the biblical fundamentalist variety, will tell us that America is a theocracy under their God’s rule.  They will tell us that America is a Christian nation, born of a divine covenant. They will attempt to use government and civil authority to compel us to live according to their God’s design. They will proclaim that if only we will follow their God, their God will bless us and our nation.  But if we should stray from their God’s ways we shall be destroyed.

There is also a Roman Catholic brand of fundamentalism that finds its foundation not in the scriptures, but in Roman Catholic doctrine on such issues as reproductive freedom.  Often biblical fundamentalists will unite with doctrinal fundamentalists to impose their social agendas upon society.

The conservative Christians will attack modern science, and attempt to replace it with their own religious mythology.  They oppose the teachings of Darwin, even though Darwin’s work has prevailed against more than one hundred and fifty years of scientific challenge.  If these biblical literalists were consistent, instead of just opposing evolution and Charles Darwin, they would need to oppose Copernicus, Galileo and all that those who have followed for the last five hundred years.

The biblical world view consists of a flat earth covered by the firmament, which was an inverted dome,  and separating the waters from above the firmament from the waters below the firmament (Genesis 1:7-8). This view of the earth can be envisioned as a dinner plate covered by an inverted salad bowl.  Furthermore, the earth was created in 4004 BC according to Bishop Ussher’s literalist chronology.

In the same manner as these fundamentalist attack science and attempt to replace it with their own religious mythology, these fundamentalist endeavored to stifle our democracy and to replace it with a fundamentalist theocracy which they would control.  If any American really believes that they would like to live in a theocracy, they should live for a while in a country such as Iran or Israel just to see what that would be like.

The conservative Christians will tell you that America was founded by Christians for Christian purposes.  But the part that the conservative Christians will not tell you is that America was settled by religious dissidents who were seeking religious freedom.  The Reformation in Europe brought in its wake centuries of religious warfare and persecutions.

The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “enforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.

“America as a Religious Refuge: The 17th Century (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition).” America as a Religious Refuge: The 17th Century (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition). Web. 27 May 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html&gt;.

European Persecution

Many conservative Christians seem to have forgotten the lessons learned in this violent and painful era of European history and seek to impose a new era of religious subjugation, domination and persecution.  They have forgotten that religious warfare and persecutions in Europe were the result of heavy-handed governments trying to impose uniformity in religious faith and practices by force.

The freedom of religion is a core American value, born out of the lessons learned in centuries of religious conflict in Europe. Freedom of religion is essential to our democracy.  It is also freedom from religion.  Every American is endowed with the inalienable right to worship God in a way that they choose, and/or to avoid religion all together.

America, and its great democratic traditions, was, is and always must be, a land of religious freedom, free of religious oppression and tyranny.  It must also be free of any coercive religious doctrine imposed by the government upon its citizens.

The Declaration of Independence contains these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This great expression of human rights contains the mention of the Creator.  But what people often fail to realize is that this statement is Deist and not Christian in its tone and content.  Deism, as defined in Wikipedia, is,

”a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an intelligent creator.”

Note that this passage from the Declaration of Independence contains no appeals to religious affiliations, religious doctrines, or sacred scriptures of any type.  Rather, it is born out of the Deist notion that God can be perceived through logic and observation of the world.  The Deist God of American civil religion is much like the “higher power” in a twelve-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous.  The Deist God of American civil religion exists without sacred scriptures, creeds, sacred history, or religious affiliation.  The God of the Deists is abstract, formless and devoid of doctrine.  Therefore, no one may presume to speak for God, or to cite divine sanction for their own personal political agenda in the public life and governance of our nation.

We are a free people, free to worship God in our own way,  or not at all. We do not need “permission” from religious zealots or ecclesiastical authorities  to make our own religious or spiritual choices.  Our government must, under the constitution, be neutral on all religious questions, and must always defend our religious liberties against all oppression, either civil or ecclesiastical.

NOTE:  The recent political campaign by Rick Santorum, wherein he tried to deny reproductive services to workers at Roman Catholic related institutions was not an act of “religious freedom” for the Roman Catholic Church, but rather would be an act of religious oppression by the Roman Catholic Church against its non-sectarian workers.  The Roman Catholic Church has the right to create any rules it wants for those under religious orders. It also has the right to encourage various religious practices to its membership.

But it has no right to dictate the reproductive choices for a any workers not under religious orders.  For example, a Methodist or non church going accountant working at a Roman Catholic Church related hospital must not be denied the right to a vasectomy or an abortion because such practice might run counter to Roman Catholic doctrine.   And the Roman Catholic Church has no right to deny health insurance coverage to this hypothetical employee for these purpose.  If the hospital is hiring from the general public, then it is operating in the public domain, and therefore must follow all of the rules for all public employers.

Greg

John Calvin and the American Experiment in Democracy


United Church of Cloverdale

Sermon: The Theology of Liberation

Amos 2: 6-8

07/04/10

Greg Bentall

Before there was a Thomas Jefferson, before there was a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, before there was a John Locke, there was John Calvin.  John Calvin, the progenitor of the Reformed Tradition, of which we are a part, first propounded the modern notion of freedom and democracy that has been an ever growing force in western culture since the Sixteenth Century.  Although Calvin was a pastor and theologian, his writings did much to shape the modern world, and by the term “Modern World,” I mean everything since the year 1500.

Calvin opposed tyranny in all of its forms, whether it was the ecclesiastical tyranny of the popes and bishops, or the civil tyranny of the kings and feudal lords.  The Reformed Tradition, true to its Calvinist roots, has always been a political institution.  We are concerned with social justice, the ordering of society, the restraint upon tyranny, the recognition of divine dignity which is the birthright of every human being regardless of her or his worldly condition.

The birth of our nation was deeply and profoundly rooted in Calvinism.  Calvinism was brought to our shores by:

  • English Puritans
  • Scottish Presbyterians
  • Dutch and German Reformed
  • French Huguenots.

The Declaration of Independence was the annunciation that the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA could no longer live under British tyranny.  This document was a bold expression of pure Calvinism, and a guiding force to shape the great American experiment is democracy for centuries to come, both at home and throughout the world.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But the democracy being created was not for all.  At least not back in the Eighteenth Century when these glorious words were written.  These “self-evident” truths applied only to land-owning, white males.  The sexism in this glorious document was quite intentional.  “All MEN are created equal.”   Women were excluded from the political process.  Also excluded were slaves and Native Americans.  These were considered to be less than human, and therefore were not considered to be endowed with “inalienable rights.”  In the counting of population, for example, a slave was counted as three-fifths of a man.

But these high and noble words have grown beyond their original meaning.  Having once articulated these lofty sentiments our nation has been propelled to extend their meaning.

  • The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment broadened the understanding of citizenship, to include freed saves, Native Americans, and people of foreign birth.  It also established the doctrine of Equal Protection Under Law, a principle that we continue to struggle to implement.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment gave the right to vote to all males, regardless of race or color.  It specifically extended the right to vote to former slaves.
  • The Nineteenth Amendment gave WOMEN the right to vote.
  • The Twenty-Fourth Amendment ended the poll taxes that had previously prevented many poor, especially minorities, from voting.
  • The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.  [Eve of Destruction:  “You are old enough to kill, but not for voting.  You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’.” 
  • The proposed Twenty-Eighth Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, has only been ratified by 35 states, and it requires ratification by 38 states to become part of the constitution.  Congress passed the ERA in 1972.  Because of the time delay the ratification process may be voided, even it this amendment were to be approved by three more states.  There are many who believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is actually unnecessary, as the issues addressed in it were already settled by the Fourteenth Amendment under the “Equal protection” clause.

One of the great realities of life is that we EVOLVE towards what we ENVISION.  Even if our view of democracy in the Eighteenth Century was less than adequate, the mere fact that we embraced democracy in PRINCIPLE has meant that we have been driven to an ever deepening understanding.  Where we focus is where we end up going.

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The forces of democratization, launched by John Calvin centuries ago, continue to impact the world and its people.  Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest has been instrumental in developing Liberation Theology.  Although Gutierrez is a Catholic, his theology includes much of Calvin’s teachings, particularly about the dignity of all people.

Liberation Theology aims to lify the poor and downtrodden out of their lives of poverty, misery and oppression.  It teaches that each person has value as a child of God, regardless of her or his worldly condition.  It teaches that all people should have access to the necessities of life, and to participation in the political process.  It tries to form community among all peoples and nations, all races and tribes, and all economic strata of every society.  It speaks to the yearnings of the poor and oppressed wherever they might find themselves.

Living in this country makes it hard to understand the poverty that passes for normal in much of the world.  I had some interesting discussions with the poor of many lands during my travels.  I was once asked by some church people in Mexico if poor people in the United States had cars and owned refrigerators.  I told them that this was mostly true.  They were shocked and amazed, for to them, owning a car and a refrigerator would make them wealthy.

Once I toured the garbage dump in Mexico City.  Many families and their children, literally hundreds of people, lived in the dump, and survived by scavenging materials to be sold for recycling.  The parents and children would walk barefoot on mountains of broken glass and rusted cans to find salvageable materials for sale.  Shelters consisted of tin and cardboard shacks, or even lean-tos, erected on top of the garbage heaps.  There were no schools, no sanitation, no clean water, and no medical care available.  And the worst part of this deplorable situation was that there was a long waiting list of families who were waiting to GET IN to the dump, because it offered them the prospect of a BETTER life.

I have worshiped with members of Christian Base Communities.  Such groups often meet in people’s houses to study the scriptures and pray.  In  Christian Base Communities it is required that each meeting end in some action item that will improve the lives of the people attending.  This might be planning a community garden, or finding a way to tutor the children, or providing for one of their members who are even more destitute than the rest.

These people learn from the scriptures, and from their prayers and meditations, that they are Children of God, and worthy of respect.

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When I was in college, preparing to enroll in seminary, I studied German and Greek.  German has long been the language of choice for all budding theological students.  German has been the language of theology for the past five hundred years.  Or, perhaps a better way to say this is that German has been the language of EUROCENTRIC theology for the past five hundred years.  But the Eurocentric model has become old and stale.  New voices from the Third World are now changing the axis and focus of Christianity.  If I were preparing for the ministry today I would study SPANISH instead of German.  This would be to read the emerging works of people like Gutierrez, who have brought freshness and urgency to theological studies that has been lacking in the old Eurocentric model.

The old, Eurocentric establishment, and especially the Catholic Church, is deeply fearful of the new liberation.  In 1984 and 1986 the Vatican issued edicts condemning the Liberation Theology movement as being Marxist in orientation, and therefore dangerous to the established order.  We need to remember that the previous pope, John Paul II, was a person who fought communism in his homeland of Poland.

But the Liberation Theology movement is anything but Marxist.  It is religious and not atheistic.  It stands for human dignity and freedom, and not political subjugation.  And when the movement advocates for such economic necessities as land reform and workers rights, it is grounded in prophetic Christianity and not Marxist ideology.

The irony for the Roman Catholic Church is that there are vastly more Catholics in Latin America as there are in Europe.  The three largest Catholic nations on Earth are:

  • Brazil
  • Mexico
  • Philippines

But is will be a long time before we find a Latin American pope, or any significant Catholic leadership from Latin America.  The old order will be slow to change, and resistant to the end of Eurocentrism.

But the winds of freedom and democracy are still blowing.  And this spirit cannot be held back.  In Christian Base Communities I found people who had discovered their worth as Children of God, and who had come to understand that they were worthy of full participation in the human community.  And once this message got loose, there was no way to stop its spread.

Greg

John Calvin and the Twenty-First Century


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

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.

Calvin’s Theology

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.

Greg