Friday, February 13, 2009

John Calvin (1509-2009)

July 10th of this year will mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. It's safe to say that he changed the world.

During my undergraduate days, most everything I heard about Calvin was negative. After all, someone named Calvinism after him. And that was bad. One of my classmates was required to read part of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. My assumption was that the assignment was for the purpose of figuring out all the places where Calvin went wrong.

A few years later, when I was a graduate student, I noticed that biblical scholar Brevard Childs rarely missed an opportunity to make some glowing statement about Calvin's commentaries. I wondered how someone I respected so much could say such great things about John Calvin.

My interest at the time was the so-called Pastoral Epistles: 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. So I started working through an English translation of Calvin's commentary of that part of the New Testament.

Wow! What I discovered in that commentary was nothing short of marvelous. Not only did Calvin offer many great observations about the text, he did something else that modern commentators avoided: He "preached." His comments were at once studious and unabashedly theological. He didn't seem to understand the modern rule that biblical scholars weren't supposed to be preachers as well. To Calvin, one thing naturally lead to the next. I loved it and wished that today's Bible scholars were a little more like him, eager to say something about God in the midst of their serious studies.

Oh, sure. There were parts of Calvin that I didn't like so much. For instance, he sometimes went out of his way to take shots at "the Papists." But those places were easy to overlook when there was so much rich material all around them.

It's been a long time, too long, since I read much of John Calvin. I still reject his predestinarian ideas and wish that they didn't have so much influence. (If you haven't noticed, Calvinism is very popular among twenty-somethings today). But the depth and the warmth of his commentaries cannot be denied. I think I'll revisit some of them this year.

How about you? Ever read much from (as opposed to about) Calvin? What did you think?


Keith Brenton said...

I've read more Hobbes than Calvin, I'm afraid.

Frank Bellizzi said...

I can always count on you, Keith, to make that sort of comment :-)

You made me think of the time when some visitors at the church where I preached came up to me after worship, looking very expectant.

"You are a Calvinist, aren't you?" asked the husband. "Well," I said, "actually I'm not." Then they told me what they meant by that, and we had a big laugh.