Sunday, June 28, 2009

John Calvin and the Executions of Heretics

Benjamin and Abigail fly in to Oklahoma City tomorrow. I can't wait to pick them up and bring them to Amarillo!
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The last post mentions that John Calvin is most-often remembered for advancing the doctrine of double predestination. The one other thing people typically remember about Calvin is that, like most every other leader of his day, he gave his consent to the executions of public heretics, most notably Michael Servetus.

Here's my take on that. I think it reveals not so much a fault in Calvin. Instead, it points to the difference in values between modern America and sixteenth-century Europe.

In recent history, our country has used atomic bombs to annihilate two Japanese cities. Why? Because we feared the specter of a conventional invasion and viewed our actions as the lesser of two evils. People of the Middle Ages had different fears. As historian T. H. L. Parker explains, they were terrified at the thought of souls destroyed by false doctrine, of churches torn apart into factions, and of the vengeance of God brought against them in war, pestilence, and famine. They believed it was the government’s duty to establish and maintain true religion, and that the execution of a heretic was therefore justified. The Reformation was born into that world.

Am I'm going too easy on Calvin?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Article on John Calvin

I'll wind up revising the following article a hundred times between now and this weekend when I finally send it to the paper.

I actually came in well under the maximum word count. So there's still space for me to add a paragraph if I want. I've thought about putting in a section about Calvin's consent to the executions of convicted heretics, most notably Michael Servetus. Besides predestination, that's the other big thing Calvin is often remembered for. How do I include that and give it the context it deserves? Anyway, give this a read if you want and make any suggestions that come to mind. Thanks!

John Calvin (1509-2009)

“I have lived amidst extraordinary struggles. I have been saluted in mockery at night, before my door, by fifty or sixty shots from guns. Think how that would terrify a poor timid scholar such as I am.”

John Calvin never set out to live a hectic life in the spotlight. “I always longed for repose and quiet,” he said. Much less did he imagine he would change the world. Yet historian E. G. Leonard was hardly exaggerating when he concluded his book History of Protestantism with a chapter entitled, “Calvin: The Founder of a Civilization.”

Born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509—five hundred years ago this Friday—Calvin was learning to read and speak Latin at the University of Paris by the time he was twelve. At first his father encouraged him to study for the priesthood. But when he had a falling out with the church and recognized the religious turmoil of the day, he insisted that his son pursue a legal career instead. Throughout his teens and early twenties, Calvin studied law and classical literature, solid preparation for the future that lay ahead of him.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg’s Castle Church, launching what would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. Calvin wasn’t among its early leaders. He was still just a boy. By the time he converted to the new movement in the early 1530s, the term “protestant” had already been coined. Nonetheless, Calvin would eventually contribute to the movement two things it didn’t have before. First, he took the most basic principles of the Reformation—grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone—and organized them into a system which he clearly expressed in his most famous book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Second, through his tremendous influence as a writer, preacher, and church statesman in his adopted hometown of Geneva, Calvin left behind a model of how his version of theology could penetrate and shape a society.

From around 1533 until his death thirty-one years later, Calvin lived as a religious exile from Catholic-dominated France. Most of that time he spent in Geneva. Many other Protestants who had fled their homelands for fear of persecution discovered the city to be a haven. There they found both refuge and a flourishing religious community led by Calvin and his associates. Once they returned to the places they came from, the future growth of the Calvinist branch of the Reformation was certain.

Most people remember Calvin for having advanced the doctrine of double predestination which says that God in his sovereignty has decreed that certain individuals will be saved and that all others will be lost. Americans, big on freedom and a person’s ability to determine his own course, have typically rejected this teaching. But don’t count Calvin out. In March of this year, Time magazine listed “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Number 3 was “The New Calvinism,” a movement that has taken hold in large segments of conservative Protestantism in the U.S., especially among young people. The new Calvinists even have a representative Bible, the English Standard Version which was released last October and immediately sold out its first printing of 100,000 copies.

Calvin once called himself “merely a man from among the common people.” On his 500th birthday, he isn’t finished yet.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Considering Calvin

Over the next few days, I'll have a few things to say about John Calvin. That's because I'm supposed to write something about him for our local paper, the Amarillo Globe-News.

July 10th of this year will mark the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth. So I called the paper and asked the editor of the op-ed page if they'd like to have something about Calvin's life and legacy. He said yes, and that they'd like to publish it in the Sunday paper for July 5th, since Sunday's paper gives a lot more room for opinion pieces.

So now I'm going back to the Institutes of the Christian Religion (I'd forgotten it was so long!) and T. H. L. Parker's wonderful biography. Now for my questions to you:

1. What absolutely, positively has to be a part of any 700-word biography of Calvin?

2. When it comes to sources, besides what I've mentioned here, what else should I be sure to read?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

South by Southwest

After spending last night in Dallas, I flew back to Amarillo just a few hours ago. After a week away, I was looking forward to seeing my wife and step-daughters here. But it was so hard saying "So long" to my son and my daughters there. More than I can say, we miss each other when we're apart. Just two more weeks, though, and we get to start spending the summer together. I can't wait.

It was a good, full week in Connecticut. My in-laws were such wonderful hosts, as usual. Because of them, anytime I'm there I have a house, a car, home-cooked meals, etc. My mother-in-law is not a coffee drinker. But she sets up the coffee maker every morning I'm staying at her place. When I get up, all I have to do is plug it in. My father-in-law gives up his car while I'm there. The only time I have a new car is when I'm staying at his place!

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Last week's Romans class with Harold Attridge was like a return trip to the Grand Canyon. Always breath-taking, but leaving you knowing that there's so much more there than you've actually seen and appreciated. And what about the history of that place? The Canyon is big and deep. It's been there for a long time and has meant different things to different people. All along, it's simply been what it is with all its power and beauty and mystery. What you take away has something to do with who you are, what you brought and expected. That's Romans.

Turns out, I learned as much from Attridge's teaching method as I did about the content of Paul's letter. Sometimes we preacher-and-teacher types need to focus on form. Most of us already know a good bit about the basic content, what we want to communicate. But do we have a parable? Have we figured out the best way to say it, helping others to learn and to see what we see?

Regarding the so-called "New Perspective on Paul," as many of you readers already know, its most-basic observation is that Paul was a complete Jew, and that he never thought of himself as the founder (or main proponent) of a new religion called Christianity. Connected to this, the New Perspective also emphasizes that the challenge of the early Christian movement was not some tension between a works-righteousness religion called Judaism versus a grace-by-faith religion called Christianity. When the letters of Paul are read not through the lenses of Augustine and Luther but rather in their first-century contexts, what we see over and over again is that the real questions revolve around how one understands the inclusion of Gentiles in the Israel of God and what it means for them, in Christ, to obey the Law of God. There's much more, of course. But those are a couple of the basics.

Is it right? I'm confident that its basic convictions are correct. However, one thing to keep in mind when trying to evaluate the New Perspective is the when of its development. Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright. What do they all have in common? Their coming to the New Perspective is a completely post-Holocaust and Christian thing.

That's is not to say their observations are wrong. Again, for what it's worth, my sense is that the basic outline of the New Perspective is correct. At the same time, it seems clear that the social, cultural and political atmosphere of the last 60 years has been favorable to its development. I think it's certain that, say, one hundred years from now our scholarly descendants will have problems with the "New" Perspective much like I might have problems with interpretations of Paul written one hundred years ago. So stay tuned. By the way, very little of what I'm saying here is original. The observation I'm making was inspired by a short essay by New Testament scholar Diana Swancutt. The essay appeared in a fine little journal called "Reflections" published by Yale Divinity School. You can order back issues, at no charge, or sign up for a free subscription here.

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Last Friday, I got to be the proud Dad as Abigail received three honors: the President's Award for Academic Excellence, Outstanding Student in Arts and Music, and the President's Physical Fitness Award (pictures to follow, I hope). Almost casually, she tells me she plans to go to Yale. I'll be saving a little more this year.

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As planned, Ben and I got to travel up to Kent, CT to join over 300 others for the Northeastern States Men's Retreat last weekend. The speaker, Howard Wright, did a superb job with the lessons on leadership and mentoring. Wright explains and illustrates his thoughts so very well. He's easy to listen to, and got quite a compliment when my 17-year-old son gave him two thumbs up.

I started attending this retreat back in 1994 and have missed only a few times since then. There's nothing else quite like it in the Churches of Christ. Men from places like Harlem and the suburbs of Boston gather in a scenic spot tucked away in the top left corner of Connecticut, and spend two days and one night there focused on their opportunities and responsibilities as Christian men. If you ever have the chance to go, you should try it out.

Like any other retreat, one of the best parts is getting to meet and reconnect with people you wouldn't otherwise know. Having bumped into each other for the first time last year, the Brian Nicklaus and I decided to spend some time together this year during one of the longer breaks. So on Saturday morning, we met up at the Kent Public Library book sale (it's always going on during the retreat). Then we walked down the street to one of the little coffee-and-pastry shops where we compared our latest acquisitions and talked about all things Church of Christ. What a pleasure. What a blessing.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Questions about Romans

Next week I get to spend the mornings walking through Paul's Letter to the Romans. The teacher will be Harold Attridge, a fine New Testament scholar. This presents me with a bit of a problem though. Whenever I'm in a class like this, the preacher side and the student side of me conspire to turn me into Mr. Talks-all-the-Time. You know, the guy who's always speaking up in the class. I've been him a few times.

I sometimes get annoyed at students like that in my own classes. I guess being the teacher makes me think that I've finally earned the right to be Mr. Talks-all-the-Time. At any rate, both as a teacher and especially as a student, I have to make a conscious effort to remember that there is a time to speak, and a time to keep your trap shut.

Consequently, I'm trying to identify the one or two things that I really want to ask about, assuming they've not already been covered by the teacher. So what do you think? Name a question or two about Romans that deserve to be raised in class.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Rock Around Block

I did it again last night. Before I drove home, I circled around my neighborhood for a few minutes. Why? Because just before I made it home, I was flipping through the local radio stations and heard the very beginning of Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits.

Now, if you're one of those people who can turn off a car and just get out midway through a song like that, I will never be able to understand you. However, I will acknowledge that this sort of behavior demands a little explanation.

For example, why didn't I just go home and sit in the car while listening to the end of the song? How can one possibly justify the wasted gas, extra miles on the old car, etc.? At least three reasons come to mind:

1. If you come home to someone, and they realize you're there, they don't always appreciate what's happening at that point. This is especially true if they don't care that much for the song or the kind of music you happen to be listening to. "But, Honey, it was Sultans of Swing!" I don't even like to think about where that one would go.

2. What if you're, say, a Bible Chair director, . . . and you're sitting in the garage or driveway with the volume turned all the way up . . . and your neighbors happen to be outside? "Okay, lemme me get this straight. You're a holy man and a headbanger?" All such cognitive dissonance can be easily avoided by finishing the song before going home.

3. I believe that there's some sort of left-brain, right-brain link between our enjoyment of a song on the car radio and our experience of driving. Do you sense this too? I mean, isn't it a lot better when you're on the open road, with room to, . . . well, . . . accelerate, when that special song comes on? Compare that to being stuck in traffic and hearing the same song. It's just not the same. At that point, you need to drive. I know, National Public Radio has coined the expression "Driveway Moments." But they're talking about documentary-type radio, not Led Zeppelin.

Anyway, are you also one of those take-the-long-way-home people? Oh, and what are some of the songs that will delay you every single time?