In Praise of Men

Derek Thomas Articles

Today I received an e-mail from a friend known to many at First Presbyterian Church, Peter Jones. In it he recalled meeting Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) in the Vatican some twenty years ago. Peter related how he had presented him with a leather-bound copy of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Imagine that! We have every reason to believe, from a conversation Peter had with one of the (then) Cardinal's aids the next day, that he had every intention of reading it.

John Calvin (1509-1564) remains one the God's greatest gifts to the church. Some find it misguided to praise men.  It was, after all, the Corinthian problem that they openly declared their allegiance to men--Apollos, Paul, Peter--and in doing so caused major splits in the Corinthian church. The cause had more to do with personality than substance.  Neither Paul nor Apollos nor Peter were preaching a different gospel.  They may well have laid emphasis on different parts of the gospel, but their essential message was identical. This is why Paul finds their stance objectionable. But we are not, I think, to conclude from this that we are never to express our appreciation for the lives of men (and women!) whose gifts have helped not only their own generation but our own also. Surely, this is the meaning of the gallery of the faithful in Hebrews 11.

For my part any such gallery must include John Calvin. His disciplined style, his determination never to speculate, his utter submission to Bible words as God's words, his concern to be as practical as possible: godly living was his aim and not theology for the sake of it; these are some of the factors that make him a giant in the gallery of faithful expositors of Scripture.

'Calvinist' is a theological swear-word in some circles.  I am convinced that folk who use the word that way have never read Calvin at all!  They may have read about him; but they have not read the careful, reverential way in which he wrote.  It is, of course, what Calvin said about predestination that goads certain people. But Calvin was extremely careful not to speculate here.  He talked about predestination--in the same way that Paul does in Romans 8 and 9. Rather than introduce election at the very beginning of his treatment on theology (the logical place to put it), he placed it after spelling out what the gospel is.  Calvin talked about the free offer of the gospel first: that the gospel is for 'whosoever-will'.  Only after he has established this does he introduce predestination, and then in the context of re-assuring believers of their eventual glorification (in exactly the same way as Paul does at the end of Romans 8).  Calvin was concerned to answer the question: why, when the gospel is proclaimed, do some respond and others do not? Not for Calvin the smugness and ugly exclusivism of the old Particular Baptist hymn:
  We are the Lord's elected few,
  Let all the rest be damned;
  There's room enough in hell for you,
  We won't have heaven crammed!

Calvin simply wanted to extol the marvelous grace of God, that, though he deserved damnation, God had chosen to show his love instead.  He would readily agree to the perspective of John Newton:

  Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
  That saved a wretch like me!
  I once was lost, but now am found,
  Was blind, but now I see.

Calvin saw what I suspect even those who despise him also concede in some way or another, that election (God's powerful work) provides the only hope of certainty as far as our salvation is concerned.  For my part, if any part of it depends in the last analysis on me, I have no basis for any confidence at all. Calvin is wonderfully biblical and pastoral here.  It is why I admire him so much.