Sticking by the Bible

"Sticking by the Bible" Continued...

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

Calvin's goal in all this was to stick by the Bible inspired by God who understands the weakness of our frames. Earning our food by the sweat of our brows was hard enough without adding on extra-biblical practices that allowed us falsely to assert our holiness. He worried about extremism: "When you begin to doubt whether you may use linen for sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs and tablecloths, you . . . will also have doubts about using flax." He believed in simple living but worried about making it a church imperative: "If you suppose that you may not permit yourself a nicer meal, in the end you will not eat normal bread or an ordinary dinner with a clear conscience before God when you realize that even more simple nourishment would do for your body. . . . Finally, things will go so far that you think it sinful to step over a straw that blocks your path."

Selderhuis notes that Calvin was very engaged with the Anabaptists and even married an Anabaptist widow, "providing a symbol of the way he dealt with them theologically. One had to win them over and bring them into one's own house. In terms of the church, one might even marry them by taking into one's own theological house the good that they bring with them." The problem was their perfectionism, Calvin contended: "They go too far. For where the Lord demands meekness, they drop it altogether and give themselves over completely to an immoderate severity."

That pinpoints the crucial difference: Calvin believed that we should be severe with ourselves in our callings, using our limited time wisely for God's glory, but that we should not take on hard practice that will supposedly cleanse us of our sin. That was impossible: Calvin believed, as did Martin Luther, that believers are simultaneously justified and sinful (simul iustus et peccator). Selderhuis' conclusion: "We do our best to live perfectly as Christians, but we know that we will never attain that level. In this way one does one's best without becoming anxious the minute things go wrong."

Calvin saw lots of things go wrong. His one child died at the age of 22 days, and his beloved wife died 8 years into their marriage. Calvin probably had malaria and certainly had terrible migraine headaches, kidney stones, hemorrhoids that made it painful for him to ride a horse, stomach pains, insomnia, and much besides. And yet, he did not accuse or blame God: As Selderhuis puts it, "He tried to turn the question, 'Why?' into the question, 'What for?'"

The "what for" answer he arrived at was an imperative not to waste the time God gave him, so Calvin kept writing and preaching even when ill. He avoided big meals and leisurely pursuits other than walking, but the mistake he sometimes made was in attempting to mandate others to be like him. He wrestled with God, yearned to discern how God governed both the world and individual lives (including his own), and came away grateful despite all his sadness and torments: "From my very birth, God has cared for me. I have gone through a million dangers, and he has delivered me."

John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life is by no means a whitewash of Calvin-see the sidebar for notes on the ammunition he provided to his enemies in the 1500s and now-but Selderhuis reminds us well of what Calvin did to deliver the church from medievalism.

The other Calvin

A demanding pilgrim earned his critics

By Marvin Olasky

The March 12 issue of Time included "The New Calvinism" in its list of "Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now." Author David Van Biema wrote that "Calvinism is back" and called it "Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination." He wondered, in a snarky conclusion, if "during these hard times more Christians searching for security will submit their wills to the austerely demanding God of their country's infancy."

As John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life points out, Calvin wanted security rather than anxiety: He wrote, "If one had to contribute even only a pebble to one's own salvation, one would lie in lifelong fear that one's pebble was just not big enough." But what Calvin wanted even more than security was truth: Selderhuis writes, "He wanted nothing more than to defend God against any attack that deprived him of his due, that made him appear small, or portrayed him as a tyrant or conversely as some kind of Santa Claus."

Some today who see God as Santa Claus (but with a longer beard and bigger belly) criticize Calvin for purportedly worshipping a tyrannical God and for being a tyrant himself. Selderhuis does not hide the evidence that has contributed to this notion.

Exhibit A is made up of Genevan restrictions on conduct. Some-a ban on dancing in the city's streets, and a prohibition of card and dice playing when preaching was going and after 9 p.m.-predated Calvin's arrival in Geneva in 1536. But the city council, sometimes at odds with Calvin but nevertheless under his tutelage, prohibited in 1546 dancing, dice, card-playing, and ball games. It also passed regulations stating how many plates and how much cutlery could be used at dinner, and how much fanciness in clothes was allowed. Starting in 1558 dinners of all kinds were to include no more than three courses, each course having a maximum of four different dishes. Starting in 1560, the wearing of gold or silver necklaces, or other jewelry, was also forbidden.

Selderhuis explains that Calvin supported such restrictions and may have proposed some because he "was like an architect who, after the extravagance of the baroque era, wanted a return to straight lines, simplicity and efficiency." He also wanted native Genevans to spend less money on themselves and provide more help to the poor refugees who flooded into Switzerland, as France persecuted Protestants, and eventually outnumbered the native Genevans. Calvin reacted as many American Christians would if the United States now had over 300 million immigrants living in great poverty, while the owners of Park Avenue penthouses regularly put on parties for pooches.

Calvin had seen the affluent sometimes strip the indebted poor of their furniture and even their clothes. He could not stomach grand parties and rich clothes-"Jesus Christ was not a tailor," he said-when others were starving and dressed in rags: He wanted the rich to dress simply and spend the money they saved on new businesses that would employ the poor. But attempts to mandate compassion fostered resentment, not changed hearts. Calvin should have allowed more liberty.

Exhibit B is Calvin's limited role in the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553. When Servetus called the Trinitarian God a three-headed monster, he became a dead man by law in Cologne, Antwerp, and a hundred other cities-but he came to Geneva and by order of the city council, with Calvin's complicity, was executed. Selderhuis writes that the Genevan government-and Calvin did not oppose it-"saw no other option but to carry this punishment out. Any city that became known as tolerant of those who would deny the Trinity would be abandoned by friend and foe alike."

That's true historically, yet unsatisfying. The biographical point is that Calvin had left medievalism behind in many ways but not the idea that a city with a variety of religious views was a house divided, on its way to collapse. (The United States is now testing the theory that a nation can survive when religious and cultural divides proliferate.) He may also have seen Geneva as a new Israel that needed laws to help it become or remain clear. We've seen over the years that neither Geneva nor the United States is a new Israel-and in any case, the history of the old Israel shows the inadequacy of even the best laws. Only Christ truly makes a difference.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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