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To become a ‘perfect dunghill,’ embrace Calvinism?

Books | Two Baptist scholars disagree by pointing out the mission-oriented vision of John Calvin and the other Reformers

The late historian William Estep wrote in the Texas Baptist Standard that if the Southern Baptist Convention went Calvinist on evangelism, it would become a “perfect dunghill.” Strong words, but many would agree. Not Baptist scholars Michael A.G. Haykin and C. Jeffrey Robinson Sr., though. 

In To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014) Haykin and Robinson turn standard understanding upside down and say John Calvin and other Reformers were strongly mission-oriented. Dubious? Below, by publisher’s permission, is the book’s introduction. Please read on. —Marvin Olasky

Introduction

The Rev. S. L. Morris, on the occasion of the four-hundredth an­niversary of Calvin’s birth in May 1909, told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States as it gathered in Savannah, Georgia, to mark the Reformer’s birth, “Calvinism is the most potent agency in the evangelization of the world.”[1] At the time, no one would have regarded Morris’s affirmation as outland­ish. Today, though, just over one hundred years later, his remark is the stuff of controversy and considered a complete oxymoron.

Calvinism’s Bad Press

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In the West in 2013, a sentiment opposite that of Morris’s is more typically heard among evangelicals: “Calvinism is the enemy of world evangelization.” Virtually every admirer of Calvin and his theology has heard the same refrain: Calvin, his fellow Reformers, and their theology were not, are not, and cannot be, logically or theologically, pro-missions or pro-evangelism. The critics and their critiques border on cliché, and most who delight in a theology of sovereign grace can recite them: the sixteenth-century Reformers had a poorly developed missiology; overseas missions were given no thought or attention; Calvinism’s theology of an absolutely sov­ereign, choosing God has precious little to say to the lost and is anti-missions and opposed to evangelism.

John Calvin wished to be interred, upon his death, in an un­marked grave and asked that his family, church members, and in­timate friends avoid any form of memorial service so that no cult of personality might spring up around him.[2] In his last will and testament, Calvin’s instructions to those at his deathbed were simi­larly pithy, the language unadorned: “I desire that my body after my death be interred in the usual manner, to wait for the day of the blessed resurrection.”[3] Nearly 450 years after his death, historians still do not know the location of Calvin’s grave, and given his repu­tation in the twenty-first-century West, Calvin’s anonymous resting place is likely best for all parties concerned. It is quite conceivable that knowledge of his burial location would only incite some of his opponents to make pilgrimage there so as to spit upon it.

John Calvin is a historical figure in desperate need of a public-relations makeover. Of all the Western church Reformers of the sixteenth century, none has been so consistently defamed, none so ruthlessly castigated in both his doctrine and his personality from his own time to the present. For scores of modern-day evangelicals, Calvin is the ultimate megalomaniac, a dark figure, a theological hall monitor, a figure fixated on a wrathful God whose life and doctrines stood firmly opposed to missions and evangelism.

Even the so-called new media of the twenty-first century has been commandeered to wage this perennial war on Calvin. Visi­tors to YouTube, the Internet dumping ground for everything from home movies depicting stupid pet tricks to Duran Duran videos, will find numerous broadside attacks on John Calvin and his theol­ogy. The unsubtle titles include, “How to Defeat Calvinism,” “All of Calvinism Refuted by One Verse” (by one who apparently thinks Arminians hail from the Eurasian republic of Armenia), “Why I Am Not a Five-Point Calvinist,” “Burn in Hell, John Calvin, Burn,” “Calvinism Creeping In,” and “Sovereign Grace Is a Heresy.” Even the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart took an oft-quoted swipe at Cal­vin, declaring that the Genevan Reformer was responsible for causing “untold numbers to be lost—or seriously hindered—in their spiritual walk and relationship with God.”[4] If only his contem­poraries had been so kind to Calvin! Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec (died c. 1584), a contemporary of Calvin and one-time Protestant ad­vocate, published a biography of the Reformer after returning to the Roman Catholic Church, which the twentieth-century Calvin scholar Richard Stauffer termed “nothing more than a vile tract.” In it, Bolsec vilified the Reformer as “ambitious, presumptuous, arro­gant, cruel, evil, vindictive, avaricious, and, above all, ignorant.”[5] Once he commenced, Bolsec kept the fists flying. For him, Calvin was “a greedy man, … an imposter who claimed he could resurrect the dead, … a gadabout, a Sodomite,” an outcast of God.[6]

NOTES

1. S. L. Morris, “The Relation of Calvin and Calvinism to Missions,” in Calvin Memorial Addresses, ed. Ben­jamin B. Warfield et al. (1909; repr., Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007), 133.

2. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 336–37.

3. John Calvin, “Last Will and Testament of Master John Calvin,” in Tracts and Letters, ed. Jules Bonnet, trans. Marcus Robert Gilchrist, 7 vols. (1858; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 7:366.

4. Jimmy Swaggart, quoted by Allen C. Guelzo, “A Life of John Calvin,” review of A Study of the Shaping of Western Culture, by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), Touchstone, accessed at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=05-04-038-b.

5. Quoted in Richard Stauffer, The Humanness of John Calvin (1971; repr., Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2008), 20.

6. Quoted in ibid.

7. Ibid., 25.

8. Ibid., 25–26.

9. Matthias Freudenberg, “Calvin’s Reception in the Twentieth Century,” trans. Randi H. Lundell, in Her­man J. Selderhuis, The Calvin Handbook (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 503; Allen Guelzo, “Review: A Life of John Calvin: A Study of the Shaping of Western Culture, by Alister E. McGrath,” Touchstone 5, no. 4 (Fall 1992), accessed September 14, 2013, http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=05-04-038-b.

10. Quoted in Frank A. James III, “Calvin the Evangelist,” Reformed Quarterly 20, no. 2/3 (Fall 2001), accessed September 14, 2013, http://rq.rts.edu/fall01/james.html. In a mid-twentieth-century series of books designed for high school students, one finds a similar evaluation of Calvin. His “doctrines were harsh” and as a result “there was little joy in Calvin’s church.” Johanna Johnston and James L. Steffensen, Reformation and Exploration, vol. 8 of The Universal History of the World (New York: Golden, n.d.), 641.

11. See Kenneth J. Stewart, “Calvinism and Missions: The Contested Relationship Revisited,” Themelios 34, no. 1 (April 2009): 63–78.

12. Gustav Warneck, History of Protestant Missions, trans. G. Robson from the 8th German ed. (Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1906), 9. Warneck’s opinion has been influential on subsequent missiological reflection. See, for example, David Allen, “Preaching for a Great Commission Resurgence,” in The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time, ed. Chuck Lawless and Adam W. Greenway (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2010), 286.

13. Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 67.

14. Robert Bellarmine, Controversiae, book 4, as quoted in Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1964), 221.

15. Stewart, “Calvinism and Missions,” 67–68.

16. Scott Hendrix, “Rerooting the Faith: The Reformation as Re-Christianization,” Church History 69 (2000): 561. See also his Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004); and Michael Parsons, Calvin’s Preaching on the Prophet Micah: The 1550–1551 Sermons in Geneva (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2006), 189–93.

17. John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate, ed. John C. Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 74–75.

18. Calvin, Institutes, 2:1053 (4.2.12). See also Institutes, 4.2.11.

19. Hendrix, “Rerooting the Faith,” 558–68.

20. William Estep, “Calvinizing Southern Baptists,” Texas Baptist Standard (March 26, 1997). This article was substantially reprinted as “Doctrines Lead to ‘Dunghill’ Prof Warns,” The Founders Journal 29 (Summer 1997), accessed September 14, 2013, http://www.founders.org/journal/fj29/article1.html.

21. Estep, “Calvinizing Southern Baptists.”

22. Ibid.

23. In Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), Stewart debunks two popular misconceptions surrounding Calvin’s theology: that it is anti-missions and that it tends toward a rejection of revival and spiritual awakening.

24. Ibid., 147.

25. David B. Calhoun, “John Calvin: Missionary Hero or Missionary Failure?,” Presbyterion 5, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 16–17.

26. Philip E. Hughes, “John Calvin: Director of Missions,” in The Heritage of John Calvin, ed. John H. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 44–45.

27. See below, chap. 5.

28. See below, chap. 6.

29. See the overview in chap. 4.

30. Joel R. Beeke, “John Calvin, Teacher and Practitioner of Evangelism,” in Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2004), 54.

31. John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Tracts and Letters, trans. Henry Beveridge, 7 vols. (1844; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 1:133.

32. Ibid., 1:134–35. 

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