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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

5 Tips for Reading John Calvin

by Scott Carr, Jr.

For many, the works of the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, are infuriating, harsh, cold, and stuffy. I can understand such feelings upon reading him and, in fact, those were my earliest responses to him. But having read his Institutes of the Christian Religion and a number of his commentaries, he has become a dear friend, and I offer to you five things to keep in mind that I have found to be helpful in my reading of Calvin.

1. Calvin nearly always softens the harshness he starts off with.

Calvin seems to nearly always begin in an abrupt manner and can come across as harsh at the very outset. It is not hard to be offended or put off by what he says, but that typically distracts the reader from what he says next, which invariably softens what was offensive in the first place. For example, in the Institutes' chapter on prayer, Calvin begins by giving four "rules" for prayer. Calling them "rules" makes Calvin sound rigid and legalistic, and it can be off-putting. The reader could then easily spend their time reading the remainder of the chapter saying, "What about the freedom we now have in Christ? And aren't we heard by God because of the work of Christ on our behalf, not because we have prayed according to the right rules?" If the reader becomes too wrapped up in this inner dialogue while reading the chapter, they are bound to miss when Calvin adds a fifth rule, which essentially runs, "The fifth rule of prayer is that these aren't really rules. God doesn't hear your prayers because you follow these rules. You will never be able to keep them perfectly, and that's okay. Christ died and rose again, even for your failings in prayer. Do your best and trust the grace of God to grow you in these areas."

2. Calvin assumes God is good.

I wish Calvin were clearer on this point at times. He does talk about it on occasion, but is tragically silent on the matter when the point becomes a necessary distinction for the subject on hand. Calvin's negligence on this point has subjected him and his views on God to inaccurate caricatures. The two subjects where this clarification is most needed are when Calvin speaks about election and judgment. When discussing election, Calvin will say something like, "The reasons for the election of individuals is found in God's will." On occasion, Calvin inserts "good" before "will", but not always. In these instances, if the reader does not remember that Calvin assumes God's will is good, they could easily come away from Calvin thinking that he believed God is capricious and acts on a whim, when Calvin in fact means that the reasons for election are mysteries to us, but God has His good reasons we can trust. On the matter of God's judgment, Calvin can, at, times, come across as portraying God as vengeful, hot-headed, and petty. But, in fact, Calvin sees God as just, punishing those who deserve it because of their gross perversion of His Word, their blatant rebellion, and oppression of the poor. Calvin is clear enough about what he means in some of these instances. The times he neglects to make these distinctions, it is essential for the reader to bring in the assumption of the goodness of God in order to avoid misreading Calvin.

3. Calvin isn't mad at you.

Yes, Calvin is known for being angry. It is impossible to read Calvin and not come away with that impression. Particularly in his writings from the 1550s (including Institutes), his tone is vindictive and bitter. While there are a plethora of historical insights that illuminate elements of his bitterness at the time, they go beyond the scope of this discussion. For our purposes, we recognize that many readers feel Calvin is yelling at them personally. What we need to do is understand who Calvin is mad at and then evaluate whether or not the reader is in those categories. Calvin's wrath is directed at two groups of people. The first are the members of the Roman Catholic Church of his day who had contributed to his exile and had set themselves against him and his endeavors of Church reform. It must be remembered that the Roman Church Calvin knew is not the one we know today. During the time of the Reformation, the Roman Church refused to deliver the Word and the liturgy in a language the people understood, denied giving the people the blood of Christ in the sacrament, and took advantage of the poor through the selling of indulgences. Calvin is angry against such abuses, not you because you differ with him on the nuances of predestination. The second group of people Calvin is angry at are those who remain obstinate against God. Now, anger is not the only emotion Calvin felt towards them. His commentaries evidence that he felt great sorrow for unbelievers. His anger is kindled when he considers them as a general group and when he ponders the ways they continue to rebel against God. When he grows angry, he is particularly inflamed against their actions. So, unless you are a leader in the Church who oppresses those under them or you remain in continual rebellion against God, Calvin is not mad at you.

4. Calvin can be very practical.

Calvin has a reputation for being too difficult for the common people and for hashing out his ideas away from real people with real problems. Why debate election or transubstantiation when there are people living in poverty, struggling with illness, or living without ever having heard the Gospel? The last part of that question is particularly silly. Calvin was not susceptible to the deficient views of conversion or sanctification that modern evangelicals are prone to (see our review on Gordon T. Smith's Called to Be Saints). The image of Calvin as locked away somewhere, thinking and writing while real people are left outside the study has no relation to the Calvin of history. Though he referred to himself as a "man of letters" and initially had no desire to be a pastor, he became involved with the ministry of William Farel in Geneva, then went to Strasbourg where he served as a pastor to the French speaking residents of the city, and finally returned to Geneva to serve as pastor to the community. Calvin took his calling very seriously, preaching eight times a week, and serving those in Geneva. The details of his thought were formed by his interactions with his congregants and in his preaching. Throughout his writings, there are many examples of the practical instructions he gave. And even in those times when Calvin seems least practical, he does not see himself as teaching a theology that is not for the masses. Institutes of the Christian Religion begins with Calvin's explanation of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. He describes the two as informing each other. The better we know ourselves, the better we know God, and the better we know God, the better we know ourselves. Every sentence Calvin ever published was intended to help us know God better so that we in turn would know ourselves better and be conformed to the image of Christ. If that is not practical, I do not know what is.

5. Calvin sees worship as the most important thing in the Christian life.

It is often assumed that Calvin stressed understanding the doctrines of salvation as the most important aspect of the Christian life, as many of his spiritual descendants have, but such an assumption would not be based on the facts. In his treatise, On the Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin states that understanding salvation is the second most important aspect of the Christian life. The primary place goes to true worship. If Calvin's thinking is made to stress knowledge for its own sake, than it would not be very practical. But all knowledge, all doctrine, is learned to aid the believer in the worship of God, and that makes everything practical. When the student of Calvin feels bogged down by the deep theology of his writings, the reader needs to only ask, "How does knowing this help me worship God better?" and they will find their faith enriched.

John Calvin was a great man and a great teacher of God's Word. However, he was merely a man and he does make mistakes, both in content and in delivery. It saddens me to see how many have cut themselves off from his content because of his delivery. I hope these tips help you in your reading and understanding of Calvin. May he become as much a mentor and friend to you as he has to me.

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