No one in the history of the church has been so equally reviled and adored by so many as John Calvin. Some of the greatest pastors, theologians and missionaries in both Great Britain and America have considered themselves Calvinists. And yet for the majority of modern American Evangelicalism, Calvin was considered to be a ruthless tyrant whose theology was cold and abominable (even as recent as 2007 Jerry Falwell called Calvinism a heresy). In the last several years, however, John Calvin has slowly gained a following among younger evangelicals, especially due to the work of pastors and teachers like Al Mohler, John Piper, and R. C. Sproul. Everyone is asking, “Why Calvin, and why now?”
One reason is surely the recent shift in historical scholarship on the life of Calvin. Thanks to the tireless efforts of church historians like Richard Muller, Calvin can no longer be accused of being the “Tyrant of Geneva.” Still, there must be more to the story, or else Calvin would simply be some long-dead theologian who wasn’t as mean as we used to think he was.
In the cover story of September’s Christianity Today, “John Calvin: Comeback Kid”, Timothy George attempts to fill in the gaps by suggesting three reasons why John Calvin is making a big comeback in evangelical circles today.
First, postmodernity has placed us all “on the boundary”—on the border between the fading certainties of modernism and new ways of understanding the world and its promises and perils. Calvin, a displaced refugee, speaks directly to the homeless mind of many contemporaries looking for a place to stand. “We are always on the road,” Calvin wrote.
Calvinism is definitely a theology for pilgrims. While Lutheranism enjoyed a certain freedom and safety in many European cities, the Reformed churches were often persecuted. For a Reformed believer in the 16th century, it was a very uncertain world. As the supposedly unshakable foundations of scientistic modernism begin to crumble under the weight of postmodern critiques, Calvin offers a theology that can grant certainty without the premises that made modernism so flawed to begin with. It should come as little surprise that some of the best new work in epistemology in the last several decades has been done by Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame, whose ideas were influenced directly by Calvin.
Second, while Calvin is often depicted as an intellectualist and theological rationalist, in fact his theology is pervaded by mystery.
No greater example of mystery in Calvinist theology can be given than the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s moral responsibility. But Calvin also embraced the classical mysteries of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, and he affirmed the incomprehensibility and unknowablity of God. God, for Calvin, is not truly known in speculative philosophy, but in His acts in creation, and ultimately in the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. This appreciation for and embrace of mystery should make Calvin an appealing and timely alternative to the Emergent Church.
Finally, Calvin was a theologian of the long view. When he died in 1564, it was by no means certain that the Reformation would triumph even in Geneva. As committed as Calvin was to the hardheaded practicalities of life in a real world ever marked by struggle, he took his stand in the light of eternity undeterred by the vicissitudes of history.
Calvin was a trained scholar and lover of the humanities. He embraced the Renaissance motto ad fontes (“to the sources”), and he was a skilled reader. He could dig deep into an ancient text and pull out meanings that were true to what the words on the page actually said and what the author intended them to mean, rather than picking out bits and pieces of different books to support an a priori theology. This makes Calvin a masterful and timeless exegete of Scripture. Calvin wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible and his works have never gone out of print. This is true of very few other writers. Because of Calvin’s timelessness, he shall remain forever relevant.
It isn’t enough, however, for Calvin to be timeless. Someone actually has to read him. Thanks to the rise to prominence of Calvinist evangelical leaders like Mohler and Piper, that’s exactly what has happened. Young evangelicals are rediscovering the works of Calvin and finding a rich, vibrant, and relevant theology. No matter what shifts the culture is experiencing, regardless of whether we’re modern, postmodern or just plain confused, Calvin will always have something to say. As long as God’s Word is true it will always be relevant for our lives, and Calvin will always have something to teach us about it.