Why Calvin? Why Now?

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.

Published by

David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • Chuck

    Actually he can still be very easily dismissed as the Tyrant of Geneva and usually is, the babblings of assorted theologians notwithstanding.

  • http://www.afcmin.org/ateam David Nilsen


    I probably should have been a bit clearer. There are definitely still a lot of people who make the claim that Calvin was the tyrant of Geneva, but no one who has actually done the historical research can make such a claim in academic honesty (not least of all for the simple reason that Calvin had no actual political power in the city of Geneva and was more often than not at the mercy of the city council). The people who continue to make this claim are generally uninformed and are usually just repeating what they heard from someone else, without doing the historical research for themselves.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=725692832 Michael Bauman

    “Everyone is asking, “Why Calvin, and why now?”

    Not quite everyone.

  • Bill Henry

    I often wonder why Calvin is seen as a boogie man in scriptural exegesis. He believed in the inerrant nature of scripture, and then he read it and commented upon it.

    I believe that the many people that have a “problem” with Calvin should look deeper and see where their problem really lies.

  • Mark Borzillo

    The problem with Calvin is free will. Election and free will are contradictory. If people have no choice if they’re saved, they’re elected, then why missionaries? Israel was elected. But reformed theology says the church has supplanted Israel as God’s elect. How does God ‘unelect’ Israel? Can’t have it both ways.

  • http://www.afcmin.org/ateam David Nilsen


    Election and free will are only contradictory if one holds to a certain understanding of free will (there are multiple theories, none of which are philosophically conclusive). Also, some Calvinists simply reject the idea of “free will” altogether (since the phrase is found nowhere in Scripture) and talk instead of man’s moral responsibility. Ultimately, of course, ALL theories regarding the interaction between divine and human causation resort to mystery at one point or another.

    Election is not incompatible with evangelism because God has chosen to use the means of human preachers as the instrument by which He brings His elect to faith.

    National Israel was elected temporarily and conditionally under the Mosaic covenant, which has now passed away, as the New Testament clearly teaches. However, prior to Sinai God made a covenant with Abraham that was neither temporary nor conditional in which he promised that Abraham’s decedents would be from many nations. As we learn in the New Testament, all who are spiritual decedents of Abraham are the true Israel, the church (who will, of course, be made up of many nations).

  • Donald

    Michael Servetus would disagree.

    “Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory” – Calvin

    Compare this with ‘On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them’ by Balthasar Hubmaier

  • Whitey Lawful

    Calvin Shmalvin

  • Whitey Lawful

    Calvin Shmalvin

  • La Noche Oscura Del Alma

    Let’s get our theology out of the First century instead of the Sixteenth century. Besides, before we go lionizing “The Comeback Kid” let’s remember the role he played in the execution of Michael Servetus. Classy.

  • Quartermaster

    I get the impression that Calvin, while found on many book shelves, he is little read. Calvinism was dominant for a short while, but has been relegated to the fringe over the years. This is because of what is found in Book 3 chapters 21-24, the actual heart of Calvinism.

    Calvin’s peculiar doctrines (which are summarized by the cannons of Dort and are often referred to by the misnomer “doctrines of grace”) are quite Hellenistic. Nothing was known of his doctrines in the Ante-Nicene church, and nothing similar was considered until Augustine changed over from the early church stance of Premillinialism and synergistic free will to a Protocalvinist. Calvin’s soteriology goes back only to Augustine, which he carries to an extreme, and Calvin and his followers have dissed the early church writers in terms that are utterly unchristian. I hold the position that Calvin would have been thrown out of the Ante-Nicene Church as a Gnostic and blasphemer who would make a Holy God the actual author of sin (Vincent Cheung embraces this idea fully in his writings) rather than the creator who granted man free will who then turns from God and disobeys. Such blasphemous doctrines are too typical of Calvinism, and the dodge of “not understanding Calvinism,” or “That’s Hyper-Calvinism” simply won’t wash as Cheung’s position, and other aberrant positions held by Calvinists, are well inside the bounds of Calvin’s doctrines.

    Michael Horton has dissed Arminians (who actually hold to the doctrines of the Ante-Nicene Church) as heretics. He has gone so far as saying “if Finney is an Evangelical, then I am not.” Frankly, I have trouble with some of what Finney wrote, but I would agree that Horton is not an Evangelical. Calvinism is, in fact, not an evangelical faith. It is a deeply aberrant form of Christianty. 

    The rise of Calvinism, again, is not a healthy development for the Church.