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.

Know Your Evangelicals:
William Wilberforce

Name: William Wilberforce (August 24, 1759 – July 29, 1833)
Why you should know him: Wilberforce was a social reformer and politician who helped bring an end to the British slave trade.
Position: Member of Parliament representing Kingston upon Hull (Yorkshire, England)
Organizational Associations: Church Missionary Society (founding member); Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; African Institution (founder); Clapham Sect; Society for the Suppression of Vice; Association for the Better Observance of Sunday
BA, St John’s College, University of Cambridge (1781),
MA, St John’s College, University of Cambridge (1788)
Books: A Practical View of the Prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797); A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807); Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823);
Background: On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation Manners.” Two years later he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, appealing to his colleagues “cool and impartial reason” to in seeing the slave trade as a moral evil. In April 1791 Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. Undaunted, he introduced a motion in favor of abolition during every session of parliament and moved bills for its abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793 — both of which were defeated. It was not until 1807–sixteen years after his initial introduction of legislation–that the slave trade was ended. Wilberforce continued to fight for another twenty six years to end slavery itself. In July 1833, while suffering from a severe attack of influenza, he received word that the bill for the abolition of slavery had finally passed its third reading in the Commons. On the following day Wilberforce died. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. As the plaque at Wilberforce’s birthplace attest, “No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life.”

(This is #34 in the Know Your Evangelicals series.)

Know Your Evangelicals:
John Piper

piper.jpgName: John Piper
Why you’ve heard of him: Dr. Piper is one of the most influential and popular preacher/authors in American evangelicalism.
Position: Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN; Host of the daily radio program Desiring God; Founder of Desiring God ministries.
Previous: Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Bethel College, St. Paul, MN
B.A., Wheaton College
B.D., Fuller Theological Seminary
Dr.theol., University of Munich
Denomination: Baptist (Baptist General Conference)
Books: Piper is the author of over twenty books, including Love Your Enemies: Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and the Early Christian Paraenesis (1991); Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (1986); Don?t Waste Your Life (2003); A God Entranced Vision of All Things (2004); and The Passion of Jesus Christ (2004); What Jesus Demands of the World (2006)
Assessment: Piper’s life goal and ministry have been focused on spreading “a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.” His writing and preaching have had a significant impact on many young Christian leaders, including pastors, seminarians, and members of the bands Third Day and Switchfoot. Espousing a concept he calls “Christian Hedonism“, Piper carries on the tradition of a complete God-centered worldview that he picked up from the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, one of his most significant influences. As noted by Al Mohler, who called Let the Nations Be Glad “the most important book on missions for this generation”, Piper has also had a major impact on the state of modern world missions.
[Special thanks to Justin Taylor for his input on this entry.]
(This is #26 in the Know Your Evangelicals series.)

Know Your Evangelicals:
Albert Mohler

mohler.bmpName: R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Why you should know him: Dr. Mohler was listed in a TIME magazine cover story as one of its “50 for the Future”. Christianity Today described Dr. Mohler as one of forty emerging evangelical leaders and Time.com called him the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S”.
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Position: President and Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world; Host of “The Albert Mohler Program,” a daily radio show distributed nationwide by Salem Communications; Editor-in-Chief of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology

Continue reading Know Your Evangelicals:
Albert Mohler