On May 27, 1564, John Calvin died as a sickly old man in his bed. A sui generis Protestant Reformer, Calvin was a Frenchman who pastored in Geneva and in Strasbourg. Like Martin Luther before him, Calvin had initially set out to study law, but he gave himself to the study of theology after he was converted to Christ.
Calvin was arguably the greatest mind of Christendom since Augustine, and many Reformers, scholars, and civil leaders of his own day even acknowledged him as an intellectual giant.
John Calvin is simultaneously the most loved and hated theologian of the Protestant Reformation (maybe in all of Church history). There are few Christian leaders who have drawn such admiration and such disdain at the same time.
During his time pastoring in Geneva, some of his church members named their dog ‘Calvin,’ so as to insult their pastor-theologian. And yet others gave such sparkling endorsements of him.
Jacobus Arminius (the often-cited counter theologian to Calvin) said,
“Next to the study of the Scriptures… I exhort my students to read Calvin’s Commentaries carefully and thoroughly… for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture.”
The fact is that the Protestant Reformation would simply not have been what it was without John Calvin. Many Protestants today believe what they do because Calvin first thought and wrote about it.
Calvin wrote the first systematic theology, and all those written since have followed his pattern and built on his foundation. Calvin masterfully preached expositional sermons, which were a novelty at the time since the Bible had only recently become available in the common language. Calvin destroyed the wall between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular,’ arguing instead that all things (especially one’s work) could and should be done to the glory of God.
While some assert that Calvin’s theology should suppress evangelism and missions, history and practice have demonstrated the opposite. William Carey is known as the ‘father of modern missions,’ but Calvin organized missionary efforts that preceded him by 200 years and spanned across the globe.
Calvin reminds us of the incredible wealth Christians today have inherited. Our theological debates have all been discussed before. Calvin and many others have thought, argued, and written about things we are just now noticing, and our innovations usually erode faithful theology rather than provide an insightful breakthrough.
We would certainly be foolish to think that Spirit-illumined Christians of the past have nothing to teach us today. Whatever one thinks of Calvin, to neglect his writings is to miss a grand portion of Christian heritage.
May God help us to be Christians who rely preeminently on the Holy Spirit for illumination. And may God also help us to remember that we are not the first generation of Christians to receive brilliant light from God’s Spirit.