The Many Faces of Calvin

David VanDrunen
Thursday, June 11th 2009
Jun/Jul 2009

In recognition of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, Modern Reformation editors have solicited essays from a number of authorities on Calvin's life and work. Not all of our writers are "Calvinists" (that is, they would not all necessarily agree with him or follow in his theological footsteps), but each has identified a particular point of Calvin's thought that helps contribute to an overall perspective of Calvin's influence in his time and ours. We're grateful to these writers, some of whom might not normally appear in our pages, for lending us their own words as we contemplate the many faces of John Calvin.

The question that I have been asked to address-was Calvin a transformationist?-can be a tricky one. Generally speaking, a transformationist is someone who believes that Christians should be actively involved in cultural life and should seek to bring all areas of life into conformity with God's will through the power of Christ's redemptive grace. But this can mean different things to different people. I suggest that in a certain sense Calvin was a transformationist, but that in other important respects he was not. In this yes-and-no response that I impute to Calvin, I perceive a helpful guide and challenge for us today.

Calvin was a transformationist in the sense that he encouraged Christians to perform their various earthly vocations faithfully and sought to promote the welfare of his own adopted city, Geneva. Like other reformers, Calvin rejected the common medieval notion that monasticism represented the highest ideal of godly living. He praised the ordinary labor of ordinary people and argued that all sorts of vocations are noble and God-honoring when pursued honestly and industriously. Calvin also had a high view of the civil magistrate. Over against certain factions in his day that deprecated civil authority, Calvin praised magistrates as established by God and necessary for preserving social order. Yet even while he instructed Christians to submit to their civil rulers (even wicked ones), he exhorted magistrates to seek justice and to be mindful of their accountability before God. Calvin was a lawyer by training and he was involved in efforts to revise both the government of the church and the civil laws in Geneva. Civil and ecclesiastical discipline in Geneva sought to shape the commercial, moral, familial, and religious life of all the residents in the city.

Viewed from this perspective, Calvin sounds like an enthusiastic transformationist. But Calvin was certainly not a transformationist as many would understand that term today, in at least three respects.

First, Calvin was not a transformationist in the way that H. Richard Niebuhr used the term. Calvin is often labeled a transformationist because Niebuhr famously identified him as such in his very influential book Christ and Culture (1951). For Niebuhr, however, a genuine transformationist vision affirms that God redeems the whole of fallen creation and hence that all individuals will be saved in the end-that is, universalism. Calvin was certainly no universalist, and Niebuhr himself had to admit that Calvin did not quite fit into the category after all.

Second, Calvin's understanding of the kingdom of Christ distinguishes him from many contemporary transformationists. Many people today understand transformation as the task of redeeming all spheres of cultural life and hence of bringing the kingdom of Christ to expression in all of them. Calvin looked at things differently. He did not seek to bring all spheres of earthly life under the orbit of the one heavenly kingdom that Christ purchased by his own blood. Instead, Calvin believed that God governs this world by means of two kingdoms. He looked to the church as the earthly community in which believers have present fellowship with the kingdom of heaven. The church is where the redemptive message of the gospel is preached, and in the church Christians enjoy the liberty of conscience bestowed by the gospel in a unique way. But God also governs the civil kingdom, which includes the state and other earthly institutions and activities. Christians have honorable vocations within this kingdom, but God rules it not as its redeemer but as its creator and sustainer. Calvin adamantly asserted that civil government, for instance, was not to be identified with the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Calvin therefore would have rejected the notion of transformation insofar as it implies bringing all spheres of life into conformity with the life of Christ's redemptive kingdom.

Finally, Calvin was not a transformationist if that implies, as it sometimes does, a triumphalistic view of the Christian's life in this world. While Calvin believed that much good can be accomplished here and now, he also had a vivid sense that the Christian life is a life of suffering. He described our present existence as one of a pilgrimage under the cross, and he often exhorted his readers to lift their eyes to heaven and to be sustained by the great hope held out for them there.

Calvin lived in cultural circumstances very different from our own, and this makes it difficult to know how to apply contemporary terms such as "transformationist" to him. Even this brief study, however, draws attention to several points at which we can be challenged by Calvin. Perhaps most pointedly, Calvin's theology points us in a direction that avoids two dangerous extremes: on the one hand, he encourages us not to denigrate ordinary earthly activities or to doubt that they honor God and benefit our neighbor; on the other hand, he warns us against identifying our earthly labors and political involvement with the kingdom of Christ and against forgetting that the present age is one of suffering rather than conquest.

Thursday, June 11th 2009

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