Monday, February 25, 2013

Answering a Modern Accuser of John Calvin

Not long ago, a good friend of mine had interacted with a person (whom I shall denote by J) who claimed that John Calvin was basically a blood-thirsty wretch.  This is a common accusation made by those who dislike the theological system that goes by his name and often they take to character assassination instead of substantive debate.  He asked me what I thought about the accusation.  Below was my response.


I just finished a biography on Calvin by Bruce Gordon.  I don’t know where Gordon falls on the theological spectrum (he may not even be evangelical, for all I know), but he is a very respectable scholar with impeccable credentials as a historian of the 16th century Reformation.  He currently teaches at Yale, and before that at St. Andrews.  His book on Calvin is a very balanced take on the man, and he navigates very well the extremes of hero worship and undo cynicism.  There are several things that need to be noted about the criticism of J.

1.      There were several early biographies of Calvin by his enemies, most of which included gross lies, but which unfortunately have been repeated on the basis of such doubtful witnesses.  Their aim was not historical reliability, but to undermine the Genevan reforms by attacking its leader, John Calvin.  It is probably from such a source that J is either quoting directly or indirectly.  It simply is not true that Calvin put scores of people to death.  

2.      In fact, Calvin didn’t actually put ANYONE to death!  The closest Calvin came to involvement in the death of anyone was Servetus who was burned at the stake outside Geneva in 1553 for his heresy.  But what a lot of people don’t realize is that even in this case, Calvin didn’t “flip the switch,” so to speak.  He couldn’t order Servetus’ death for several reasons.  He wasn’t even a citizen of Geneva (he didn’t become a citizen until a few years before his death) and therefore didn’t even have any authority in the city to execute anyone.  It was not Calvin, but the Genevan councils that ordered the death of Servetus.  What makes this even more amazing is that the membership of the city councils were at that time dominated by opponents to Calvin, not his friends.  So you can’t say that they only did this because of Calvin’s influence.  When Servetus was ordered to be executed, Calvin asked the city council to substitute the sword for the stake because beheading was more merciful than burning.  Now this doesn’t mean that Calvin didn’t favor capital punishment for heresy.  He did.  But so did everyone else, including the other Protestant cities (and including theologians of a less Calvinistic bent!).  It was their advice, not Calvin’s, that sealed the fate of Servetus.  Calvin, in the end, was a man of his age.  He shared the warts of that time.  We should all recognize this.  He may well be a hero to some of us, but that does not mean he was perfect.

3.      Capital punishment was more liberally bestowed in the 16th century for all types of crimes in every city of the West, not just Geneva.  It was a harsh time, and Calvin unfortunately did not see past the inadequacy of such “justice.”  Again, he was a man of his time.  But it is also unfair to single Calvin out.  We could say similar things about all the reformation leaders: Zwingli, Luther, Melancthon, Bullinger, Bucer, etc.  But these are the men God used.  You may be scandalized by some of their words or behavior.  But beware of mocking and scorning those whom God has used.

On a personal note, Calvin IS a hero to me.  I am humbled by and learn from his complete surrender to God’s will and sovereignty over life.  His theology was not a mere theoretical system worked out in the ivory towers of Switzerland, but hammered out through many trials and tribulations.  His goal was not his own but the glory of GOD.  And God used him mightily.  When Moody once said, “The world has yet to see what God can do in and with a man who is entirely devoted to Him,” he was wrong.  Calvin was such a man.

And by the way, I am not a Calvinist because of Calvin.  I am a Calvinist because I am a Biblicist and love the Bible. 

Hope this helps.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Jeremiah Bass

Monday, February 4, 2013

Coming to the Lord's Table

How do you see the Lord's Supper?  For many years, it was for me a basically gloomy affair.  I do not blame this on anyone but myself, but there were certain tendencies in the churches in which I grew up that did nothing to expunge this idea firmly lodged in my mind.

For one thing, too much emphasis was placed upon the solemnity of the event that any joy to be had was thoroughly eclipsed by a mood fostered by pastors and laymen alike.  I'm not saying that solemnity is bad, but what was often lacking was holy reverence coupled with holy rejoicing.  (The importance of solemnity was also given as a reason not to have the Lord's Supper more than once or twice a year.) 

Also, a focus on one's own worthiness via self-examination was certainly more likely to bring a person into mourning than into joy.  The bright sunlit fields of the gospel became overcast by the dark clouds of my own sin.  This emphasis on self-examination, though right, is often wrongly put alongside the idea of being worthy or fit for the Lord's Table, an idea based upon a wrong interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:27, "Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord."  (The word "unworthily" is not a reference to intrinsic worthiness, which is impossible, but to the manner in which we partake of the Lord's Table.)

Eventually, I came to see that the Lord's Supper is really another means of grace that God has given us to delight in Him.  Even in the Old Testament, God's people were told, "Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Neh. 8:10).  There was only one day a year in which the Israelites were commanded to afflict themselves, the Day of Atonement.  Maybe this is the reason so many Baptists want to have the Lord's Supper once a year!

Despite this discovery, however, I still find myself coming to the Lord's Table with a sense of a need to "get myself together" - to make myself fit and worthy.  As we celebrated the Lord's Supper last Sunday, I told the people that I really want to celebrate it in a cathedral with a choir in the background and thirty minutes of silence beforehand.  Why?  Again, because I want an atmosphere that is conducive to saving myself for the Lord's Table.  I think the reason for this is that this is our native mindset - we are naturally wired by sin to save ourselves, and this extends to everything, including Communion.  So I have to continually remind myself that to have this kind of mindset is opposite to what the Lord's Table is actually telling me.

When we partake of the Lord's Supper, we are not coming to a Table to put something on it, but to take something from it.  The message of Communion is not that we are to make ourselves worthy but that Someone Else has been worthy for us.  When we take the bread and wine in remembrance, we are not remembering what we have done to save ourselves, but what our Lord has done - "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come" (I Cor. 11:26).  His body was broken so that mine does not have to be broken in penance.  His blood was shed so that I do not have to bear the weight of the wrath of God.

When our focus is just on self-examination, we inevitably become introspective and turn in on ourselves.  However, the Lord's Table is shouting at us to look away from ourselves to Christ.  It is not about my worthiness for Him.  It is about His worthiness for me.  And that is something to rejoice in.

No Compromise (Rev. 2:12-29)

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