Wednesday, April 4, 2012

John Calvin—A man committed to promoting Christian unity

One of the reasons I love to read biographies is the joy of finding new information. The new information about John Calvin is that he really cared about Christian unity. 

Here is a quote from Calvin’s latest biographer: 
“It had been an extraordinary gamble to come to Zurich, and Calvin had risked humiliation in his bid to succeed where Bucer and others had failed. He wanted to move the Swiss, and in particular Zurich, out of their isolation and make them part of the wider Reformation movement. The only way to bring this about, he had recognized, was to be flexible for the sake of unity. What the events of the 1540’s clearly demonstrate is that Calvin never regarded his theological formations as non-negotiable.”
It is shocking to see the words Calvin, flexible and unity in the same sentence.

I probably need to back up and set the context of why Calvin was travelling to Zurich.

The Protestant Reformation had central areas of influence. Zwingli and Bullinger were based in Zurich, Luther and Melanchthon had their headquarters in Wittenburg and Calvin (and later Theodore Beza) were in Geneva. 

Yet these groups were never unified. What was the main issue? The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Luther held to a transubstantiation view, which meant the cup and bread transformed into the actual presence of Christ in the elements. Zwingli held to the memorial view, which understood the elements to be “symbols”. Finally, Calvin held to a middle position, which he described as ‘the real presence of Christ’ in the elements.

Any Reformation history buff knows that Luther and Zwingli hated each other during their lifetimes. This rift carried on past their deaths. Their disciples (Melanchthon and Bullinger) were more civil to each other, but unfortunately, personal and theological suspicion never abated between the two reformers.

Yet Calvin certainly tried to bring them together. He was fairly close to both men (Melanchthon and Bullinger), but in the end Calvin was unsuccessful in cementing the Protestant Reformation.

What can we learn from Calvin?

First, he cared about the well-being of other Christians.

The influence and compassion of Calvin was seen best through his writings. He was always writing theological treatises, commentaries, and countless letters of encouragement to other pastors, French refugees, nobility, widowed women and Christians in their spiritual infancy.

I have often wondered what Calvin would have thought about 21st century social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. I am not sure of his feelings regarding Twitter, but I would like to believe that he would have seen some spiritual benefit to Facebook.

For me, Facebook is many things. It is way to reconnect with old friends. It is a way to see photos and thoughts of others. At its best, Facebook is a wonderful way to encourage others in the faith. But does this replace “facetime”? No…and it never should. God created us to be relational beings, who engage each other in a personal way. Are cyber-world friendship wrong or unhealthy? No, but I would cautiously assert they are secondary in value to friendships that are geographically "face to face".

Second, He made personal sacrifices to promote unity.

What are the personal sacrifices a Christian must make? Well, typically it is in the area of time. Time is required for a “face to face” (since travel is often involved). Time is required in waiting for a response. Time is required to shelf issues if God has not brought clarity. The easiest response is to say, “Forget you! You are not worth my time!” But Christian maturity is always shown by the desire to be patient, to wait on God, to allow time to pass so there is confidence that a decision was not made rashly.

Third, He never elevated unity over doctrine.

It is would be wrong to take the above quotation to mean that Calvin was willing to lay aside doctrinal clarity for the sake of Christian unity. Believe me, he wouldn’t. Yet on the secondary issues (granted, issues Calvin considered secondary), the Genevan reformer was willing to consider revision for the sake of Christian unity.

Calvin, at this point, is a wonderful example of living the biblical mandate to ‘be diligent to preserve the unity of the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:3).

Someone may read this blog post and ask, “What is the big deal about doctrinal purity?” Isn’t love the ultimate goal?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that love is the glue of all Christian unity (Col. 2:2). But no, in the sense that love can be embraced outside the boundaries of doctrine. For example, let’s look at the classic verse of John 14:23:
Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
What we learn here is that truly loving God requires that we keep His Word. Hence, Christian unity is based on loving God, which must be grounded and expressed through His infallible truth. 

May we work hard to promote unity and charity among Christians, yet at the same time, upholding the priority of God's truth, which is embraced through the lens of love. 


  1. Good stuff brother... I liked the idea that Calvin was about unity, but more importantly about doctrine and that the latter would and should disrupt the former, when in the right circumstances.


  2. Love it, Clint. Especially point 3. Focus can't be on the acceptance of others at all costs, but the glory of Christ at all costs. When we love him with intense vigor we'll in turn love others and be united as his true bride with the vigor that he's commanded from us. -Matt Nicosia