Friday, March 23, 2012

John Calvin—A man who was greatly influenced by his friends

The typical caricature of John Calvin is of a rigid, stoic, relentless tyrant, who taunted the unregenerate, reminding them of their reprobation and their inability to come to God.

Not only is this caricature slanderous; it is also unfair and without historical warrant.

This blog post will reveal a softer, more human side of John Calvin. A man who was not only was greatly influenced by his friends, but needed them and cherished them.

Calvin’s latest biographer writes, 
“These relationships could be complicated and might have to weather many storms, but no one worked harder than Calvin to preserve them.”
Really, John Calvin? Yep, this biographer is actually talking about the infamous Calvin.

So, who are these friends? Who are the ones who stood by the great Frenchman?

Martin Bucer

Church history speaks highly of this primary mentor of John Calvin, who was 18 years his senior. The summary below helps explain his place in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century:
“Martin Bucer was a Dominican monk who was strongly attracted to the ideas being promoted by Martin Luther. In 1521 Bucer left the Dominicans and became a Reformation leader in Strasbourg where he became noted for his efforts to promote tolerance and understanding between different groups which were breaking away from Roman Catholicism. In particular, he tried to mediate between Luther and Zwingli in 1524 over the meaning of certain aspects of the Lord’s Supper.”
Most historians credit Bucer for guiding the young Calvin into the future face of Reformed theology.

F. Bruce Gordon states,
“Martin Bucer, in his relentless pursuit of unity, became Calvin’s model churchman, and the greatest influence on his formation as a minister and teacher.”
It is always important to ask, “What kind of mentor was Bucer? Did he instruct Calvin like a Rabbi to a student or was his methods less informal?”

Dr. Gordon explains,
“Bucer put himself out for Calvin in every respect: he provided accommodation in his own home, introduced him to his circle of friends, and finally found a house with a shared garden where they might easily meet and converse.”
This is organic, hands-on, Deuteronomy 6 type discipleship. It is the type of discipleship that Jesus emulated for us and the benefits are obvious; the disciple is learning from the classroom of life, rather than from a scripted lecture that purposefully avoids the complicated uncertainties of a sin-cursed existence.

Yet, though history describes Bucer as a promoter of tolerance and Christian unity, the reader must not conclude that the Strasbourg reformer was hesitant to “speak the truth in love” to the prideful Calvin.

The best example was retold by one of Calvin’s biographers.
“After reading Bucer’s reply (by letter), Calvin was dumbstruck and humiliated by his overweening pride—he could not sleep and was agitated for three days. Furthermore, he realized he had the gall to admonish an experienced man of the church and needed to be taught a lesson in humility and generosity of spirit.”
Ahhhh…that is a true friend (Prov. 27:6).

Now, though Bucer was his spiritual father in the faith, Calvin enjoyed the friendship of another individual, one who could be described as your classic crazy Uncle.

His name is Guillaume Farel.

This is the best one-sentence summary of Guillaume Farel,
“Guillaume Farel was an incendiary, prophetic and highly divisive figure who had led the Reformation in the French-speaking lands of the Swiss Confederation and carried the movement to Geneva.”
Calvin would certainly agree. His first interaction with Farel is etched in the lore of church history.

Calvin recalls,
“Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city (Geneva). And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscience of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.”
Amazing. That sounds like my crazy Uncle Dennis. This is the uncle that tried to coerce me to start smoking at age 15.  

Anyways, this interaction fused a lifelong friendship, between Farel and Calvin, which was built on the sweat and tears that often came with the ministry of the gospel.

Was Farel always good for Calvin? Most historians do not believe he was. Farel’s zeal wrapped in foolishness is likely the reason that Calvin got booted out of Geneva the first time and in Calvin’s worst moments, the influence of Farel could be seen in the outbursts of the normally stoic Calvin.

Look at the reactions of Calvin’s contemporaries,

“Martin Bucer, along with the other Swiss Reformers, had wisely discerned that the talented young Calvin needed to be separated from Farel, whom he (Bucer) pointedly did not invite to Strasbourg.”

Did Calvin listen to his friends? Did the mature Calvin distance himself from the fiery Farel at the twilight of his ministry? Yes, but he still remained fiercely loyal to Farel till the bitter end.

One final thought:

Friends can be a blessing or a curse.

In reality, both Farel and Bucer were influential in the development of Calvin. Yet the Christian should take seriously the exhortation to avoid being in the ‘council of the wicked’ (Psalm 1:1). The influence of the caustic Farel was hindering the Frenchman from becoming like the apostle Paul, who was gentle as a nursing mother in his care of the Thessalonian believers (1 Thess. 2:7).

On a personal note, I do not have a lot of friends. Quite frankly, I do not even consider myself to be a very good friend. I am finding that the older I get, the more I long for deep, mutually-sharpening friendships. It seems like the gap between acquaintance and friend continues to widen every year I walk on this earth. Yet my closest friends are the ones that are faithful to ‘speak the truth in love’ and challenge me to ‘walk worthy of my calling’. They are concerned more for my spiritual health, then the superficial health of our relationship. Those types of friends are rare. That is the type of friend I want to be to others. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

John Calvin—A man of great discipline

These blog entries are going to be somewhat challenging because of one glaring fact: John Calvin did not like to talk or write about himself.

Here is an excerpt from the biography I am currently reading: 

“The location of Calvin’s grave is unknown, and that was the way he wanted it. Nothing would have horrified him more than the monument to the Reformation in Geneva with its enormous image of the Frenchman. He deliberately wrote next to nothing about himself and his life.
You might ask, “And yet this is the “giant” you want to write about?” You bet it is.

So what made this man great? Well….there were a lot of reasons, but what I want to focus on in the next few paragraphs is the discipline of John Calvin.

Now it should not be a shock to any student of church history that every “giant” was disciplined to a certain degree.

Theodore Beza (Calvin's spiritual son in the faith) wrote,
“He (Calvin) worked hard at his university studies and there are still trustworthy men alive today who were on intimate terms with him at Orleans and who can testify that he often stayed up till midnight to study and ate hardly any supper in his eagerness for his work. Each morning when he woke, he would stay in bed for a few moments while he recalled to mind all that he had studied the previous day and mulled it over, so to speak.”
Another biographer stated,
“An evening repast (i.e. dinner) was followed by followed study and prayers, and finally bed at nine. It may have been brutal, but it instilled in Calvin a disciplined pattern of life and work he would maintain until his death. Unless prevented by illness, the mature Calvin rose daily around four and his long work day was punctuated by prayer and simple meals.”
Every time I read these anecdotal stories I always wonder, “What will my kids or my closest friends say about me?”

Will they remember me as a man of discipline, a man who was driven by my devotion to Christ? I hope so.

But for me, the question I need answered is this, “What drove this degree of discipline for Calvin?”

I think the primary factors was the brevity of life and spreading the glory of God. 

It is hard for the 21st century Christian to truly grasp the regularity of death for the 16th century person. Most children did not make it to adulthood (Calvin’s only son died two weeks after birth) and therefore, time for Calvin was against him and never for him.

Invincibility is the disease of the post-modern man, but certainly not for the Renaissance man.

Calvin writes, 
“Embark upon a ship, you are one step from death. Mount a horse, if your foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there is a serpent lies hidden. Amid these tribulations must not man be more miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck.”
Was Calvin uniquely dark and morbid? No. In actuality, he is the poetic and theological voice of a generation who lived with the Grim Reaper smoking right outside their humble abodes.

So.....are you disciplined? Are you disciplined for the right reason? Does the bible speak to the concept of discipline? It does.
1 Timothy 4:7-8 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8 for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
Let me offer you one biblical principle:

All discipline should make God big and the Christian small.

Many non-Christians are disciplined. They structure the hours of the day so they can be effective and productive. This is noble. Yet, this does not mean their discipline is pleasing or meritorious before God (Romans 3:10-18; Isaiah 64:6).

The discipline of the Christian, whether spiritual or physical, must be driven by a desire to please God and to make His name great.
1 Corinthians 10:31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
This type of gospel-driven, Christ-centered, God-exalting focus gives the Christian a proper view of this present life and the life to come.

Here are a few questions to provoke some self-examination:
Are you working out to honor God or look good for others?
Are you memorizing scripture to magnify God’s name to the nations or to display your intelligence and  make a name for yourself?
Would your closest friends say that your discipline has cultivated humility or arrogance?

Now let’s flip the questions around.
Does your lack of discipline help display the greatness of God or does it diminish your gospel witness?
Are your aware that your lack of self-control is not only a sin, but reveals a heart with little or no affections for Christ, who not only saved you but sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower you to live according to His will (Rom. 12:2)?
Do you show the same indifference to other areas of your life (entertainment, hobbies, sleep, sex, food, etc.)?

John Calvin struggled to find balance in the area of discipline. Most historians believe he stripped years off his life by succumbing to the temptation of asceticism.

May I leave you with the words of King Solomon, who knew something about discipline and the dangers of living to magnify self rather than the Creator of the Universe.
Ecclesiastes 12:10-13 The Preacher (King Solomon) sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. 11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Who is John Calvin?

Born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France, Jean Calvin was raised in a staunch Roman Catholic family. The local bishop employed Calvin's father as an administrator in the town's cathedral. The father, in turn, wanted John to become a priest. Because of close ties with the bishop and his noble family, John's playmates and classmates in Noyon (and later in Paris) were aristocratic and culturally influential in his early life.

At the age of 14 Calvin went to Paris to study at the College de Marche in preparation for university study. His studies consisted of seven subjects: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Toward the end of 1523 Calvin transferred to the more famous College Montaigu. While in Paris he changed his name to its Latin form, Ioannis Calvinus, which in French became Jean Calvin. During this time, Calvin's education was paid for in part by income from a couple of small parishes. So although the new theological teachings of individuals like Luther and Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples were spreading throughout Paris, Calvin was closely tied to the Roman Church. However, by 1527 Calvin had developed friendships with individuals who were reform-minded. These contacts set the stage for Calvin's eventual switch to the Reformed faith. Also, at this time Calvin's father advised him to study law rather than theology.

By 1528 Calvin moved to Orleans to study civil law. The following years found Calvin studying in various places and under various scholars, as he received a humanist education. By 1532 Calvin finished his law studies and also published his first book, a commentary on De Clementia by the Roman philosopher, Seneca. The following year Calvin fled Paris because of contacts with individuals who through lectures and writings opposed the Roman Catholic Church. It is thought that in 1533 Calvin experienced the sudden and unexpected conversion that he writes about in his foreword to his commentary on the Psalms.

For the next three years, Calvin lived in various places outside of France under various names. He studied on his own, preached, and began work on his first edition of the Institutes—an instant best seller. By 1536 Calvin had disengaged himself from the Roman Catholic Church and made plans to permanently leave France and go to Strasbourg. However, war had broken out between Francis I and Charles V, so Calvin decided to make a one-night detour to Geneva.

But Calvin's fame in Geneva preceded him. Farel, a local reformer, invited him to stay in Geneva and threatened him with God's anger if he did not. Thus began a long, difficult, yet ultimately fruitful relationship with that city. He began as a lecturer and preacher, but by 1538 was asked to leave because of theological conflicts. He went to Strasbourg until 1541. His stay there as a pastor to French refugees was so peaceful and happy that when in 1541 the Council of Geneva requested that he return to Geneva, he was emotionally torn. He wanted to stay in Strasbourg but felt a responsibility to return to Geneva. He did so and remained in Geneva until his death May 27, 1564. Those years were filled with lecturing, preaching, and the writing of commentaries, treatises, and various editions of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

— Dr. Karin Maag, H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies

Friday, March 9, 2012

The two most important things I learned from Jonathan Edwards

This is the last blog post on Jonathan Edwards.

He (as with most of the “giants”) has been influential in “cementing” my theological foundation. There are two areas in particular that Edwards has helped bring me clarity; 1) the nature of free will and 2) the nature of “religious affections”.

First, Edwards’ statement regarding the nature of “free will”. 

“Free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice.”
Why did this seemingly obvious statement transform my thinking? Well, mainly because it came from the mouth of a staunch Calvinist.

Since the bible teaches that God had ordained everything, even the steps we take in this life (Prov. 16:9), the issue of free will is a normal concern for any thoughtful person, especially for any Christian who desires to embrace the biblical teaching of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Edwards, through the lens of the doctrine of original sin, makes a clear case for the necessity of free will. But here is the important footnote: Though our choices are always authentic, they are always connected to our nature.

In other words, the person who is NOT a follower of Jesus has a natural bent towards sin and self, because he (or she) is dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-2). This person makes a free choice, but it will always be according to their nature, Ephesians 2:1-3 explains:
Ephesians 2:1-3 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Perhaps a humorous personal example may bring clarity to the reader.

My wife, who is unabashedly fashion-minded, has replaced my previous wardrobe (the clothes from my pre-marriage days) with a wardrobe that she viewed as culturally appropriate (Translation: Clothes that aren’t out of date or stupid-looking).

Now if someone asked me, “Do you have the freedom to choose your clothes at the start of every day?” My answer would be, “Yes”. I choose to wear whatever I pull out of my closet. But am I totally free? Am I totally free from my wife’s fashion input, whether directly or indirectly? Well, to that question, my answer is obviously, “No”. I make genuine choices? Yes. Do I have free will? Yes. Am I totally free? No.

I am truly indebted to Edwards in bringing clarity to me on this issue. And….I am truly indebted to my wife for daily reminding me that theology is life.

Second, Edwards’ statement on the nature of “religious affections”
“And let it be considered, that they who have but little religious affection have certainly but little religion. And they who condemn others for their religious affections, and have none themselves, have no religion. These are false affections, and there are true. A man’s having much affection, does not prove that he has any true religion; but if he has no affection, it proves that he has no true religion.”
Again, this statement has additional significance to me, especially because Edwards was a Puritan and Puritans were often accused of advocating a dry, legalistic, passionless religion. This obviously did not represent Edwards and those adjectives should never describe true Christianity.

Here is Edwards’ point: No affections. No relationship with God.

Are Edwards’ insights original or innovative? Nope. He drew these truths from the authoritative word of God.
Matthew 7:16-20 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Jesus goes on to say….
Matthew 7:24-27 "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it."
If you blend these two concepts, then the reality is that a Christian will do what he (or she) wants to do and naturally, a Christian will act according to WHO is stirring their affections, which is either Christ (Phil. 1:21) or their own sinful desires (James 1:14, 4:1-3).  

Thank you, Mr. Edwards for your life and your works.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Jonathan Edwards—A man who owned slaves

In one of my previous blog posts, I addressed the topic of Charles Hodge and slavery. 

Not only was this blog post difficult to write, but I was challenged regarding my thinking and implicit agreement of Hodge's approach to the issue of slavery. 

The individual (who called himself.....or herself...."Anonymous") challenged my position by asking this question....
"Is it fair to equate the New Testament concept of slavery to the different concept of 17-19th century American slavery? Is that not comparing "apples to space-ships" (oranges)?"
Now initially, I responded to this by asserting that there is a difference, but not a fundamental difference. In other words, slavery (whether because of racism or oppression) is fundamentally wrong, mainly because humanity is made in "the image of God". 

Yet Anonymous continued with this challenge: 
"Slavery in Paul's time was fundamentally and totally different from his day and age compared to 17 - 19th centuries of American slavery which was based strictly on color of one's skin. Therefore, we must stop comparing the two (uncomparable) slavery accounts in the same category. They are fundamentally different, and we must acknowledge that the Fallacy of Equivocation occurs when one uses the same term with fundamental different meanings."

Though I hate being challenged (since I am a prideful man)....but I believe Anonymous' reasoning is correct. 

Now what is also interesting is that apparently God is not finished with me regarding this issue because I received an e-mail encouraging me to read this paper presenting by Thabiti Anyabwile on Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans. This paper was balanced, gracious and honest. I would encourage anyone to read all of it, but this blog post will just interact with Anyabwile's section on Edwards' Doctrine of Slavery. 

Here is the link to the entire document: 


Questioning Edwards’ Doctrine of Slavery 

The third way we might approach our topic is to ask: “Should Edwards’ doctrine of slavery and slaveholding be accepted by anyone today?”

This question moves the discussion from theology proper to a question of proper exegesis of certain biblical texts regarding slavery.

How did Edwards “theologize” about slavery? What doctrinal position did he take?

We have precious little regarding Edwards formal doctrine of slavery. What we do have comes from one source, a 1741 outline Edwards drafted in defense of a fellow pastor named Benjamin Doolittle. Doolittle’s congregation denounced their pastor for a range of offenses, including slaveholding. The controversy was referred to the Hampshire Association of pastors for mediation. The Association apparently assigned Edwards to offer a defense of Doolittle. The case is filled with irony since the congregants accusing Doolittle were supporters of Edwards’ view of the revivals while Doolittle himself was suspected of anti-Calvinist Arminian tendencies. The one time Edwards officially addresses slavery, he finds himself defending a slave owner who rejects his theology against a group of parishioners who support his theology.

Sherard Burns takes Edwards’ defense of Doolittle as evidence of “theological compromise” and “socially ingrained and acceptable” attitudes toward “the oppressions of Africans in America.” He continues: “The prime motivation behind Edwards’s action was the reality that he himself owned slaves. It was not that he felt a great burden against the atrocities of slavery, if indeed he knew them at all, nor that there was great desire to see the institution abolished and men gain the freedom that he and others like him enjoyed as gifts from God.” Burns views Edwards as “Driven by a dual reality—namely, that he owned slaves and knowing that a threat to the slaveholding of any one minister was a threat to the slaveholding of any minister—Edwards dismissed theological differences and defended Doolittle, the Arminian.”

Perhaps there’s another explanation for Edwards’ defense of Doolittle. After all, everything else we know of Jonathan Edwards suggests to us a man of scrupulous integrity—theological and otherwise. It seems to me that Edwards’ defense of Doolittle had little to do with slavery—in that regard, Burns is probably correct to suspect “socially ingrained” attitudes toward the institution. Rather, Edwards defended Doolittle because he saw threats to both the New Light revivalist cause and to the clergy-dominated aristocracy that ruled New England. If the parishioners could arraign and convict a pastor—of whatever theological stripe—that signaled a kind of anarchy that Puritan and aristocratic elites could not suffer.

But should we adopt Edwards’ view of slavery? Was his exegesis correct?

We might outline Edwards’ position by highlighting some things he got wrong, from our perspective, and some things he got correct, making him ahead of his time in retrospect.


• Argued that it was not in itself sinful to use one’s “neighbor’s work without wages”.
• Defended slavery as not wrong in itself.


• He condemned the Transatlantic slave trade, rejecting the idea that other nations had power or right to disenfranchise all the nations of Africa.
• He rejected the idea that Israel’s history could serve as precedent and warrant for Colonial abuse of Africa.
• He held that under the gospel God would not “wink” at unjust manstealing, but called his people to love their neighbors (writ large) as themselves.
• He explicitly denied that Africans and Native Americans were inferior in God’s eyes. He did not deny either their full humanity or the need to seek their spiritual good. He regarded them as equal to Christian nations (read, “White”) in their rights and potential.
• He regarded Africans and Native Americans as spiritual equals. He was the first pastor in Northampton to allow full communicant membership to African people.
• In the 1740s, he argued that there could be no advance in “Gospellizing” Africans until the slave trade ended.

When you consider that apart from early Quaker writings there was no abolitionist movement to speak of during Edwards’s day, it seems that Edwards was both a man of his time and ahead of his time. Still, it will not do for anyone today to take the ambivalent stance the Northampton pastor took. What Edwards got incorrect jeopardized millions of African Americans who lived in the wake of his life. Edwards attempted to thread a needle between ending the Transatlantic slave trade, on the one hand, and supporting the domestic servitude of Africans on the other. When he wrote the congregation in defense of Doolittle, he chided them for their hypocrisy, for condemning slavery but enjoying the fruits of slave economy. Perhaps it’s fitting to simply state: It takes a hypocrite to know a hypocrite. Or, more charitably, Edwards saw the inconsistency of others more clearly than he saw his own in this case.

The only way to resist evil is to be consistently and completely against it. There can be no compromise with evil and injustice. Perhaps Edwards would have developed more completely had he lived longer and reflected more. Again, we only have a fragment of his thoughts on this issue. But given what we do have, we have enough to say that exegetically there was more to say than Edwards said. And pastorally, there was more opportunity to say it than Edwards took advantage of. At this point, he failed to be prophetic, even if his fragmentary thoughts show evidence of being ahead of his time.

Again, our doctrine of slavery is no distant historical and sociological curiosity. Today, slavery ranks behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking as the third largest international crime industry. Modern day slavery is believed to generate profits of an estimated $32 billion, according to a 2005 report from the International Labour Organization. Of that number, $15.5 billion is made in industrialized countries.


So, Anonymous...I dedicate this blog post to you. I may never see you on Earth, but I am confident I will see you in Heaven. Until then, my friend.