Tag Archives: John Calvin

What Caused the Reformation?

presswork

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  This “birthday” places the birth of the Reformation on October 31st, 1517 — the date Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  One might quibble about the dating.  The Reformation can’t really be compared to a baby being born.  There were a string of events and historical processes that contributed to the movement, and some of these predated 1517.  But, for the sake of convenience, we can run with the 1517 date and celebrate God’s goodness in bringing his Church back to the gospel.  Over the coming months, I hope to have a number of Reformation-related posts.

I want to begin today with considering the question:  what caused the Reformation?  Someone might say, “It’s obvious:  God caused the Reformation.”  As true as that is, it is not a very helpful answer.  We know that God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.  So, what means did God use to bring about the Reformation?

When it comes to such questions, historians sometimes refer to sufficient and necessary causes (or conditions).  Sufficient causes produce the event.  They inevitably cause the event to occur.  Necessary causes are things that had to be present in order for the event to occur, but by themselves don’t produce the event.  The illustration often used is of matches and fire.  What caused the fire?  The necessary causes would be the presence of the match and the presence of a surface on which to strike the match.  The sufficient cause would be a person taking the match and actually striking it.  I want to focus on three necessary causes of the Reformation.  These were things that had to be present before the Reformation could really ignite and set Europe aflame with gospel renewal.

The first is printing technology.  The movable-type printing press appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century, but it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that this technology came into its own.  Printers finally became proficient at producing mass quantities of books.  Moreover, on the eve of the Reformation, a process for manufacturing paper in a cost-effective way is perfected.  Potential for mass quantity plus cheaper paper equals the possibility of literature available to a wider scope of the population.  Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers produced literature that took advantage of this technology.  Their writings went far and wide, spreading the gospel hope.  Without advances in printing technology, the Reformation would not have occurred.

But these advances would have meant nothing if people continued producing literature in Latin.  The second necessary cause is the proliferation of literature in the native tongues of Europe.  Even outside of theology, writers started putting out books written in German, French, English, Dutch, and so on.  Works were still written in Latin (even into the eighteenth century), but these were specialist writings geared to academics.  Right before the Reformation, however, books were being written in the vernacular for non-academics.  The Reformation became a populist movement by capitalizing on this development.  For example, the 95 Theses were originally written in Latin — after all, Luther desired an academic debate.  However, they were soon translated into German.  Eventually, many of Luther’s writings were first written solely in German.  The Reformation took off because of people like Luther writing in German, Calvin writing in French, and so on.  Of course, of all writings appearing in the vernacular, the most powerful of all was the Word of God.  Finally, people could read for themselves what Scripture says in their own language — and that was gospel dynamite.

However, that assumes that people can read.  That brings me to the last necessary cause:  the rise of education and literacy in Europe.  Prior to the 1500s, literacy was reserved for a select few.  Stories are told of royalty that did not know how to read.  There were parish priests who were functionally illiterate — they would have memorized just enough Latin to carry out their duties.  But coming into the 1500s, this begins changing.  By 1517, literacy was still not what it is today, but it had improved and it continued improving.  In fact, because of the Reformation emphasis on the importance of reading the Scriptures, wherever the Reformation took hold, educational improvements followed.  Schools were established and literacy was expected to be the norm rather than the exception.  Without improvements in literacy, however, we would not even be talking about the Reformation as one of the great events in history.

I have described three necessary causes for the Reformation:  printing technology, vernacular literature, and literacy.  Yes, there are more necessary causes that could be mentioned, but those three are among the most important.  Without them, there would have been no return to the Scriptures, no return to the gospel.  In his providence, at just the right time, our sovereign God brought these developments into being and thus prepared the way for a recovery of his saving truth.  We see his hand in it all and praise him for it!

 


Calvin: “A false and dangerous make-believe”

“Let us ask those who possess nothing but church membership, and yet want to be called Christians, how they can glory in the sacred name of Christ?  For no one has any communion with Christ, but he who has received the true knowledge of him from the word of the gospel.  The apostle denies that anyone actually knows Christ who has not learned to put off the old man, corrupt with deceitful lusts, and to put on Christ.  External knowledge of Christ is found to be only a false and dangerous make-believe, however eloquently and freely lip servants may talk about the gospel.  The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life…It is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul, and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.  Let nominal Christians cease from insulting God by boasting themselves to be what they are not, and let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ, their master.”

John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the Christian Life (quoted by Paul R. Schaefer Jr. in The Spiritual Brotherhood, 58).


Calvin’s Prayer Following His Lecture on Ezekiel 3:18-20

John Calvin

This coming Sunday we have the ordination/installation of office bearers at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church.  I plan to preach on the well-known passage of Ezekiel 3:16-21, where the prophet is appointed a watchman over Israel.  As part of my preparation, I was reading John Calvin’s commentary on these verses.  He has some very good insights and application.  However, what really struck me was his prayer.  The material in this commentary was originally delivered in the context of weekday lectures or sermons in Geneva.  Before starting, Calvin typically prayed the following:

Grant us, LORD, to meditate on the heavenly mysteries of your wisdom, with true progress in piety, to your glory, and our edification.  Amen.

Then after each lecture/sermon, he would have a prayer suited to the particular verses he’d been expounding.  The English translation of Thomas Myers (later republished by Baker) includes Calvin’s prayer after Ezekiel 3:18-20.  Unfortunately, it leaves a bit to be desired in terms of readability.  With the help of some friends who are far more proficient at Latin than I am, I hereby offer this improved translation:

O Almighty God,

You appoint the ministers of your doctrine. You raise them up, watchmen over us. You do so on the condition that they be vigilant for our safety. Therefore, grant that we also may be attentive to their instruction, and avoid that double destruction through our own fault, by error and obstinacy. But if we should happen to wander, may we at least, having been held back, come to our senses and so return into the right way, never to desert it again. May we persevere unto the end, that we may eventually enjoy that eternal blessedness which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Mockingjay and Reformed Political Theory

Mockingjay

At the moment, the third installment of the Hunger Games series continues to dominate box office sales.  Mockingjay (Part 1) continues the story of Katniss Everdeen as she struggles against the tyrannical Capitol.  I have written about the first installment before, providing the (tongue-in-cheek) “definitive Christian review.”  The latest installment provides even more food for thought.  In fact, Mockingjay provides a powerful illustration of a particular aspect of Reformed political theory.

It has to do with resistance against tyrants.  We can take John Calvin as an example of the theory in writing.  Part of the fourth book of Calvin’s Institutes is taken up with how Christians should view the state.  Calvin also lays out the responsibilities of magistrates.  Almost at the very end, he deals with the question of what should be done with tyrannical rulers.  If you have a king who is sadistic, unjust, a persecutor, and a lover of almost every evil, should a Christian just take it?  Is there no recourse for believers?  Can they revolt?  Calvin’s answer (in Institutes 4.20.31) is that there is a proper and God-honouring way to resist and overthrow tyranny, but it still involves God-given authority.  Calvin’s position is that lower magistrates not only can, but must do what they can to overthrow tyrannical higher rulers.  Says Calvin,

…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.

In other words, lower magistrates are actually obliged to resist tyranny and overthrow it if necessary.

A classic illustration of this is found in the Dutch Revolt.  During the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish were in control of what we today call the Netherlands and Belgium.  The Spanish were tyrannical to a fault.  They were brutally oppressive, especially towards Reformed believers.  However, Reformed folk did not take it passively.  There was a strong resistance movement and it was led by lower magistrates from across the Low Countries.  Men like William of Orange resisted the Spanish and made war against them.  Eventually, these efforts were successful and freedom was secured, at least in the northern part of the Low Countries.  Were the Dutch wrong to rebel against the Spanish?  No, it was not a rebellion in the sense of overthrowing authority.  Instead, it was lawfully constituted authorities leading a lawful revolt against godless tyranny.

We see the same thing happening in Mockingjay (Part 1).  President Snow and the Capitol are clearly tyrannical.  They oppress the districts and exact tribute from them (human tributes who serve for the entertainment of the Capitol).  But there is a revolt underway and it takes place under the auspices of District 13.  District 13 was thought by many to have been obliterated.  It turns out that the district still exists and has a strong internal government led by President Coin.  President Coin is leading the revolt against the Capitol.  Consequently, from a Reformed perspective, the revolt portrayed in Mockingjay is a lawful endeavour.  In fact, President Coin is doing what she is obliged to do.  It would be wrong for her not to revolt against the Capitol.  I doubt Mockingjay intends to illustrate “Calvinist resistance theory,” but it does so nonetheless, at least to a certain degree.  To illustrate it fully, the characters involved would have to commit their cause to God and seek to carry it out for his glory.  Regrettably, the world of Katniss Everdeen, even in District 13, is a godless and unbelieving society.  All there is in the world portrayed is the horizontal plane.   Therefore, the illustration only works to a point.

Tyranny is always a threat.  We would be naive if we thought that we or our descendants will never be faced with it again.  If we should come to live under the jackboot of some oppressive, tyrannical power, how should we respond?  Because of our history, Reformed believers have given extensive thought to this question and we have an answer readily at hand.  We should never passively accept tyranny, but at the same time we must never reject authority.  This is why it is crucially important for Christians to be involved in politics.  We need believing people in positions of authority, not only for the influence they bear now, but also for the leadership they can provide if and when tyranny must be resisted and overthrown.


Ecclesiology of the New Calvinism

Creature-of-the-Word

I recently finished reading a book entitled Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church.  Authored by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, this book could be considered a popular introduction to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church).  The authors are associated with New Calvinism (a.k.a. Young, Restless, and Reformed) and even might want to describe themselves as being ‘Reformed.’

There are many good things to say about this book.  Chief among them would be the way in which the authors argue that biblical churches need to be focussed on the Saviour in every aspect of their existence.  The authors have a high view of Scripture and that leads them to see rightly many aspects of the doctrine of the church.  For example, they argue for the centrality of preaching and the necessity of biblical church discipline.  As I was reading Creature of the Word, there were several times where I had to stop and share with my Facebook friends some of its excellent insights.

And yet this book also highlighted for me some significant differences between confessionally Reformed churches and the New Calvinism.  While there are many things we can appreciate about this movement, there are also points of departure.  They call themselves Calvinists, and in terms of the doctrine of salvation they are.  However, I’m quite confident that Calvin would not want his name associated with this book.  Let me highlight the main problems under three headings.

The Beginning of the Church

In the first chapter of the book, the authors make a distinction between Israel and the church.  They write, “In Acts 2, the Word of God formed a people yet again” (14).  Shortly thereafter, they write, “God spoke to Abraham and created Israel; and in the same way, God created the Church through the proclaimed gospel of the revealed Word, Jesus Christ” (15).  In case there should be any doubt, consider this question they ask, “What makes the Church able to succeed where the Israelites so often failed?” (16).  It is quite evident that the authors take an approach where Israel and the church are considered as separate entities.  With this view, the Church only comes into existence in the New Testament era.  This is a common view, influenced by dispensationalism, but it is not the Reformed view of the church.

The Reformed view can be found in this line from article 27 of the Belgic Confession:  “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal king who cannot be without subjects.”  This is a fine piece of logical argument and it likely came into the Belgic Confession via the influence of John Calvin.  He mentions the same argument in one of his sermons on the ascension of Christ.  The argument is simple and biblical:

Premise one:  Christ is an eternal king

Premise two:  By definition, a king needs to have subjects

Conclusion:  Christ the king has always had subjects.  Those subjects are those whom he has gathered into his church.

This view is not only found in Calvin and the Belgic Confession.  It’s also in the Heidelberg Catechism.  In answer 54, Reformed believers confess that “the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life.”  The church begins in Genesis, not in Acts.  This has always been the position of Reformed churches.  The position of Chandler et al. actually has more in common with Anabaptism than historic Calvinism.

The Membership of the Church

The vast majority of the New Calvinists are Baptists.  Even though they don’t use the word ‘Baptist’ in the name of their church, these New Calvinists adopt a Baptist perspective when it comes to the membership of the church.  Creature of the Word reflects that same perspective.  The membership of the church is made up of baptized believers only.  The children of believers are not included.  Now interestingly, Creature of the Word does have a chapter on ministry to children and there are many good things written there.  The authors emphasize how “moral training” should not be the goal or modus operandi of church ministry to children.  Instead, the focus needs to be on the gospel.  That’s an excellent emphasis.  However, it could be sharpened dramatically if the children are regarded as covenant children, members of the church.  Then the children can be addressed on the basis of their already existing covenant relationship to God and urged to the way of life within that relationship.

Certainly, it has always been the position of confessionally Reformed churches that all the children of believers are real members of the church.  In answer 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess, “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation.”  Calvin wrote in the Institutes (4.16.5), “But if the covenant still remains firm and steadfast, it applies no less today to the children of Christians than under the Old Testament it pertained to the infants of the Jews.”  Though the New Calvinists might want to take the name of Calvin, Calvin himself would strongly disavow any effort to exclude children from the membership of the church.

The Worship of the Church

Creature of the Word has an entire chapter about worship.  Again, many good and true things are said in this chapter.  Things like this:

A church worshipping as a Creature of the Word doesn’t show up to perform or be entertained; she comes desperate and needy, thirsty for grace, receiving from the Lord and the body of Christ, and then gratefully receiving what she needs as she offers her praise – the only proper response to the God who saves us. (42)

However, there is also something deeply ironic here.  While the book is entitled Creature of the Word,  there is nothing in this chapter about how or whether the Word directs our worship.  Early in chapter two, the authors discuss the first commandment and the fact that we are commanded to worship God, but they entirely miss the second commandment, the one about how we are to worship God.  This is more typical of broader American evangelicalism than it is of Calvinism, of the confessionally Reformed faith.

Listen to what the Heidelberg Catechism says about how we are to worship in answer 96:  “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  The Creature of the Word must abide by the Word alone in her worship!  We call this the regulative principle of worship and it is a mainstay of Reformed liturgical teaching.  It is sometimes mistakenly rooted in the teachings of John Knox and the Puritans.  The reality is that Knox (from whom it passed to the Puritans) learned it in Geneva from Calvin.  In article 17 of his Confession in Name of the Reformed Churches of France, Calvin wrote:  “…if we would render a well regulated and acceptable sacrifice, we hold that it is not for us to invent what to us seems good, or to follow what may have been devised in the brains of other men, but to confine ourselves simply to the purity of Scripture.”  This is foundational for a Reformed approach to worship.

Conclusion

I liked many things about this book.  It’s a fresh, helpful, and often biblical approach to the doctrine of the church.  There are many things that a confessionally Reformed reader can appreciate and I wish I could recommend it wholesale.  However, no one should think that this is fully representative of the biblical Reformed faith as handed down by the Reformation.  There are some commonalities, but there are also significant differences and departures.  While we can learn from some of the good emphases in Creature of the Word, we can also urge the authors to more carefully study the heritage of the Reformation and search the Scriptures with a Berean attitude to see whether Calvin and the Reformed confessions have perhaps been too easily dismissed on some of the important points mentioned above.