The last person in the world who would want us to make a big deal out of his 500th birthday is John Calvin himself. But flip some pages in this mag and you’ll see why we, along with thousands of other Christians, are doing just that during the coming year.
No, we’re not glorifying the man. He’d hate that! Calvin taught us to glorify only God.
Yet we’re ever so grateful to God for Calvin, who strove tirelessly to (re)root believers firmly into God’s good Word.
The Reformation Calvin helped lead didn’t contribute anything new to the Christian faith—no novel doctrine or teaching. It was always and only about returning to authentic Christian faith and obeying Scripture, our only reliable guide for faith and life.
What Calvin did contribute was amazing clarity and passion in explaining and applying Scripture. His commentaries (more than 30 volumes) are still among the very best.
We need not go far to glimpse Calvin’s brilliance. He begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with such a deeply biblical insight, one still bang-on half a millennium later: you can’t know yourself unless you know God, and, conversely, you can’t know God unless you know yourself.
It’s an amazing observation. Leave God out of the picture and I see myself only as an insignificant chunk of protoplasm infecting the outside of a tiny dust ball drifting annually around a mediocre star on the outskirts of one galaxy among trillions. Leave God out of the picture and I imagine myself as quite a decent chap, as decent as any fluke of three billion years of random evolution has a right to be.
It’s only by knowing God that I get the real picture: I’m at once the crown of God’s creation, his child, and also a deeply fallen, sinful person whose only chance of redemption and restoration rests in God alone.
The flip side? I can’t know God unless I know myself. How can we possibly imagine what God is like unless we see God’s image within ourselves? For example, how can we know what it means that God is love unless we experience our own capacity to love and be loved? Calvin writes, “Those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain” (Institutes I.1.1.). And unless I know how badly spoiled my own nature and thinking are because of sin, how could I possibly recognize the true nature of God’s goodness in saving “a wretch like me”?
Allow me a sweeping generalization (those who righteously reprimand me can at least agree with where it takes us): the culture of modernity that swept over Europe after the Reformation lost sight of who God was and therefore, true to Calvin’s warning, mistakenly saw ourselves as reasoning/reasonable creatures capable of creating our own earthly paradise. The post-modernity that has replaced it has lost sight of who we are—people who need Jesus—and consequently has concluded that any Higher Power of our own imagination will do just fine.
Calvin’s observation couldn’t be more relevant and crucial to our witness in this world today.
That’s why we thank God for him.