When the great reformer John Calvin died in 1564, he directed that no marker should be erected on his grave in Geneva. Five hundred years later, as we celebrate his birth in 1509, many exciting discussions, blogs and conferences are taking measure of his impact on Christianity.
Every year during the month of August, I try to conduct a ministry review of my own life and calling. In August of 2005, I decided that I would read Calvin's magnum opus the Institutes of the Christian Religion. To do this, I would have to read around fifty pages a day. As the summer wound down with no major holidays to observe, I eventually found myself bogged down in the minutiae of Calvin's thinking. Keeping a notebook handy, I would make two or three important notes per page. Calvin's preface to France's King Francis I was contextually important. Calvin's opening sentence of the Institutes was stunning Biblical psychology! But eventually I admitted defeat and slowly coasted to a full halt. Calvinism was easier to profess than Calvin was to read. August came to an end and so did my incomplete foray into the Institutes.
But by the grace of God, 2009 will end with the Sunday Circle basking in the glorious light of a job well done: having completed a year long focus on Calvin's Institutes as a way of celebrating his 500th birthday.
The Sunday Circle is a theological roundtable that meets on the last Sunday of the month for three hours from 5:30 until 8:30 PM. The numbers who attend are relatively small but the passion for good, Christian theology is evident. In 2008, we got our feet wet with Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology. There was too much material and we discovered that each discussion had to narrow its focus to a particular bit of theology that was found wanting in our own lives. Yet again, the bar has been raised with this year's call to study Calvin's Institutes. We could have read something easier. But how many people do you know that have read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion?
Since we don't have time to learn Latin or French and complete the assignment, we will be using Henry Bevridge's English translation. The best translation seems to be the one by McNeil. McNeil's is technically more accurate but Bevridge does communicate the passion of John Calvin. Calvin is regarded in many circles as someone who was turned in on himself. The Puritans who reveled in Calvin's theology were often described as people who loved God but hated everyone else. This somewhat distorted view can only begin to be corrected by a better understanding of the sixteenth century world in which the Reformation exploded.
Since the year 1689, tolerance as a governing social grace has evolved in the civilized world with increasing favor. Thank God for it! The intolerance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced martyrdom of the worst sort. It is difficult for us to imagine being hung, drawn and quartered. To be strangled without realizing the peace of death; to have your "Privy Parts" removed and burned before your still seeing eyes so that all might realize that you were not worthy of creation nor further procreation; to have your lungs and heart torn from your body while still gasping for air that would not come so that all might know that it was that heart that nurtured "heresy". Then and only then was one beheaded. The head was held high for all to see what happens to a person whose mind entertains unorthodox thoughts. And then, like some wild beast of the field, the body was divided up into quarters and left on a city wall for the foul of the air to diminish. As Adam Nicolson said, "To do this to a man was to make a sermon of his body."
Yes, if you were going to be a Luther or a Calvin, you would have to be certain of a well placed passion for God. In our day, Calvin can be caricatured as uptight and paranoid. But the times certainly seemed to demand it. Calvin's life prayer was, "I offer my heart to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely." The possibility existed that Calvin would have the opportunity to do just that, to preach his last sermon viscerally.
I often think of Calvin towards the close of his life still a young man in his early fifties. Frail and unhealthy from birth, confined to dictating his sermons and commentaries from bed, struck with the worst kinds of bladder stones and suffering from hemorrhoids with no relief in sight. According to Parker, he also had to endure pulmonary tuberculosis and the gout. It is not a pleasant picture. The remedy for bladder stones was a brisk ride on horseback. But that would only prove more injurious to his other malady. So he sat and suffered. At times he would throw himself into wild convulsions, fierce paroxysms, all in an attempt to pass the stones through his urethra or submit to an injection of "woman's milk through a syringe."
I think of that and then realize that I am presently older than Calvin was when he died. Yet what have I done to even compare with this offered heart of passion? Typically and reluctantly, I offer a cold and indifferent heart to God. As we struggle with Calvin's book, may his passion for Christ warm us and heal us of our postmodern malaise. I invite you to come and be a part of that struggle.