2009 is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birthday. The World Reformed Churches are having many remembrances and celebrations. Calvin was the leader of the Protestant Refomation in the Swiss canton in which Geneva was located. The City of Geneva has had great influence upon the larger world. Certainly, one of its chief persons was John Calvin, the French lawyer and theologian whose writings shaped the intellectual life and piety of the western world.
I remember my first visit to Geneva in 1969. As it happened Pope Paul VI was visiting Geneva at the same time. A pope had not visited the city since before the 16th century Refomation. It was a historic visit. I was glad to be there and at least to watch the outdoor mass in the public park via television. My wife and I had just come from Rome and our first visit to St. Peter’s Basilica at the center of the Vatican. Calvin’s church in Geneva was named St. Peter’s. It is a beautiful small church compared to St. Peter’s in Rome. It had been transformed into a lecture hall in which John Calvin daily taught the Word of God, the Scriptures, to his assembled congregation. Every vestige of Roman Catholicism had been stripped from the building. After seeing St. Peter’s in Rome it was a let down for some one looking for great religious art. Yet, the building had its own simple integrity and theological witness. From there Calvin sought to transform Geneva into a holy commonwealth. His passion for the the living Word, witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, through the written Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, was Calvin’s signature contribution. With Martin Luther he stood upon the Word of God in the midst of a troubled Europe. He could do no other. What amazed me was that John Knox was pastoring an English speaking congregation of international refugees just across the square. As a Presbyterian pastor I felt like I was at ground zero of my theological heritage.
During 2009 many are systematically reading Calvin’s Insitutues of the Christian Religion. Five pages a day makes it possible to work through both large volumes in a year. I have embraced this daily discipline. I am finding it to be enriching for my spiritual formation and life in Christ.
Calvin possessed an in-depth understanding of human nature and the human condition based upon the authority of the Bible. In Book III. 7. 8. he wrote,
“In seeking either the convenience or the tranquillity of the present life, Scripture calls us to resign ourselves and all our possessions to the Lord’s will, and to yield to him the desires of our hearts to be tamed and subjugated.”
Why? because humans are basically covetous and greedy. We covet wealth, honors, authority, and riches. Our lust is mad and our desires are boundless. On the other hand, we are motivated by the fear of falling into poverty and a lowly condition. Therefore, we anxiously strive for prosperity and happiness. Whatever the outcome, Calvin counseled, the Christian disciple must deal with these desires and fears. Self-denial and surrender to God’s providence and provision, Calvin argued, are the pathway to true spiritual happiness. The believer comes to trust that God’s good purpose is at work conforming us to the image of Christ. God provides, not fortune! So in prosperous or meager times the disciple trusts that God is good. Out of this comes peace of mind and heart.
During the economic recession of 2009 Christian disciples are learning to trust God’s providence. Perhaps it is a time of trial or testing that God is graciously using to shape our character so as to prepare us for the New Creation. Calvin had to learn this over and over again during his long ministry in Geneva. All was not always smooth. There was suffering and testing. He taught his congregation to patiently endure and to faithfully live, whatever the circumstances. Reformed Christians need very much to reconsider what Calvin teaches us of this biblical truth. Peace to us all.
Dr. Jerry Tankersley