John Calvin (1509-1564)’s View on Church & State: Part 3

John Calvin (1509-1564)’s View on Church & State: Part 3

Calvin’s Concept of Theology In Determining the Church’s Role:

Calvin consistently tried to make the Scriptures, as interpreted by the Holy Spirit and experience, the source of his ideas. “Let us not,” Calvin admonished, “take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him his Word does not prompt that, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.” In the past, some have said that the sovereignty of God was Calvin’s central teaching. Many Calvin scholars argue that he did not attempt to reduce the biblical message to any one central idea; but rather appreciated and retained the biblical teachings in their complexity, affirming, for example, both human responsibility and God’s sovereign control, as well as other teachings that seem inconsistent when paired.

Calvin’s system does possess unity. Behind everything that he wrote is the idea suggested by Augustine of Hippo (345–430) that God created human beings for fellowship with himself. Lacking that fellowship, they are miserable and disoriented. Thus Calvin began his Institutes by stressing that all wisdom comes from a knowledge of God and ourselves. The God-man relationship was so fundamental for Calvin that he argued that we learn of ourselves in knowing God and vice versa.

Knowledge meant much more to Calvin than an intellectual exercise. Instead, theological knowledge requires a moral response by the whole human personality. The whole person, including mind and body, is engaged in the spiritual relationship. The one goal of that “knowing” experience is worshiping God in obedience and gratitude. Calvin also emphasized that what we know about God is strictly limited to what God has revealed. He has revealed in Scripture only what is profitable for human beings to know for a covenant relationship with him.

Consequently, Calvin taught that Christians should not engage primarily in theological speculation but moral edification. The knowledge that does not lead to piety is off course. Calvin followed his advice in explaining the biblical doctrine of predestination, giving no priority to the rules of logic or philosophic discourse. The “why” of God’s actions has not been revealed but remains a secret in his inscrutable counsel. The Christian must affirm with the Bible that God is intimately connected with the universe and that he “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11, RSV). Calvin hoped that his main contribution would guide the Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage. His theology was intended to be a worship aid. Yet he was also convinced that the worship of God must properly penetrate every aspect of societal life. To do that effectively, the church must commit itself to the maximum use of God’s gifts for service in every area of life.

Calvin’s Concept of Economy: 

Economists and Historians agree on the importance of Calvin’s contribution to economics, even if they do not agree with what that contribution was! Many economists speak of “The Spirit of Capitalism,” Some have suggested that Calvin’s attack on sure of Aristotle’s beliefs brought us into the “modern world.” Nelson suggests that there is some truth to the theories of Weber, Ashley, Hauser, and others. Still, no one has noticed that Calvin, self-consciously and hesitatingly, charted the path to the world of Universal Other-hood, where all become “brothers” in being equally “others .”Calvin’s repudiation of Theonomy, especially as advocated and practiced by the Anabaptists, is more significant than any previous theory: In demolishing the inherited exegesis of Deuteronomy, Calvin departs even farther from the medieval morality than has been suspected. In the Old Testament, God’s people generally were the Israelites. But in the New Testament, God’s promises are extended to all nations, who now make up the New Israel (Galatians 6:16), His holy nation (I Peter 2:9). But Calvin utterly reverses this expansion of the Gospel, and, beginning with the Gentile church, moves to consider the Jews. We no longer distinguish between brothers and strangers, nor do we anticipate the day when all strangers shall become brothers in the faith (Psalm 87:4-6). Instead, we follow a course of eschatological pessimism and cultural impotence, all in the name of short-term profit.

While the Bible moves from the church as the New Israel and envisions all men becoming members of the household, faith (brothers), Calvin, far from seeing a growth of the Family of God, must assert that Christians, indeed, the whole world, are now “others” or “strangers.” ‘Those economists and theologians who defend the State system of commercial credit and, in general, social indebtedness, have. turned the meaning of Deuteronomy on its head and have tossed brotherly love out the window; enslaving a brother through debt and extracting usury from him is now permitted by these theologians if done in the name of “business” or “the profit motive.” The modern interpretation sees “brother” as referring to an indigent person, while “stranger” means not “foreigner” but “entrepreneur.” In their eyes, the concern is no longer community in the household of faith but social equity. Not the New Testament but “public utility” is the criterion by which we discard the Law in the Old Testament. Surprisingly, it was Calvin who charted this course.

 Calvin’s Concept of Education and Government:

In addition to theology, two areas in which Calvin made significant contributions are Education and Church Government. The excellence of his educational training is attested by writings that have had a lasting effect on the French language. He is considered one of the creators of modern French prose. Perhaps more important, he encouraged the development of universal education. Calvin was convinced that for every person to be adequately equipped to “rightly divide” God’s Word, they had to be educated in language and the humanities. To that end, he founded an academy for Geneva’s children, believing that all education must be fundamentally religious. The city’s university grew out of the academy, linked to evangelical preaching and offering an education comparable to the finest in Europe. Some have called the University of Geneva Calvin’s “crowning achievement.”

Calvin’s ideas on church government, which have had a powerful effect on political theory in the West, are regarded by other scholars as his most significant contribution. The representative form of government he developed was organized so that basic decisions were made locally, monitored through a system of ascending representative bodies, culminating in a national “general assembly,” the final authority. At each level, power is shared with the laity, not controlled exclusively by the clergy or administrative officials. In emergencies, the local church can function without meetings of the upper-level bodies; amid a hostile culture, the church cannot be destroyed by silencing the minister. As a result, the Calvinist church could survive, even flourish, under adverse conditions. It experienced severe persecution in Holland under Spanish occupation, in France (except during brief periods of toleration), in England under Queen Mary, in Scotland, in Hungary, and elsewhere

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