Appreciating a mentor I never met  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

My friend, Steve Froehlich, pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (Ithaca, NY) recently sent this little essay to the members of his congregation. It’s an appreciation of John Calvin (1509 – 1564). I had been thinking of writing a similar piece for a couple of reasons. One was that last year I reread Calvin’s Institutes. It stimulated my mind, warmed my heart, nourished my soul, and confirmed my faith. I have written on this blog how my spiritual pilgrimage saw me move from the fundamentalism of my childhood in a group called the Plymouth Brethren. What I moved to—intentionally and by conviction—is to choose to live in a theological and church tradition that stretches back to the work of this Reformer. The tradition is usually known as Calvinism, though Calvin rooted his thinking in the teaching of St Augustine, who rooted his in the apostolic tradition of the first century. In any case, in the spirit of refusing to reinvent the wheel, I asked Steve’s permission to post his appreciation of John Calvin here. He says what I think, only better:

Today, June 10, 2009, marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Calvin stands as one of the handful of towering saints over the past 2,000 years whose life and teaching have been used by God to shape the thinking and character of the Church and her mission in the world. Like Augustine and Aquinas before him and Jonathan Edwards and John Owen after him (imperfect men, all), he has taught us to handle God’s Word wisely that we may know God more deeply that we may live more richly to his glory. His influence has spanned nations, continents, and cultures over the last half a millennium shaping legal, economic, as well as ecclesiastical polity; and for those many ways in which he was faithful to God and helpful to God’s people, we remember and give thanks to him and to our God who graciously worked through him.

If you care to read on, allow me to encourage you to become better acquainted with Pastor John.

Calvin’s magnum opus is his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition of which was published in 1536 when he was 27 years old. Of the Institutes (by this title Calvin meant “instruction in the basics”), William Cunningham, the formidable 19th century Scottish theologian said, “The Instutatio of Calvin is the most important work in the history of theological science and has exerted the greatest and most beneficial influence upon the opinions of intelligent men on theological subjects.” D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, the magisterial Welsh preacher of the mid-20th century said, “The Institutes are in and of themselves a theological classic. No work had had a greater or more formative influence on Protestant theology. It is not always realized however that in addition to its massive and sublime thought it is written in a style that is most moving, and at times thrilling. Unlike most modern theology which claims to derive from it, it is deeply devotional. The most urgent reason why all should read the Institutes, however, is to be found in the times in which we live. In a world which is shaking in its very foundations and which lacks any ultimate authority, nothing is so calculated to strengthen and stabilize one’s soul as this magnificent exposition.” J. I. Packer of our own era regards the Institutes as the greatest resource used by God to effect the formation of his spiritual DNA. By reading and studying the Institutes, Packer recognized how God uses good theologizing to “sanctify the mind and heart and deepen one’s doctrine, devotion, and doxology all together.”

Packer identifies 5 ways that Calvin, principally through the Institutes, proved formative in the priority and personality of his own life’s work as a minister and theologian.

“Calvin showed me how to think to the glory of God. My goal became and remains to think, speak, and write if I can to the same effect as did Calvin, ever making God look greater and more wonderful and man smaller and less significant than either had seemed before the theological thought process began.

“Calvin confirmed me in my view of Holy Scripture. Despite my preconversion certainty that no educated person could treat the Bible as God’s true and trustworthy Word, after reading the Institutes I found myself unable to doubt that it was precisely that.

“Calvin changed me from a sectarian to a churchman. It was Calvin more than anyone else who made me realize that my sectarianism, like so much else about me in those days, was the juvenile immaturity of a half-baked student, and that as part of my growing up process I must exchange it for the responsible adult churchmanship that he himself modeled.

“Calvin formed me as a Bible-led rather than a system-driven systematist. Calvin regularly went to the limit of what Scripture says, arguing that nothing in the Bible is superfluous, but he would not go to one step beyond that limit, insisting that the right course now was not to try to fill gaps in our understanding by guesswork, but rather to move into adoration and praise for all that God has told us.

“Calvin led me in claiming, and reclaiming, all life for God in Jesus Christ, and valuing all goodness and beauty as his gift.”

In 1991, Packer paid tribute to his ancient mentor in a whimsical piece written for Christianity Today under the title “Fan Mail to Calvin.”

“Dear John,

“This is a fan letter, naked and unashamed, one that I have long wanted to write, even though for obvious reasons I cannot mail it to you. But public acknowledgement of one’s debts is good for the soul, and when one is a teacher of theology it is good for the church, too. I don’t know why, but Christians I meet seem to think that theologians who teach spring fully formed from the womb and work in isolation form one another—hence the ‘I am of Calvin’ / ‘I am of Finney’ / ‘I am of Pannenberg,’ which Paul would surely have nailed as pure Corinthianism.

“I wish people grasped that theologians, like other Christians, learn with the saints in the multigenerational fellowship that is the church, where mentors, pastors, and peers help us to see things see hadn’t seen before. Augustine had Ambrose; and you had Augustine, Luther, and Bucer; and I had Owen, Warfield, and you. We get to where we are by standing on others’ shoulders and benefiting from their brainwork. You were clear on that—much clearer than some of the hero-worshipers who have written books about you! No true theologian works as a one-man band.

“One thing you helped me see is where theologians really fit in. The church lives through the potency of preaching—the mystery of God’s Spirit applying God’s Word to God’s people through God’s spokesman. So the primary function of theologians is to ensure, so far as human beings can, that the Bible is explained right and applied properly. I think I only give the film version of your thought when I tell people that theologians are the church’s plumbers, water engineers, and sewage-disposal experts—back-room boys whose crucial though unspectacular job is to secure for the pulpits a flow of pure and unpolluted Bible truth. You, of course, had a larger role; you were a preaching pastor, and you educated other preaching pastors in the academy. How you managed to get through it all, especially in those grisly last years when you were dying by inches, I shall never know. But it is for your clear grasp of the theologian’s task that I admire you know.

“Another thing I learned from you was the true nature and ideal shape of what we nowadays call systematic theology. Your Institutes is a marvelous tapestry of evangelical wisdom that modeled for me the apostolic way of tying together the many strands of revealed truth about God’s grace to a sinful world. You put the sovereignty of God, the mediation of Christ, and the ministration of the Spirit right at the center; you set up the life of faith and praise as the goal; and you did not write a speculative sentence from start to finish of your 700,000 words! I would like you to know that I have had the Institutes by me for 40 years [now, nearly 60], that I keep finding fresh wisdom in its pages to a degree that is positively uncanny, and that I am very grateful.

“The way you dealt with predestination, in particular, strikes me as an all-time brilliancy. Like Paul, in Romans, you separated it from the doctrine of providence and postponed it till you had spelled out the gospel, with its bona fide, whosoever-will promises; then you brought in the truth of election and reprobation, just as in Romans 8 and 9, not to frighten anyone, but to give believers reassurance, hope, and strength. It’s a beautifully biblical and powerfully pastoral treatment.

“The irony is, as I expect you know, that in the 19th century the idea spread that all serious theologians arrange everything round a single focal thought, and yours was predestination, so they lost sight of your biblical breadth and balance and pictured you as a speculative monomaniac who pulled Scripture out of shape to make it fit a scheme of your own devising. That’s still your public image, and Biblicists like you are still called Calvinists in a way that implies they have lost their biblical footing. Such is life! I expect you’re glad to be out of it.

“With deepest respect and gratitude,

“J. I. Packer”

With the great British preacher at the turn of the 20th century I say, “I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist.” That is, with Spurgeon, I agree with Calvin’s understanding of the Scriptures, even as I agree that we follow the man Calvin no more than any other pastor or teacher who follows in the footprints of Christ and faithfully handles the Word of God. I add my voice to the words of gratitude and praise spoken by those on whose shoulders I attempt to stand.

Soli deo Gloria!

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