Calvin and the Christian Calling

By McGrath, Alister | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Calvin and the Christian Calling


McGrath, Alister, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


The sixteenth century was a period of tumultuous change in Western Europe. The need for some kind of moral and intellectual shake-up within the church had been obvious for some time. Many religious and political writers of the fifteenth century had been aware of the weaknesses of the medieval church and the society in which it was embedded. However, there are good reasons for thinking that few were really prepared for the radical events of the sixteenth century, which are generally referred to collectively as "the Reformation."

The Reformation remains of central importance for Christian theology and the life of the Christian church. As the discussion of the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" document has made clear, the theological agenda of the Reformation remains of continuing importance to modern Christianity, particularly in the United States. The Reformation raised issues that remain live issues today--questions such as "How am I saved?" or "How do I recognize a true church?" Although modern academic theology prefers the mystical world of Baudrillard's praxis of location and the semiotics of a post-Saussurean world of self-referencing signifiers, it is clear that the issues raised by the Reformation simply will not go away. Nor should they be allowed to. They remain essential if the churches are to retain their identity as Christian bodies.

In taking a retrospective look at the second millennium, it is therefore both inevitable and entirely proper to explore the continuing impact of the Reformation, particularly concerning religion and public life. Three figures would immediately suggest themselves as candidates for discussion. Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) represent the first phase of the Reformation, John Calvin (1509-64) the second.

It is easy to understand why the editors of FIRST THINGS chose Calvin for their purpose. Calvin's task can be thought of as consolidation rather than initiation. The first phase of the Reformation focused on issues relating to personal salvation and the need for reform in the life of the church. Although Calvin never lost sight of these themes, he is perhaps best remembered for his detailed exposition of the leading themes of the Reformed faith in his Institutes of the Christian Religion--widely regarded as the most significant religious work of the sixteenth century--and his wrestling with issues concerning the identity of the church and its place in public life. This second aspect of his thinking developed against the all-important background of the life of the city of Geneva, which can be thought of as the laboratory within which Calvin forged his new ideas.

Calvin has excited a variety of responses, both from those who read him and from those who only read about him. He has been the object of much attention from theologians, church leaders, and historians. Some of that attention has been uncritical and laudatory; in that view, Calvin is the man who got (virtually) nothing wrong. For others, Calvin was the "dictator of Geneva," a personally unattractive person who got (virtually) nothing right. Neither approach is of much value in understanding the man and his legacy.

Although Calvin is widely regarded as Swiss (did he not work in Geneva?), it needs to be made clear from the outset that he was French. Born in 1509 in the city of Noyon, northeast of Paris, he was baptized as "Jehan Cauvin." His father intended his son to have a career in the church, and took what steps were necessary to secure this. At some point in the 1520s, Calvin went to the University of Paris to study arts, his intention being to proceed to study theology, where it is generally thought that he became acquainted with at least some of the leading ideas of Lutheranism. Calvin's original career plan went awry, though not on account of his personal religious views. His father appears to have become embroiled in a financial scandal at Noyon, making an ecclesiastical career problematical for Calvin.

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