Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sunday morning and the first of October. It is till very warm in October not the weather I used to associate with this time of they year. Next week is our Harvest Festival! Today I post the text of the first of my radio talks on Calvin.

Talk One: Calvin

This year is the anniversary of the birth of one of the most influential Christian theologians. The 500th anniversary to be precise. His influence has been immense and reaches far beyond the Church. Indeed, some credit the movement that he gave rise to with being the source of modern capitalism. His name? John Calvin.

John Calvin was a 16th century French theologian who alongside such people as Zwingli and Luther worked for the reform of the Church in Europe. Calvin and those like him believed that the Church had become corrupt and infected with error. He is particularly associated with Geneva where he worked and was based for many years.

Originally from France, he was heading for a career in law when he was converted to the cause of those protesting against the state of the Church. It is, of course, from this protest that we get the word ‘protestant’. He never sought fame, indeed, it was an accident that saw him drafted to the protest and the cause of reform although for Calvin there was nothing accidental about it. He felt God was calling him.

Calvin’s influence was to be far more lasting than that of the other reformers. For Calvin was the theologian par excellence of the reformation. He is a theologian whose thought and writings continue to be of influence even today. Calvin wrote profusely. He lectured. He preached. He wrote a commentary on almost every book of the Bible. He preached at one time 5 sermons a week, many of which are still in print. His letters fill many volumes.

Calvin himself was a deeply humble man and insisted that upon his death he be buried in an unmarked grave so that the place of his burial could not become a shrine. After his death, though, his writings and theology were to have a profound effect on the Church throughout the world and not just in Europe. The 39 Articles of the Church of England, which are the theological foundation of the Anglican Church, are deeply indebted to Calvinism – embarrassing though this may be to Anglicans today who do not always wish to acknowledge their indebtedness to him.

Why should anyone be embarrassed to be connected with such a theological giant and genius? Well, even in his own day Calvin was a controversial figure as well as an influential one. After his death, he attracted many critics as well as many admirers. And it has to be said that he has not always been well served by his followers. Calvinism has acquired the image of a hard, austere, demanding and often joyless form of Christianity. And it has to be said, there is some truth in the accusation.

In Scotland, where I ministered before coming to Hong Kong the dominant form of Christianity owed much to Calvinism and it could be very judgemental and exclusive. No matter how sincere its adherents may have been.

Despite this, I confess to being one of Calvin’s admirers. I may not always be drawn to Calvinism and those who claim to be following Calvin, but Calvin himself is one of my theological heroes. This is not to say that I agree with everything Calvin said and did. I am not even sure had I met Calvin I would have particularly have liked him. I am almost certain he would not have liked or approved of me. But there is in Calvin and his writings a profound theology that transcends such considerations of personality and celebrity.

Christians are called to follow Christ. Knowing how to do so, can at times be difficult and challenging. The New Testament tells us that one of the gifts of God to his Church is that of a teacher. All human teachers have their faults and weaknesses. No-one is infallible – a sentiment that Calvin would certainly have agreed with. But we do well to value the gifts of God and hear what he is saying to us through his servants. The wisdom of people like Calvin is something we can still learn from today.

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