Talk Five: God’s love is inclusive
God is in control and God loves us in Christ. These are two of the themes that I have identified in the theology of John Calvin, the 500th anniversary of whose birth is celebrated this year. The third, and the last one in these talks that I want to focus on, is that God’s love is inclusive.
This is not, perhaps, a theme that many people would associate with Calvin’s teaching. Calvin is all too often portrayed as stern and harsh: someone more likely to exclude and reject people than include and accept them. The most controversial aspect of Calvin’s theology and the one that many think, wrongly as it happens, was his main emphasis is the idea that God chooses some and not others. As I have been trying to argue, there is much more to Calvin than this particular idea. Equally, there can be no doubt that Calvin believed and taught it as one idea amongst many.
Now whatever you may think of this idea, and I imagine that many may find it difficult, to put it mildly, there is no question that it has its roots in the Bible and in Biblical language. No-one would dispute that the word, elect, meaning chosen, is a Biblical word used in the Gospels by Jesus himself. It is used throughout the New Testament to describe those who believe.
Calvin, in other words, did not invent the idea that God’s people were chosen, he was simply trying to understand and explain it. Many before and after Calvin thought along similar lines. It may be repugnant in our own day and age when we hate the idea of anyone making decisions on our behalf and like to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our own destiny. Previous ages have been more realistic about the limits of human freedom and power.
Still, even if we don’t want to go all the way with Calvin, it is perhaps worth seeing the positive side to what Calvin is saying rather than focusing all the time on what his critics see as the negative side. Calvin asserts God’s freedom of choice. God’s choice is not dependent on human standards and is not in any way influenced by them. In fact more than this, God’s choice, challenges and contradicts human wisdom and prejudice.
To put it another way: God’s elect opposes human elites. The alternative to God choosing is us choosing, and human choice always gravitates to those who are powerful and popular, rich and connected, famous and fabulous. It is not God who rejects people, but us, even us who claim to be God’s people who follow the example and teaching of Christ.
‘Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.’ (1Corinthians -29 NRSV)
All too often we exclude people on the basis of human wisdom and prejudice. We create churches where your face has to fit if you want to belong. Calvin would encourage us not to worry about what other people think. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or socially insignificant, unconnected or uneducated, weak or ugly, it only matters what God thinks of you. But it also follows from this that all that should matter to us is what God thinks. It shouldn’t matter to us what school a person did or did not go to, how they speak or do not speak, what job they may or may not have, whether they are rich or poor. All that matters is that they belong to Christ.
This then is the teaching and theology of John Calvin: belief in an all-powerful God who loves us unconditionally in Christ and whose choice challenges the false values of power, position, and prestige embracing us – just as we are.