Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

This Day in Church History: Birth of John Calvin

calvin.jpg10 July 1509, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) was born in Nyon, France.  As one might suspect of someone like me (raised in a family of Methodists, pietist in orientation, student of Menno Simons and the General Baptist, Richard Overton, student of the Arminian Baptist Dale Moody), I am not the huge fan of Calvin that many are.  His violence and his persecution of Anabaptists (not to mention heretics like Servetus) and his fusion of church and state are huge deficits in my book.  Still, I like Calvin better than I like most of his enthusiastic followers, especially those at and following the Synod of Dordt!  Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, while far from perfect in my view, has a very pastoral tone and must be ranked among the classics of Christian theology. Anyone, no matter how anti-Calvinist they are, will profit from reading the Institutes with an open mind.

I appreciate Calvin even more as an exegete.  He wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible and, although they are pre-critical, they are as informed by historical and linguistic study as it was possible to be at the time.  Further, as is very evident in his commentary on Hebrews, Calvin worked hard to let the text speak and not superimpose his dogmatic theology on what he was reading in the text before him–an amazingly humble attitude before Holy Scripture.  I also greatly appreciate Calvin’s refusal to write a commentary on Revelation because, as he admitted, he didn’t understand it! Think how much grief both the Church and the world would have been spared if so many others who didn’t understand Revelation were as humble and followed Calvin’s example!! We might have been spared the heresies of Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism, at least–not to mention the number of good trees that wouldn’t have had to die for the horrible Left Behind novels.

This appreciation may seem to some to be “damning with faint praise,” but that is not my intention.  My appreciation for Calvin is sincere–even if more limited than some others would want.

July 10, 2007 - Posted by | church history, theology


  1. I am enjoying your blog, Michael. I share in your selective appreciation for Calvin, particularly his commentaries. His humility in not commenting on Revelation impresses me. So many today find the prospect of “unlocking the code” simply irresistible.

    I was shocked to come across a Southern Baptist blogger recently signing off his posts “From the Southern Baptist Geneva.” When I inquired about his intentions–that is, are you intending to harken back to the horrific theocratic failure that was Calvin’s Geneva?–the man said I understood him perfectly (!). The thought of a Baptist (of any sort) championing the tradition of Calvin’s Geneva is frightening and bizarre in the extreme. We (Baptists) were the hunted and the magisterial reformers (like Calvin), the hunters. How on earth did Calvin, leader of Geneva, become a hero?

    Anyway, thanks for a great, informative blog.

    Grace and peace,


    Comment by Emily Hunter McGowin | July 10, 2007

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Emily. I shall have to check out your blog–love the title! Calvin’s (selective) influence on Baptists goes back almost to our beginnings, but there has been an unfortunate super hero worship of even his darker side in some (especially Southern) Baptist circles, lately. It’s frightening.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 10, 2007

  3. I have always wondered how some Baptists claimed to be Calvinist when Calvin advocated infant baptism.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | July 10, 2007

  4. Hi Michael,
    I have a son named Calvin… and just like you, we are Baptists, too. So I guess, Christianity is indeed full of paradoxes and reversals. 🙂

    I enjoyed reading your post. There are some new neat things I have learned about Calvin, especially his humility as an exegete.

    About the novels regarding being left behind (and the waste of cutting all those trees), I share your sentiments. There must be a better way of presenting eschatology other than that. I guess, the pull of the Benjamin$ far outweighs all — even if it means exposing the church to bad theology.

    Comment by Ptr. Mhac | July 10, 2007

  5. Well, in THAT regard, Jonathan, all Baptists depart from Calvin. Incidentally, I never could get Wesley’s view of faith to fit infant baptism–and that was one factor in my quitting confirmation classes at age 12–the first step on my long road to (Ana)Baptist views. Infant baptism fits better with Calvin’s covenant theology and predestination than with Wesleyan-Arminian soteriology.

    The earliest Baptists (begining 1609-1611 among English exiles in Amsterdam who were influenced by Dutch Mennonites) were Arminians and later came to be called General Baptists because of their view of the atonement. Calvinistic Baptists arose in London and Rhode Island nearly simultaneously 1638-1642 (influenced by Dutch Collegiant Mennonites and by Menno’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine)and came to be called Particular Baptists because they held that the atonment only worked for particular elect individuals. So, not even Calvinistic Baptists were ONLY influenced by Calvin–and, later, revivalism and missions modified the Calvinism of Particular Baptists, too.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 10, 2007

  6. Hey.

    Thanks for the reminder on Jean’s birthday. He’s one my favorite theologians, interpreters of scripture. I am ever-so-slowly working my way through a thesis on his use of John Chrysostom.

    Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Tripp | July 10, 2007

  7. The Wesleys did not alter the Anglican sacramental theology they inherited, although they did enrich the eucharistic theology through Charles’ wonderful hymns. Wesley continued the Anglican belief about baptismal regeneration, although he taught that it could be “sinned away.” So, the fact that Wesley rejected the Calvinist belief in the necessary perserverance of the saints actually helped his baptismal theology. Most Methodists today see infant baptism as one way to witness to a Wesleyan belief in prevenient grace. Interestingly enough, my theology teacher, the British Methodist Geoffrey Wainwright, has advocated a position of adult baptism as normative. Incidentally, I think the Yoder book, Body Politics, which you referenced the other day (and which was originally published by the United Methodist Discipleship Resources), actually came from some lectures at Duke that were given at the invitation of Geoffrey Wainwright — I think. So, high-church Methodism and AnaBaptism can overlap in some interesting ways, though they obviously are different. A precocious 12 year old!

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | July 10, 2007

  8. See, Jonathan, the baptismal regeneration part has to stand in tension with Wesley’s insistance that faith is a personal act of free wiil. Even in Wesley’s Standard Sermons (my father, a lay-preacher, had a copy) there were two accounts of faith and salvation.

    BTW, I knew about Wainwright’s view of adult baptism. I met him at Seminary when he came for a series of lectures. Very cool guy.

    Tripp, thanks for stopping by.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 10, 2007

  9. […] Born yesterday … an important man at The Levellers. […]

    Pingback by Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Morning Highlights | July 11, 2007

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