Calvin: Man for the Mainline
"This great project, theology, which for so many centuries was the epitome of thought and learning, the brilliant conceptual architecture of western religious passion, entirely worthy of comparison with any art which arose from the same impulse, has been forgotten, or remembered only to be looted for charms and relics and curiosities," Robinson laments.
Though it seems arcane to many today, Calvin's theology is not so unusual, Robinson maintains. Indeed, it brings comfort to the Christian soul.
"For Calvinism, we are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace," Robinson writes. "This is a harsh doctrine, but no harsher than others, since Christian tradition has always assumed that rather few would be saved, and has differed only in describing the form election would take. It might be said in defense of Christianity that it is unusual in a religion to agonize much over these issues of ultimate justice, though in one form or another every religion seems to have an elect. The Calvinist model at least allows for the mysteriousness of life. . . . The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain."
But this is not the Calvin who incoming seminary students initially expect to read, said Todd Billings, associate professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary. Even at this Holland, Michigan, seminary affiliated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), new students look warily on Calvin, or at least his successors. But once they read him for themselves, Billings said, Calvin is almost always more popular than modern Reformed theologians.
"For many students, reading Calvin is extremely liberating," Billings said. "Many mainline seminarians have been given caricatures about Calvin's theology, but in reading him, they encounter his thought firsthand. Most of the time, they come to love Calvin's biblical and theological insight, even as they disagree with him on some points as well."
When they head into ministry, Billings said, recent graduates report back that they are more interested than veteran RCA pastors in a Reformed and confessional identity. Though born 500 years ago, Calvin's zeal for reform lives on through his readers.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author ofYoung, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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