July 15, 2009
Christians You Should Know – John Calvin w/Dr. Robert Godfrey
Most people who’ve heard of him dislike him yet they don’t even know why. Maybe it’s time, on his 500th birthday, we learn the true story of the pastor from Geneva, John Calvin.
Welcome to Haven Today. I’m Charles Morris sharing the great story that’s all about Jesus on a program called “Christians You Should Know – the Life of John Calvin”. In a few minutes we’ll visit with a church historian who is also the president of Westminster Seminary. From this scholar we’ll hear the true story that most of us have never fully heard regarding the reformer from Geneva. Don’t go away. All summer long we’ve been sharing the lives of Christians we should know and if you have yet to get a copy of that brand new book by Warren Weirsbe, “50 People Every Christian Should Know” be sure and check it out at haventoday.org. You can also listen to yesterday’s story of the former slave trader and the author of “Amazing Grace”, John Newton. By the way, it’s the middle of the month and just about the middle of summer in North America. May I remind you that we are listener supported? 1-800-654-2836, haventoday.org. Worship leader Charles Billingsley opens this Haven Today with a new song singing great theology called “God of the Ages”.
Song: God of the Ages
Performed by: Charles Billingsley
This is Haven Today and we’ve got a scholar on with us today who’s also the president of a seminary. Dr. Bob Godfrey is the president of Westminster Seminary California, Bob I haven’t seen you in a few years. Welcome to our program.
RG: Thank you, great to be here.
CM: You have just written a book and you’re also a church historian, PhD Stanford and you also kind of know your church history because that’s been your specialty besides running a seminary. This is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. You’ve just written a book “John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor”. I feel like the elephant is here in the room so let me just get this out on the table. Some of our listeners may never have heard of John Calvin. Some may have heard of him and that they’re supposed to hate him but they’re not sure why they’re supposed to hate him. Let’s set the scene for what was going on 520 years ago, 500 years ago. Talk to me about what we know as the Reformation.
RG: Well, 500 years ago the church had reached a place of real corruption that most serious minded folk in Europe recognized. The church had become wealthy and with that wealth had come moral corruption, physical corruption and many people felt there needed to be a real rebirth of spirituality in the church but at the same time there had been a real rebirth of learning so the people had been able to read the Bible in the original languages in a way they had not been able to do for a millennium and suddenly the Bible was making an impact and there were people like Luther who said we don’t need only a moral renewal and a spiritual renewal but we need a doctrinal renewal as well, that these things go together. And so the church at the time of Calvin’s birth was just beginning to be agitated by these things. It was really when Calvin was about 8 years old that Luther became a public figure. So Calvin is really a second generation reformer but part of this movement that sees the need for biblical, doctrinal, moral and spiritual reform of the church.
CM: And coming from Luther but then later of course Calvin was this emphasis on “sola scriptura” and the scripture was important as a rule of life and in order to meet the Lord and change one’s life too.
RG: Right. Calvin and Luther recognized that the old church was saying it really is the church and its tradition that is the ultimate authority in the life of the church and the Bible had become a somewhat subordinate authority. And the Reformation was saying the Bible needs to be the only authority in the life of the church and tradition needs to be reformed by the Bible.
Cm: It’s interesting and we’ll quickly move on to the life of Calvin, more of Calvin but actually the Reformation that brought Protestantism also brought about a reformation in the Catholic, the Roman Catholic Church, didn’t it?
RG: Absolutely and there was real moral and spiritual renewal in the Roman Catholic Church but not the doctrinal renewal that the reformers were concerned about.
CM: Tell us about John Calvin. Luther was in German. Today’s Lutheran churches owe their heritage to him. You yourself are out of the Reformed tradition. Tell us a little bit about John Calvin.
RG: Well, John Calvin was a Frenchman whereas Luther was a German. John Calvin was a somewhat shy, timid fellow who did not talk a great deal about himself whereas Luther was a kind of boisterous kind of German who was very willing to talk about himself and his experiences and his feelings. And so some people have regrettably concluded Calvin didn’t have any feelings because he didn’t talk about them all the time.
Cm: He was a wee bit shy.
RG: He was shy, timid. He really longed for the life of a scholar. That’s what he thought he ought to be and it was through a series of unexpected providences that Calvin ended up being a pastor, which was not what he wanted to be. And yet what I try to point out in this book is that he really followed God’s leading into giving his life to pastoral work and that all of his great theology was really on the side to serve his work as a pastor. So Calvin overcame his timidity to become this quite public figure in the 16th century, a leader of ultimately millions of people who were influenced by his preaching, his teaching his writing.
CM: And he was pretty much THE pastor in Geneva, Switzerland wasn’t he?
RG: Yeah, he was part of a team of pastors but he was very much the senior pastor. He set the leadership. He preached 14 times every two weeks. I mean he was very much publicly present in the pulpit and trying to shape the population of Geneva into the new religion.
CM: and I guess at the same time too Bob, he was very bright. He was always a good student, and tell us a little bit about his educational background because he came along at that transition, I think, of the medieval education and then the renaissance education.
RG: Right. AS what we would call an undergraduate his education was probably medieval but then his father wanted him to go to law school and he went off and studied in law school and had been very influenced by the new learning of his time. And then what he really wanted to be was an editor of ancient texts of Roman and Greek writers from antiquity. That’s what he thought he would like to do. His theology in a sense was largely self-taught as he studied the Bible and then studied the work of the Reformers that had preceded him.
CM: And then something happened to him, it’s on pages 29 and 30 of your book, something happened in his life along the way. He was a great student, he had great promise academically but then something else happened to him. Tell us about that.
RG: Well, during his student days he was surrounded by students reading Luther, many of them being convinced by Luther and becoming Protestants, entering into a somewhat underground church in France because the King of France was determined to stop the progress of Protestantism in France and it was dangerous to be a Protestant. And Calvin, for a long time just tried not to think about those things. He said, “I just, I want to be a scholar. I don’t want to get into this active church reform life. I’m content with the old church and I don’t want to think about it.” And then he says at one point he was suddenly converted. He doesn’t give us very many details. Scholars aren’t even sure exactly what year it happened in his life but somewhere, probably in his early 20s, he was suddenly persuaded that what he was hearing from the Reformers about the authority of scripture, about the work of Christ, about faith alone as the way to salvation clicked with him and he, as he described it, was suddenly convicted.
CM: And we only know about that through his writings later, I guess.
RG: Yes, years later he wrote a very large commentary on the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms in some way, you could argue, was maybe his favorite in the Bible. The struggles of David he saw reflecting some of the struggles of his own life so in the preface to the commentary on Psalms he opens up his life more than he does anywhere else in his writing.
CM: And he wasn’t known, being a timid person, for revealing that much of his personal life.
RG: Right, he didn’t think that the work of the pastor was to tell stories about himself. The work of the pastor was to explain the scripture to the people of God.
CM: I’ve met a few pastors who don’t like to talk about themselves.
RG: But only a few.
CM: That’s right. This by the way, if you just joined us, is Haven Today and we’re talking with Dr. Bob Godfrey, Robert Godfrey. He is the president of Westminster Theological Seminary and I think, Bob you’re a Calvinist, aren’t you?
RG: I am, I am, unapologetically.
CM: When I thought about doing this program -
RG: Although Calvin would criticize me for that because he didn’t want people named after him.
CM: Well, neither did Luther.
RG: That’s right.
CM: Well, I’ve been dying to ask a Calvin scholar this question so I’ll just throw this out to you. Was Calvin a Calvinist?
RG: Yes, Calvin was a Calvinist. Now some people, the only thing they may know about Calvin is the 5 points of Calvinism. That whole discussion, the 5 points of Calvinism came up after Calvin’s life and so that was not something Calvin was promoting as a summary of his point of view. And the 5 points of Calvinism are not a summary of Calvinism. They are 5 Calvinistic answers to 5 challenges of Calvinism. So for Calvin, the heart of Calvinism was really in the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ and the great salvation that Christ provided.
CM: Why do you think, then that historians, secular historians primarily, have criticized him as almost a tyrant? I know Durant in his famous history was highly critical of Calvin.
RG: Good historians are not so critical of Calvin. Calvin’s been accused of being a tyrant in Geneva. He’s been accused of being a cold, rationalizing theologian in a kind of inhuman way and Calvin’s been accused of being a persecutor. None of these things are true in the sense that they’re brought against Calvin but I think at the root, for many people, is a dislike of his doctrine of predestination which seems to turn people into robots in their minds. So the whole character of Calvin’s thought seems repugnant to modern secular thinking. In addition to that I think a lot of later Calvinists were so serious minded and sometimes kind of gloomy that their gloom got transferred back to Calvin but it’s not really fair to Calvin on any of those points.
CM: It’s interesting that you bring up that word, predestination. I know when I read in your book Calvin never even really talked that much about predestination did he?
RG: Well he did later in his life because he had been criticized on that point but he brought it up only because he believed the Bible taught it. He believed Paul taught it clearly in Romans 9, Ephesians 1. He said the blessing of predestination was to know that my salvation was planned by God and is accomplished by God and not even my own sinfulness can thwart God’s saving work in my life. And so he saw it as a comforting doctrine that ought to encourage Christians.
CM: And he never denied, did he, that God created a will in mankind at the same time?
RG: No absolutely. God works through our will. Our will is not forced. Our will is not violated but God renews our will which otherwise is dead in trespasses and sins.
CM: Let’s talk for a minute about some of the criticisms of him. There was this one man that Calvin is accused of having burned at the stake, Michael Servetus. Anything to that?
RG: Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva.
CM: we know that, yes.
RG: He was tried there. Calvin was not one of his judges although Calvin was the prosecutor in the trial. What I think is unfair to Calvin in this is not that we, in order to defend Calvin need to defend the persecution or execution of heretics. I think there is hardly a modern Calvinist who would think that. But we have to put it into the context of the 16th century. Servetus denied the Trinity which meant that he would be subject to execution in any country in Europe. And he came to Geneva to try to cause trouble for Calvin. He’d already been condemned to death by a Roman Catholic court in France and so the decision that was handed down in Geneva does and should offend us as moderns but in the context of the 16th century Calvin was less a persecutor than many, was in no way notably cruel or unique in his approach to these things. People were being martyred all over Europe.
CM: You know, I’ve had Roman Catholics tell me about Protestants persecuting Catholics then I’ve had Protestants telling me about persecuting the other way. I guess if you didn’t agree with the line in whatever country or city you were in at that point no matter if you were Roman Catholic or Protestant you were subject to harassment and possible persecution and prosecution I guess.
RG: Absolutely. Because almost all western thinkers, through the Middle Ages but even back to pre-Christian Roman times, all western thinkers almost believed that one single religion was necessary to unite society, that if society had 2 religions it would fall apart and so there was this strong move both on Protestants and Roman Catholics part to say we have to have one single religion in our society or we will not be united as a people. We’ll fall into chaos. And it took a long time for that fundamental thinking to be overcome.
CM: Tell me about the legacy and what contribution, because you’ve told the story of this man who was a pastor in Geneva. You’ve talked a little bit about his doctrine. I know a lot of pastors who quote Calvin, they’re not in reformed churches but they love to read him.
RG: Calvin had a great mind and he was a hard worker and he produced some of the great theology and some of the great commentaries of the whole history of the church and so those works are still a blessing to pastors who are more scholarly minded, who read widely. But I wrote this book as an introduction to the life and thought of John Calvin. Most books either focus on his life or his theology and I wanted to try to bring those two things together because at the very heart of who Calvin was, was this earnest desire to make the Gospel of Christ known and I think that’s often forgotten about Calvin. People talk about controversial aspects of his thought. They talk about his theological debates and that’s important, it’s not insignificant but we must not lose sight of the fact that at the very heart of Calvin was this passion that people might come to forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ. His favorite verse, which I think surprises many people, is John 17:3, “This is eternal life: that they might know You, Eternal God, and Jesus Christ who thou hast sent.” That’s the passion of his heart that God, the True God might be known and the True Christ and his Gospel might be known for eternal life.
CM: Wow. I didn’t know that. Thank you for sharing that. Bob I’m going to open your book to page 196 and would you mind just, a few days before he died – and he wasn’t a wealthy man although some of his detractors said he was wealthy, he didn’t die with anything, I guess – but you included in your book part of his last will and testament. Would you mind just picking 2 or 3 lines out and reading us the words of John Calvin even on his deathbed, just before he died?
RG: Well, he was very concerned to leave a legacy of testimony and he said to his fellow citizens of Geneva, “Think again and again what you owe to this church in which the Lord hath placed you and let nothing induce you to quit it. It will indeed be easy for some who are weary of it to slink away but they will find to their experience that the Lord cannot be deceived.” And he goes on to talk about what he had found in Geneva when he first came there and, but he said, “I proceeded in this work in spite of the difficulties and I’ve perceived that the Lord truly blessed my labors.” And so while not wanting to be a pastor he found in time that the Lord had blessed his work and really brought a deep knowledge of the Gospel to that city.
CM: Bob, thank you. Dr. Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary on the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin.
RG: A man who’s had such a wide and profound impact on the history of Western Civilization and on the churches in particular that it’s really appropriate that we do spend some time thinking about him in this anniversary year.
CM: Would you mind leading us in prayer right now?
RG: I’d be glad to. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank you for our Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel that draws us to his great salvation. And we thank you that through the whole history of your church that you have raised up faithful pastors and teachers to help us all understand your word and to believe. We thank you for the memory of John Calvin but above all we pray that the Gospel of Jesus Christ might be more and more known and believed and go forth in power in our time so that Christ might indeed be glorified among us and it’s in his name that we pray, amen.
Dr. Robert Godfrey, thank you for leading us in prayer and also for sharing the life story of a Christian we should know here in July 2009, the 500th birthday of John Calvin. This summer we’ve been sharing the stories of Christians all of us should know. John Calvin that you’ve just heard, George Whitefield, John Wesley, even the story of the wife of Martin Luther. If you’d like to read the biographies of “50 People Every Christian Should Know” we still have this brand new book by Warren Weirsbe, the speaker for many years on the Back to the Bible program. “50 People Every Christian Should Know”. Just go online at haventoday.org or call us at 1-800-654-2836. Let us know the station you’re listening to when you make contact. And remember, it’s the middle of the month and almost the middle of the summer and we are listener supported. So may we hear from you today by either calling that toll free number, 1-800-654-2836 or by going online securely at haventoday.org? Also, our team here at Haven Today wants me to let you know that we are now on Facebook. On our homepage, haventoday.org, just below the “Listen” button, there’s a link that will take you to our Facebook fan page and if you’re already on Facebook just type in a search for Haven Today and there you are.
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I’m Charles Morris and thanks for being with me and Bob Godfrey from Escondido, CA. Would you come back again tomorrow when we again will share the story of a Christian that you should know in light of the great story that’s all about Jesus here on Haven Today.
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