Last January I begin an adventure that I had no idea how arduous it would be. As I begun to dive into Calvin’s magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion, I set out before me an endeavour that would slowly but surely change the way that I think on manifold facets. Although I would love to expound on innumerable levels on Calvin’s thought, and what I have learned from Him this past year, I would rather, for brevity’s sake, share very succinctly three principles that Calvin has taught me which have slowly molded me and given me a very firm foundation to stand upon. Calvin has most assuredly given me a solid theologically footing and cornerstone that I may continue to construct and built upwards and sidewards, knowing that no matter if my many future pursuits be successful of failed, I will always have a sound, firm foundation to which I can rest safely and securely on, theologically speaking. In light of this fact, I believe that Calvin has taught me three very important principles which are thus: Calvin has taught me the importance of Christianity being–
The great systematizer of the faith, Calvin’s Institutes literally radically changed Western history as we know it. What is remarkable is what is so often ignored historically; but theologically speaking, Calvin accomplished what no man had every successfully done hitherto, and that is construct a coherent, cogent, and holistic framework of the Christian faith, written to inform, educate, instruct, teach, and guide not only pastors, but ideally laymen of the faith. Of the innumerable heresies and opponents that Calvin refutes throughout his magnum opus, his primary weapon was solely and unequivocally the Word of God, the sole arbiter of our Faith. Only secondarily does Calvin defer to the Church Fathers, Augustine being the foremost referenced of which Calvin said “we quote more frequently, as [Augustine] being the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity (Institutes 4.14.26), and tertiarily pagan philosophers, Seneca and Plato being among them. The idea is simple, how can one refute someone else’s absurdly heretical claims if one does not have a systematic grasp on the entire Word of God? How can we deflect the proof-texting of misled garblers of true religion if we cannot systematize, harmonize, and cogently construct a holistic robust Christianity that will withstand the fiery cavils from misguided people? Now, more than ever, theology must be systematic, oppositions to the contrary notwithstanding. Calvin has enabled me to understand the importance of the aforesaid on a deep and personal level.
Calvin taught me the importance of the Church, which is not only visible and particular, but that it is also simultaneously invisible and universal. It is visible in that it is confined to the external preaching of the Word and the sacraments duly administered by presbyters to a congregation, but it is also invisible and catholic or universal, in that all those in Christ are a part of one body, with Christ as the κεφαλή (1 Cor 11:3, Col 1:18, Eph 5:23). This includes not only those that are living, but those who have died in Christ heretofore, as we are all united in a real way to Christ, as His body, as he leads the true Church. This doesn’t mean that the Church is going to be visibly pure, at least in the external. For as Augustine refuted the Donatists so too Calvin the Anabaptists; for as long as sin remains, and hypocrites are able to make a false confession of faith, so also will the visible and particular church remain an admixture of both those who are truly regenerated and a part of Christ’s body, and those who are merely feigning true religion, as the parable so aptly demonstrates (Matthew 13:24-30). Calvin has taught me to longsuffer with the Church, to give myself up for Her and suffer with her, and that true Christian unity isn’t obtained by watering or knocking down doctrines deemed superfluous or antiquated in order to “unify” various denominations or factions, but rather by simply upholding Christ and Him crucified. By the two-fold preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments, there can be no doubt, regardless of denomination, that Christ is truly present and that there is some semblance of a Church: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, and wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubts that the church of God has some existence” (Institutes, 4.1.9).
While the Reformation was the beginning of an explosion of Christian protestant thought for the better, the reformers would be utterly horrified, aghast, and appalled if they saw the current state of non-denominational evangelical Christianity in America today. While the nature of the Reformation was to protest, and the soil of America gave fertile ground in light of religious toleration for new factions, sects, denominations, and religions to forthwith spring up, the Reformers in no wise set out to overthrow systems, but rather simply to be faithful to the word of God. The inherent problem that I have seen personally in many non-denominational churches, notwithstanding the lack of ecclesiastical governance and church discipline, is that they are not confessional. This is something that arose as a corollary of the Reformation and the influence of Calvin’s Institutes, but the confessions that were constructed to the benefit of millions of Christians then and now stand as a solid posts wherewith we can stand firmly in-between knowing we will not accidentally stray from the path. Confessions such as the Westminster which arose after the English Civil War in the Puritan Commonwealth, or the Belgic and Helvetic confessions along with the Heidelberg Catechism. This documents are not timeless, and neither are they creeds whereby one has to assent to in order to become a Christian, but rather, they are confessions by which we affirm because we are Christians. As such, doctrines are perspicuously defined, and no such room is left for ambiguity, a problem that so wholly permeates through innumerable non-denominational Churches, who leave their ‘statements of faith’ so excruciatingly and unacceptably equivocal which ultimately leads to dissensions, factions, and trifling altercations. By the by, as a side note, my wife and I have been attending an EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church, http://www.epc.org/) the past nine months, and we have been extremely blessed, seeing the fruit of putting ourselves under their leadership already.
In fine, Calvin’s Institutes is not simply going back up on my bookshelf for future reference, but rather, it has given me an ideology and theologically deep well wherefrom I will continually draw from daily as I strive to build, construct, and create anew theologically, knowing that I will always have a firm foundation to stand upon, one that has stood the test of time: one that is tried and true.