Latest SBJT examines Calvin’s legacy at 500

Communications Staff — March 26, 2010

John Calvin is many things to many people.

To Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great reformer from Geneva was a hero to be admired, a man whose system of theology was “the nearest to perfection.”

To Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Calvin was a man in league with Satan who “has caused untold millions to be damned.”

And there are opinions of Calvin (1509-1564) that occupy various points along the spectrum between those two poles. But, as the emotion-laden debate over Calvin’s life and theology itself  attests, one thing the reformer will never be to the history of the evangelical church is an insignificant figure.

Essayists in the latest edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology agree in their examination of the life and legacy of this crucial and controversial figure more than 500 years after his birth.

Four members of Southern’s faculty and two guest essayists parse several aspects of the 16th century reformer’s ministry in Geneva, including his biblical preaching, his missionary endeavors, his pastorate, his gifts as a teacher and his view of justification by faith.

In his opening editorial, journal editor Stephen J. Wellum calls Calvin “one of God’s gifts to the church,” and touts his massive impact on the church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.

“It is hardly an overstatement to say that Calvin’s influence upon the church and upon the world has been enormous,” Wellum writes. “Many consider him as probably the greatest of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, and that is quite a statement in itself.”

Shawn D. Wright, associate professor of church history at Southern, plumbs a line that is seldom considered in Calvin studies, one that was nonetheless central to Calvin’s self-identity: John Calvin as a pastor.  Calvin shepherded churches for nearly three decades as a pastor, though most mistakenly view him as primarily a scholar and theologian, Wright points out.

“Ministry consumed Calvin’s life,” Wright writes. “After his ‘sudden conversion’ to the Lord, as he called it, Calvin’s life-except for an aborted attempt to be a reclusive scholar-was consumed with the labors of a pastor.”

Some have argued through the years that Calvin and his theology are anti-missions. Nothing could be further from the truth, Michael A.G. Haykin argues in his essay on Calvin and missions. Haykin serves as professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern.

Calvin was deeply concerned about the conversion of his native country, France, Haykin contends. Many ministers went out from Calvin’s Geneva to spread the Gospel in that country.

“It has been estimated that by 1562, some 2,150 congregations had been established in France with around 2 million members, many of them converted trough the witness of men trained in Geneva,” Haykin writes. “The growth is enormous when one reckons that at the time of Calvin’s conversion, in the early 1530s, there were probably no more than a couple of thousand evangelicals in France.”

David Puckett, associate vice president for doctoral studies and professor of church history at Southern, takes a look at Calvin, the teacher, and examines his most famous work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, along with his Bible commentaries.

“These writings are crucial for understanding Calvin’s work as a teacher, because they preserve the daily component of Calvin’s spoken labor as he prepared students for ministry,” Puckett writes.

The journal also includes an essay by Haykin on the plethora of books that have been written about the reformer in recent years and also includes a panel discussion by several Southern professors and other evangelical historians assessing the importance of John Calvin.

Other essays include an article on Calvin’s preaching by Steven J. Lawson and another by Paul Helm comparing Calvin’s doctrine of justification by faith with the controversial views of popular New Perspective scholar N.T. Wright.

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