Friday, July 10, 2009

John Calvin's 500th Birthday

My original intention was to write an article doing justice to John Calvin on this, the 500th anniversary of his birth. However, It did not take long for me to realize that it was an impossible task. Books have been written about the man and continue to be written. There are seminary classes that cover his life and doctrine. It would have been folly for me to think that I could sum up the life of such a man in a simple article. So, with less ambitious aims, I would like to celebrate Calvin’s contributions in what small way I can.

It is a testimony to our times that the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth will pass with little notice and no fanfare because few Christians and fewer Americans today know who he was. Even though Calvin was one of the most important men in history and has profoundly influenced the lives of all Americans and especially all Christians, he is primarily, and incorrectly, known as the founder of the doctrines that bear his name.

Calvinism, as it is called, is a body of doctrine that exalts the sovereignty of God in salvation and contains such controversial teachings as sovereign election and predestination. These doctrines were the teachings of the Protestant Reformation but became associated with John Calvin because he taught them and was the primary theologian of the Reformation. The doctrines had their post-biblical origin with Augustine in the 4th century but adherents will say that they reach back to the teachings of Jesus and Paul in Scripture. Calvin’s main notoriety today then comes from something that many wrongly believe him to have invented.

John Calvin’s importance goes far beyond doctrinal controversy though. He was a giant in Christian history and left a legacy that no extra-biblical figure can surpass and few, perhaps only Augustine, can equal. His contributions reached beyond theology and doctrine to government and even commerce. Though physically weak and sickly, he was tireless in his work for the church and the Gospel of Christ, burning himself out and dying an early death at the age of 54.

I would like to briefly enumerate some of the ways that Calvin has influenced our modern world.

Interpretation of Scripture
Calvin was first and foremost a preacher and teacher of the Scriptures. In many ways, he taught us all how to do it. He shunned the allegorical methods that were so prevalent in the Middle Ages and sought the meaning of the text through history, grammar and, more importantly, the other Scriptures. Calvin was a great believer in “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” To read Calvin is to see a very modern method of scriptural interpretation at work.

Protestant Doctrine
Calvin was not the first of the reformers but did more than any other to enunciate the theology of the Reformation. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was a massive work of theology that he continually expanded until it reached its final form in 1559, five years before his death. This great work is profitable reading today but also laid the foundation for the great books of theology that followed and that would exert profound influence upon Protestant Christianity.

Church and State
Calvin believed that church and state operated in two different realms. In other words, he believed that church and state should be separate. These views were in opposition to the state church concept of Roman Catholicism and even of some other Protestant groups coming out of the Reformation. Calvin was not always consistent in his application of this principle because he exercised considerable authority (some would say domination) over secular society in Geneva. Despite Calvin’s inconsistency, his views were radical for their day and paved the way for such monumental events as the founding of the United States upon the principle of church-state separation.

With his love for order, Calvin believed that the church’s ministers should exercise strong authority within the church but also recognized their need to be accountable to the people. Pastors were “ministers and helpers” to the congregation and the laity had the obligation to examine what their ministers were teaching. Calvin believed that ministers should be elected by the people. To prevent abuse of this privilege, the elections should be supervised by other ministers. It was not congregational government in the modern sense but it was a radical change from the rule of priests within Catholicism. This democratic innovation had a great influence upon political thinking and many today credit Calvin as being one of the prime architects of the modern democratic age in Europe and America.

Free Enterprise
Calvin was a strong believer in the importance of private property, thinking it fundamental to the order of society. He valued free enterprise and commerce though he recognized that men could abuse it. He was totally opposed to early forms of communism which he said would “turn all the world into a forest of brigands where, without reckoning of paying, each one takes for himself what he can get.” Calvin believed that society was bettered when all men work hard to improve themselves saying that there was “nothing more disgraceful than a lazy good-for-nothing who is of no use either to himself or to others.”

No discussion of John Calvin would be complete without mention of the incident for which he receives his harshest criticism, the burning of the heretic Servetus. While scholars debate just how responsible Calvin was for the way Servetus died (strong evidence exists that he argued for a more humane means of punishment), there can be no doubt that he fully approved of his execution for heresy. In sixteenth century Europe, societal order was highly valued and closely guarded. Heresies and non-orthodox religions were considered to be threats to that order and greatly injurious to societal stability. Calvin and his contemporaries (Catholic and Protestant) were fully prepared to use force when necessary to eliminate those threats to order. Calvin was very far from our modern ideas of religious liberty. On this issue, He was very much a man of the sixteenth century.

In conclusion, a man of John Calvin’s talents sometimes defies definition but possibly the most accurate assessment of him came from R. L. Dabney, Presbyterian theologian from the 19th century, who said that Calvin “was a very gifted, learned, and, in the main, godly man, who still had his faults.” John Calvin’s contributions to the church and modern society were immense. He loved Christ; he loved the Scriptures and wanted to see God glorified in all areas of human existence. He was not a perfect man; his great flaws reflected the times in which he lived, but Calvin desired to glorify God in all that he did.

John Calvin was both a man of his day and a man who was ahead of his time. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to him for the legacy he left and the world he helped to create.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

First Day in the Smokies


{If you click on the pictures, a larger version will open.}

We arrived here in the beautiful Smoky Mountains on Monday afternoon. We were pretty tired from the trip but still went out into Pigeon Forge to get some food. The last time I was at Pigeon Forge was about 12 or 13 years ago when Terryl and I came with a church group from Alabama. It has grown quite a bit since then and become more "touristy." Terryl thought so too. It has all the usual stuff...t-shirt shops, putt-putt golf, arcades...looks a lot like Destin, FL. Still, the environment is beautiful. We have a cabin on the side of a mountain just outside of Pigeon Forge. It is pretty isolated...which is what I wanted. Each night the whiporwills are outside. I'm used to hearing them from a distance. These are close up. Those birds can call really loud!!

Tuesday was our first full day in the Smokies. We went into Gatlinburg, which is about seven miles from Pigeon Forge. [Photo at top] Gatlinburg has been a tourist town for many years. I remember going there when I was a little boy. It is situated in a beautiful area between the mountains. The highlight of the day from the boys' standpoint was eating at Pancake Pantry. They had been looking forward to it. The pancakes were truly wonderful there, probably the best I've ever eaten.

We took the tram (a cable car) up to Ober Gatlinburg. We were concerned that the boys would be scared but they enjoyed it. The view on the way up the mountain was breathtaking. You could see over the mountains all the way to the valley where Pigeon Forge is located. Terryl, of course, was there with her camera.

View from the Tram

The "high point" (literally) of our trip took place later when we drove
up to Clingman's Dome. It is the highest point in Tennessee and one of the highest mountains in the Eastern United States. It's peak is 6643 ft. above sea level. We took winding roads up the mountain and were the only car in sight for much of the trip. The mountain was shrouded with clouds so the last seven miles or so was driven in a fairly dense fog. It was a little on the creepy side. The temperature cooled dramatically as we neared the top. It was in the low 80s in Gatlinburg but in the high 50s up on the mountain. We had the windows rolled down and really enjoyed it.

You could not drive to the summit of the mountain. It was a half-mile hike up a trail that had a continuous upgrade of 20 to 30 percent. It was a steep climb. Add to that the high altitude and we got out of breath easily. I had been running 2 miles a day at Clifton but it was still very difficult. Jonathan, of course, just be-bopped up the mountain like he was walking on level ground.

Tony and Jonathan going up the mountain

Terryl and Matthew resting on the journey on one of the many rest benches

Going up to Clingman's Dome was a special treat for me because I remembered doing it as a little boy. We made a couple of trips as a family to the Smoky Mountains in the late 1960s. Living in North Alabama, the drive was not too bad to the Smokies. When Jonathan asked me why we were going to this place, I told him that I had done it as a little boy and that one day he would take his little boy up there too.

Observation Tower on Clingman's Dome in the Clouds

The Family on the Summit

Believe it or not, I actually had cell phone service on the top of the mountain. I walked up to the top of the observation tower and got a voice mail notice on my cell phone. The walk down the mountain was easier on the breath but harder on the legs. I walked with a family from Waynesboro, MS, on the way down. They were really nice folks.

On the drive down the mountain, Terryl took lots of pictures of the natural beauty. There was a stream running down the mountain by the road that went to the top. It was beautiful.

We were exhausted last night after the walk. I fell asleep on the couch. The boys got up early this morning, as usual. They were ready to go. We'll see what today holds.

Thank you all for all your support and prayers. We miss you all but are truly enjoying the Smoky Mountains.


Friday, March 13, 2009

A Sincere Exercise in Futility

In a recent article in the Baptist Press, Dr. Frank Page, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed frustration with the policies of President Barack Obama. Page serves as an evangelical member of Obama's faith-based advisory council.

While disagreeing with Obama on abortion policy, Page is also concerned with Obama's lack of clarity on the cloning issue. Obama is on record as opposing reproductive cloning but was not clear on whether he would support therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning is cloning for the purpose of harvesting stem cells and other medical purposes.

Page said:

"I am going to personally deal with that issue with the council, because [research cloning] simply was not mentioned by Obama. He was very specific in [opposing] reproductive cloning but not in research cloning. And I am going to assume at this point that he meant both, but I am going to seek clarification of that."

Page also expressed concern over the radical direction of Obama's abortion policy.

"At this point I would have to say I have been very frustrated that what little protections there are for the unborn have been quickly and systematically removed. So that has very discouraging."

Dr. Page is a solid conservative and is not a compromiser. In my opinion, neither is he naive. He took the opportunity to serve on Obama's faith-based council to provide an evangelical presence there. I'm sure he was under no illusions that he could have a major influence upon this liberal administration. Perhaps, he hoped that Obama would follow through on his campaign promises and bring all people to the table and to sincerely consider their concerns.

Page has discovered that, while Obama welcomes all people to the table, many are there only for window dressing so Obama can maintain his facade of openness. Barack Obama is a member of the radical left wing of the Democrat party and he governs as such. His policies should surprise no one who is familiar with the beliefs of that segment of our population.

Frank Page is to be applauded for his sincere, if futile, attempt to provide a conservative influence upon the President. Perhaps, the next service he should perform would be to publicly resign from this farce of a council and clearly state his reasons for doing so.