Saturday, 20 January 2018

A Book Review illustrating the wider implications of John Calvin's Theology

Women Reform and Community in Early Modern England

Melissa Franklin Harkrider

The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2008

As we engage with Calvin’s institutes and the issues of Theology, Ecclesiology and Politics that were prevailing in Continental Europe at the time of their writing we may wonder about their effects more widely.  England underwent a Reformation in the sixteenth century and the issues that John Calvin wrote about on this process as this book amply illustrates. Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk was one of the highest ranking noble women in sixteenth century England.  As Protestantism developed in England her approach to faith changed.  She embraced many of the ideas that had their origin in the Genevan Reformation of John Calvin.  These affected her use of political power and status as this book describes in chapters on Catholicism and Reform and Evangelicalism.  For those sustaining an interest in Calvin the chapter about what happened when Katherine fled England during the reign of Queen Mary is particularly interesting.  Katherine Willoughby’s views of the Eucharist were influenced by her friendship with Martin Bucer and she adopted the doctrine of predestination following John Calvin and the later Calvinist reformers.

In 1554 Katherine and her husband requested permission to settle in Wesel and joined the English Church there.  Although they supported the doctrine of predestination they rejected the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  They upheld the self-government of the church supervised by the minister and groups of elders. They did not adopt the Genevan Liturgy in common with English churches in Frankfurt and Strasbourg.

This book assists us in that it awakens our thoughts about the rapid spread of the Protestant Reformation in particular the one stimulated by John Calvin.  By the time Katherine Willoughby and her husband were settling in Wesel in 1554 at the time of the Marian persecution in England Calvin had produced three editions of the Institutes (1536, 1539 and 1550).  He had yet to produce the version he regarded as the most complete and authoritative (the 1559 version).  Events in Europe involving the persecution of Protestants, not just in England had precipitated the translation of the Institutes into Spanish in 1540 and Italian in 1557.  The story of Katherine Willoughby opens our eyes to these events and sets them in a wider European context.  It also gives interesting insight into the role of women within the protestant reformation and is a worthy read for this reason too.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

2. The word of God as Holy Scripture

Calvin believed that the patriarchs obtained their knowledge of God through “oracles and visions” and by “the work and ministry of men”.  He also believed that the law was committed to Moses and that Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4).  As a result Calvin thinks that any human being “should contemplate God’s works” and “prick up his ears to the Word”.  Do you do this day by day? How?  In this respect Calvin notes especially the development of doctrine indicating that it is not possible to obtain “even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless someone is a pupil of scripture”.  How many teachings and doctrines of the Church today are put forward without reference or with only a passing acquaintance of Scripture?  Are you equipped to be a pupil of Scripture?  If not then what do you need to do?

Saturday, 18 November 2017

CHAPTER VI  : SCRIPTURE IS NEEDED AS GUIDE AND TEACHER FOR ANYONE WHO WOULD COME TO GOD THE CREATOR 1.       God bestows the actual knowledge of Himself upon us only in the Scriptures

Calvin describes the scriptures as “another and better help” to us in obtaining knowledge of God. The people who have access to the scriptures are those “He regarded as worthy of this privilege those whom he pleased to gather more closely and intimately to Himself”.  Scripture is the spectacles for those who have weaker vision for through scripture human beings can see God “distinctly”. This assertion has been one of Calvin’s most discussed similes.

Why? Is scripture like spectacles for you? Does it aid your vision of God? Calvin goes on to describe the two types of knowledge of God that can be obtained from the scriptures – the first being that of knowing the God who founded and governs the universe and the second that god is found in “the person of the mediator as the redeemer”.  Calvin explains that there are many testimonies about this in the Old and New Testaments but concludes that God “the Artificer of the universe is made manifest in scripture”.  The Oxford Dictionary defines Artificer as “craftsman, skilled mechanic  in the army or navy.”  God’s skill revealing Himself in creation and in Christ is clear to Calvin.  Is this clear to you/ what could be awry in your view?

Saturday, 21 October 2017

15. We have no excuse

Calvin says that we have no excuse for a lack of knowledge because of “dullness” within us.  Many people in the modern age would never admit to being dull.  Here Calvin is returning to one of his favourite thoughts that the creatures of God declare His glory saying “even irrational creatures give instruction”. God plants a seed of knowledge of Him in human beings but we corrupt that seed through our “own failing”.  Recognition of God is then attributed by humans to anything other than God Himself.

To what do we attribute the beauty of the created order? Some might argue it is due to evolution or ecological management. If this is the case then they forget the ultimate creator.  Centuries after he wrote Calvin’s suggestion would seem to be correct.  What would be your excuse for a lack of knowledge of God? Can you give the “Author” of creation “his due praise”?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

14. The manifestation of God in nature speaks to us in vain

In this concise section Calvin uses scripture to show to us the “burning lamps” that point to God’s manifestation in nature and how the human race ignores them.  Using the letter to the Hebrews he explains that we cannot see God at work unless we have the “inner revelation of God through faith” (Hebrews 11:3).  God permits us to go our own way but sends benefits from heaven (Acts 14:14-17) to open our eyes to his work.  Calvin concludes that God “attracts men to the knowledge of Himself with many and varied kindnesses” but that human beings still go their own way and this is their “fatal error”. What kindness do you see in nature placed by the hand of God?  Who do you know who makes the “fatal error” of going their own way?

Saturday, 19 August 2017

13. The Holy Spirit rejects all cults contrived by men

According to Calvin when human beings follow their own opinions they cast themselves away from the “one and only God”.  Calvin uses several examples from both the Old and New Testaments to support his case – the Ephesians who were without God until they learned the Gospel and worship of the true God (Ephesians 2:12-13) and the Samaritans who approached piety only in certain circumstances (John 4:22).

Calvin is concerned that both the “illustrious” and the “common” fall into this error concluding that the Holy Spirit “rejects as base all cults contrived by the will of men”.  The people who constructed society and were in Calvin’s eyes “the best legislators” founded their religion upon public agreement.  In support of this Calvin explains that Socrates praised the oracle of Apollo and that each man could worship in the way of his ancestors or in the style of the city in which he resides.  Yet for Calvin these are poor reasons for worship – tradition and location do not make for worthy worship.  It is God himself who bears witness and makes our worship worthwhile.

Is your worship moribund through tradition? Do you feel that God can only be worshipped in the style of your location?

Saturday, 15 July 2017

12. The manifestation of God is choked by human superstition and the error of the philosophers

Calvin says that the “labyrinth” of the human mind can formulate many idols or specters of god so an “immense crowd of gods flow forth from the human mind” What are the gods of today? Could they be money, power, relationships, social media and sex perhaps?  These comments of Calvin refer to those whom he describes as “untutored.”  He reserves particular venom for those who are philosophers in an allusion to Cicero and his disagreement among the learned gods in “Nature of gods”.  Who are the philosophers of our time who disagree over what or who God is?  Calvin then moves on to the Epicureans for whom it became customary to deny outright God’s existence.  Finally Calvin indicates that if human beings were taught by nature then upon recognising that there was “nothing certain or clear cut”, they would worship an unknown god.  He uses the example of the Athenians to illustrate this point  as St. Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and found and altar “To an unknown god” [Acts 17:23].  Who do you know who worships and unknown god today?