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Ligonier Conference - Q&A

The “John Calvin” Mini-Conference wrapped up with a Q&A session featuring the four men who had delivered addresses. It was moderated by John Duncan. This is roughly how it went…

Why is Calvin still important 500 years later?

Ferguson - because he was really the first great biblical exegete. Other theologians made a mark here and there, but none so great as Calvin. He had a genius for being to capture what the text was saying and what its implications were.

Lawson - Location, location, location. He finds himself in an important historical context in the greatest forward movement of Christianity since the second century. It was a perfect time for Calvin’s ideas to explode in a way that could influence successive generations unlike those that had come before. There was a kind of domino effect from Calvin on down through history.

Mohler - Calvin really was the combination of the systematician and the preacher. As great as Luther may have been, he did not leave behind a systematic theology. In Calvin’s day, to consider what was at stake, the crucial question surrounded what was the true church. We still talk about Calvin today because we face many of the same challenges today that he faced in his day. No one answered these questions with the quintessential clarity of Calvin.

Duncan - Calvin taught the people who in turn taught the successive generation so that people who were influenced by Calvin may not have even know his name. He was training the best of the current generation to train the next generation. It was only centuries later that we began to understand the magnitude of what he had done.

Where should people start to learn about Calvin?

Ferguson - If you are daunted by the Institutes, begin with The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. You will probably find that Calvin is not as daunting as it may seem. If he didn’t know that Packer was going to do it, he probably would have called this book Knowing God.

Lawson - Read his sermons. The preaching of the word is the primary ordinary means of grace. Begin with his sermons on Galatians and Ephesians.

Mohler - Dive into the deep end of the pool by reading the introduction to the Institutes. Even if you need to read them two or three times, read them! It is one of the greatest works of Christian devotional literature ever written.

Duncan - I suggest going through the Institutes with your pastor or with a good teacher who has read through them before. I also some lectures from Rutherford House (?) by Sinclair Ferguson.

What is one thing about Calvin that is unknown or misunderstood that Calvin heir’s should know?

Ferguson - I know what his favorite game was. It was keys - you would throw a set of keys over a table and whoever puts it over the edge of the table wins.

Mohler - People often miss the suffering of the man. He was a man who suffered almost every day of his life with infirmities, sicknesses, pains and had to study and teach under the most difficult of circumstances. Despite this, in his writings you find such joy in his piety.

Duncan - If all you know is that he is the “Tyrant of Geneva” you may need to know that he was not a citizen of Geneva until the last years of his life. The idea that he was in full control of the city is simply fiction. He also a great power in the missionary movement that sent missionaries around the world.

Lawson - Calvin’s personal logo summarizes his life. It is an open hand being offered up to God and a heart in the palm of the hand that was his heart offered to God. His life, his heart, given to God promptly and willingly. When you combine this kind of godliness with this kind of genius, it is a powerful force (much like Jonathan Edwards).

Ferguson - He had an amazing number of friends who very much loved him. This is, in many ways, the measure of a man in contrast to the caricatures we often hear.

Lawson - Many people are unaware of how long and how strenuously he was opposed in his church.

Calvin is often criticized for his role in the execution of Servetus. Summarize what happened and our take on the situation.

Duncan - Servetus was a heretic, viewed by both Catholics and Protestants as a heretic. In any city in Europe there were heresy laws in those days; Geneva was not the only one with such laws. There were certain expectations in terms of public theology and morality that were expected of anyone. He was warned not to come to Geneva and was warned that he would be arrested and tried. He was subsequently condemned by the council to the burned at the stake. Calvin asked for the sentence to be changed to something quicker and less painful but this was denied.

Mohler - It is difficult to think of this from our perspective in a modern democratic republic. The medieval world is really unthinkable to us. In that day every single European state defined heresy as treason. To go against the religious beliefs of the state was to commit treason against it. Heresy was a threat to the entire society. This is true even today; however, government is not the right agent to deal with heresy. One of the big complexities to understand Calvin’s Geneva is to understand the role in Geneva in separating church and state. Servetus was the kind of heretic who would have known that everyone knew of his heresy. He was a needler, liar, etc, etc. The modern world gets it wrong in thinking that heresy is a minor crime while treason is a major one. But we would not call upon the city or state to judge such a person but instead we would rely on the church.

Ferguson - Calvin has become the whipping boy for something that continued for another 100 years.

Lawson - Calvin did not put him to death; he was not even a citizen of Geneva at the time and had no say in political matters. The consistory were his enemies at the time and had no love for Calvin. Servetus was given the option of being sent back to France and he begged to stay in Geneva because he knew that what would happen there would be far more gruesome. Calvin did, indeed, give support to what was taking place, but it was not in his hands to do it.

Mohler - Intellectual honesty is rare in this situation. To single Calvin out in this case is really an ad hominem attack. This civilization understood that heresy was the greatest of all crimes and was judged to protect people from error. They did this in the wrong way, but how much better are we who consider heresy a small threat?

What was Calvin’s relationship with Luther and Luther’s followers?

Ferguson - It was distant. They had almost definitely never met. It is clear in Calvin’s writing that he felt the church owed an enormous debt to Luther; he regarded Luther as almost a new Apostle. There were elements of Luther’s theology that troubled him, but he was as careful as he could be that he corrected this theology without making it clear what theology he was correcting.

Mohler - You have to make a distinction between phases of Calvin’s theology. He always considered Luther like a spiritual father. He had a very warm respect for Luther. His relationship with Melancthon was very interesting; he had good correspondence with him, but there was always a distance. As he saw Melancthon addressing different issues, he became troubled about continued refusal to bring the Reformation to its necessary conclusion. There was lots of indebtedness and affection and a hope for greater unity, but ultimately some disappointment.

Are there aspects of Calvin’s thought that we should not follow?

Mohler - You’ve got two Baptists here. [much laughter] One issue is this: what is Calvinism? When people think Calvinism they are often thinking of just a Dortian summary of theology. I am a Baptist who is indebted to Calvinism (as are all Baptists, whether they know it or not). It is wholesome to look back to that indebtedness and acknowledge our debt to him. When you look at the totality of what Calvin taught, there are many Presbyterians who are not thoroughly Calvinistic. I am going to be very thankful for all I receive, but I think Calvin would be the first to say that he had no desire to create “Calvinists.”

We’re familiar with the five points of Calvinism. What was truly central to his theology?

Ferguson - For Calvin there is such a unity that I don’t know that he would give precedence to any one of them. There seems to be two things that happen as his theology grows from one edition of the Institutes to the next. The first was the impact of Romans on his thought. The second thing that seems to dominate their development is his immense Trinitarianism, both its unity and distinctiveness. In some ways it seems that he’s almost the first Christian writer to get this just right.

Mohler - The knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves is the beginning and end of Calvin’s theology. When they talk about Calvinism and jump straight to the five points, we need to realize that we are reducing Calvin’s great concern and passion for the knowledge of God to this important dimension of how God justifies sinner and how he determined before the world was created that he would save a people through his Son. I would warn against reducing Calvinism to those five points even while affirming and defending those points. You can miss the whole in the parts if you are not careful.

Duncan - We need to remember that Calvin never did write out five points. Those five points stemmed from his work but only fifty years after his death as a response to five points of Arminianism.

How has Calvinism become to be seen as a loyalty that takes precedent over our identity as Christians?

Ferguson - When Calvin’s teaching came under attack and others rushed to his defense, you tend to get -isms. This is one of the reasons people need to go back and read Calvin himself and when they do so they find a world very different from the one they expected to find.

Mohler - [I couldn’t quite catch or nicely summarize this one. Apologies]. I did appreciate his exhortation to read Calvin (whether sermons or books) with an open Bible. Calvin would expect no less!

Duncan - Our non-Calvinistic friends can be hurt by the attitude that Calvinism is Christianity. It is helpful that someone have a high view of God, of Christ, of the Bible, than it is to attach themselves to any label. The good reason that we use label is for theological shorthand, as it allows us to say a lot really quickly. It allows us to affirm and deny certain things in just a word. If people are afraid of Calvinistic terms and analogies, simply go in as a Bible-believing Christian, go to Scripture, and see what God says to you and to them from his Word.

Leave us with something very important you’ve learned from Calvin’s life or writings

Ferguson - He has been the model of what a gospel minister in a local congregation should be.

Lawson - To understand Calvin is to understand Calvin the preacher. He was many things, but primarily a preacher. This is what is so desperately needed in churches today.

Mohler - I am in agreement with the other two so will just add this. Calvin was also a teacher and he understood the necessity of the church to be a school. We want the churches to again be the schools of Christ. I want to die like Calvin died, studying and teaching and preaching to the end. Calvin didn’t retire; he died.

Duncan - Calvin taught me that the fundamental problem we face as human beings is idolatry. There are true worshippers of God and idolaters; that is all. The doctrine of the atonement—Calvin gave the best biblical explanation of the atonement that had been given in 1560 years. There have been great ones since, but none before.