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What Baptists Can Learn From Calvin

Why the Genevan Reformer's Words Are Still Worth Hearing Today.

by Timothy George

    The year 2009 marks two important anniversaries in the history of the Christian church: the birth of John Calvin at Noyon in France in 1509, and the birth of the modern Baptist movement at Amsterdam in 1609. Both events are being celebrated with numerous symposia, publications, and conferences, but few people are asking what these two events, separated by the century of the Reformation, have in common. Baptists are fiercely independent and refuse to recognize any human figure as a standard of faith. Today's Baptists would agree with what the nonconformist Samuel Hieron said in the 17th century:
We do not hang on Calvin's sleeve
Nor yet on Zwingli's we believe:
And Puritans we do defy,
If right the name you do apply.
    Are Baptists Calvinists? If a Calvinist is a person who follows strictly the teachings of John Calvin, then in three important respects Baptists are not, and have never been, Calvinists. Calvin was a pedobaptist (practicing infant baptism); Baptists are credobaptists (believers' baptism only). Calvin believed in a presbyterian form of church government; Baptists are congregationalists. Calvin believed that the civil magistrate should enforce both tables of the law (moral responsibilities towards God and towards one's neighbor), suppressing heresy and blasphemy by force if necessary. Baptists believe in religious liberty for all persons.
    For all that, Calvin remains the most formative theological influence in the development of the Baptist tradition. Unfortunately, many Baptists today know only the ungenerous stereotype of Calvin that depicts him as "the dictator of Geneva wielding the whip of logic and driving a chariot named the sovereignty of God harnessed to mean-spirited steeds called predestination and total depravity" (Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 14). It is said that on occasion so-called liberal Christians stand before the famous statue of Calvin in Geneva and hurl eggs at the dour likeness looking down at them!
    Two thousand nine is a good time to look again at Calvin's theology and its relationship to the Baptist movement. Here are five theological principles Baptists can learn from Calvin.

1. Holy Scripture and the Living Christ

    Unlike the Augsburg Confession, which began with an article on the doctrine of God, Reformed statements of faith usually begin by affirming the authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Baptist confessions of faith do the same. Calvin was a biblical theologian. He believed that God had revealed his will to human beings through his mighty acts of salvation recorded in the words of the Bible. Calvin's official title in the Church at Geneva was "Minister of the Divine Word." (Calvin's famous Institutes of the Christian Religion is a masterful summary of Protestant theology, but in order to get a complete understanding of Calvin you must read his Old and New Testament commentaries.) Yet he did not understand the Bible as a mere depository of information about sacred things. Rather, Scripture conveyed the reality of the living Christ through the witness of the Holy Spirit. In their recent "battles" over the Bible, Baptists have much to learn from Calvin's engagement with Scripture. He would agree without hesitation that the Bible is totally truthful in all that it affirms, but he also recognized that this insight, as well as the Christological meaning of Scripture, was not achieved by systematic logic or empirical investigation. Inspiration and illumination are both the work of God's Spirit, the Spirit of truth who invariably draws us to Christ who is the Truth as well as the Way and the Life (John 14:6).

2. God-centered worship

    Baptists, like many other evangelicals, have been caught up in the worship wars of the past decade. Baptists can learn a great deal from the way Calvin negotiated the worship wars of the 16th century. Calvin was an innovator in worship both in terms of what he took out of the service (organs and images) and what he added (psalm singing). Today one can hear a beautiful organ concert at Calvin's church in Geneva, and it's a good thing, too! One need not be a slavish follower of Calvin to recognize what motivated the changes he made: the desire to glorify God through the praises of his people. This could best be done, Calvin believed, in a service where Pulpit and Table were both given proper place.

   Preaching has long been recognized as a key moment in Baptist worship, but many Baptists often neglect the Lord's Supper and its transforming power in the life of faith. For many Baptists, the influence of Zwingli rather than Calvin leads to a minimalist theology that results in infrequent communion often poorly administered. On both the theology and practice of the Lord's Supper, Baptists need a "back to Calvin" movement.

3. The sovereignty of God in salvation

    Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, Calvin held to a high doctrine of predestination. He did so not because he was a mean man with a harsh view of God, but because he believed that Holy Scripture clearly taught this doctrine. Many great Baptists through the centuries have agreed with him—including John Bunyan, Benjamin Keach, Andrew Fuller, Roger Williams, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Throughout their history, Baptists have argued about God's election and have sometimes taken extreme positions: a kind of hyper-Calvinism bordering on fatalism at one extreme, and a radical Arminianism morphing into Pelagianism on the other. Evangelical Calvinists have affirmed both God's sovereignty in salvation and human responsibility, in keeping with the accents of the Bible itself. Throughout the history of the church, some of the most effective evangelists and missionaries, including the great Baptist William Carey, have been staunch defenders of a Reformed doctrine of predestination.

    Baptists today can find this teaching a stronghold in times of temptation and trials and a confession of praise to God's grace and glory. The doctrine of election requires one to be still before the majesty and mystery of God, and to confess with Calvin: "We should not investigate what the Lord has left hidden in secret … nor neglect what he has brought out into the open so that we may not be convicted of excessive curiosity on the one hand, or of excessive ingratitude on the other" (Institutes 3.21.4).

4. The world as theater of God's glory

   One of the greatest differences between the Baptists of the 17th century and the earlier Anabaptists during the time of Luther and Calvin was their attitude toward the world. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that while Lutherans accepted the world as a necessary evil and Anabaptists withdrew from the world as the domain of sin and corruption, Calvinists engaged the world as "the theater of God's glory," seeking to reform and transform it in keeping with the purposes and will of God. In their history, Baptists have sometimes wavered among these three models of engagement. But at their best, Baptists have been in the vanguard of those seeking religious freedom, human rights, and democratic forms of government. John Wesley once claimed that he came within "a hair's breadth of Calvinism," and nowhere was this more true than in his statement, "The world is my parish!" Baptists, too, have gone into every corner of the world proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ to persons of every race, nation, and language group. They have worked for the abolition of the slave trade, the political emancipation of women, the protection of unborn human life, prison reform, and many other movements for social justice.

5. Christian unity

   Calvin is well known for his attacks against the Roman Catholic Church of his day, which he believed was filled with abuses that needed to be reformed on the basis of the Word of God. But Calvin was not a separatist. He did not seek to start a brand new church, but to call the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church back to its biblical foundations and evangelical faith. He regarded schism as one of the greatest sins one could commit against the church, and he had a burning passion for Christian unity. Calvin met with Catholic theologians and discussed the doctrine of justification in an effort to find a greater unity on this important teaching. He was also in touch with Protestant church leaders all over Europe, exhorting them to work together and stand united for the sake of the gospel.
    Baptists have much to learn from Calvin about the quest for Christian unity. Disunity damages the witness of the church. Jesus prayed to the heavenly Father that his disciples would be one, as he and the Father were one, "so that the world might believe" (John 17:21). Calvin did not seek unity at the expense of truth, but rather unity-in-truth. Today, Baptists constitute one of the largest fellowships of believers in the world. The integrity of their witness and their effectiveness in evangelism and mission are directly related to the prayer Jesus prayed and to the way of reform John Calvin pioneered.

Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of Christianity Today. He is also the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, a series of 28 volumes of 16th-century exegetical comment forthcoming from InterVarsity Press.

 Originally published in The Founder's Journal (Fall 2009) 19, and at www.christianitytoday.com/christianhistory (August 27, 2009).