Today is Reformation Sunday. Today we mark the epochal struggle within European civilization which began in mid-October 1518 and continued for centuries, with consequences that have been too many and too profound to be numbered. Among the undeniable consequences of this historical cataclysm are our own quiet, earnest and autonomous little church and denomination, and the religious identity and sensibility that we learn from them and sustain in them. Churches like ours tend to be forgetful of their origins, perhaps because awareness of them might involve more talk of dungeon, fire and sword than we would find wholesome or useful. The wars of religion are not a bright spot in Western history. But this same period yielded a rich heritage of Christian thought, too valuable to be dismissed or forgotten, even though the great leaders in this struggle were inevitably compromised by the passions and excesses that swept over Europe in their day. Martin Luther is still cherished in the tradition he created, and Catholics still revere Ignatius of Loyola. There was, of course, one more great leader in the period of the Reformation, by far the mildest and most scholarly of them, who has, nevertheless, been largely disowned and forgotten. I am speaking, of course, of our own John Calvin.
Jean Calvin was born in northern France 500 years ago last July. He was half a generation younger than Martin Luther. While still a young man, Calvin emerged as a prominent figure in the Reformation movement already set in motion by Luther and others. By force of learning, brilliance, deep faith and an astonishing capacity for work, he became profoundly influential not only within Protestantism but, if historians are to be believed, in the formation of the modern world. By even the most conservative estimates he is a man of great importance, and therefore, one might suppose, great interest. But his very prominence, in a time when religious divisions were embittered and violent, made him the target of polemical attack which only accelerated with his death and, in fact, has not ended yet. The ferocity of this polemic has given it a lurid persistence and vitality. We here today are in a position to understand how this works. If there is anything for us to be grateful for in our own religious and political moment, it is that we can see, even if we cannot quite believe, that there are people in meaningful numbers for whom the very worst that can be said about an adversary has the unmistakeable ring of truth. If things go for Barack Obama as they have gone for John Calvin, in a generation or two historians may record that, at the beginning of this century, the United States was in the grip of an alien usurper intent on establishing death panels. In Calvin’s case, the stigma has been so potent that he has gone unread and unmentioned, except with brief reference to his supposed pathologies, even in learned discussions of societies that are routinely called Calvinist, including, most notably, the United States of America.
Certainly Calvin goes almost unmentioned in churches like this one, though they descend directly from the religious and intellectual tradition established by him through his writing and example. One might take this to mean that his influence has faded. But in fact it is pervasively present in our worship and polity, especially in those aspects that might seem to us to be simply modern and straightforward. The government of the church by the congregation, a minister who is elected to lead and serve the congregation as first among equals, who is married, who makes no claim to apostolic succession. The absence of hierarchy. The absence of icons. Communion that is in effect consecrated in being faithfully offered and received, not by a priestly act of transubstantiation or consubstantiation. The centrality of Scripture in worship and of a sermon that is in some degree an explication of scriptural text. This list is not complete, but perhaps it is sufficient to my point. In our practice and in the theological assumptions that underlie it, we really are Calvinists. Our doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” is sung to a tune called Old Hundred because it was the setting for Psalm 100 in the 16th century Geneva Bible.
The verses from Ephesians I have chosen for this morning are well known as being central to the theology of the Reformers, Calvin as well as Luther. We are saved by grace, not by works. This tenet has survived among us at least as vigorously as any aspect of our worship or polity that had its origins in the Reformation, and may well be their grounding, the reason for their stability over almost half a millennium. It is no part of our belief that we must adhere to any article of faith, whatever its origin, or that we must maintain a consensus among ourselves on points of doctrine--insofar as we consider ourselves to entertain a set of ideas clearly enough defined to be called ‘doctrine.’ So it is an irony of a sort that the non-dogmatic character of our church and denomination is based on this same, venerable tenet of the Reformation, which holds that no human conditions can be imposed on the grace of God, the perfectly free and efficacious will of God expressed toward individual souls. Calvinism is often described as dogmatic, and in some forms it may well merit this description. But Calvin himself would recognize and approve our stance, this seemingly paradoxical adherence to an orthodoxy that rejects orthodoxy. The absolute sovereignty of God is at the center of his thought and teaching. Therefore no mortal act or omission, belief or doubt, virtue or failing can in effect ensure God’s acceptance or compel his condemnation. There have always been those who claim that granting God such freedom makes him a tyrant. In fact, this has been one of the most insistent attacks on Calvin over centuries, often with the suggestion that he was a tyrant himself. But to distrust God’s character in this way is surely a remarkable thing. That he must be constrained by human notions of justice if he is not to be flagrantly unjust, that his grace is not utterly more beautiful and profound than our rigid and often loveless little reckonings--these assumptions really ought to have no place in Christian thought.
In this church we don’t talk much about “being saved,” perhaps because the phrase has been used so insistently in certain other traditions in the service of beliefs we do not share. The idea of an abrupt, transforming experience that can be taken as proof of divine acceptance, as the moment in which divine acceptance becomes actual, has been important in certain Calvinist traditions. A variant of it swept through Congregationalism during the two Great Awakenings that preceded the Revolution and the Civil War. However, it is not an idea that has its origins in Calvin’s theology, or that can be reconciled with it. We might not like the name for the constant loyalty of God to his creature that Calvin chose--he called it predestination--but we do accept certain of its consequences, most importantly that the ways of God are mysterious, that the whole of experience is available for our instruction, and that God is altogether deserving of our trust. When Calvin uses the word “salvation,” he means by it a gradual progress toward a “perfection of goodness” which will by no means be achieved in this life. There is nothing sudden about it, nothing dramatic. He says, “Let us not cease to do the utmost, that we may incessantly go forward in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the smallness of our accomplishment. Though we fall short, our labor is not lost if this day surpasses the preceding one.” It might not enhance our public image to say that we are better Calvinists than Jonathan Edwards, but in this particular instance it would be true.
If Calvinists are famous for one thing, that thing is ethicalism. In particular, we are notorious for afflicting the modern world with the work ethic. The critics of Calvinism find an anomaly in the fact that a theology that will not hedge about or minimize the power of God, even to the point of granting predestination, should have inspired so much striving, such diligence as they see in the populations it has influenced. I would like to believe that we deserve this reputation, though I cannot report from my own experience that we are in any way more ethical than people of other theologies, no theology, other religions or no religion. The answer to that, of course, is that we have contaminated the western world with our anxieties, which, if Max Weber is to be believed, and it seems he always is believed, are anxieties about our salvation. Supposedly Calvinists seek worldly wealth as a sign that they enjoy the favor of God, and everybody else has just fallen into step with us.
This strikes me as a very doubtful theory and as an extremely pedestrian understanding of human motivation, Calvinist or not. It seems appropriate to look to Calvin to see how his ethical vision is articulated, and how it might have gained its power. Calvin’s theology and his commentaries always have direct implications for the right conduct of life, and as a pastor and teacher in a rough, turbulent, overcrowded mountain town he had ample occasion to make these implications clear. Moreover, the Reformers’ emphasis on the primacy of grace was not meant to discourage acts of justice or charity, but to give them a new value by freeing them of the motives of self-interest that were a consequence of their being done with an eye to one’s own ultimate benefit, and to acknowledge God’s majesty and his fatherliness more fully by freeing him from the role of tabulator of merits and demerits.
Calvin constructs his ethical teaching around the sanctity of any human being, he or she being made in the image of God; on the commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves; and on what he calls the rule of charity, that we are to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. The effect of this emphasis on human encounter, human interaction, is that it enlarges the field of ethical obligation almost beyond any limit at all. In a sermon on the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” Calvin says, “[L]et us understand what the holy Scripture contains: that we will always be thieves if we do not do unto others what we would want them to do unto us; [apart from this] we do not render justice to every man. For it is fitting for us to define a vice by its opposite virtue. If we really want to know what stealing is, consider what doing the right thing for our fellow man would be.” And he is perfectly aware of the radicalism of this teaching. He says, “[W]hen we come to the rich, as for kings and princes, we find that they are so inflamed and covetous for the goods of this world that we cannot satisfy them; indeed they are almost grieved if the sun shines on the poor. In brief we see that the majority of the rich would not even be satisfied had God given them the whole earth to possess. For, as I have said, they are still jealous that the poor have a common ray of light, and that they drink water, and work, and even succeed better than the rich; [in all of this] a rich man feels only envy toward them. And although he draws their sweat and blood, it seems to him that when they eat at his expense they are wringing him of his very intestines and bowels. And unfortunately, this parsimony, or rather brutal cruelty on the part of the rich, is far too common.” . . . “[I]nstead of the rich imagining that they have gained everything when they have been enriched at the expense of others, let us realize that they have cut the throats of the poor and have made many widows and orphans, even thought they don’t think so.” I quote at such length because a libel and a slander have been circulating for the last several centuries to the effect that Calvin’s theology favors the rich. The thought has crossed my mind that if a stranger were to walk into the sanctuary just now, she might think I was denouncing the excesses of the current national and global economy. But no, to find such bold language coming from a pulpit, it is necessary to quote John Calvin, speaking to 16th century Geneva. These sermons were widely published in Europe. They were translated into English by Arthur Golding in 1583, and were therefore available to the Calvinist ancestors of this denomination.
But my point is that the method of Calvin’s ethics is to take a long and a broad look at the human bases for morality, that is, for “works,” and by means of it to root the consciousness of his movement deeply in the sacred mystery of our presence here together. “Consider what doing the right thing for our fellow man would be.” What a rich and challenging sensitivity this would lead us to, what a profound effort at selfless understanding it would require.
Here is how Calvin approaches the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” “[I]t is said that since man is created in the image of God, it is unlawful to make any aggression; or to put it another way, it’s as much as if our Lord were saying: “You wage war against me when you seek to hurt each other in this way, for I have implanted my image in you.” Calvin says “. . . God does not want us to be lazy in this world. He did not simply create us to abstain from evil. Rocks and trees and other unconscious things achieve that quite well. Rather it is crucial for [human beings] to give and apply themselves to accomplishing good. Therefore let us understand that when our Lord wishes for the life of our fellow men to be precious and dear in our sight, he shows that, as far as he is concerned, each time we fail to help our neighbor in need, we kill him. For we are not only murderers when we harbor ill will and secretly hate our neighbors, but even when we do not help them in their need and do not attempt to engage ourselves in their behalf when they need our help, we are guilty before God.” And “Scripture . . . teaches us that we must not think of man’s real value, but only of his creation in the image of God to which we owe all possible honor and love.”
This is certainly a rigorous ethic, more demanding than anyone could ever satisfy. It is consistent with Calvin’s paradoxical understanding of the human situation. We are both irreducibly sacred and utterly incapable of appreciating or acting upon the great value with which we and everyone we encounter are invested. To the extent that this ethic governed any life or society, it would have the character of grace, that is, a generous and provident--and unconditional--care for others. To the extent that it educated any vision, it would open the mind to the manifest presence of God in creation, whose greatest miracles are humankind, and the brilliant capacity for perception, compassion and love that dignifies each one of us. This seems to have been reward enough to compensate for the rejection of the belief in meritorious works. Calvin describes the kind of law that could indeed be written on the heart.
It is important to remember that these words of Calvin’s were written and spoken in a city under siege, many of whose people who had come there as refugees from the Inquisition and from severe persecutions in France and elsewhere. To quote him once more:
“If anyone . . . appears before you who is in need of your kind services, you have no reason to refuse him your help. Suppose he is a stranger; yet the Lord has pressed his own stamp on him and made him as one of your family, and he forbids you to despise your own flesh and blood. Suppose he is despicable and worthless; yet the Lord has deemed him worthy to be adorned with his own image. Suppose that you have no obligation toward him for services; yet the Lord has made him as it were his substitute, so that you have obligation for numerous and unforgettable benefits. Suppose that he is unworthy of your least exertion; but the image of God which recommends him to you deserves that you surrender yourself and all your possessions to him. If he has deserved no kindness, but just the opposite, because he has maddened you with his injuries and insults, even this is no reason why you should not surround him with your affection and show him all sorts of favors. You may say that he has deserved a very different treatment, but what does the Lord command but to forgive all men their offenses and to charge them against himself? . . .If we cover and obliterate man’s faults and consider the beauty and dignity of God’s image in him, then we shall be induced to love and embrace him.”
It has pleased God to give us Scriptures that are the work of human writers, to give us a body of religious thought that is the work of human minds, to give us traditions that bear the marks of their origins in the turbulence of history, to give us churches and communities that have deficiencies enough to diminish the best of their virtues. It has pleased God to give us ourselves, and our endless capacity for disappointing ourselves. Anyone who has read history must feel humbled by the difficulty and grief, and not infrequently the horror, of the conditions in which most people have lived. By the grace of God we have no idea what it would be like to live through an outbreak of plague in a walled city with a hostile army camped around it. We have lived in a period in which the need to protect our own population from attack has become urgent and continuous, and we have not always responded in ways that reflect credit on us, to say the least. Whether profound thought or great religious insight will arise out of our fears and confusions time will tell, though at present the prospects look dim. So we should, I think, feel more than a little awe at the brilliance and humanity of the best thought that arose out of the long struggles of the Reformation, and that has arisen through the centuries despite all the harm we as a species have done and suffered. History is humankind over time, everything we can know about ourselves. It is guilty and wounded. It presents a haunting image, one with an aura of the sacred about it. We are wrong to disown it, to estrange ourselves from it, as though we were not also children of Adam whose sins and errors will burden later generations.
If we were to cover the faults of Jean Calvin and look for the image of Christ in him, we might find that he could turn and bless us with a better gift for seeing Christ in our enemies, our friends, ourselves. Amen.