Calvin's One Idea
John Calvin was a complex man. He was a Renaissance scholar who wrote commentaries on Seneca. He was a linguist who dealt with Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts like they were his own native French. He was a pastor who preached weekly. He was a statesman who attempted to implement a new vision for the people of Geneva. To try to find the essence of such a complex life, to try to reduce a mind of such depth to a single idea would be impossible. Absurdity. Madness.
Perhaps, though, the fall weather is affecting you in the same way it’s affecting me. Something in the air feels maddening. Perhaps it’s that national politics have become episodes of some mad reality T.V. show. Perhaps it’s that the internet is making irony the only acceptable form of humor. Perhaps it’s the ever-increasing control of global politics by corporations. I don’t know what it is, but something in the air rings of the absurd. So why not try to encapsulate one of France’s greatest minds in a catch-phrase? Why not attempt to reduce a giant among men to a toy figurine? Why not search for Calvin’s one great idea?
Calvin’s one great idea is this: God is in control. God is really in control. This is Calvinism reduced to its most essential claim. Calvin’s most important and abiding legacy for Protestantism is this one extremely simple, yet totally revolutionary, idea. Calvin’s legacy is staring that idea in the face, refusing to flinch when we see its implications, embracing all of the tension and difficulty implicit in it. God is in control. God is really in control.
Five hundred years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, almost five hundred years after the life of its most important Reformer John Calvin, this is the essential Reformed theological claim. That is, it is the Reformation’s most basic claim about God the Father, the theos (Greek for “God”) of theology. If Reformed Christianity’s speech about God the Father could be boiled down to a single statement, it would be that God is in control. Of the world. Of the universe. Of the multiverse (if such a thing exists). And, of course, God is in control of the universe at large because God is in control of everything in it.
God is not the CEO of earth, making large-scale decisions and leaving daily operations to managers and employees. God is not the president of earth, setting global policies and delegating oversight to specialized underlings. No. God is the very life-blood of the planet. God does not order the universe from afar. God is the breath in our lungs, the gravity that holds us to earth, the veins that connect all our organs. God is imbued in everything and everywhere. As the Psalmist wrote, “Where can I go from your spirit? To where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven you are there. If I make my bed in the depths you are there.” That was Calvin’s, and is Calvinism’s, one great idea.
Calvinism today need not be the same Calvinism of the seventeenth, or eighteenth, or nineteenth, or even twentieth centuries. We no longer need to affirm ideas of “Original Sin,” now that we know that Adam and Eve did not exist in real history. We no longer think of Scripture as one unified, coherent text; we see its difficulties and disparities and contradictions much more clearly than Reformation-era Christians did. We no longer need the accoutrements of the past, those relics of an older and different time. But that does not mean we have to abandon the Reformed faith or the legacy of its greatest Reformer. We have Calvin’s one great idea.
By holding on to Calvin’s great idea, by embracing it and all of its many uncomfortable implications, we can authentically claim to be heirs of Calvin’s Reformation without being entangled by the theological trappings of his day. We can attempt to formulate a Christian theology for our context and our time – we can embrace the best in modern science and philosophy, we can discard the husks of Christianity’s former eras – and we can do so as daughters and sons of the faith, as heirs of the tradition, as children of the promise.
Calvinism today often finds itself enslaved to the formulations of former eras. Often remains trapped in a shell it should have molted generations ago. Calvinists today champion the infamous five points of TULIP, think of salvation as if it were a supernatural event, remain committed to a wooden notion of biblical authority that ignores the Bible’s many difficulties. That is, Calvinism seems to be mired in the past and bound by the chains of a former era.
But it need not be so. With the one big idea we can free ourselves from the past, from the unhelpful genes passed down by our theological ancestors, while remaining true to the past’s beautiful legacy and inspiring faith. With our central theological claim, that God is really in control, we can be Calvinists without TULIPs, Reformed without inerrancy, and Christian without antiquatedness. We, the children of the free woman, can be bound to nothing but scripture and sound reason. And that, I think, is a perspective that John Calvin would affirm.