I would like to say something regarding an interaction that I had with a couple of bloggers about John Calvin. Essentially they claimed that I should not quote or reference Calvin because of his role in the execution of the heretic Michael Servetus. While making clear that I in no way condone Calvin’s culpability in the matter (and he was by no means singularly responsible for Servetus’ death), I also tried to draw a distinction between Calvin’s failure in this respect and the value of much of his writing and teaching notwithstanding.
When we read Scripture, for example, we see over and over that God chose to accomplish his work through fallen, fragile, and failed human beings. Think of Noah the drunk, Moses the stutterer, Gideon the coward, David the adulterer and murderer, Jonah the rebel, Peter the denier, Paul the chief of sinners. The list goes on. It is amazing when we consider it. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). And yes, that includes John Calvin, you, and I, and every other broken and unworthy vessel through which God chooses to magnify the glory of his grace. Ultimately, it is the gospel itself that attests and authenticates its own saving power in a way that not even the imperfections of the one who proclaims it can discredit.
I would like to cite a section from Steven Ozment’s book The Age of Reform 1250-1550 (pp.315-316) in which he drives this point home by drawing a historical comparison between the medieval humanists (such as Erasmus) and the Protestant reformers such as Calvin and, in this particular case, Martin Luther. Here is what Ozment observes:
A further difference between the humanists and Protestants stemming from the persistence of scholasticism within Protestantism is the Protestant disinclination to subject their teaching to moral critique. The reformers did not permit ethics to sit in judgment on the truth of their doctrine. It became the hallmark of the Anabaptist, Spiritualist, and rational critics of the Reformation, almost all of whom were deeply influenced by Erasmus, to make moral results the test of doctrinal truth and to criticize the followers of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin for failing to improve the moral quality of life. The Protestant reformers looked upon sectarian efforts to make ethical considerations the norm of doctrine in the same way that the Council of Constance had looked at the teaching of Wyclif and Huss – as resurgent Donatist heresy. Whereas Erasmus saw in the maturing Reformation a new threat to the humanities, Luther beheld in the Christian philosophy of Erasmus the decline of true doctrine. He wrote of the primacy and inviolability of doctrine:
Doctrine and life are to be distinguished. Life is as bad among us as among the papists. Hence, we do not fight and damn them because of their bad lives. Wyclif and Hus, who fought over the moral quality of life, failed to understand this. I do not consider myself to be pious. But when it comes to whether one teaches correctly about the Word of God, there I take my stand and fight. That is my calling. To contest doctrine has never happened until now. Others have fought over life; but to take on doctrine – that is to grab the goose by the neck!…[W]hen the word of God remains pure, even if the quality of life fails us, life is placed in a position to become what it ought. That is why everything hinges on the purity of the Word. I have succeeded only if I have taught correctly.
What Ozment and Luther articulate here is something crucial for understanding what drove the Protestant reformers. That which to them was “of first importance” was the gospel, Jesus Christ rightly and faithfully preached from Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3). Luther, like Calvin, was himself a deeply flawed individual. Yet he could testify along with the apostle Paul, the self-described “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), that “we have this treasure [the gospel] in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us”. This is not to excuse the failures of Luther and Calvin; it is rather to exalt the glory of the grace of God who uses the weakness of human vessels like them to reveal the power and truth of his Word.
As Luther expressed at the end of his life: “We are beggars; this is true”. David and Paul. Luther and Calvin. You and I. All of us.
(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Ozment)