John Calvin turns 500 on July 10th. He is one of the most influential, and controversial, theologians in history. It is unfortunate that the average American probably doesn’t even know who he is. And the average Christian in America probably has heard his name in a rather derisive way. Controversy surrounds him because of the God’s Sovereignty/Free Will debate and his role (hotly debated) in the burning of the heretic Michael Servetus.
Even if you don’t agree completely with his theological system (I don’t completely agree), it is important to note that his life and ministry was devoted to the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God. A worthy goal indeed. If you have the time this week, I encourage you to take in this breathtaking biographical sketch of Calvin by John Piper to a gathering of pastors.
But what is often overlooked is Calvin’s influence on our world as a whole. Forget the religious stuff for a moment. The truth is that Calvin’s shadow looms much larger over our lives than most of us can comprehend. Calvin’s preaching and writing was the catalyst for producing the theologians and philosophers who were most responsible for shaping modern Western Civilization.
Here are some examples:
The Protestant work ethic which made the West so productive and wealthy can be traced back directly to the influence of John Calvin.
The beliefs that prompted the Pilgrims to pursue religious liberty can be traced directly back to Calvin.
The concept of a democratic republic (modern form of government) rather than a monarchy (ancient form of government) can be traced back to Calvin.
Contemporary scholars credit Montesquieu for being the greatest influence on the United States Constitution. Guess whose political theories Montesquieu praised? You got it, John Calvin.
I’m not saying that these concepts originated with Calvin. For example, one can find a shadow of modern democracies in certain stages of the Roman world and one can find the influence of the Magna Carta on our Constitution as well. But I am saying that at one of the most critical junctures in the timeline of world history, Calvin was the primary influencer for a lot of these ideals.
The great Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, when lecturing at Princeton in 1898 said these words to us (Americans):
In the rise of your university education . . .; in the decentralized . . . character of your local governments; . . . in your championship of free speech, and in your unlimited regard for freedom of conscience; in all this . . . it is demonstrable that you owe this to Calvinism and to Calvinism alone.
“The Genevese should bless the birthday of Calvin.” – Montesquieu
If you love the values and freedoms you enjoy in this country, so should you.