Revisiting John Calvin's Reformation

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If you want to see clear evidence of the connection between God and the United States, look at the life and beliefs of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin. July marks the 500th anniversary of his birth. 

Calvin never stepped foot on American soil, but his influence in the founding of this country is difficult to deny.

'Father of America'

CBN News took to the streets to discover that most people today associate the name, Calvin, with the comic strip character Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, or Calvin Klein.

That is a shame according to Dr. Charles Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University.

Dunn agreed with the late Harvard historian George Bancroft who wrote, "He that will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty." Bancroft even called Calvin "the father of America."

"We might dispute the degree to which he was the father of America," Dunn said. "But no one had as great an influence over such a breadth of ideas as John Calvin."

Calvin developed many of those ideas while he was pastor of St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva beginning in 1536 with ideas that transformed the city. Those ideas included education for the masses, not just the elite; the sacredness of all professions, not just the ministry; free market economic reforms; and checks and balances in civil government. 

"He understood the nature of government that you cannot grant power to just one authority because power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Dunn said. "So there must be checking of power with power."

These are ideas the early settlers brought to America a century later and appeared in documents like the Mayflower Compact and the U.S. Constitution.

Significant Works

But perhaps Calvin's most significant work was his Institutes of the Christian Religion. 

Dunn called it "The most brilliant theological document since the New Testament." 

Five centuries later, it is still in print in two volumes. In it, Calvin set out to explain what the Bible had to say about God, man, creation, sin, justification by faith, the church and the sacraments, among other things. But the theme throughout is the sovereignty of God in all of life, including salvation.

Today, Calvinism, or reformed theology as it is also called, is a small minority of the evangelical movement. But it is making a comeback in places many evangelicals have avoided.
   
Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of Manhattan, N.Y., is drawing hundreds each week to hear the preaching of Reverend Tim Keller.

And at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Wash., Mark Driscoll uses an edgy, multi-media presentation to tackle Calvinism's most controversial doctrines, including predestination. 

Calvin Doctrines

"Some Christians say God chose those that He knew would choose Him," Driscoll exclaimed in one sermon, "The only problem is the Bible says no one seeks God, no one looks for God, no one desires God, no one chooses God."

Mars Hill is one of many churches countering the popular notion that Calvinism is too traditional, even stodgy. Driscoll characterizes himself as a "Charismatic Calvinist." And he is one of the reasons Time magazine recently proclaimed "The New Calvinism" one of the 10 ideas changing the world right now.
  
Nowhere is Calvinism's resurgence more obvious than on college campuses across the country. In fact, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, one of the most popular campus ministries is called Reformed University Fellowship. 

On the night CBN News visited the campus, more than 100 students turned out for what amounted to a Tuesday evening worship service.

Kelly Lersch, who attends regularly, was surprised by how many people participated.

"People come and they bring their Bibles and I wasn't used to that growing up in church," she said. "I mean, you talked about what the Bible says, but you didn't really bring your Bible to church and so, yeah, that was really different."

Greg Thompson is senior pastor at Charlottesville's Trinity Presbyterian Church, popular among University of Virginia students. He told CBN News what he heard from them when they first encounter reformed doctrine. 

"I didn't know the world mattered so much," he said. "I didn't know the Bible mattered so much. I didn't know I was so messed up and how sufficient Jesus' work for me, my salvation. This is big. And, of course, it is big."

And that realization, Thompson said, brings a cultural benefit that Geneva saw during Calvin's time. 

Calvinism and Young People

He said Calvinism is providing young people who want to be social activists with "a theology that's basically born out of the goodness of Creation, the radical corruption of the Fall and Jesus's salvation; His lordship over all things, not must my little soul."

Calvinism's resurgence is the subject of the book Young, Restless, Reformed written by Christianity Today's Collin Hansen. 

"There's a need for a rigorous Christianity; a Bible-based, rigorous Christianity that can hold up during these times," Hansen said. "Even a place like Time magazine is recognizing that an evangelicalism that tries to parrot the culture around is an evangelicalism that will perish with the culture around it."
    
Hansen is hopeful that more Christians will revisit and reclaim the tenants of the Reformation that transformed a church and a city five centuries ago.

*Originally published July 16, 2009

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