John Calvin: Reformed and Always Reforming

In honor of John Calvin's 500th birthday, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, writes about his relevance to Christianity today, the spiritual leaders who profess Calvinism, and how to keep the richness of his legacy alive.

How do you celebrate the 500th birthday of anyone – much less someone as influential, controversial, beloved, and misunderstood as John Calvin? Part of the problem comes with figuring out who to invite to the birthday party: the sheer diversity of religious institutions and denominations held within the spectrum of traditions called “Reformed” is mind-boggling. On the one hand, you can look to someone like Rick Warren whose Purpose Driven Life is classic Calvinism 101: God has a purpose for you and it is to be made in the image of his Son and living in loving community and mission to serve others and spread God’s love. On the other hand, you can look to Sharon Watkins, the General Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who is on the other end of the political spectrum from Warren, but who preached a sermon in the National Cathedral the day after Obama’s inauguration, espousing classic Reformed principles, calling the President to be accountable to God as the true master of all and not to fall prey to the idolatries of power. Or you could turn to Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, who preaches powerfully about the need to call ourselves to collective accountability, recognizing the profound depths of our sinfulness and refusing to judge others or create new margins of exclusivity, but instead, opening ourselves up to the grand gifts of God. Or you could turn to Jeremiah Wright, who speaks from the liberation prophetic end of the Reformed spectrum of new social movements and God’s justice righting human wrongs, drawing on the traditions of Calvinism that have called the state to account for the treatment of the oppressed and marginalized.


Not only do we have this vast array of religious voices speaking some semblance of a common Reformed cadence, but if we’re making a birthday list, we can’t forget the secular humanists, who also have a legacy in Calvinism. The profound notions that govern the political center in this country – democracy and public accountability – come straight out of the humanism that was born of Calvinist roots: the originally theological claims against idolatry and totalitarianism as the product of human sin and pride fund the constraints of democracy that insist on checks and balances and common rule for our common flourishing.

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Related Topics: John Calvin, Christianity, Faith, Theology
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