The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

John Calvin is Old, and Not Looking a Day over 500


John Calvin’s birthday deserves to be celebrated, not least because he was one of the truly great Christian exegetes and indeed systematic theologians of all time. Never mind that I disagree with a great deal of what he has to say about God, his sovereignty, the nature of his grace, election, predestination, human freedom, and perseverance of the saints.  I will reserve comments on those sorts of things for my essay which will appear in the September issue of  Christianity Today.   Here I want to say some positive things.  A personal word is necessary at this juncture.

I attended a seminary. Gordon-Conwell, which was largely in the Reformed tradition, even though I was an Evangelical Methodist. I read Calvin, Beza, both Hodges, Warfield, Berkower, Berkof, Van Til and various others.  I enjoyed taking Calvin with T.H.L. Parker at the University of Durham in England during my doctoral studies and reading in his commentaries.  The end result of this is that I discovered that the bar had been set high by Calvin when it comes to careful exegesis, and consistent theological systems. 

I also discovered along the way exactly why I am not a Calvinist, and became a more convinced Arminian as a result of reading Calvin.  I also discovered that Calvinism is actually in the main a redoing of Augustinianism, the theology of St. Augustine. It’s not actually a distinctively Protestant form of theologizing at all.  But Calvin deserves full marks for working out the logical implications of Augustinianism to the nth degree and adding some new wrinkles. 

Above all for me, he is to be respected for understanding that Biblical theology can only be done on the basis of a detailed and comprehensive exegesis of all the relevant Biblical material.  This is precisely why I have waited until late in my career to write The Indelible Image in two volumes (the first volume will be out in Sept.), which is a comprehensive survey of NT theology and ethics.  I needed to follow Calvin’s lead and research and write commentaries on all the NT corpus first.  Exegesis is the basis of all good Biblical theology, and the latter should not be attempted without doing the former first.     

My wife and I many years ago made a pilgrimage to Geneva. We visited the Reformers memorials, and I even sat in Calvin’s teaching chair (please don’t tell the elderly Swiss guard in that shrine). As a Protestant I owe Calvin, and Luther as well, much, as did my spiritual forebears John and Charles Wesley. The Calvinistic theology proved to be the iron offered by a brother which sharpened my own theology, just as George Whitfield’s sharpened Wesley’s.  And for this I am truly grateful. 

I have fond memories of working carefully through Calvin’s Institutes for the first time, and being especially surprised and taken with his profound theology of the Holy Spirit and of the Spirit’s sanctifying work.  This resonanted well with my own heritage.  I remember reading in the Gordon-Conwell paper a rather interesting historical curio from a letter of Calvin about how one morning he woke up and founded himself speaking in ‘lingua barbaria’. The article speculated that Calvin may have spoken in tongues.  The notion of Calvin as an early Pentecostal produced some interesting and heated responses.

There is much more I could say of a positive sort about Calvin, but this must suffice. He lived by Bengel’s maxim– Apply the whole of the text (of the Bible) to yourself. Apply the whole of yourself to the text. Its a motto any Christian should be proud to live by.   

For further discussion of Calvin, see Serene Jones article at

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James Garth

posted July 10, 2009 at 7:15 am

I am still awed by the deep reverence Calvin displays in his views on the Holy Spirit, even as a fellow Arminian!

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James Garth

posted July 10, 2009 at 7:16 am

I am still awed by the deep reverence Calvin displays in his views on the Holy Spirit, even as a fellow Arminian!

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Bill V

posted July 10, 2009 at 10:51 am

Do you notice a lack of writing and emphasis on the Holy Spirit in a lot of the “New Calvinists” or have I just missed it? That was one of the big differences between Wright and Piper that I noticed was Wright’s constant referral back to the Spirit.

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Ben Witherington

posted July 10, 2009 at 11:01 am

Hi Bill:
Indeed I have noticed that Bill, and of course most of the Dispensational Calvinists are cessationists, by which I mean they believe the charismatic gifts died off with the apostles, so a lack of emphasis on the Spirit is no surprise from them.

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posted July 10, 2009 at 11:40 am

Yes, today is not the day to describe how you are wrong. :)

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posted July 10, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Thanks for your graciousness and winsome approach to this important-yet-secondary area of difference in the Christian community. This sort of approach to what can be a difficult topic will hopefully enchance charitable dialogue and make things more palatable overall. I look forward to your writings on the topic!

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posted July 10, 2009 at 1:01 pm

If you want to read about John Calvin from the Jewish perspective and his assault against the true messiah of Israel Marcus Julius Agrippa read Stephan Huller’s blog entry at entitled ‘the Day of John Calvin the accursed, may his bones be ground into the dust.’ It will help round your opinion of this accursed man.
May his bones truly be ground into dust.

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posted July 10, 2009 at 1:28 pm

The next several years will be fraught with 500th anniversaries. So here’s to Jean Calvin – and to his little toy tiger too!

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posted July 10, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Suppose one asked “who are the greatest theologians?” Surely a very strong contender for the top spot is Augustine. And would any fair-minded reader fail to include Calvin in the top ten or even five?
So why then are they also so wrong, so badly mistaken? How can fundamental error and palpable greatness co-exist?

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Nathan Bierma

posted July 10, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Thanks for this; great memories you share. I look forward to the CT piece, and though I’m a Calvinist and work at Calvin College, I doubt I’ll disagree with all of it :) But for now I’m less interested in theological arguments about Calvin than about the personal caricature of him that persists: here’s my blog post today on how John Calvin has been miscast as a sourpuss and egghead, when in fact he preached and wrote with palpable pastoral heart:

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Ben Witherington

posted July 10, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Hi Nathan:
You are right about Calvin’s pastoral heart for the most part, although not in the case of Michael Servetus. I’m sure Servetus would have a different opinion.
And as for the question how can greatness and error coincide, this is like asking how can greatness and humanity coincide! All humans are prone to error as the sparks fly up, even the greatest minds. Consider for a moment someone like Sir Isaac Newton, as both a theologian and a budding scientist.

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Joe Rawls

posted July 10, 2009 at 4:05 pm

The Episcopal Church has just added Calvin to its liturgical calendar. I, however, remain a raging Arminian.

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TC Robinson

posted July 10, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Thanks, Ben. Very positive stuff from an Arminian brother in the Lord.

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Chuck Conti

posted July 10, 2009 at 6:11 pm

I am curious as to whether you set out intentionally to write commentaries on each book of the Bible before writing a NT theology because of Calvin’s direct example, or did you begin and then later realize that you were following his pattern?
God bless you!
Chuck (yuckabuck)

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posted July 10, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I’ll pay good money for a draft. I don’t want to wait until Sept.

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Ben Witherington

posted July 10, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Hi Bill:
You’ll need to abide your soul in patience. Sept. will be here soon, and any way it is a two volume project. The second volume is the collective witness— what would a theology and ethic of the whole NT look like? The first volume tells you what each NT volume plus Jesus contributed to the discussion.
And Chuck, I knew of Calvin’s work, but in fact he did some OT volumes I am unlikely to do, and he did not do Revelation. When I realized no one in my Arminian tradition had even attempted commetaries on the NT, I was off and running with double motivation.

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Jeremy Berg

posted July 10, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I appreciate your positive remarks about a man you disagree with on so many foundational doctrines. Honoring brothers and sisters of other traditions for their devotion and accomplishments, even when sitting on the other side of the theological aisle is always refreshing.
I, too, find myself being sharpened by my Calvinist friends – though they drive me crazy often with the zealous spirit they often bring to conversation. John Piper, namely, is someone I force myself to listen to weekly just to remain balanced and challenged exegetically and theologically.
I believe one of the healthiest things we can do as students of the Word is to surround ourselves with people of other traditions and theological persuasions in order to broaden our perspective.
QUESTION/COMMENT: Are the new Calvinists and neo-reformed folks less open to being challenged by other perspectives than other traditions? It’s a huge generalization, but my personal experience leads me to think Arminians are more willing to wrestle with Calvin, than Calvinists being willing to chew on John Wesley and others. Is there any truth to this generalization?
I can’t wait for your article in CT.

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Ben Witherington

posted July 10, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Jeremy I don’t care for generalizations about people. I have met foaming at the mouth Calvinists and likewise with Arminians. What I do find more frequently with the Uber-Reformed is that they place so much confidence and trust in their theological system that often exegesis suffers as a result, because ‘that text just couldn’t be saying that’ since our theological system is inerrant.

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Neil Lemke

posted July 11, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Hi Ben,
My parents were charismatic Australian Methodists, as am I (and, yes, there are those of my denomination who would definitely use the term “barbarian tongued” for me, at least theologically) – although I serve in the uberliberal United Church of Canada. I deeply respect Calvin’s depth and clarity and faith, but I remain a very convinced Arminian. Your commentary on Romans is for me a “book of gold” (an amazing Arminian commentary on this Letter!) – although that sentiment is not shared by my dear friend and colleague (and much more Calvinist) Bert Ramsey. At least we both agree that we love Karl Barth’s work.

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Jerry from Seal Beach

posted July 11, 2009 at 8:13 pm

What is a dispensational calvinist? Those almost seem opposite terms to me.

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Ben Witherington

posted July 11, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Nope, apparently not. Most of those folks at Dallas Theo. Seminary are both of these things, as was Jerry Falwell and others. They are Calvinists who believe in the rapture, and the notion that the present state of Zionistic Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, something Orthodox Jews themselves don’t necessarily agree with.

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posted July 11, 2009 at 8:57 pm

There is an array of approaches to Calvin, as to any theologian. One may examine the man himself, his life and history, his good, his bad, and his ugly. One may examine the scholar, and his approach to his subject matter, which most theologians will find respectable and thorough. One may examine the content of the subject matter itself, to determine whether one is of the same mind or not. Or one may examine the effects of any of the above on individuals, in church and/or in a community. It is in the latter, among the ordinary circles of suburbia, among those whose theology is generally handed to them second-hand that we’ve found the “foaming at the mouth” types, although it may be handed to them from the upper eschelons who also foam. Friends of ours had an 8th grader coming home from school in tears every day last year because her private school teacher — instead of teaching the academic subjects he was supposed to cover — insisted to the children that “Jesus didn’t die for everybody.” Despite objections from her parents to the headmaster, they eventually had to just pull her out and home school her. I’ve also had “friends” for whom an admiration for Calvin is a must. To hold another opinion is a pure deal-breaker, as if one had denied Christ.

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Ben Witherington

posted July 11, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Well Patricia that sad example of uncharitable behavior puts the ‘dog’ back in dogmatic.

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Douglas Bilodeau

posted July 12, 2009 at 11:34 am

When I came to read your reflections and personal recollections here on Calvin, I was tending to favor a latitudinarian appreciation from an Arminian point of view (in my jagged and ragged path of learning – and I am not at all young), and for the most part I was inclined to say ‘amen to that’. But when I went to the article by Serene Jones via the link you provided, I was more appalled than I can say. If the sentiment or slogan “Reformed and Always Reforming” means anything useful, it means “having returned to the authority of the Apostles, and seeking always to return to the authority of the Apostles.” The only other possible meaning is making the faith into whatever we want it to be, and being content that our great-grandchildren will make it into whatever they want it to be. When I read her Pickwickian (striving here for a charitable word) selection of representatives of the “reformed spectrum”, I could hardly imagine a lot more likely to be disavowed by the Apostles. (And when she spoke of someone as occupying the opposite end of the political spectrum from Rick Warren, I was puzzled as to what sort of end she was referring to, since Warren seemed to me the closest thing to a political centrist on her list.) Jesus did some occasional foaming-at-the-mouth himself, and His threats of damnation were most likely to be directed at religious leaders too pridefully wrapped up in their own agendas to be humble before God. It may well be true that the neo-Calvinists of today neglect the Holy Spirit in their theologies. But we also live in a time in which hypocritical clergy invoke the Holy Spirit as a convenient cover for the rankest, most cynical and self-interested apostasies. This finishes off a week of reading encounters for me which leave me crying, “The Catholics must be right! Pope and Magisterium are our only refuge in an insane world.”

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Ben Witherington

posted July 12, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Hi Doug:
I agree with you. They asked me to post the connecting link,

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Rob Suggs

posted July 14, 2009 at 5:42 pm

One more try to post this….
I’ve had close Calvinist friends for thirty years, and I’ve come to suspect that the delicately polished system of their Godview appeals most to a certain kind of personality type. Calvin himself was not this way, but those who gravitate toward Reformed systematic theology are so often Spocks rather than Kirks. (argument ad pop culture; sue me.)
Calvinism was an inevitable development of the Age of Reason colliding with the Reformation. People with a strong logical and mathematical bent are drawn to/comforted by a portrait of God that can be assembled by Scripture plus Socratic deduction. The problem is that God is above our equations and formulations. If there’s anything he seems to enjoy doing throughout Scripture and history, it’s flying in the face of logic. And there is no strand of tidy dialectic that can take in love or grace, which form the sheer heart of the New Testament. God is love–put that in your Piper and smoke it.
In college, when I would get into lengthy (and silly) drawn-out debates with Calvinist friends, I noticed they would resort to logic more often than not (“Doesn’t it follow that if God is absolute…”), while I would point to the character of God so fully laid out in the gospels and epistles. The debates always ended with my friends saying, “Ah, well, if God wants you to understand this, surely He will make you understand it.”
To this day I have a healthy fondness for a great number of Reformed believers, writers, and preachers. I myself need constantly to be reminded of the awesome, infinite God that they depict so well. Sproul points out that in the historic tug of war, his team has Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Jonathan Edwards and others on its side. As that great cloud of witnesses yank the rope and pull me into the mud, I hang onto my end, which is inscribed with John 3:16, and the phrases “the world” and “whosoever”–that rope feels good to the touch.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 11:29 am

Rob – interesting thoughts. I too have wondered about the personality that is attracted to Calvinism. It’s perhaps one that is hardwired for extremism and maybe attracted to exclusivity (I’m chosen and you’re not…). This would be an interesting study for a psychologist to do. As for the mouth-foaming Jesus that another person wrote about, I can see the current crop of Calvinist leaders, and we can all rattle off the names, as being people Jesus would foam at the mouth at.
Oh, someone needs to point out to Sproul that the people he uses to justify his side are just that, people and are therefore prone to error.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Dr. Witherington,
I have been a student at DTS for 2 years and have hardly encountered your caricature of the profs here, so “most of those folks” is a huge blanket statement and sweeping generalization. I have yet to hear one prof who says the present state of Zionistic Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, and most of the profs warn against that line of thinking and completely go against where the whacky dispensationalists have traditionally gone (and make fun of many of their forebears, mind you). As far as being cessationist Calvinists, I could spout off five professors off the top of my head who are vehemently against Calvinism, and more than that who nuance their view of cessationism to probably make it comparable to a position like you hold.
I find this caricature of DTS quite common among many, though I find it surprising with you given your interactions with Darrel Bock et al. This may have been the DTS of the 70s and 80s, but it is hardly the DTS of today. If it were, I wouldn’t be here ;-) You probably wouldn’t appreciate it if I said Asbury Seminary is full of fundamentalists who fire excellent scholars like Joel Green because he pushes the envelope and doesn’t believe in penal substitution. It would also be akin to me saying that Asbury seminary is not academically challenging and intellectually stimulating because they’re Methodists, and Methodists are shallow and naive.

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Dudley Jones

posted July 17, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Michael Servetus should get at least a brief mention here. Calvin made some really bad karma when he had Servetus burned alive.
Best wishes

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Your Name

posted July 21, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Dr. Witherington,
I heard a professor not to long ago who said that the belief of limited atonement fit well within Paul’s statement of a curse for those who alter salvation. I am interested to know, how do you feel about the matter? I actually find myself in agreement with the professor the more that I think about it. I honestly don’t think that Jesus would be happy with those teaching that he only died for a select few. I try not to be so dogmatic in my conversations with my more Calvinistic friends. However, I still wonder if this is not something that needs a stern response considering that it radically changes the idea of salvation.
Jeremy S. Crenshaw

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posted July 22, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Asbury fired Joel Greene? What were they thinking?

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Your Name

posted August 4, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Good for you, Ben, regarding your comment about Michael Servetus. Do you think he was a brother in Christ? Reformed church historian Philip Schaff did. He says Servetus “worshipped Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior” (HCC, 8:789). You obviously think Calvin was a brother. The world turned against him about the Servetus matter, yet he vigorously defended his dastardly deed the rest of his life. No repentance, yet in the last hours of his life Servetus repented of all of his mean rhetoric directed at Geneva’s Master Calvin and asked for the Reformer’s forgiveness for this, which the tyrant (as many think) would not do. We read in Scripture, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death…. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 3.14; 4.8). How do you assess Calvin in light of these texts? Servetus the Evangelical Author of The Restitution of Jesus Christ

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Mike Servetus

posted August 5, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Nader Mikhaiel

posted May 21, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Greeting brother “your name”
you wrote:
yet in the last hours of his life Servetus repented of all of his mean rhetoric directed at Geneva’s Master Calvin and asked for the Reformer’s forgiveness for this, which the tyrant (as many think) would not do.
I would like to have your sourse of the above as I am writing a book about Calvin.
Thanks and God bless

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Melissa Edwards

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:23 am

If I had a dollar for each time I came here… Incredible writing.

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Pingback: Calvin spoke in tongues - Gentle Wisdom


posted March 12, 2014 at 5:30 pm

No matter which side of the fence you are on-calvinism or not

I say WE CAN ALL AGREE that the Lord will have a GOOD TALK with a lot of us in heaven…

and (perhaps)some of us will LAUGH at “our own” hard hearts, ignorance, foolishness, etc!”

[ME included !]

Go ahead-laugh a little !

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones”
Proverbs 17:22

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