W. Stacy Johnson, associate professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, admires the John Calvin who was a church leader, wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion and once refused to be paid his stipend.
But he is bothered by the Calvin who taught the doctrine of double predestination and was intolerant, superstitious and self-righteous.
“I confess that I have a love-hate relationship with John Calvin,” said Johnson July 9 at the Calvin Jubilee, a July 8-11conference here honoring Calvin’s 500th birthday. “Coming to grips with Calvin means coming to grips with ourselves as Reformed Christians. For if Calvin is a mixed bag, then so are we.”
In his lecture, “John Calvin — What’s Not to Like?” Johnson discussed how to talk about what Calvin and the Reformed tradition means today, adding that Reformed beliefs cannot be limited to the past. Because there is not just one Reformed tradition, being faithful to Calvin’s spirit might sometimes necessitate disagreeing with him, Johnson said.
“You don’t have to agree with Calvin to be Reformed,” he said, outlining four areas for continued reflection by Reformed Christians: scripture, salvation, sacraments and society.
The battle between textual and contextual interpretations of scripture is a familiar one, Johnson said, adding that pastors in the United States used examples of slavery in the Bible to defend slavery in their own country. Calvin’s work has examples of both literal and contextual readings of the Bible, Johnson said.
“It’s time to put aside the idea that the Bible is a book meant to keep the world from changing,” he said.
In the area of salvation, Johnson outlined several atonement theories. In the ontological view, God has done something to change the essence of humanity. In the forensic view, the primary human predicament isn’t death but disobedience. In the moral influence view, the problem isn’t about how to appease God but how to change sinful human beings.
In short, the ontological view emphasizes the life of Jesus, the forensic view emphasizes the death of Jesus and the moral influence view emphasizes the resurrection of Jesus, Johnson said.
Johnson then moved to the “ironic and tragic” area of sacraments, which are meant to display unity but often inspire discord among believers.
The Reformed tradition has different ways of viewing the sacraments, he said.
On the topic of society, Johnson said that Calvin was a master politician who cared about the practical parts of the world. Calvin believed that religious reform would lead to social, economic and political reform.
Calvin was an opponent of slavery and an advocate for collegial ministry, Johnson said.
Calvin measured a society by whether and how it took care of its poor and wounded. He believed that the institutes of the world — governments, schools, families — are ordained by God, who wants these systems to work for the people. He believed that people must not only pray for God’s will to be done, but that they must also actively work for it to be so.
“For Calvin, we belong to God, and we belong to one another,” Johnson said.