Gebhard column: Letter to John Calvin

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dear John Calvin,
I pray this letter finds you well even at 500 years of age. Next week our church, named after you, will celebrate your birthday. Granted, your birthday was on July 10th, and even though many things have changed, most churches still worship on the Lord’s Day. So we’re going to honor your achievements during worship on July 12th. To be honest, if we held a celebration on the actual date of your birth, we probably wouldn’t get anybody out to church on a Friday night. Sorry about that.
You may be surprised to know (even horrified knowing that you wanted all glory to go to God) how many of your ideas from the 1500s have become so pervasive. That fellow Knox from Scotland you mentored began a reformed church that’s known as Presbyterianism. Can you believe it? Your notion that the people had the right to elect their own presbyters (overseers) took hold.
OK, there are only a few millions of us who go by that name, but the Declaration of Independence had only one clergy among the signers, and it was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian. And the United States Constitution was created in large measure by the efforts of James Madison, who was influenced by Witherspoon. The idea of federalism came from you and your Genevan experiments in representative democracy. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that your theological views, which led to your political views, have shaped modern notions of liberty and self-governance.
Another one of your theological views, regarding the tendency of humans to be so idolatrous, has been amply demonstrated lately. You felt that greed was one of the chief examples of idolatry and, hence, you called Christians to a way of life that shunned ostentation. Well, we have a global economic crisis that was instigated by rampant greed and unfettered exploitation of loopholes in financial regulations. If only we had listened to you more closely. You believed that laws were enacted to thwart sinful behavior in society, and an ordered society would be better equipped to deal not only with evil but also incarnate the compassionate kingdom that Jesus began. Oh well.So many people cringe when they hear your name because of that predestination thing. Not long after your death, a whole generation of Calvinists took your theology to extremes. We’ve forgotten that you affirmed God’s sovereignty in all things which, for you, meant that God was free to do whatever God wanted. If you were meant to be eternally damned, so be it, but you said that you would live as if you were going to be eternally saved because that would mean you would live a just and holy life not out of fear but in freedom. Wish more Christians lived like that.
What was your favorite? Chocolate or vanilla icing? We’re going to have a cake for you following worship. Oh, you probably didn’t even have cakes like this in the 1500s. I tell you what, I’ll eat a piece for you. Or would that be too gluttonous? Happy birthday John Calvin, and thanks for all you’ve given the church and the world.
The Rev. Doug Gebhard is interim pastor of John Calvin Presbyterian Church.