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Some Comments by Calvin

John Calvin (1509-64) was one of the leaders of that movement known as the Protestant Reformation. More correctly, he is known as a second-generation reformer because he lived a generation after Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). Luther and Zwingli were both first-generation reformers, in that they initially broke from the Catholic Church. The distinction between first- and second-generation reformers is important because it relates to what they accomplished.

Think of it this way: Luther and Zwingli kept busy in establishing their new (Protestant) ideas. While both wrote defenses of their respective positions, neither wrote a book describing all their beliefs in an outlined and definitive way. They were simple too busy, to put it frankly, putting out the numerous fires which resulted from their ideas. This was particularly true of Luther, who outlived Zwingli.

Calvin, on the other hand, was born sixteen years after Luther and lived when being a Protestant was not seen as a radically new idea to be extinguished, but as an opposition group to the Catholic Church. This meant that multitudes of people were a part of the Reformation—thanks to Luther and, to a lesser degree, Zwingli—and wanted to learn more. Into this world Calvin stepped.

Since the Reformation was not during the time of Calvin, he was able to take the time to consolidate, or better yet, systematize the new ideas of the Reformation. He did this in a book known as "The Institutes of the Christian Faith." To be sure, this book did not express the beliefs of all the new Protestants. But it was one of the first, if not the first, attempts to develop a systematic theology of the Reformation. What follows is a quote from the first chapter of "The Institutes." ("The Institutes" has 80 chapters. On a personal note, I was so struck by the last sentence in this quote, that I memorized it years ago. Regardless of the source, it is safe to say that its truth is one Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants can embrace.)

"Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes, and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. . . . We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. . . . It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself."

©2009 Mark Nickens

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