I’d like to begin with an anecdote. Two weeks ago, I sat next to a French Dominican priest on a flight from Minneapolis to Spokane. We struck up a conversation in which he told me that Martin Luther had no interest in sanctification. Luther’s doctrine of justification, he said, was nothing more than an attempt to justify his own sinful patterns of life. As he put it, “Luther wanted to eat, drink, and be merry, so he figured out a theology that would allow him to do that.” When I suggested that Luther’s teaching concerning the law in the Large Catechism seemed to me essentially identical to Calvin’s teaching on the third use of the law, his response was, “Ah yes, Calvin. Very sad. Hardly even a human being.” And when I told him about this lecture – that I was going to try to open a window into Calvin’s humanity – his response was as simple as it was emphatic: “Impossible!”
So today I want to attempt the impossible. Rather than offering an argument about this or that aspect of Calvin’s thought or his historical influence, I want to try to paint a sort of impressionistic portrait of the man – Calvin in color, so to speak. Now don’t worry. I have no interest in psychoanalyzing him in order to discover the secret essence of his personality. People have tried that, and in my judgment, none of them have been particularly successful. Nor do I want to idealize him. Calvin could be impatient, he had a temper, he was insufficiently tolerant of his enemies, he could steamroll people who got in his way, and I doubt many of us would have wanted to live in Geneva during the time of the Reformation.
Instead, I simply want to introduce you to a side of him that you may not know, and hopefully to persuade you that he does, after all, belong to the human race. And I want to do that by focusing on two of his close friendships. But before I do that, I want to do two other things. First, I’m going to make an observation about the cultural context in which we today encounter Calvin. And then I’ll describe Calvin as I think he exists in the popular imagination.
Before he committed suicide in September of last year, David Foster Wallace – who battled severe depression for decades – was, to my mind, the most interesting and morally serious observer of American culture. He also happened to be the best American writer of his generation. And so in addition to being tragic and almost unbearably sad, his death means that we’ve lost one of our most perceptive cultural critics. I mention this because Wallace coined the term that I think best describes the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.
America, he said, is a culture of Total Noise. Inundated with media options, bombarded by advertising, harangued by a cacophony of competing experts, we’re awash in a sea of expanding information. To be alive today is to be the target of arsenals of voices – helpful and unhelpful, sane and insane – all competing for our minds and hearts, and especially our wallets.
And yet the irony couldn’t be thicker. Instead of making us wiser, instead of illuminating our lives, the proliferation of information and the multiplication of competing authorities have left many of us feeling more confused than ever – confused about the world, about ourselves, and about what it means to live a good life. Today we have more access to more information than ever before in history and yet we hardly have a clue what to make of it or what to do with it.
But no matter what you think of the information age or the internet or new media, and no matter where you stand within the political and ideological spectrum, one thing is certain: we all need reliable guides, competent teachers, people clear-sighted enough to lead us through the data-fog that we inhabit.
Christians know that Christ alone is wise enough to be our prophet because he alone is our eternal priest and king. And we also know that Holy Scripture is, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “our rule of faith and life,” which means, as Calvin put it, that just as someone with poor eyesight can only see clearly with spectacles, so too will we remain confused unless guided by Scripture.
But who in here thinks he doesn’t need a good teacher? Who has never longed for someone competent and coherent and willing enough to guide her in the Christian life? And who’s been lucky enough to find such a person and isn’t profoundly grateful for it?
I’m sure you see where I’m headed with this. As far as trustworthy and illuminating guides to the Christian life go, they don’t get much better than Calvin. He’s among the greatest pure teachers the church has ever had. You see this in all sorts of ways, but especially in his perfectly tuned instincts for what’s important, in his singular desire to help ordinary people become better readers of Scripture, and in the inimitable excellence of his writing style, which is at once lively, lucid, and succinct.
Calvin’s writing is as pure and crisp as mountain water. Or, to change the metaphor, it’s as clean and sweet as a Zinedine Zidane free kick. Unlike so many lesser writers who mask what they’re trying to say in opaque and confusing speech, Calvin loves his readers enough – and love, by the way, is the right word – he loves his readers enough to write with such perfect clarity that you never have to wonder what he means or where he stands. And that takes not only skill, but also courage. Because if you write unclearly, you can always shield yourself from criticism by claiming that you were misinterpreted. This sort of cowardice is common in academic writing, and when you encounter it, you can be sure that the writer cares more about his reputation than he cares about the subject matter. But no fair-minded person, no matter how much she disagreed with Calvin’s theology, would ever dream of leveling that charge against him.
And it’s not just that he’s capable of leading us into the higher realms of speculative theology. More importantly for our churches today, Calvin excels at showing how first-rate theology informs ordinary life. He’s a master of what today we would call spiritual theology – theology that guides and aids the Christian life. In fact, there’s never been a more eloquent enemy of theological speculation than Calvin.
So Calvin is an expert guide to the Christian life. But the problem, of course, is that the Calvin I’ve been describing is not the Calvin who inhabits popular opinion. And that leads us to the second part of the lecture.