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Dear Zack,

Grace and Peace from our Lord Jesus Christ!

I have never met you nor have I even read more than the one blog post you wrote to John Calvin.  Thus I offer this as a response limited to that post rather than to your whole person and teachings (nor will I attempt to respond to every point in your post).

Your open letter admits to not having read all of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and you appear unfamiliar with the content of his commentaries.  I think it would be helpful for you to know that Calvin’s Institutes in their present form were designed to supplement the commentaries.  The earliest versions of the Institutes served as a handbook of Reformed theology but not the commonly read version today, which is more like a theological textbook.  This was one of Calvin’s innovations because other theologians tended to digress into systematic explanations of a given topic each time it came up in a commentary on the Biblical book.  Calvin instead would point the readers of his commentaries to the Institutes for those discussions rather than repeating himself each time the topic appeared.  I, for one, am grateful that he sought for “lucid brevity” in his writing.

 

Nevertheless, I understand the daunting nature of offering a comprehensive critique of Calvin not only because he wrote in French and Latin and most of us have to rely on translators but also because of the sheer size and depth of the corpus of his works.  Moreover, for any critique of Calvin to be serious it must read him in the context of theological discourse of the period.  Personally, I have read the entirety of the Institutes more than once, wrestled with it through seminary courses, read books about Calvin and his theology, read a fair amount of his commentaries, and have read portions of his contemporaries’ works (all in English translation).  I am tempted to assume that you are right that many of those who follow in tradition of Calvin today have not read as much as you did.  Yet to be honest the only pastors that I know who have not read him extensively, in every circle that claims to be Reformed, are some of the theological liberals who have abandoned the project he attempted.

I am grateful that you are willing to admit that Calvin was “a brilliant guy and a great writer.”  Many people today do not appreciate the genius of Calvin and unwittingly stand on his shoulders as to how we read Scripture.  This, of course, includes Arminians.  Sure the designation Arminian stresses what they believe in contradistinction to Calvin, thus they are defined by where they disagree with Calvin’s interpretation of Scripture, and yet they rely on Calvin for much.  We have a tendency to major on the differences rather than the areas of common understanding.  I also appreciate your recognition of Calvin’s passion.  I would only add that his writing is also very devotional and doxological, which is very helpful too.

But as with your open letter, here we now come to the heart of the matter.  As you say, “To be blunt, as a Christian, I don’t recognize your God and I have no clue what the good news is in the Institutes.”  I’m afraid that your objections about recognizing the God that Calvin describes may be because you have been exposed to an American Jesus and God rather than a description consistent with the Jesus and God in Scripture.  Yes, I know the title of your site is “The American Jesus” and as I admitted above I am not familiar with its content, so I approach this critique with some trepidation.  But how can you seriously say that you have no idea what the message of the gospel is in the Institutes?  If you are having a hard time understanding the gospel in the Institutes, maybe you need to go read Calvin’s sermons and commentaries.  Yes, I understand that your first major objection noted here is double predestination.  But your complaint with Calvin is really more of a complaint with the God revealed in Scripture, which teaches predestination.  You are hardly alone.  It is rather common to read Scripture today assuming the American God and American Jesus than to allow Scripture to confront our presuppositions.  It is very difficult to avoid this completely.

And then you say that “it gets worse” because, according to Calvin, “God ordains every single horrific act of evil that has or ever will occur.”  And as you put it, “if a child is raped, a family murdered in their sleep, or an entire population of people sent off to the gas chambers, that wasn’t just the act of evil men.  It was the will of God.”  First, let me assume that you understand the difference between God’s preceptive will and His decretive will.  That is, God reveals what he commands us to do in His precepts (preceptive will) and God ordains all things that come to pass (decretive will).  Sure this is not Calvin’s terminology, but he would recognize it as consistent with the Reformed project of understanding Scripture.  Then let me ask: Do you think that it is contradictory to say that such horrors you list are both the decretive will of God and acts of evil men (violating God’s preceptive will)?  Have you never read what Joseph said to his brothers?  “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).  Have you never read the Prophets who describe the exile as the will of God carried out by evil people whom God also would punish?  Or have you never wrestled with the fact that the crucifixion of Christ was the will of God carried out by the hands of sinful people?  There is no more single horrific act of evil than the cross of Jesus Christ, but it was God’s will for your salvation.

And then you seriously say to Calvin, “But in the end, based on your own argument, the one looking the most depraved is God.”  Again, I am forced to conclude that your complaint is not with Calvin’s Institutes but with the God of Scripture.  This is not to say that as a Christian you should not voice these concerns to God — the laments in Scripture offer good examples to imitate in this regard.  But instead, you picture an Americanized God who is not sovereign and think that the God of Scripture that Calvin describes is a monster.  The primary objection that you have to Calvin is the same objection you should have the more you study Scripture — your presuppositions about God are different than Scriptures revelation of Him.

As your critique unfolds, it is unfortunate that you appear not to understand Calvin’s distinctions nor the need for making distinctions to be faithful to Scripture.  But I will grant that it would not matter — even if you understood Calvin you would disagree with him.  Thus I will not take the time here to make points some of which I have made elsewhere on this site.  Anyone who can say to Calvin “you cherry pick scripture like it’s your spiritual gift” has not adequately studied those references within their context.  Indeed you were right when you said, “Who am I to criticize the great John Calvin’s exegesis?”  Nothing better illustrates this than your complaint that Calvin does not quote the words of Jesus more often.  All of Scripture is the word of Christ, not just the parts that some translators put in red.  This is not to say that Calvin’s exegesis should never be challenged.  I cannot say that I always agree with the conclusions about a particular passage in the commentaries or even in the Institutes.  But anyone serious about the interpretive task should carefully consider his exegesis.  He has not lightly chosen those texts to which he appeals at any given point in the Institutes.

Having written all of this I’m not sure that it should go public.  Since you do not know me, there is the danger that you might assume that I have set out to tear you down and I do not have your gift for making this letter seem informal.  At least you can understand my impulse to defend Calvin’s reputation from your characterizations, though I have not responded to each and every attack on his character.  I am seeking to respond to you in a way that does not go to the polemical lengths that you have done.  You might find it interesting to know that Calvin took the same approach in his writings, which is clear whenever comparing his writings to those of his contemporaries.  I am not going to say that your position is heretical — it is inconsistent with God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture at some crucial points, but that does not make it rise to the level of heresy.  Everyone can be blind to ways that we take presuppositions about what God should be or do with us when we read Scripture.  Even if we could have a written theology that is perfectly consistent with Scripture, our lives would not always be so consistent but need reform.  So I’m not sure how things will work out between us.  Since you say that for now you and Calvin need to part ways, am I to assume that would apply to me too?  I hope not, because I’m sure that there are things that we can learn from one another as we strive to follow Jesus and get to know Him better.

In Christ,

Justin Marple

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