Calvin's Significance for Church and Theology
In this year when we remember Calvin, I have frequently been asked: of which church would Calvin today be a member? For me that is not really an issue; far more interesting is the question: how a visitor to that church could recognize that Calvin was a member? For that is what matters when we talk about Calvin’s significance for church and theology. I could tell you a long story about all sorts of ministers and other theologians, about church meetings and church fights, but you would not appreciate that, and neither would I.
Therefore simply: imagine a church wall with graffiti, skilfully squirted and stating with big letters: Calvin was here! That is what it says, but is there any evidence? Before I go on: Calvin’s influence is not just recognizable in Calvinist, Reformed, or protestant churches — or whatever you wish to call them — but also in Catholic ones, for Calvin has not simply attacked Rome but rather, and especially, awakened her and so started a reform movement there. And the same goes for evangelical churches, which adopted many of Calvin’s ideas that Calvinist churches ignored. Nevertheless, I remain for now with the general image of the Dutch church, and that is predominantly protestant.
How do we recognize Calvin’s presence not physical, but in his writings and ideas — in the protestant churches? I want to answer that question with reference to seven characteristics of Calvin’s church.
Calvin’s Church is the Preaching Church
In every Dutch church there will be a sermon on Sunday, of different lengths, but in each Calvinist church the sermon is the centre and dominant part of the service.
“Nothing is so important in the eyes of God than the preaching of the gospel…for that is the means to lead people to salvation” (S.C. 8, 21), writes Calvin. The Word of God, Calvin says, has the strength to change people, and this change means first of all that enemies of God become his children. In the sermon the door to heaven opens, and preachers must with conviction point their hearers to that door. People will then realize that the preacher is concerned about the well-being of the congregation. Shouting means nothing, but a friendly heart helps people to move on. And the minister must not be cold. “Therefore, do away with all coldness and indifference; for those who are cold in their relationships are not suited for this work” (CO. 49, 123). The preacher’s warmth must be apparent in the sermon, and there should therefore be no dull preaching styles. The Dutch church is known for its ministers who speak well, who bring the Word with warmth and diligence, and they have learned this especially from Calvin.
Calvin’s Church is the Speaking Church
The Word of God must be heard not only within the church’s four walls. Therefore the church speaks also in public, in society. Calvin regularly complained to the government of Geneva about the fact that biblical laws were not obeyed, about public safety, and about social injustice. The same can be seen in Dutch church history. In many cities church and city hall are close together, and a visit from the church to the city hall occurred more often than the other way around. Many were the protests by the preachers in the Dutch Republic [i.e., after independence had been gained from Spain]: if you have chosen the Reformed religion then this must become evident in government policy. And so it continued through the centuries. It was not always equally effective and to the point, but the church did make herself heard in society about ethical questions, social issues, and financial crises. The church has a face and it has opinions, not leftist or rightist, but simply biblical and direct.
Calvin’s Church is the Independent Church
A free church in a free country — that was the motto of the reformed fathers when in the sixteenth century they thought about the situation when the Spanish dominion would have ended. This was altogether in conformity with the ideas of Calvin, who already fought for a free church in Geneva — although there the attempt failed. In the Netherlands, however, it succeeded. The church has her own laws, can independently exercise discipline, and decides about her own policies. Such is not the case in many other churches — such as the Lutherans. But in the Netherlands the church is free and independent. And that is what she wants to remain.
Calvin’s Church is the Seeking Church
When we talk about the seeking church, I see in Calvin’s church the picture of the deacon and the elder — that special couple, sitting at either side of the preacher. They don’t remain seated, however, for the elder gets up to seek those who do not attend church, or who no longer or not yet come there. And the deacon looks for those who attend with difficulty or who, because of all sorts of difficulties, stay away. The Church Order of Dort, inspired by Calvin, mentions as one of the tasks of the elders, to win others for Christ. The deacon seeks those who are needy and attempts to help them. And then there are the many church members, young and old, who visit each other and simply “are there” for each other. Calvin’s vision of the church wherein Christocracy and democracy are united is responsible for the fact that in the Netherlands the church forms the greatest volunteer agency. And this seeking work of the Dutch church can be seen in the long tradition of missionary work and evangelism, of diaconal and social service. The church seeks what and who is lost, as well as those who got stuck somewhere on the way.
Calvin’s Church is the Caring Church
The church was so important to Calvin that he always spoke of her as mother. Having lost his mother at an early age, he knew very well how important mothers are. The church is the mother who gives birth to children, who feeds and nourishes and leads them. She has to care for her members, and therefore young people have to go to catechism classes during the week. They owe this to Calvin, and he meant well. Care-giving means that young people learn early who looks after them and how they themselves can serve him and others. The caring church is also the one that applies discipline. That is an unpleasant word for something that is good and well-meant: caring that people stay on the right path, the path of the LORD. And that they care for each other.
Calvin’s church is the church of women societies and mutual aid, of custodians who almost day and night look after the building and its visitors. The church in the Netherlands has always said, following Calvin: the neighbour within and outside the church is my concern. And up to today she has also put that into practice.
Calvin’s Church is the Changing Church
Calvin believed that a church should be flexible as far as its organization is concerned. She must always recognize changed circumstances, and in one country she can be differently organized from the next one. Calvin liked change, but not for the sake of change, but for the sake of improvement. There are Dutch people in a Calvinist church who say: with us nothing ever changes. Others like to go from one meeting to the next. And then there are those who cannot handle the changes in their church — they complain that it makes them dizzy and even a bit sick. Nevertheless, whoever looks at the Dutch church through the past centuries, notices many changes. This is also true of the Catholic church. It is not by accident that the Netherlands count as one of the pope’s most difficult church provinces; this is simply a result of the fact that our Catholics are also really Calvinists — biblical, fully dedicated, and a bit stubborn.
Calvin agreed that he understood how unpleasant it can be to have to change something that has become familiar, but what must be done must be done. If you want to serve God well then you will have to continually let go of customs in order to go back to what God really asks. Customs can be very old, yet sometimes they have to disappear because they have come to oppose God’s honour, says Calvin. And I add: according to the Bible the church is the body of Christ and therefore there must be life and movement within her.
Calvin’s Church is the Singing Church
In the Reformed church a lot of singing takes place. It will be noted by many outsiders that members have their own church book with them. Mothers who have to carry loads of these books with them on Sunday thank this to Calvin.
God must be praised, and those who know him desire to praise him. God’s Word desires an answer, and that answer can very effectively be sung, and then, as a start, from God’s own hymnal: the psalms. For errors enter the church with singing. A song is remembered longer than a sermon, and because there were already many songs containing messages that did not agree with the Bible, Calvin preferred also in this respect to stay within the boundaries of Scripture. Why run the danger of singing about human ideas when you find in the Bible itself a complete hymnal with divine authority? In the meantime we are not afraid of hymns either.
So the Dutch church sings. Just walk past such a singing church on Sunday; you can hear the songs from the outside! And then, of course, it is high time to enter the building yourself. Calvin was here? Also when it is not announced in the graffiti on the outside wall, the fact that Calvin was with us can be heard and seen in a Reformed church.
By way of conclusion we return to the question from which church Calvin would become a member. Do not congratulate yourself too early if he should choose yours, for he just might say: I believe that I will become a member with you, for quite a bit has yet to be reformed in your church.