Calvin-Reformed Tradition Is Inappropriate Today; It Also Lacks Humility & Grace?

In response to some concerns expressed by a reader:
Calvin’s system is inappropriate as a model for engagement with contemporary postmodernism.
– The “liberty” and grace you mention sometimes to me is not apparent when speaking to those of the Reformed persuasion.


First, the 22 volumes (22,224 pages) of Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible and Calvin’s multi-volumes sermons show that that Calvin is more a bible scholar and preacher than a builder of a rigid theological system. Not surprisingly, Calvin’s Institutes is replete with scriptural references. Calvin was a man of his times. It would be ridiculous to uphold him as someone who has ready answers for Christians who are grappling with different questions in different social contexts.

Calvin’s insights may be appropriated for our times only insofar as they are in congruence with the teachings of the Bible. For example, even though the arguments given by Calvinists to support paedobaptism may be admirable, I remained unconvinced on grounds that its exegetical support is insufficient.  In any case, Calvin would approve of Christians who insist that his teaching should be judged by its fidelity to Scripture.

Second, Calvin was not the rationalist that he is made out to be, by both his over-zealous followers and critics. Calvin’s scholarship was more influenced by post-renaissance Christian Humanism than by rationalistic medieval scholasticism. He was true to the spirit of Luther and Augustine. [See Charles Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy (Westminster Press, 1977). It would be an anachronism to rely on Calvinism as a rationalistic system [which would be a caricature of Calvin] to answer questions posed by contemporary postmodernism. It is no accident that I pointed out that Calvinism may be seen as part of the wider Augustinian tradition. Note also my deliberate comment that Thomism be assigned a “more subordinate role”. Indeed, many philosophers [both Christians and non-Christians] are looking to Augustine as they seek to engage with postmodernism.

Third, it is unfortunate that sometimes Christians from the Reformed churches can come across as arrogant people who consider themselves as ‘superior’ Christians because they think they have a better grasp of the Bible. They would do well to remember the humility of John Calvin who wrote in Institutes 2.2.11

11. I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility;” and still more with those of Augustine, “As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery: so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.” By humility he means not when a man, with a consciousness of some virtue, refrains from pride, but when he truly feels that he has no refuge but in humility…As our insignificance is his exaltation, so the confession of our insignificance has its remedy provided in his mercy. I do not ask, however, that man should voluntarily yield without being convinced, or that, if he has any powers, he should shut his eyes to them, that he may thus be subdued to true humility; but that getting quit of the disease of self-love and ambition, philautia kai philoneikia, under the blinding of which he thinks of himself more highly than he ought to think, he may see himself as he really is, by looking into the faithful mirror of Scripture. [I can easily give a dozen quotable quotes on humility and self-abasement from Calvin, but this sould suffice for the moment]

Indeed, Calvin’s humility is exemplary when he gave specific instructions that he should be buried in an unmarked grave, as he dreaded the possibility of pilgrims visiting and paying veneration at his resting place. Dr. W. Robert Godfrey explains:

[Calvin] was buried on Sunday [May 28, 1564] in an unmarked grave at a secret location somewhere in Geneva. In one of the last commentaries he wrote, he commented on the death and burial of Moses, “It is good that famous men should be buried in unmarked graves.”[1] This conviction guided his own burial. He rejected the superstitious veneration of the dead and wanted no pilgrimages to his grave. He had lived to make Christians, not Calvinists [emphasis added]. See, W. Robert Godfrey,  John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor (Crossway, 2009), pp. 198-199.

One Comment

  1. Chew Phye Keat says:

    Thanks Kam Weng – wonderful to hear from you and Calvin 😊 the affirmation to go back to the Bible to work out solutions and the message for today’s issues and not be stuck in a particular theological framework, while learning from our past theological giants, Calvin being surely one of them.