Van Ens: John Calvin captivates evangelicals |

Van Ens: John Calvin captivates evangelicals

(EDS: Use Religion page label My View mug of Rev. Jack Van Ens)

Imagine the brilliance of a birthday cake lit with 500 candles to celebrate John Calvin’s birthday last month on July 10 (1509-2009). He sparked the Protestant Reformation from his pulpit in Geneva. Calvin’s teachings charge spiritual batteries of evangelical Christians, even in places not identified as religious hotbeds. Preacher Tim Keller, whose erudite sermons are fortified by Calvin’s theology, attracts educated young professionals in Manhattan. In Seattle, pastor Mark Driscoll gives edgier sermons introducing Calvin to the masses. Using acerbic wit patterned after David Letterman, Driscoll defends Calvin against detractors. Skeptics like to caricature this reformer as a crank who stoked bonfires, sending heretics up in smoke.

Calvin detested intellectually shabby faith when he ministered in Geneva from 1541 to 1564. He created a spiritual force that made this city renowned in the 16th century for its moral rigor and serious study of Christianity. He put Geneva on the European map with a motto that still lights faith’s fires: “Where there was a person of powerful intelligence and noble heart, there was a champion of the Reformation.”

This spirit swept across Europe, reaching the low countries, like the Netherlands, where Calvin’s followers named their churches “Reformed.” Other Calvinists called their churches in Scotland “Presbyterian.” When pilgrims from these churches traveled to the New World, they established training grounds for Christian ministers at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Calvin’s sturdy theology sparked dedicated efforts to found frontier colleges, too. Both Calvin College in the Midwest and Princeton Theological Seminary, where I studied Calvin, still intentionally regard this reformer as a prime shaper of their reformed heritage.

Why does Calvin attract evangelicals who are rediscovering the power of his message?

God acts on the world’s stage

Is life is a hodgepodge marred by unlucky, tragic turns? Where is intellectual glue to tie together the disparate pieces of life? Look to Calvin, evangelicals say, to discover how God makes sense of a life that’s messy.

Ever feel like an actor slipping on a dicey stage? Calvin stabilizes believers who see God acting in their lives. Our world, Calvin teaches, isn’t a slick stage on which we slide. It’s God’s playground, a theater in which he directs shows and stars in them. Calvin spied more than fleecy clouds in the sky. He said that clouds were part of God’s creative handiwork, divine imprints on life’s canvas.

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it,” Psalm 24:1.

How do we hone the ability to see God acting in nature and history?

Calvin writes in “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” a massive handbook explaining Christian faith, how creation acts like “a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.” Scripture serves as eyeglasses for blurry vision. It helps believers focus on how God acts in life. We don’t get easy answers. But God implants curiosity within us as we witness his plot unfolding in the great drama of life.

Christianity isn’t for dummies

Recently, I spoke with a friend who berated believers as “dullards who don’t think and refuse to inquire because they use faith as a crutch.” Faith for him functions as a catchall synonym for anti-intellectualism that slides into superstition.

Calvin restores the mind to its rightful place in Christianity. Using creation as a mirror to spot how God works, Calvin saw science as a prime stage where God acted. He surveyed Scripture and related its teachings to what the church fathers had taught centuries before. In this way, he compared his Christian convictions to other towering intellects. Calvin loved to read, to write, to argue, to muse and to search after mystery.

“No small part of our wisdom is a teachable spirit,” he wrote in his commentary on Hebrews 8:11.

Ben Franklin denounced Calvinists as know-it-all arguers.

“Persons of good sense,” Franklin wryly observed, “seldom fall into disputation, except lawyers and university men and men of all sorts who have been educated at Edinburgh.” Here’s the home of Scottish Calvinism. But a curious mind isn’t defensive. It seeks to grow through spirited conversations with competing minds.

Faith interprets all of life

Before comedian Al Franken was elected Minnesota’s junior senator, he parlayed comic wit as Stuart Smalley on “Saturday Night Live.” As a self-deprecating spiritual guru, Smalley repeatedly recited his mantra, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” By golly, listeners loved this sweet gospel.

Today, popular Christianity defines itself as an interior exercise. Private spirituality gives pats on the back, inflates bruised egos and never raises blood pressure because faith dodges controversial topics.

Calvin addressed those who, as Smalley does, like their faith private, therapeutic and always affirming. The Reformer from Geneva taught how campaigning for city magistrate was as religious an act as becoming a missionary. Calvin placed his pulpits on Main Street and in sanctuaries. The best 500th birthday presents in his honor are given when Christians join God on his stage and act as thespians who reform, renew and revitalize every slice of life.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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