Posted by: Michael M. Dewalt | July 6, 2009

Vacationing with a Calvinist Work Ethic

(Post by Ray Pennings)

The Calvin500 conference began in full swing today with a morning session that included five thirty minute papers (9 a.m. – 1 p.m.), a three-hour afternoon cruise on Lake Geneva, and a three hour time of worship in the evening (with three sermons interspersed with psalm singing.) It was a full day by any standard, but a stimulating and a rewarding one.

The first paper this morning came from Dr. Douglas Kelly entitled “The Catholicity of John Calvin.” His basic thrust was that rather than thinking of Protestant as an opposite of Catholicism, we should understand Protestantism as opposing the papacy and abuses in the church, as there was a lot ofed continuity between the reformers and the catholics as well. He emphasized small c Catholicism which he suggested was more properly understood as “seeking to expound the entire word of God to the people of God and the reading public.”

This was followed by a survey paper by Dr. Richard Gamble who reviewed 15 books and 7 edited collections which have been published about Calvin since 2000. Dr. Daryl Hart followed with a paper “Calvin among 19th century Reformed Protestants in the United States. He reviewed the details of three debates among American protestants – a debate about the atonement, a debate about language and metaphor, and a debate about the spiritual presence in the Lords supper – and demonstrated through this how individualism and egalitarianism had become significant influences affecting both sides of these debates, such that the corporate character of the faith emphasized in Calvinism has been neglected.

The final two papers of the morning both dealt with discipline. A paper byRobert Kingdom was read by Dr. William McCormish and provided a most interesting summary of the development of the system of discipline and the role of the consistory in Geneva. Dr. Kingdon is heading a team that is transcribing, translating, and publishing the 21 volumes of minutes of the registry of pastors in Geneva which is providing fresh source material to better understand the system of discipline in Geneva. This was followed by a keynote talk by Dr. John Witte on “Reading Calvin as a lawyer.” Dr. Witte highlighted the balance between law and liberty in Calvin noting the development of rights talk began with the Calvinists such that “by 1650, European Calvinists had died for every right” that was eventually included in the American Bill of Rights. However, this “rights talk was never divorced from duties talk.” Dr. Witte developed Calvin’s three uses of the law – its civil use to restrain the sinfulness of unbelievers; its theological use to convict men of their sinfulness; and its educational use to teach believers towards sanctification. He highlighted how Calvin, with reference to both church and state, highlighted the division of powers (between judicial, legislative and executive functions), a mixed system of governments, and federal systems of government as a check against the abuse of power by authorities. He concluded with several reflections on the enduring contribution of Calvin to law, noting the respect for the rule of law within the church, respect for the democratic process within the church, liberty within the church, and a healthy respect for human sinfulness. In the final section of his paper, he noted how Calvin may not have contemplated a neutral or secular state in his sixteenth century context, but how Calvinist since, building on the doctrine of creation and the resurrection, developed systems of pluralism claiming as their seeds Calvin’s thought.

The format was intense with five papers delivered in four hours, with no time for questions or interaction in a room whose acoustics were less than ideal. Nonetheless, these papers did provide some stimulating discussion (not all agreement) over our water breaks between.

We had to rush to refresh ourselves for a three-hour cruise on Lake Geneva where the beautiful scenery was looked at only between the interesting conversations we were able to have, as many of us mingled and met others we knew through their writings but had never had the opportunity to meet before.

This evening, we had a time of worship in the cathedral that included three sermons. Dr. Philip Ryken preached on I Corinthians 16:5-11, “A Wide Door for Spreading the Gospel in which he highlighted (1) the constraints of the call; (2) the openness of the doors; and (3)the strength of the opposition. Dr. Peter Lilliback preached on I Corinthians 1:29-31, “All the Glorious Offices of Christ” in which he described how Christ as a Redeemer fuctions as prophet, priest and king. In the final message, Dr. Robert Godfrey expounded John 17:3 focusing on (1) the life that is eternal; (2) the God who is true; and (3) the Christ who God has sent.

It was a full day with hardly enough time to absorb, let alone process, the significant and rich content that was shared. However, it was also a time in which communion with the saints and with God was felt as we worshipped together, singing with alternate verses accompanied by the organ and accapello, with (among many other songs), from a 1707 hymn written by Isaac Watts:

Great Prophet of my God

My tongue would bless thy name

By thee the joyful news

Of our salvation came,

The joyful news of sins forgiv’n

Of hell subdues and peace with Heav’n

Jesus my great High Priest

Offered his blood and died

My guilty conscience seeks

No sacrifice besides.

His powerful blood did once atone,

And now it pleads before the throne.

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