Humility and the Modern Age

john-calvin“When you stand on the shoulder of giants you should probably be able to see further than them.”

This year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. He was a reformer of the church in Geneva. He was, by all measures, a remarkable man. He studied at university from the age of 13, firstly to train for the ministry and then for the law. He wrote a Latin commentary on Seneca’s On Clemency in his early 20s. In 1536 he wrote the first volume of his systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion. He was press-ganged into serving the church in Geneva and after an initial false-start he spent the rest of his life there.

Calvin was primarily a preacher. He preached every day and twice on Sunday – directly from the Hebrew and Greek text. He also taught student pastors and wrote Biblical commentaries. He wrote to many people across Europe, encouraging them in the work of Reformation. His work was immense and he is still remembered and studied today.

I did reasonably well at school but I coasted through a lot. I preferred to hide behind curtains than study Latin – something I’ve regretted since. I studied Hebrew in my first degree and Greek in my second but I can’t read either with any fluency, let alone knowledge. I preach at most twice a week – and although I see this as my primary task I’m aware of my limitations. I’m lazy by nature and I waste my time way too much. I’ve written no books. My emails aren’t publishable. My doctrine is getting there but scarily shallow. I don’t know the Bible in anything like the depth I should.

I was 30 this month. People today see that as young but it makes you feel very inadequate when you see the accomplishments of someone like Calvin.

That brings me to the quote that started this post. It was written in the comments of my internet round-up post by my friend Jon Robinson. He’s a nice guy. He’s very tall and he grows a fine beard. He’s very up-to-date with all the latest theological goings-on.

When it comes to me, though, I think Jon misunderstands my interest in Calvin and other historical figures. My aim in life is to be as unoriginal as possible. The last thing I want to do is stand on their shoulders as I’m so far from their faith, knowledge and godliness. At this point in time I’m content to sit at Calvin’s (or the Puritans’ or Forsyth’s or even Jon’s) feet because by doing so I don’t raise up myself but I am brought to raise up Christ, who he points to in all his work. 

Our quest as ministers is not to look further with our superior knowledge but to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). I believe Calvin preached that faith with grace and power. Let me sit for a while and learn – and glory to God alone!

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4 thoughts on “Humility and the Modern Age

  1. Pingback: 3. “Christian” ecumenical partnerships? Treasures in glass boxes « Phil Baiden

  2. Reblogged this on Phil Baiden and commented:

    This is the most viewed piece on this blog. I’d love to think it was for my great writing but the reality is that it’s got a picture of Calvin in it and people were interested in him during 2009.

  3. I agree strongly with your idea that there can be no historical progress in faith and truth so that standing on the shoulders of giants is a somewhat misleading metaphor in theology BUT (there had to be one) I two reservations.

    Firstly the question arises whether, in that case, there can be anything we can learn from Calvin that isn’t better learned from the Bible (or the Church fathers); once again, what’s special about the 16th and 17th centuries.

    Second (and this follows in my view from the answer to the first) the truth, while eternal and unchanging, is not eternally and unchangingly known to human beings. We need to find the language and conceptual frameworks that make the truth accessible (to the extent it can be) to people in our own time. This language and these frameworks will not be exactly the same as Calvin’s (or those of the Westminster Divines).

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