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John Calvin and Roads Not Taken

By March 31, 2017 4 Comments

It’s that time of the semester when I try to help students appreciate John Calvin. It’s a difficult task for a variety of reasons. Many students don’t know anything about him, nor do they really care. That’s not a knock on them, it’s just not their tradition. Others have grown up with a weird distortion of Calvin’s theology. I usually start by saying I’m not sure Calvin would be a Calvinist if he were around today. I’m guessing he’d be Catholic, wondering why we insist on remaining separate even though Vatican II took care of many of the things he wanted to reform. So, I spend the time reading through book one of the Institutes, showing them how Calvin harkens back to Augustine, how he really isn’t developing a natural theology (even though so many Reformed and Calvinistic Christians pretend he is), ending with his view of sin and total depravity.

The last thing young people need is another dogmatic dose of imperfection. They get this everyday on social media, comparing their lives to the perfect, idyllic, fantasies of everyone else. They know they’re not perfect, no need to rub it in. What they do need is a proper embrace of this imperfection; they need to be reminded that the nature of sin is the impossibility of getting over ourselves. Try as we may, every attempt to get to God, every attempt to love our neighbor, turns into one more monument to ourselves. We’re trapped, stuck in the endless loop of our own consciousness. Salvation, for Calvin, is to be broken, cracked open by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. This is good news, and this is what my students, and their bearded professor, need to hear. But they also need to be reminded of our human predicament: to be human is to live as finite creatures. We’re not God, we’re flesh and bone, culturally situated, time bound persons making our way through life. This is both terrifying and liberating; it’s both freeing and paralyzing. We can’t do it all, we have to make choices. Sometimes they’re the wrong choices, sometimes we are forced to choose between two shitty options, but choose we must. This is the beauty of John Calvin. Not this “God has a plan for my life so I don’t every have to worry” nonsense, nor an emphasis on election and predestination that evokes a triumphalistic “I don’t ever have to make a choice because God chooses for me” program for those who want to skate through life. No, Calvin offers a theology that affirms our creaturely existence—we are human beings conditioned by culture and context, which means we’re not as free as we think we are. The good news? The God of the universe decided “before the foundations of the world” to be for us in Jesus Christ. And, as the good books says, if God is for us, who can be against us? So, live, act, choose—make good choices, make wrong choices, just don’t abdicate the responsibility to live as creatures. This is, after all, what it means to be human.

Last week I took my kids to a Lumineers concert. One song in particular grabbed me; I’ve heard it before, but for some reason it came alive under the lights. The video is a part of a trilogy showing the consequences of the choices we make, and more importantly, the paths we don’t choose. Instead of consoling ourselves with language about will and providence, maybe we should see these alternative roads not taken as an important part of our identity by embracing them, mourning them, even accepting them. Since then I’ve concluded John Calvin would be a Lumineers fan; both speak to the beautifully tragic arch of temporal life.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • I haven’t the slightest idea who the Lumineers are. (But then, they probably haven’t the slightest idea who I am.) Your summary of Calvin, though, rings true, as far as it goes. Thanks!

  • Michael Kugler says:

    I agree, Jason (I do wonder about the notion of Calvin and natural theology. Yet I’m probably thinking of Scottish Presbyterians who followed him). How then do you lead your students through other parts of Calvin’s theology that don’t seem like such good news? That asked, I use the recent movie The Witch in class, and its portrait of Calvinists is about as generous and attractive as any film portrait of Reformed people I’ve ever seen.

    • jasonlief says:

      Nice! Nothing like a good dose of the “satanic” to rupture the oppressive dogmatism of Calvinism. I mainly stick to Book 1 in an attempt to show them how Calvin really isn’t about natural theology, although I’ll admit I’m reading Calvin through Serene Jones and probably Karl Barth. My purpose is to show them how Calvin is reclaiming an Augustinian theological approach, over and against Aquinas and Aristotle. I also show them how, while Calvin claims to be moving away from “philosophy”, he is merely reclaiming a combination of neo-Platonism and Stoicism. I don’t make him out to be a saint, just try to show that much of what passes for Calvinism doesn’t jive with Calvin himself. It’s all part of the journey to Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer…and Black Sabbath.

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    Love the connection to the Lumineers! Calvin is everywhere….

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