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Calvin in Letters

As we have previously seen, the pastoral character of John Calvin can perhaps be seen best in the more than four thousand of his letters that have been published. In these letters, a gentle, genuine concern, even for those who opposed him, is evident. Phil Johnson writes:

img   Most of Calvin’s letters convey the great tenderness of his pastor’s heart—especially when he wrote to admonish or correct someone who was in error. The tone of the letters belies the modern caricature of Calvin as a stern, fire-breathing, doctrinaire authoritarian. Still, his passion for the truth, his vast knowledge of Scripture and church history, and his meticulous logic are perpetually evident. There are occasional touches of emotion, ranging from frustration to humor, and throughout we get the sense of a man who (while consistently plainspoken) was never aloof or unapproachable but always sociable, affectionate, and cordial. The letters give us the best and most intimate sense of Calvin as a man.

Calvin corresponded with Laelius Socinus, the Italian father of the heresy known as Socinianism. Phil continues:

[Socinus’s] theology (such as it was) consisted of a particularly pernicious blend of skepticism and humanistic values, posing as Christianity but denying practically everything distinctive about the faith. Socinus was, in short, a theological liberal, and his system laid the foundation for deism, Unitarianism, and a host of similar variations, ranging from process theology and open theism to the pure skepticism of the so-called “Jesus Seminar.”
   Like many of today’s “Emergent” and post-evangelical writers, Socinus preferred to question everything rather than assert anything definitively. He lived for a time in Wittenberg, Germany, and while there, wrote to Calvin with a list of questions, which apparently were nothing more than thinly disguised protests against Calvin’s teaching. Calvin’s reply is full of good advice for many professing Christians in these postmodern times who like to toy with skepticism:
imgCertainly no one can be more averse to paradox than I am, and in subtleties I find no delight at all. Yet nothing shall ever hinder me from openly avowing what I have learned from the Word of God; for nothing but what is useful is taught in the school of this master. It is my only guide, and to acquiesce in its plain doctrines shall be my constant rule of wisdom. Would that you also, my dear Laelius, would learn to regulate your powers with the same moderation! You have no reason to expect a reply from me so long as you bring forward those monstrous questions. If you are gratified by floating among those airy speculations, permit me, I beseech you, an humble disciple of Christ, to meditate on those things which tend towards the building up of my faith. And indeed I shall hereafter follow out my wishes in silence, that you may not be troubled by me. And in truth I am very greatly grieved that the fine talents with which God has endowed you, should be occupied not only with what is vain and fruitless, but that they should also be injured by pernicious figments. What I warned you of long ago, I must again seriously repeat, that unless you correct in time this itching after investigation, it is to be feared you will bring upon yourself severe suffering. I should be cruel towards you did I treat with a show of indulgence what I believe to be a very dangerous error. I should prefer, accordingly, offending you a little at present by my severity, rather than allow you to indulge unchecked in the fascinating allurements of curiosity. The time will come, I hope, when you will rejoice in having been so violently admonished. Adieu, brother very highly esteemed by me; and if this rebuke is harsher than it ought to be, ascribe it to my love to you. [Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation, 128–129.]

—Phil Johnson, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust, 2008), 105–107.

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Posted  in: Church History · John Calvin · John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology · Phil Johnson
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