Rev. Dykstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Doon, Iowa.
The purpose of the column “The Strength of Youth” is to encourage and instruct you, the youth of Christ’s church. Because young, Reformed believers face a host of temptations and spiritual struggles in this ungodly age, we seek to help you with the doctrinal and practical problems with which you must grapple. Many of these articles will focus on some issues faced primarily by college students—both in the classroom and in everyday life. Some of the same issues affect high school students as well, particularly those not privileged to attend a solidly Reformed high school. Nearly all the topics have been dealt with before in The Standard Bearer, and in greater detail. But it is our prayer that the articles will aid you—by refreshing your memory, by giving references, or by exhorting you to stand fast in the line of the Reformed faith.
The title of this article points to a very real and common trial for college students. The Reformed young person enters college grounded by years of solid biblical instruction from the home, Christian school, and catechism. Some Reformed truths are firm convictions, distinctly etched into his mind and soul. Other doctrines and practices may be less familiar and somewhat vague. But in the mind of most, one thing is certain, namely, that John Calvin is Reformed! Calvin is a writer we can trust. He is not, of course, infallible; but he is reliable. His works set the standard for what is Reformed. It can be a severe shock, then, to learn from a professor or a fellow student that Calvin taught this or that, contrary to what you have been taught for years! Typically, students react to such news in either of two different ways. The great majority of students in class seem unperturbed by it. Others, however, refuse to believe it and begin to search Calvin’s writings for the truth of the matter.
If you find yourself in the latter position and want to argue your case with the professor, you are, of course, at a distinct disadvantage which might well crush your original determination. For, in the first place, you have daily assignments to keep up with, papers to write, and tests to study for. Hours of unassigned research in Calvin’sInstitutes will not favorably affect the grades. And secondly, the professor knows the arguments before you raise them. He has probably heard them every year he has taught the course. When you add to that the reality that the bulk of the class will have little interest in your points, it takes much courage of your convictions to face the issue.
From a practical point of view, I can understand why you probably pass up many opportunities to research and publicly defend Calvin or any Reformed doctrine. But I urge you to do so whenever possible. It will greatly enrich your education and you will leave college settled and grounded in the Reformed faith, not doubting it. Let us examine how men sometimes use Calvin to “support” un-Reformed ideas.
One of the most disturbing aspects of wrongfully appealing to Calvin is the, at best, carelessness, and at worst, dishonesty, of some professors at Christian colleges who quote John Calvin to support their un-Reformed teaching. Three aspects of this practice are particularly troubling.
First, in a discussion of a modern-day controversy some quote Calvin to support their unbiblical position. The problem is that Calvin never faced the issue, at least not in its modern-day form or context. Exactly because it was not an issue in his day, it is dangerous, and even unethical, to quote Calvin as though he were addressing the issue at hand. (Examples: women deacons, the free offer of the gospel, common grace, etc.)
I would compare this to a politician or activist today using Abraham Lincoln to support his pro-abortion stance. He might argue that, after all, Lincoln supported the right of freedom for slaves. Lincoln maintained that no one had the right to own and control another human. Therefore, the pro-abortionist could conclude, Lincoln would never support laws that restricted the freedom of women over their own bodies. Lincoln is (or would be) pro-choice.
But what is wrong here? It is this: Abraham Lincoln (so far as I know) never addressed the issue of abortion, because it was not an issue in his day. It would be extremely presumptuous to claim Lincoln as a fellow advocate of abortion rights on the basis of his stand on slavery. In fact, it would be unethical to do so.
The same thing is true of using Calvin to support a “side” of a twentieth century controversy. Keep in mind that even meanings of words change over time. Theological controversies have forced the church to clarify and explicitly define doctrines as well as words. After a controversy an informed writer may well use a particular word in a more careful and technical sense than before the controversy. Thus when you go back 400 years and read Calvin, remember that he might not (COULD NOT) be as clear on some doctrines as we can (and SHOULD) be today, and that some words he used then have a different, or at least added, meaning today.
A second dangerous practice is that of proving a position is Calvinistic or Reformed by quoting a “Calvinist” of a later age. The argument (usually implied) runs something like this: 1) This position, call it “position A,” is historic Calvinism. 2) Proof: “Mr. F.R. Calvinist,” in his book, p. 37, writes thus. 3) Because this man is from the Calvinist tradition, this is what Calvinism teaches on this issue, or what Calvin would have taught if he were alive today. This is a <i<common< i=””>tactic of modern writers on Calvin and/or Calvinism. Books on Calvinshould be read with careful attention to the sources and references. Take the time to check them out if what the man says sounds un-Reformed.
Once again, you see the problem. “Position A” is not necessarily what Calvin taught. It is rather what Mr. F.R. Calvinist taught, who, it is CLAIMED, is in the tradition of Calvin on this issue. This is, however, exactly the point at issue. Is he or is he not? Only a careful study of Calvin’s writings will reveal whether or not this is the place to which Calvin’s teaching leads and therefore is consistent with true Calvinism. Calvin was a REFORMER in the true sense of the word. A Reformed man insists on faithful adherence to the Scriptures. A good rule of thumb is, therefore, that any instruction that contradicts Scripture and/or the Reformed confessions is not the teaching of Calvin.
A third, blatant perversion of Calvin’s teaching is accomplished by quoting words out of context. When a man’s words or sentences are taken from one context and put into a completely different one, the man can be presented as saying something he never intended. This is what the Heidelberg Catechism</i<common<> calls falsifying a man’s words—a violation of the ninth commandment. Check the context whenever in doubt about a quotation. Sometimes you will discover that the quotation—in context—actually REFUTES the very position it supposedly proved!
When you face this improper use of John Calvin, it helps to be aware of a few technical considerations as well. The translation and editing can vary significantly in a given passage. Not only should the translator be concerned about making an accurate translation, but he must also be careful not to put Calvin’s 16th century writings into words unfamiliar to Calvin just to be more relevant for today’s readers. This can change the meaning significantly, as can headings added by the editor.
Finally, please remember that Calvin wrote a staggering amount of material—letters, commentaries, treatises, and catechisms. And when he was not writing, he was preaching, and (Genevan) council-appointed listeners copied down the sermons nearly word-for-word. Obviously some sermons, commentaries, letters, and treatises were written early in his life. Others were composed after Calvin had developed much in his thinking. What is the point? Two things. First, any one who wrote that much was bound to contradict himself at times. And, secondly, because he was so diligent in his studies, Calvin certainly developed in his understanding of the truth over the years. In order to avioid misrepresenting Calvin, be aware of this and be sure you have his current teaching, that is, not an isolated statement which was contradicted in different places in his writings, but rather themain line of his teaching, and, if possible, the more mature (later) works. This requires a fair amount of reading of Calvin. But it is well worth it!
So when you ask or answer the question, What did Calvin teach on…?, be careful! On some doctrines and practices, the answer is obvious. He wrote clearly about the sovereignty of God, about man’s depravity, as well as about election and reprobation, and infant baptism, to name a few. But on others, he was not so plain. What did he say about a democracy as we have it in America? Nothing. About common grace, as we know it? Nothing, directly. We must be very cautious about simply believing that Calvin taught this or Calvin approved of that, when “this and that” contradict Scripture.
We plan, the Lord willing, to examine some concrete examples of false instruction concerning John Calvin’s teaching which college students have faced, beginning with women in church office (did you know that Calvin approved. of women deacons?!?). If you have faced this sort of instruction in the past, feel free to write. For the sake of future students, perhaps your particular question should be discussed here. (No names of students, professors, or colleges will be revealed.)