The Dynamism of Calvin’s Teaching

A frequent theme in Calvin’s writings and sermons is that of the victorious advance of Christ’s kingdom in the world. God the Father, Calvin says in his prefatory address to Francis I in his theological masterpiece, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, has appointed Christ to “rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth.” In a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:5-6, Calvin notes that Jesus came, not simply to save a few, but “to extend his grace over all the world.” Similarly, Calvin declares in a sermon on Acts 2 that the reason for the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost was in order for the gospel to “reach all the ends and extremities of the world.” It was this global perspective on the significance of the gospel that also gave Calvin’s theology a genuine dynamism and forward movement. It has been said that if it had not been for the so-called Calvinist wing of the Reformation many of the great gains of that era would have died on the vine. While this may be an exaggeration to some degree, it does illustrate the importance of the Reformed perspective. [Jean-Marc Berthoud, “John Calvin and the Spread of the Gospel in France” in Fulfilling the Great Commission (Westminster Conference Papers; [London]: Westminster Conference, 1992), 44-46].

Calvin, moreover, was not satisfied to be involved in simply reforming the church. He was tireless in seeking to make the influence of the church felt in the affairs of the surrounding society and thus make God’s rule a reality in that area of human life as well. It was this conviction that led Calvin to be critical of the Anabaptists, the radical left-wing of the Reformation. From his perspective, the Anabaptist creation of communities that were totally separate from the surrounding culture was really a misguided attempt to flee the world. Their spiritual forbears were medieval monks, not the early Christians who had been obedient to Christ’s words in Matthew 28:19-20. In Calvin’s view, they should be seeking positive ways in which they could be used by the indwelling Spirit to impact society in general and reform it, and so advance the kingdom of Christ.