The Church needs better teaching – and you can help

For the last two years I’ve been immersed in the writings and context of John Calvin, the subject of my doctoral dissertation at Emory University. Reading thousands upon thousands of pages of the reformer’s systematic, exegetical, homiletical, polemical, and personal writings enables one to get a good sense of the broad brush strokes of his thought, the fundamental principles and practices about which he was most concerned.

In the popular caricature of Calvin the reformer appears as something like a tyrant, lording himself over the people of Geneva by using every possible tool of suppression and manipulation. But of course, this caricature makes it impossible to understand why Calvin’s writings and theology were so inspiring to millions of Christians across Europe who were enduring violence and persecution under the cross. One might view those Calvinists of the Netherlands, England, America and elsewhere as being devoted to the establishment of tyranny in their own lands. But if you are at all aware of the trajectory of democracy and religious liberty in modern history, you will quickly discover that this picture doesn’t quite fit the facts.

The more systematic misrepresentation of Calvin, one admittedly fostered by some of his most devoted followers, portrays him as a vigorous systematician who took the basic theological principles of the glory and sovereignty of God to their logical extremes. This is the picture of the Calvin who is obsessed with double predestination, the Calvin of Ernst Troeltsch and of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. But again, a careful reading of Calvin’s Institutes and basic exegetical and homiletical works will quickly demonstrate that Calvin was not driven primarily by systematic or logical concerns. The default perspective of the man who described predestination as the “terrible decree” about which people shouldn’t speculate too much was that of a pastor and interpreter of Scripture.

If anything drove Calvin, then, it was his unshakable conviction that the Church of Rome had lost sight of the essence of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that this gospel was recoverable only in the faithful teaching of Scripture, the pure word of God. Rome defined the existence of the church in relation to the papacy and the apostolic succession of bishops but for Calvin this external hierarchy was simply an empty shell without the life of the gospel in its midst.

As much as possible, then, Calvin sought to transform the worship and government of the church into the mediation of Christ’s rule by his word. To be sure, he was well aware that in neither of these areas can churches function without appropriate rules and structures not revealed in Scripture but necessary to preserve peace, order, and edification. Calvin would have utterly rejected the modern tendency of Reformed and Evangelical churches to fracture into a multitude of denominations and sects on the basis of secondary matters of worship, government, or culture. But he would have been just as critical of those churches, whether Catholic or Evangelical, that fail consistently to preach and teach the pure word of God.

In his Necessity of Reforming the Church, which Calvin wrote to the Emperor Charles V in 1543 after the emperor had summoned the Diet of Spires, Calvin emphasized that Christian worship is in essence the practice of faith and repentance in response to Christ’s word. In contrast to the medieval church, he insisted, the reformers had simply “brought back the worship of the one God to the rule of his Word.” Invoking the Old Testament prophets Calvin writes,

For what is the sum of their declarations? That God neither cares for nor values ceremonies considered only in themselves; that he looks to the faith and truth of the heart; and that the only end for which he commanded and for which he approves ceremonies is that they may be pure exercises of faith, and prayer, and praise.

Calvin’s emphasis was on the word and sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) because he believed that it was through these means that Christ had promised to reveal himself to believers and commune with them. The emphasis on the word was therefore never an end in itself, as in bibliolatry, but the means of holding fast to Jesus by holding fast to his communication to believers. Any piety that claims to honor Christ, he argued, and yet fails to take seriously what Christ has said, is false. The fundamental mark of the church is the faithful representation of Christ through the preaching of his word.

For all of our emphasis on the Reformation and the vibrancy of Evangelicalism these days, in my view churches across the denominational spectrum are actually quite weak in this area. For so many churches the reaction to the (very real) danger of intellectualizing worship has led to the much more prevalent danger of dumbing it down. Pastors assume their congregations can handle only the most practical, relevant form of teaching, and only in the briefest manner possible (perhaps 25 minutes a week). And they do little actually to explain what concrete passages of Scripture teach, in their Christ-centered context. Yet while churches can survive with many weaknesses and errors in practice and even worship, they cannot long survive the lack of faithful teaching.

As always, the churches need reform. One organization seeking to promote just this sort of reform is Michael Horton’s White Horse Inn program, a radio discussion he leads along with three other pastors, one Reformed, one Lutheran, and one Baptist. The White Horse Inn (which also publishes an excellent monthly magazine entitled Modern Reformation) sponsors White Horse Inn Discussion Groups around the country for the purpose of encouraging Christians to gather together and talk about these things, promoting reformation in their own churches (and in fidelity to their own traditions). It’s a great way to study the theology of the Reformation on a basic level, as well as to get acquainted with Christians in your area from a wide range of traditions and denominations.

If you’d like to join my group, which meets in Stone Mountain, Georgia, please let me know via the Contact feature on this blog. If you’d like to start your own group you can contact me as well, or just contact the good folks at the White Horse Inn. We need more of this, and you, in your own time and place, can help.

[Note: This post originally referred to the groups WHI sponsors as Reformation Societies. That was inaccurate. Reformation Societies are similar, but are sponsored by a sister organization, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (another excellent organization, by the way, and the publisher of the online magazine Reformation 21, with whom a number of my articles have been published).]

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 13, 2012, in Calvin, Preaching, The Reformation, Worship and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Church needs better teaching – and you can help.

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