As a person who adheres to the Doctrines of Grace, more commonly known as Calvinism, I find it worth my time to read one of the most inspirational, celebrated and yet controversial theologians in history, the man John Calvin himself; namely his Institutes of the Christian religion.
A couple of years ago, when I first began to adhere to the Doctrines of Grace and Reformed Theology, I began to realize that I had, for the better part of my life, misjudged greatly these doctrines as cold, hard, depressing and mean. That is because I did not really know much about them and certainly misunderstood them greatly because I had never felt the need to study or look into what exactly they taught, and more importantly what was at the heart of the doctrines and of those who taught them.
Similarly, I have until recently, judged the man John Calvin as a monster for his alleged partaking in the death of the heretic Servetus. Upon further study, I came to find that he really had no part in it, but in one of his letters, he did say that although he did not advocate for having him burned at the stake, he did agree that he was deserving of death. I do not agree with Calvin on this point, but I do not think that this makes him a monster. In Calvin’s time, heresy was punishable by death, so that’s all he knew. I am not trying to defend him or say that he was justified in his decision, just that he was a flawed human being like the rest of us, and was no more or less a monster than either you or I.
As I have begun to read the Institutes, I have seen that John Calvin was most certainly a humble man who was very well versed in the knowledge of Scripture. He was a man after God’s own heart. He had a deep love for people and for the Truth of God’s Word. He may have had some temper issues with people (who of us doesn’t at times?), but these do not show in his writings. He most certainly wasn’t perfect, but I find that he is incredibly consistent in all of his doctrine. There is a great quote from Arminius, who had his differences with Calvin, but nevertheless, recognized Calvin’s great knowledge and interpretation of Scripture.
He wrote: “Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself [a Dutch divine, 1551–1608]; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the [Heidelberg] Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.”
Many times, someone’s writing reveals their true heart. This may not always be the case, but I challenge you and myself to read those with whom we disagree or think we disagree to find out where they are coming from. We may just find out that they aren’t so bad after all, or we may find out that we still do not agree with anything they say. But in the end, it is always best, as the saying goes, never to judge a book by its cover. And more importantly, we shouldn’t judge people by their faults, but love them in spite of them.