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Although it’s been nearly five centuries since pioneer Reformed church leader John Calvin planted ideas in the world that would come to influence major religious figures and entire religious movements, many of those thoughts are still as important today as they were then, reminded the head of the world’s largest Reformed body.
In an address celebrating Calvin’s 500th birthday and the Reformed Church of France’s 450th anniversary, the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, said there are three themes that Calvin thought were so important in his day and that the WARC believes are important today as well.
The first theme, he said, is the call to share Calvin’s passion for the gift of communion.
“On a global basis, Calvin was always working for unity and common witness among Christians,” Kirkpatrick said. “He once wrote Archbishop [Thomas] Cranmer that he would eagerly ‘cross ten seas’ if that would further the cause of Christian unity.”
Today, followers of Christ find themselves in a fragmented Church in a fragmented world, where conflicts are centered in religious difference.
“In our post-modern world this hunger for the gift of community is stronger than ever. In a fragmented and individualistic world, the Church is called to be a genuine community of Christ and to express that unity regularly around the Lord’s Table,” Kirkpatrick stated.
The second theme, according to the WARC head, is covenanting for justice.
“In Geneva, Calvin was not only concerned about building up the Church, but also about establishing the general hospital that served as a social safety net for the dispossessed, welcoming immigrants, and shaping a social order where justice reigned,” he noted.
“We are called to realize afresh that the poverty and oppression of our world are not only morally wrong but are fundamentally an affront to God that we are called to change,” Kirkpatrick added.
According to the Reformed leader, the WARC had its vision “lifted” as the movement went from that of predominantly middle class people in Western nations to that of people from the world’s poorest places, such as Sudan, Malawi, Guatemala, and Indonesia.
Today, two-thirds of the almost 100 million Reformed Christians in the world live in the Global South.
Amid its changing demographics, the world Reformed community came to embrace a “covenant of justice in the economy and the earth” through the Accra Confession, a document some have called historic, though it did not gain unanimous approval at the WARC’s 24th General Council.
The document stated that working to create a more just economy is essential to the integrity of Christian faith and that God has brought into existence an earth community based on justice and peace.
“At a time in which the gap is continuing to grow between the rich and the poor, millions live in abject poverty, and the destruction of our environment continues apace, we are called to stand against the forces of empire in our time and be the leading edge of a movement for justice in the economy and the earth,” Kirkpatrick stated.
The third theme Kirkpatrick brought out was that of the sanctity of life and the environment.
“Calvin doesn’t quite qualify to be called a ‘green theologian,’” he said, “but it is interesting to read his sermons on Deuteronomy and see his deep passion for nature, his outrage at those, especially in times of war ,who would destroy the created order, and his sense of God’s presence in creation.
“Calvin had an equal passion for human life and an abhorrence for war,” Kirkpatrick insisted.
And according the WARC leader, the call to be peacemakers could not be more urgent than it is today – in a time of war, piracy, terrorism, domestic violence, abuse of human rights and the “rampant destruction” of the environment.
“As Reformed Christians we are called to lead in a different direction and to make our communities living demonstrations of love, compassion, justice, and mutual support. It is a tall order, but it is the will of God!” he exclaimed.
Kirkpatrick made his remarks during the May 21-24 synod of the French Reformed Church, which on Monday will mark the 450th anniversary of its first synod.
In his address, the WARC head urged the first and largest Protestant denomination in France to not only celebrate Calvin this year, but to “mine his legacy for a renewal of faithful witness in our time."
"[S]eek to learn from Calvin what it might mean to lead a Calvinist revolution in 21st century France,” he advised.
Next week, on Pentecost Sunday, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches will be bring together Reformed Christians from all around the world to celebrate the Calvin Jubilee during a televised event in Cathedral St. Pierre in Geneva.
On Calvin’s actual birthday – July 10 – celebrations and special events will be held all around the world.