What made John Calvin great?
The answer – his brilliance as a thinker and writer and, above all, his ability to interpret the Bible, according to Bruce Gordon, professor of Reformation history at Yale Divinity School.
As Christians across the globe celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Calvin on Friday, believers are paying tribute to the 16th century reformer whose life was not without controversy, but one to commemorate.
For some, the name Calvin may conjure up a negative image of a Frenchman who was intolerant to anything or anyone he regarded as a threat to the Church.
As Gordon, author of Calvin, put it, "The enduring image of Calvin as an unyielding, moralistic and stone-faced tyrant who rejected all the pleasures of life has been his opponents' greatest victory."
Sam Storms, pastor of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, believes Calvin's personality at times comes across as strict when it came to matters of personal holiness and discipline, which put people off, he told Desiring God Ministries.
Perhaps what most Calvin critics point to is the execution of Michael Servetus, a Spaniard and a heretic. He was burned at the stake for his teachings on the Trinity and infant baptism. He had also denied original sin and that Christ was the Son of God.
Heresy was a capital offence and although Calvin supported a severe sentence against Servetus, he did not want the Spaniard to die, Gordon writes in his book. The reformer wanted Servetus to recant instead. When Servetus' punishment was announced, Calvin attempted to alter the form of execution from the stake to the use of a sword. The Genevan council rejected the request.
Controversy around Calvin persists today but mainly over some of his teachings such as predestination and election.
Despite disagreements, many Christians agree that Calvin indeed deserves to be celebrated. His commitment to interpreting Scripture and his absolute submission to God are reasons enough for celebration.
As Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich., says, "Calvin's confidence was in the Word of God, and that's why his theology and vision of the world continues to capture the minds and hearts of people in the 21st century. That's why five hundred years later we remember his birth. That's why Calvin the preacher and expositor has millions more spiritual children than Erasmus the scholar and hermeneutical skeptic."
And while there's much to celebrate about Calvin, Christians caution against carrying the banner of Calvinism over that of Jesus Christ.
"Do not be known more for being a follower of John Calvin than Jesus Christ," said Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., to a group of Baptists last month. "Pay careful attention to who and what you talk about the most."
Calvin, keenly aware of his shortcomings, was solely devoted to demonstrating the sovereignty and glory of God. He rarely included himself in his writings and even in death he avoided turning attention to himself. His wish was to be buried without memorial and in an unmarked grave. To this day, the exact location of his grave is unknown.
"Calvin's greatness was not in his service to himself but in his surrender to God," says Burk Parsons, author of John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology.