Late October and the chills are starting to work their way into all the empty spaces. Where I am in Michigan there is a palpable sense of loss in the air as the fall colors are starting to evaporate into scatterings of brown, naked trees. Most Sundays I head off to the Grand Rapids Friends Meeting, a community of Quakers who meet at a local Catholic college. However, my ride did not arrive this morning, and I retreated instead to a quiet space and practiced meditation. Coming back into my room, I remembered that today was Reformation Sunday, a day with no small significance in this area.
Grand Rapids, Michigan has one of, if not the, highest concentration of churches in the United States. The majority of them claim descent from the Reformation and the Protestant branch of Christianity that descended from that epochal event. Even the Liberal Quakers, whose anti-liturgical, non-sacramental, non-creedal faith would be anathema to the majority of Christians in Grand Rapids, came out of the same cluster of schisms and beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However distant in time it now seems, the Reformation has a direct and pointed influence on the lives of many, many people
My own tradition, the Christian Reformed Church, is one member of a smaller family of Protestant churches in the tradition of John Calvin. We do not directly commemorate any of John Calvin’s actions on Reformation Sunday–those honours go to Luther’s famous nailing of the Ninety-five Theses onto the church doors in Wittenberg–but we acknowledge and remember the key role that Calvin had in establishing a church that endures to this day in many forms all around the world.
Celebrating one’s tradition is important, and today I recognize the intellectual and religious influence that John Calvin and his followers have had on me throughout my formative years. Calvin was, of course, a Lutheran in his own way, and so I also recognize the contributions of Luther, the monk-turned-rebel who reluctantly broke from the church when the authorities threw him out and his life was threatened. Going back, I honour the Western Christian tradition, recognizing myself as the heir to a whole tradition stretching back to the earliest churches and running through all of medieval Christianity in its Catholic form. The Protestants are therefore not the only Reformers who have had a strong influence on me. Include in that the work of Erasmus, Aquinas, and countless others. Back beyond that, there is the importance of Judaism and all of its manifestations, the foundation for my idea of God and God’s role in human history. Here the various reformers of early Jewish society–Elijah, Jeremiah, the other prophets and those who followed their God with faithful action–bring their own work to bear. In affirming the New and Old Testaments I am connected, more closely with some than others, to a whole host of traditions and communities besides my own, some of which have faded but many of which have vibrant presence in the world today.
What this means is that, though there is joy in my association with Calvin and the Protestant Reformation, there is also sorrow. Sorrow for the long centuries of animosity between members of the one church. Sorrow for the damnable abuse Christians have heaped on their Jewish brothers and sisters. Sorrow for the long entanglement of Christianity with the powers of this world, with the imperial ambitions of Rome, the Crusading church of the Medieval period, and the colonial West, including the United States. One thing I have noted is that disagreements are always more intractable and calamitous when they arise within families. Thus the harshest words of the Reformers, and the sharpest swords of their political supporters, were directed at their closest brothers and sisters.
The Reformation brought many churches into the world. Nearly all of the largest ones, in Europe at least, became leashed to the state even more closely than the Catholic church had been before. While the pope exercised immense political power, the Church itself was beyond national control, implicated in politics and entrenched in the legal systems of nations to be sure, but still embodying an authority independent and in some cases greater than the state. With the Reformation came truly national churches. The Church of England became headed by the monarch, and churches and states in Germany became intertwined as never before, making a country’s national church a point of war and strife. See a history of the Thirty Years War for more details.
These events in history unsettle me, and I believe that they should. If we are to claim the history of Christianity as our own, we must account for and repent of the evils committed as well as celebrate the good. Compounding this unease are significant points of divergence between Calvin’s theology and my own. Many of Calvin’s most (in)famous ideas, including double predestination, I find at best troubling and at worst unreflective of the nature of God. If I am to stay in the Reformed tradition, does that require me to submit my doubts to the fire and rejoin Calvin without argument?
What am I to do about Calvin? There are a few things, as Paul Capetz noted in a wonderful post, that we should know about Calvin. The first is that he thought of himself as a Lutheran first, but he took a critical and evaluative stance toward Luther’s influence on him. Calvin did not simply follow Luther lockstep but made what he thought were notable improvements on the Lutheran conception of the faith. Other people in the Calvinist tradition, including theologians like Karl Barth, were able to hold onto their tradition not by clinging but by recognizing it as the center and opening up to other truths. As a person in the Reformed tradition, I recognize that Calvin was flawed, that we can take a critical posture toward much of his work while retaining that which is good, and commit to a greater openness to truth wherever it might be found.
On this Reformation Sunday we can honor many triumphs, the purgation of much institutional evil from the church. On the other hand, we cannot say that the church’s work was finished 500 years ago. Instead of turning our founders into idols, chiseling their words into cold stone, we can understand that the church from its inception has been a living tradition not just subject to change but by its very nature forever changing. Seeing this, we can find for ourselves in these troubled times the strength to hold our convictions in an open hand, to have faith that we are secure and not try to grasp and crush, and to see in Catholics, Jews, and others not enemies or historical antagonists but fellows in the pursuit of truth and the good. Perhaps then we can bring ourselves into right relation to God and others.