This month, I will be preaching and teaching on questions that have come from the pews–we are calling it the “Ask Me Anything” sermon series, and so far the questions I have received have proven quite interesting. Initially, I had conceived of this as an opportunity for folks to ask questions about our faith and praxis. What has been interesting to me, however, is that the questions have been theological. Turns out that the folks in the pews sincerely want to know: what does it mean that we do this, and not that? What does it mean when we talk about this faith claim?
Inevitably, I have been turning to the reformed tradition and heritage of which the Presbyterian Church is a part as I have explored the questions that have been raised. Truthfully, I often do not take the time to go back to our Book of Confessions or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, but if this series is any indication, I believe I may have to make a better practice of it. For it has be thoroughly enjoyable to explore the family tree of our faith.
Now, if you had told me in seminary that I would gladly spend my afternoons reading through John Calvin, I might have looked at you askance. Back in seminary, the Institutes was one in a long line of required reading that generally fell into the “historical” section of my list. I was far more interested in reading contemporary theological works by Brueggeman, Cavanaugh, Yoder and Gustafson.
Perhaps I have grown in my appreciation for my own tradition, but as I sit with Calvin this time around, I find myself pleasantly immersed in his approach to interpreting the tradition. I am enjoying exploring what he has to say, wrestling with the implications of his theology, but more often than not, I find myself nodding along in agreement. And occasionally, I find myself surprised by just how contemporary he sounds.
Take this little nugget, for example, which I came across in Book 3, on the section on prayer:
Love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (4.10.30)
In this particular instance, Calvin is speaking of love as a guide in our decisions respecting church government and worship. He argues that we need church constitutions, that they provide a necessary good. However, discipline and tradition do not exist for the sake if themselves. Rather, we ought to understand them as tools, aids on our journey towards our ultimate end of union with Christ. And according to Calvin, this means that sometimes we must be willing to leave behind traditions and practices that get in the way of our calling to love.
Let me just pause at this moment and reflect that Calvin sounds awfully modern here. For how often have we heard “love” thrown about in the contemporary church as the answer to nearly every problem? How often do we encounter criticisms of our tradition and its heritage which include the claim that the reformed church, and calvinism in particular, was rigid and cold, even cynical? And how often have Christians accused one another of mis-using love, of ignoring scripture about judgement and condemnation because the love of Christ sounds easier?
And yet here is Calvin intoning about love being our guide. Here is our spiritual forefather reminding us that our practice and our government ought to be ruled by love. That love may challenge us to change, to evolve, to move in new directions that are unfamiliar and perhaps even intimidating. But, he reminds us, we will do it not because it is popular, or on-trend, or culturally acceptable. We will do it because it has its root in love.
And that, friends, is why I will continue to read a 500-year old tome of theology. Because it turns out that sometimes you need to hear the wisdom of those who came before you. Sometimes you need to be reminded that the struggle of the church has deep roots, and that those who came before you have truth to share. And you will be better for pausing to hear it.