Ligonier National Conference - Q&A Session I

from Mar 19, 2009 Category: Articles

The panel consisted of Steve Lawson, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and Sinclair Ferguson.  John Duncan asked the questions.

Why is Calvin so important?

Ferguson noted that Calvin had a genius to capture what the text was saying.  Lawson noted that Calvin stood at the dawn of the Reformation, the printing press had just been invented, ships were going out to new lands, etc. Part of Calvin’s genius is where he stood in history.  The Puritans, the Westminster Divines, in large part these stood on the shoulders of John Calvin. Mohler noted that Calvin combined pastoral ministry and systematic theology, and he was doing this with his life at stake.  Ferguson noted that Calvin was influencing the best of the teachers of the next generation.  Calvin was voluminous as a writer, and he had to operate on the basis of excellent exegesis (since he didn’t have a 100 systemic theologies they could borrow from).

Where should people today go to learn more about Calvin?

Lawson:  His sermons on Galatians, on Ephesians….his sermons will feed your soul.  There is energy and exposition.  And of course Calvin’s Institutes are a great place.  Mohler suggested people “dive right in”.  The Institutes are a great place to come to know the God we worship. Ferguson commended “The Golden Book of The Christian Life” — Calvin is undaunting.  Duncan suggested going through The Institutes with your pastor, or with a group of Christians.  Duncan suggested getting Calvin’s commentary on Romans from Rutherford House — Calvin gets to his point quickly. 

What is one thing about Calvin that is generally unknown or misunderstood?

Mohler noted that Calvin’s personal suffering is often overlooked. He suffered numerous infirmities throughout his life.  He had to read and study under excruciating pain. He lost his wife after a short amount of time, for example. What strikes the reader is his extraordinary joyfulness and piety.  In some of his letters, he could be very honest about his struggles. 

Duncan noted that Calvin was not even a citizen of Geneva until the last few years of his life.  So it is a myth that Calvin somehow was “pulling strings” on the political mechanics of the city.  He could write and persuade, of course. Also, Calvin was very zealous about promoting a missions movement, to places as far as South America.  Lawson noted that we think of Calvin’s mind, but his heart was so soft to God.  His life motto was “I offer my heart to you, eagerly and earnestly.” His was a combination of genius and godliness. Ferguson noted that Calvin’s friends would die for him.  Lawson futher commented that Calvin received significant opposition from various religious groups (e.g., the anti-nomians, whom he forbid from the Lord’s table).  At one point, he was put out of his own pulpit. 

Calvin is often criticized for his role in the execution of Servetus. Can you please comment on his role?

Michael Servetus was widely viewed as a heretic (by Catholics and Protestants alike). The man was off the charts in the views he held. Now many cities in that day had heresy laws — there were certain expectations in that day regarding morality and teaching. Calvin warned Servetus not to come to Geneva, because he would be punished.  Servetus nevertheless came to Geneva, and was arrested by the authorities (of which Calvin was not one) and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Calvin petitioned (without success) the authorities and pleaded for a more humane form of execution.

In that day, heresy and treason were one in the same.  In fact, said Mohler, heresy is a greater evil than treason—but it should not be the role of the state to punish heresy.  That should be the church’s role. 

Lawson: Calvin did not put him to death; he was called upon as a witness. He was not even a citizen at the time. The men sentencing Servitus were actually Calvin’s enemies. 

What was Calvin’s relationship with Martin Luther and his followers?

Ferguson:  It was distant. They never met. Calvin thought the church was indebted to Luther. There were elements in Luther’s theology that troubled Calvin. But Calvin was as careful as he could possibly be to correct Luther graciously.  But Calvin was tougher on Melacthon for “watering down” some of Luther’s sharper edges. 

Mohler:  We need to distinguish between different seasons in Calvin’s life.  Early in Calvin, he saw Luther as a father figure. With Melacthon, Calvin thought (for a while) that there was a possibility of uniting. But Calvin got frustrated with the Reformation not being developed to its logical conclusion, so that caused disappointment and some distancing between Calvin and Melacthon. 

Duncan: Calvin attempted to write Luther several times, but Melacthon kept on intercepting the letters.  He thought they would provoke Luther and thus did not pass them on to him. 

Is there anything in Calvin that you would not advise people to follow?

(Immediate joke about the fact that there were two baptists to the right of Mel Duncan.) 

Mohler noted that Calvin never sought to produce Calvinsists per se, but rather God-besotted people. 

What is central to Calvin’s teaching beyond the 5-points?

Ferguson:  Two things happen in Calvin’s theological development.  (1) The influence of Romans on how Calvin thought. The logic of Romans (the role of approaching the gospel) became the logic of Calvin.  (2) His immense Trinitarianism. Calvin had significant appreciation for the distinction between the different persons in the Trinity. 

Lawson: The unity of God in his saving purposes is preserved in the doctrines of grace, even definite atonement.

Mohler:  The knowledge of ourselves and the knowledge of God in Christian theology are the twin ends of the Christian life. The sovereignty of God is pervasive for Calvin. We ought not to reduce Calvin’s theology to a series of points; we can miss the whole for the parts if we are not careful.

Duncan: We should remember that Calvin never wrote “the 5 points.” Rather, those were written in response to the 5 points of Arminianism (which were the first to be listed, historically speaking).  That said, Calvin was a “5 point Calvinist.” Do note, however, that Calvin’s terminology is somewhat different than ours.  For example, Calvin used “conversion” for everything from regeneration all the way through progressive sanctification. 

How is it that people see pre-Conferences like this as an “over reverence” for Calvin?

Ferguson: Sometimes, an unhealthy Calvinism develops out of an over-zealous defence of the 5-points….in this overzealous defence, we unconsciously reduce the love for the gospel to 5 points.

Mohler: It is OK to see yourself in a theological tradition, even as you grow to learn more about that tradition (always being careful to follow the example of the Bereans).

Lawson:  When I say I am a Calvinist, what I mean is that I am a biblicist.  I want to go to the text and learn from it.

Duncan:  Many non-Calvinists will take offense at the notion that “Calvinism is just full-orbed Christianity.”  Labels allow us to say a lot quickly.  But when you are dealing with friends who are concerns with Calvinistic categories, focus not on labels, but on having a big view of God and of His word.  Be God-centered and just go to the text with them.

Leave us with one thing you learned from Calvin’s writings.

Ferguson: The centrality of the ministry of the Word that characterized Calvin’s life. When someone goes to receive counseling, they are generally not asked: Are you sitting under the regular ministry of the Word? 


Lawson: To understand Calvin is to understand Calvin the preacher.

Mohler: Calvin was also a teacher. 

Duncan: Calvin taught me that our biggest problem is idolatry.  There are worshippers of God and there are idolaters — and that’s it.  Calvin gave a great doctrine of the atonement.  But at that time in history, there was nothing like what Calvin wrote.  And of course Calvin’s piety was remarkably commendable.