Corresponding Celebrations

The 4th of July is the day Americans celebrate Independence Day — a commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence which established the 13 colonies as independent and sovereign nations no longer under the rule of England. This bit of history is well known to most Americans. What is not as well known to Americans is another bit of history that is also commemorated in July.

John Calvin’s birthday.CalvinThid

In fact, this year (2009), is Calvin’s 500th birthday and it’s a pretty big deal. There are events scheduled all around the world celebrating the contributions of one of the most influential reformers. His collective works are being made available for people to read and re-read. His best-known work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, remains one of the very best and accurate explanations of Christian theology ever written. But, you may be wondering, why should Americans care one way or the other about John Calvin’s 500th birthday. Well, I’ll tell you…

But let me first ask you a couple of simple civics questions:

  1. Why did America’s founders write the Constitution?
  2. Why are there three branches of government?
  • Answer 1: To limit the federal government to a very few, specifically numerated tasks.
  • Answer 2: Because the founders knew power was something no one person (or group of people) should have all to themselves. Competing power groups would, in theory, keep any one of the groups from becoming too powerful. It’s what we call the checks and balances on government power.

So, what does John Calvin have to do with any of that?

Everything.

John Calvin was instrumental in recapturing the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity — the idea that man is sinful by nature, completely undone and captive to his own evil desires. And, because of this understanding of the nature of man, Calvin developed in Geneva, Switzerland a system of government that limited a man’s ability to rule over other men. He established a government of divided power.

He also articulated the idea that there is a law higher than any man-made law and that all men are subject to the higher law first (see Lord of the Law for more details).

John Calvin’s ideas so shaped the thinking of America’s founders that he is often referred to as the “virtual founder of America.”

Misunderstandings about Calvin’s theology have prompted many Christians to vilify him. But whatever your opinion of John Calvin, Americans need to recognize the role he played in the foundation of the United States. Oh, I’m not saying we owe John Calvin anything (and neither would he). He would insist — and I agree — that the credit for the foundation of America goes to God alone. But John Calvin was a tool in God’s hand used for that purpose.

Side Note:

Many churches celebrate Independence Day with “patriotic” hymns. One of the most popular is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Unfortunately most Christians do not know the origin of that hymn, nor the theology of it’s author. It’s intent was not to glorify God in any way. The Jesus mentioned in that song is not the Jesus of the Bible. My prayer is that many would take the time to learn about that song and then abandon it altogether as something completely inappropriate to be sung by God’s people.

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About Chip
Chip is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. He served more than five years on the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana as Director of Communications and Public Relations, editor of the Indiana Baptist newsjournal, and regular contributor to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently earns his living as a writer. He serves his local church as a teacher and deacon and his local Baptist Association as a Seminary Extension instructor and supply preacher.

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