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Calvin the Charismatic?

June 24, 2009

A good historian would dismiss the question I ask in the title of this post as anachronistic (reading a relationship back into history that would not have been possible – since Calvin ministered in the 1500s and the “Charismatic Movement” is a 20th century phenomenon). But what I mean by framing the question in this way is something like: does Calvin provide biblical encouragement for the kind of expressive worship normally associated with “charismatics” today? But even here we have to be careful. We will only read Calvin rightly if we realize that he is not “for us” or “against us” but he is massively for the Word of God! His teaching is meant to call us into alignment with that Standard. It will help us feel the weight of this question if we remember that Calvin’s generation bought the joy of reading and the freedom of interpreting Holy Scripture with their blood. So as he wrote his commentaries and preached his sermons Calvin’s aim was to glorify God and edify His people by presenting the whole counsel of Scripture as clearly as he could. His goal was not to emphasize or avoid certain topics (which would have been to place the message of Scripture under a new kind of tyranny) but to help God’s people worship and walk in the light as he held high the lamp of Scripture. 

With that purpose in mind, then, we ask: when John Calvin came to Scripture, what kind of worship did he find modeled and commanded for the people of God – people who desire not to fit under a “label”, but who desire to honor God by obeying His word in the area of their worship? There are several places we could go to see the answer, but here is one:

The inward attitude certainly holds first place in prayer, but outward signs, kneeling, uncovering the head, lifting up the hands, have a threefold use. The first is that we may employ all our members for the glory and worship of God; secondly, that we are, so to speak, jolted out of our laziness by this help; third, in this way the sons of God inflame one another with reverence for God.  (Commentary on Acts 20:36)

When he comes to I Timothy 2:8, “I desire that in every place the men should pray, lifting hold hands” Calvin comments:

[Here] he has employed the sign instead of the reality, for “pure hands” are the expressions of a pure heart; just as, on the contrary, Isaiah rebukes the Jews for lifting up “bloody hands” when he attacks their cruelty (Isaiah 1:15). Let us therefore learn that the attitude is in accordance with true godliness, provided that it be attended by the corresponding truth which is represented by it. 

Drawing from this commentary, let me suggest a couple of takeaways for us:

(1) The heart of the issue is where obedience meets integrity. The inner attitude is most important, it is what God looks upon. Physically expressive worship that is not “attended by the corresponding truth which is represented by it” does no honor to God and is in fact a lie.

(2) But neither does God receive the honor He is due when we content ourselves with a heart that is rightly affected by God but then refuse to engage our bodies in prayer or praise. To sit stone-faced through worship is not propriety, it is spiritual laziness!

(3) According to God’s design, what we do with our bodies will affect and engage our spirit. There will be times when we need to speak to our soul like the Psalmist – “soul, rise up and praise the Lord!” To stand, raise our hands, kneel, or dance before the Lord in worship after a hard day at the office or a distracting car ride with the kids (i.e. when we don’t “feel” like it) is not a lack of integrity, it is a God-appointed means to “jolt us out of our spiritual laziness”! Engaging our bodies with a will to worship opens up avenues of encounter for our heart.

(4) As you manifest these outward signs of your inward reality (engage your body in worship) you “inflame those around you with reverence for God.” This is true because in your (physical) worship you are testifying to others about what God is like and the kind of response He is worthy of. To dance, sing out, raise hands, kneel, weep etc – ultimately serves to draw the eyes of our hearts to His greatness, glory, faithfulness and overwhelming love!

So was Calvin a charismatic? From these brief comments we can at least conclude that both the stoic and expressive streams of worship in the church today can find instruction and encouragement from his biblical perspective.

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