The Heart of John Calvin

By Sam Hamilton-Poore

calvinI realize that for many people the term "heart" has as much to do with the person of John Calvin as, say, "humility" has to do with Donald Trump. This is an unfortunate and unjust reading of Calvin, and one that many scholars have been seeking to redress in the last 20 years.

At the core of Calvin's theology is a compelling, life-transformational experience of "mystical union" with Christ -- a gift from God through the Holy Spirit that restores the image of God at the heart of humanity. "Heart" is the right word, because for Calvin our experience of "mystical union" is centered in the heart -- and embraces the mind and the body, affections and will, worship and action. Our pietas (Calvin's preferred word for "spirituality") impacts the ways we live and move in the world, and how we deal with our family, friends, neighbors, and enemies. In other words, Calvin offers a passionate theological vision of the human heart in wholeness -- of life lived vibrantly in the presence of the mystery we call God.

Since 2009 marks the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, it's worthwhile to cite a few passages from Calvin's writings that speak to our "mystical union" with Christ and pietas -- a love for God that grows from our experience of God's beneficence toward us in Christ.

Christianity is not a matter of the tongue but of the inmost
heart. [The gospel] is not apprehended by the
understanding and memory alone, as other disciplines are,
but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul and
finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the
heart. Institutes III.vi.4.

We grow together with Christ into one body, and he shares
his Spirit with us, through whose hidden operation he has
become ours. Believers receive this communion with
Christ at the same time as their calling. But they grow from
day to day more and more in this communion, in proportion
to the life of Christ growing in them. JC: CO XV, 723-24

Not only does [Christ] cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship, but with a wonderful communion, day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us. Institutes, III.ii.24

Listen also to these words from Elsie McKee, who summarizes Calvin's "spirituality":

What was Calvin's pastoral piety? Intensely personal but never individualistic. Woven through with the great doctrines of justification by faith and regeneration of life, the glory of God and providence. Undergirded with prayer, proclaimed in word and shared in sacraments, sung in psalms. Embodied in action and demanding respect for the neighbor and solidarity with those who suffer in spirit, mind, or body. Not an easy or comfortable piety; it asks for one's all. Sturdy and down to earth, lived in the mundane context of daily work, yet always conscious of the presence of the transcendent God and the high calling of living before God. An energizing, lifelong response to God's liberating claim, God's righteous mercy, God's compelling love, a belonging that is all our joy. "We are not our own...We are God's!"
Elsie Anne McKee, "General Introduction,"
in John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety
(Paulist Press, 2001), 34-35.

It is my hope that the Church may embody something of Calvin's own "sturdy and down to earth" spirituality -- one that is constantly awake and responsive to the "presence of the transcendent God" among us, and in solidarity with all who suffer.

This article originally appeared in Spirit Rustlings (Spring 2009), a newsletter of the Program In Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Sam Hamilton-Poore is the Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary, as well as Assistant Professor of Christian Spirituality. He is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and has served congregations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa.

Related Links:
Calvin '09: Great Reformer's 500 birthday (Associated Press) here
The Complete Writings of John Calvin here
The Faith of John Calvin here