The following letter is the first installment in what will be a series of letters to John
Calvin. These “Dear John letters” are meant to speak for those who are wrestling with
whether to stay in the Christian Reformed church or divorce the church that they’ve
loved. Rather than trying to solve theological mysteries, these letters are intended to be
a place to live into the questions themselves and wrestle with the joys and challenges
(and let’s just say it: trauma) that can come from being part of a reformed church body
I will sign the letters under the pseudonym “Jane Calvin”, not as a way to hide my
identity, but as a symbol of a new voice in reformed theology – one whose purpose is to
speak for those who feel their voices have been left out in reformed circles since the
Reformation. It’s also intended to unearth the softer side of John and Calvinism.
Maybe together we can discover that although he had a lot to say, John Calvin left some
room for mystery too. Dare I say he would be considered a Christian Reformed Mystic?
By “mystic” I mean someone who had powerful personal encounters with the Holy Spirit
even while wrestling himself with his faith? Let’s find out.
Lisa A. DeYoung, DMin student
a.k.a Jane Calvin
I’ve been reading more lately about your life and history. We have a professor here at Calvin Seminary that has made your history more accessible in a short volume called, An Explorer’s Guide to John Calvin. I find it fascinating to read about how the Protestant Reformation unfolded and evolved. I discovered that you used a pseudonym for your own writing, “Charles d’Espeville”, when you felt you were in danger for your Protestant views and fled to the South of France. And of course we know that this was just the beginning of your troubles.
Honestly, this makes me feel a bit foolish, as I’m using a pseudonym just for fun and have never actually felt that my life was in danger for my religious views. I feel grateful for the freedom to write and to ask questions, yet I too know the fear in my gut that comes when I feel I’ve said something that others will find offensive or written a question that might lead some to cry, “heretic!”
I’ve often wondered what would happen in our modern-day church community if we found ourselves under actual persecution – the kind where our lives were at stake. Most of us can’t even imagine this, let alone imagine what we would do in the situation. I’ve often used the analogy that if we all-of-a-sudden found ourselves together in a burning building or in an earthquake (you name the crisis situation…) or face to face with guns pointed at our heads, we probably wouldn’t consider the arguments we are currently wasting time on, but we’d help each other to safety. For the purpose of example, let’s just say that during Synod, 2023, an active shooter entered Calvin’s Fine Arts Center (heaven forbid) and threatened to unleash his or her fury on us for creating such a division in the church. Would our first thoughts be, “But I’m really not sure the Bible says…” or “Wait just a minute, we have to figure this thing out…”?
I hope this sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me. I hope that our first thought would be, “Lord, save us!” and then almost as quickly, “How can I help everyone to be safe?!” AND YET, back in your day, a man named Michael Servetus held so strongly to his beliefs about the Trinity that he was willing to die and be burned at the stake over his disagreement with you!
So, maybe my analogy isn’t all that helpful after all. But maybe it can help to focus how strongly we would cling to our arguments. Would we be willing to sacrifice our lives or the lives of others in order to be right about who we believe God to be? History tells us we wouldn’t be the first to do so, and in fact, it seems that people were often respected for being martyred over things like this and frankly revered for putting others to death. I can hear the echos of Paul stoning Stephen over what he thought was Biblical and right. I hear the Jews chanting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” certain that what they were doing was appropriate in the situation with Jesus.
John, I wonder, after all this time if you’d look back and say it was all worth it. Would you regret anything at all? Does the death of Michael Servetus still bother you? Afterall, the tables could have been reversed and it could have been your head on the chopping block in Paris when your views seemed too radical for the Roman Catholic environment you were in. Would the arguments be worth it? Or would you say now that you wished you could have all drank from the Spiritual well and found peace and joy in community with one another?
I’d like to think that the reflection of God’s grace on this earth is still found in the fruits of the Spirit. Where we find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control is where we find God. I realize this is easier said than done, but in my naivete I’d still like to think that this is the place where we would find one another if we committed to drinking from the same Spiritual well. ,
Honestly John, I’d rather not see history repeat itself. I’m praying for a better way.
Your sister in Christ,