Calvin and the Seminary in Nigeria

The Reformed Journal of September, 1958, contained an article by Prof. De Koster, entitled GENEVA TO GINDIRI. I thought it most interesting and suggestive. The author sought to circumscribe the broad and inescapably difficult question of our Church’s participation in the Seminary of Northern Nigeria by the teachings of John Calvin. As such, his effort is most laudable.


The stock of the Reformer of Geneva is rising in our day. Not only in Grand Rapids, but also in Canada. The Canadian-born church historian, McNeil, in his HISTORY AND CHARACTER OF CALVINISM, speaks of a revival of Calvinism in the Anglo-Saxon world. Sad to say, he also adds, that this revival is not much affected by the English activities of the Christian Reformed Church (p. 432). However, here, in the article of De Koster, we have an exception. Here, in the confines of our Church, we have a genuine attempt to acquaint our people with the writings of this great church father. Especially should we joy in this fact when we note that Prof. De Koster quotes from the letters of Calvin, which PAR EXCELLENCE display the qualities of Calvin, his knowledge of Scripture and of men, his principal firmness, his ability in dealing with persons, etc. Thus, we are glad with these quotations of Calvin.

However, to quote well is a great art. Someone once said: “Give me a quotation, and I can hang the writer with it.” The writings of Calvin have often been misquoted. Years ago, in The Netherlands, some attempt was made to prove that Calvin was one of the champions of higher criticism of Scripture. Later on, enthusiasts for the theology of Karl Barth engendered a new interest in the writings of Calvin. But, these quotations, as Mc Neil says so rightly, were “divergent interpretations of the Reformation and particularly of Calvin.” He describes the theology of Barth as a “widely variant Calvinism.” More recently, the ecumenical movement tried to annex Calvin as one of its prophets. It frequently quoted his famous statement that he would cross ten seas if only it would bring the churches nearer together. But, wittingly or unwittingly, this ecumenical movement forgot that Calvin did not have all churches in mind here, and that he wanted a unity founded on the Word of God and bound together by a clear expression of the main points of doctrine.

So also brother De Koster. In his article, referred to above, he sought to demonstrate that it is “in the spirit of Calvin, that whatever our differences may be, we may yet be drawn the closer together.” In that light, which De Koster thinks to be the light of Geneva, he wishes his reader to see our current problem of co-operation in Nigeria. In fact, he offers a number of quotations of Calvin to prove his thesis.

I would repeat that I am thankful to Prof. De Koster for his lofty aim. However, I regret that I can have little admiration for his choice and his interpretation of quotations on this point. As to his choice of quotations, I ask, for instance, what about Castellio? What about Bosec? What about the Anabaptists? What about the Sozzini’s? What about Servet? Etc., etc. Secondly, as to interpretation of quotations, any good church historian knows that Calvin wrote a fine treatise on the same topic in question, “Vera Christianae Pacificationis et Ecclesiae Reformandae Ratio.” Why didn’t Dr. De Koster quote this work? It is especially in regard to Prof. De Koster’s interpretation of quotations in his above named article, that I shall seek to demonstrate that he has not rightly interpreted John Calvin.

However, before I seek to do this, I would like to stress one other matter. And that is this, that I wholeheartedly agree with De Koster on one point. Among all the Reformers, Calvin was foremost in striving for the unity of the churches of the Reformation. Calvin was not as intolerant as many historians have pictured him. He united the Swiss churches; he had his spiritual children and brethren all over the world; he could even overlook some things for the sake of co-operation with fellow-believers. Calvin was a man of unity on a sound basis.

But John Calvin was not a man of union at all costs. De Koster did not always remember this distinction. That is why I feel compelled to write on this subject.

The first quotation (article “Geneva to Gindiri,” Reformed Journal, Sept., 1958 ) was taken from Calvin’s preface to the Commentary on Romans. It reads: “God never designed in such a way to exercise liberality towards his servants, as that each should be endowed with a full and perfect understanding on every point; and doubtless, in this respect, he intended in the first place, to keep us humble, and next of all to keep up and maintain the desire and exercise of brotherly love and communion.”

Prof. De Koster interpreted these words as follows : “Calvin taught that even doctrinal differences among believers ought to promote not dissension, but unity.” But, Calvin did not say that. He was not speaking in this quotation about doctrinal differences; there is no reference to such, not in the words quoted, nor in the context. Calvin was speaking only about differences in understanding certain Scriptural texts. Yes, if our readers would care to make the effort, they would find that Calvin, a bit further down from the above quotation, warned against misunderstanding in the way that Dr. De Koster misunderstands. My Dutch edition (I do not possess an English edition as yet) says: “Daarenboven, of schoon dit geschiedt in de uitlegging der H. Schrift, zo zal men in de hoofdstukken der leer, waarin de Here wi!, dat de harten der zijnen voornamelijk eendrachtig zijn, minder vrijheid nemen. Dat ik die beide gezocht heb, zullen de lezers lichtelijk bevinden.”

I shall seek to translate my above quotation from Calvin: “Moreover, although this (liberality of understanding certain texts debatable—insertion mine, L. P.) is to be allowed in the exposition of Holy Scripture, yet one ought to be less lenient in important points of doctrine, for in these points of doctrine, the Lord wills that the hearts of His own shall be united.” In other words, Calvin said here that he tried both. He sought to distinguish between points of necessary agreement of doctrine, and between points of permitted difference. At the point where doctrine is fixed by the infallible Word, he came to a borderline where he, the exegete, had no liberty. It is indeed regrettable that Dr. De Koster did not note this twofold attitude of Calvin, which lies at the heart of the discussion from which he (De Koster) quoted. If he had noted this twofold attitude, I am sure, his article (referred to) would not have been so one-sided.

Br. De Koster’s second quotation is that taken from Calvin’s letter to Bucer (1538), in which he first disapproves of the teaching of Bucer. “It always appeared to me a thing utterly intolerable that in the work in question you overturned from its foundations the doctrine of justification by faith.” But Calvin is further quoted as saying in this letter: “The Lord is my witness that it is not with the mind alone but with my very bowels, that I dissent as often as I see that I do not agree with pious men, and especially with you whose most excellent gifts besides your piety I cannot but cherish and look up to….May the Lord preserve you and increase in you his gifts, most worthy and dearest brother.” Dr. De Koster, seeing the conclusive force of these words of Calvin, is so convinced of Calvin’s agreement with the forces in our Church who favor united theological training in Nigeria, that he says: “A more moving testimony to Calvin’s conviction that unity transcends grave difference of opinion might be difficult to find.”

But, in my opinion, Prof. De Koster is badly mistaken. If the brother had listened to the whole letter of Calvin here, he would have noted that Calvin is striving against a character defect of Bucer. It was a character defect much similar to the one he also strove against in Melanchton,—compromising too much! Without a doubt, Calvin believed both to be his fathers and brothers. However, he could not agree with the middle-of-the-road position they constantly took. The very letter which Dr. De Koster quoted, gives abundant proof of Calvin’s disapproval of compromise: “Those precautions of yours to treat all things smoothly is becoming every day more hurtful. I know what you used to allege as an excuse,—that the minds of the more simple are not to be alienated from religion by contentious disputes, whom it were better to attract by every means, provided they be conciliated by nothing which may not be conceded without impiety. I answer you, as I always have done, IF YOU WISH TO MAKE CHRIST ACCEPTABLE TO ALL, YOU ARE NOT, HOWEVER, TO CONSTRUCT A NEW GOSPEL; and certainly it is manifest to what these things will tend. When you have heard that the invocation of the saints was devised by the superstition of men rather than founded on the Word of God, you immediately add, however, we owe that deference to the authority of the holy fathers, that an invocation of the kind that is recommended in their writings is not to be entirely condemned. Thus you are continually in the habit of obtruding the i r authority UNDER COLOR OF WHICH ANY FALSITY MAY PASS FOR TRUTH. Is it truly sanctifying God to pay such deferences to men, as that His truth should not alone bear sway over us? Everywhere you seem to wish the sharing of a kind of divided empire between Christ and the Pope. When I have brought myself to the greatest kindliness of feeling, still there are certain things which I cannot assent to without doing violence to the testimony of my conscience.”

I repeat, brothers and sisters, if Prof. De Koster thinks that this letter of Calvin to Bucer is a moving testimony of Calvin’s conviction that unity transcends grave difference of opinion, then his eyes and my eyes don’t read the same things from the same letter. It is my humble opinion that this letter, rather, is a most moving testimony to Calvin’s conviction that unity ought not to be bought at any price. Calvin, here, warns most vigorously against a superficial unity which always has said, and is still saying today, that “any falsity may pass for truth.”

There is another De Koster quotation. It is taken from Calvin’s commentary on I Corinthians 14:31. “For no one will ever be a good teacher, who does not show himself to be teachable, as no one will ever be found who has, in himself alone, such an overflowing in respect of perfection of doctrine, as not to derive any benefit from listening to others. Let all, therefore, undertake the office of teaching on this principle, that they do not refuse or grudge to be scholars to each other in their turn, whenever there shall be afforded to others the means of edifying the church.” When Prof. De Koster deduces from this quotation that Calvin taught humility as the gateway to unity, then I agree with fervency. But, when Dr. De Koster also concludes from it that differences of knowledge and understanding become only occasion for blessed communion, I object with all my heart. Here Prof. De Koster forgets, as in his first quotation referred to above, that John . Calvin did not accept all kinds of differences. That this is true is confirmed by his comments on words very close to the comment quoted above on verse 33, where we read in the Dutch transIation (my only source book at present): “Zo zullen wij dan bedenken, dat men in het beoordelen der dienaren van Christus dit teken moet aanmerken, of zij naar vrede en eenheid staan, en door zich vreedzaam te gedragen, zoveel hun mogelijk is de twist vlieden; MITS WIJ HET VERSTAAN VAN DIE VREDE, WIENS BAND DE WAARHElD GODS IS; want wanneer men tegen de goddeloze leer moet strijden, zo moet men in de strijd voortgaan, al ware het, dat hemel en aarde vergingen.” I translate: “Thus, we have to consider, in judging ministers of Christ, that we ought to note this characteristic that they strive after peace and unity, that they conduct themselves peaceably, that they avoid disputings as much as possible—provided we understand it to refer to that peace which is tied together by the bond of the truth of God; for if one must fight against the doctrines of ungodliness, he has to keep on fighting, striving, though, as it were, heaven and earth would pass away.”

In summary, it may be said that it is crystal clear that John Calvin knew where to distinguish between things tolerable and things intolerable. John Calvin knew where the borderline was. Prof. De Koster’s mistake is that he interprets Calvin as though he didn’t know—perhaps because Dr. De Koster himself writes as though there is no such borderline either! Borderlines do make a difference; also perhaps, in Nigeria!

I am amazed at De Koster’s quotation from a letter of Calvin to Louis du Tillet. This brief citation says: “…for I perceive how many begin to flatter themselves under the title of The Church, strongly condemning whatsoever is not like their own, for which they will have to render account.” Lo and behold, Dr. De Koster concludes from this that we cannot deny the term “brethren” to those who seek our aid and leadership. He has in mind, of course, the “brethren” in Nigeria, with whom the 1958 John Calvin would surely have set up a theoIogical school, I presume.

Pardon me, but I do not read anything of the kind in Calvin here. All will agree, no doubt, that one should read the statement in the light of the context. The context and background of the letter referred to is as follows: Louis du Tillet had fled, with Calvin, from France, and had been with him in Geneva. However, the intense struggle in which the Reformer became involved became too severe for the unstable and contemplative du Tillet. Prey to indecision, he secretly left Geneva, and went to Strasbourg. Here he put an end to all his fears for the Reformation by returning to the Roman Catholic fold. He then wrote Calvin, informing him of his change, submitting to him a resume of his doubt that there could be a lawful ministry in the Reformation movement.

Calvin answered in the letter referred to above. In this missive, he stated that he was very sad about the turn-about-face of his friend. He wrote: ‘If you do acknowledge as churches of God those who hold us in execration, I cannot help it. But we should be in a sad plight if it indeed were so.” Calvin, for one, did not recognize the Roman Catholic Church as a true Church. He does acknowledge, of course, that there is a remnant of the Church among them, even as there was such a remnant present in the Church under the rule of the Old Testament kings Jeroboam and Ahab. After Calvin has finished saying these things, he pens the quotation taken over by Prof. De Koster.

Here, Calvin, according to the context, tries to say that while the Roman Catholics flatter themselves with the term, the only Church, he claims that the true Church is to be found only among the churches of the Reformation. He therefore warns du Tillet, saying: “It is a step towards separation from the Church of God when anyone joins that which is opposed to him.” Understand my amazement, therefore, that De Koster deduces from this that Calvin is saying that we cannot deny the term “brethren” to those who seek our aid and leadership in the matter of the Nigeria United Seminary. It just is not in the context, nor in the statement itself. I don’t understand!

Then there is that final quotation to which I would refer. I have in mind the statement taken from a letter of Calvin to Caroli. Br. De Koster quotes Calvin as saying: “You are very anxious to show that you did not excite disturbance in the Church without good reason; as if indeed any honest cause could ever be advanced for disturbing the peace of the Church.” Br. De Koster interprets this quotation to mean that Calvin would prefer unity above anything.

However, again these words have to be read in the light of their context. And then they mean something else. The story of Caroli we all know. In 1537, he had accused both Calvin and Farel of denying the doctrine of the Trinity. He declared that they were no better than Arius. This accusation was thoroughly investigated, with the result that Caroli was deposed from office. Caroli then retired to Metz, from where he wrote Calvin a letter, offering reconciliation with the two brothers if they would procure for him a benefice. Calvin answers him moderately. In this letter, we can find the quotation taken over by Dr. De Koster. But, in answer to the request of Caroli, that he have an office in the Church, Calvin also says: “How can we do so? In the first place, the churches are not at our disposal, as you are well aware of; then with what conscience could we promise that to you before we are distinctly agreed upon the matter of doctrine? (italics, mine) You do not conceal that you still dissent from us; and yet you wish that a particular locality should be set apart for you to teach in. Weigh considerately with yourself how far that would be seemly. You would well be entitled to esteem us worse than blockheads were we to comply with you.” (again, italics, mine, L.P.)

Surely, it is out of place to conclude from this that Calvin wished to say here that unity is to be preferred above all differences. That is crystal clear. On the contrary, Calvin is saying that while there may be some difference in the exposition of certain texts in Scripture, yet there ought always to be sound and definite agreement in all main points of doctrine. The whole work and the entire career of Calvin are there to prove this.

Besides, there is that fine treatise by Calvin which I have already referred to. I have in mind, “Vera Christianae Pacificationis en Ecclesiae Reformadae Ratio.” In this article, Calvin expressed himself very clearly on the point of ecumenicity. It is an important work; in fact, so important, that it was translated into the Holland language recently (1953, Kampen) by Dr. D. J. De Groot, under the title, “Om de Eenheid en Vrede der Kerk.” (For the unity and the peace of the Church.) In this connection it will suffice to quote only from the first chapter, entitled, “about the true peace which must be founded on truth.”

Calvin, here, says that godly people often dislike ecclesiastical disputes. He shares their dislike, inasmuch as Zion is disrupted by such disputes. However, says Calvin, frequently subtle people use this as a pretext to falsify the pure doctrine of Christ. Therefore, it is important to inquire into that peace which some would propose. Christ has commanded that we guard the peace of the church; but at the same time he says that we can be one only upon the basis of the truth of the gospel. Therefore, we ought not allow people to throw dust into our eyes by the term “union.” What we should do then is to desire peace, strive for it with all our powers; but it would be better that heaven and earth would pass away than that we should sacrifice the truth for the sake of pious talk about unity.

Calvin continues that he does not refer here to Mohammedans and Jews, nor even to consistent Roman Catholics, but to people who want a deceitful peace, and leave us with half a Christ, because there is no single point of doctrine which these do not obscure. And, this kind of degenerating piety such people call “reformation.” The final consequence of all their efforts is that gradually all the treasures of Our Christian faith will be lost. They say that if only the main points of faith remain, we ought to be tolerant with respect to the rest. But they operate with the notion that Christ is given them to be divided according to their own pleasure. However, inasmuch as the Son of God has given us the complete doctrine of his gospel, it is a profane thing to mutilate that gospel and keep only a part of it. Let us therefore heed the admonition of Paul to continue honoring Christ and his gospel, whether we live or whether we die!

My friends, such words of the Reformer are unequivocal. They are open to one interpretation only. Calvin was the ecumenical Reformer, indeed. But then, a proponent of a unity founded only on the indisputable Word of God and sound doctrine! Church and Nation