The Calvin Jubilee in Frankfurt, Germany

Basel, Switzerland Dear Friends:

I have been asked to write an occasional letter for TORCH AND TRUMPET concerning my sabbatical year experiences in Basel. Let me begin by telling you of an interesting Calvin Jubilee which I attended on September 19 to 21 at Frankfurt-on-the-Main, Germany.

Today Frankfurt is a very modern city, the down-town section almost completely rebuilt from the rubbles of war. It was already an important center of trade during Reformation days, but it had a unique significance also because it had been for centuries the site of the election and crowning of emperors and kings. Calvin had many pleasant contacts with the city of Frankfurt in his day, and the Reformed people of today were proud to commemorate the 450th anniversary of his birth. In 1539 Calvin traveled to Frankfurt from Strassburg with Bucer to attend the conference called by Charles V in an effort to bring about a union of the Protestants. Calvin probably met Melanchthon there for the first time.

Again in 1556, after he had recovered from a severe illness, Calvin made what Beza called “an unusually long journey…to Frankfurt.” On this trip Calvin was responding to an invitation to assist the English refugees in some of the problems which disturbed the m. Although Calvin then traveled from Geneva, I might add that the trip from Basel to Frankfurt is today only a pleasant morning’s ride by automobile. The Easter Fair was an important trading event in Frankfurt. The first edition of Calvin’s Institutes was circulated at one of these fairs. Its significance is obvious in a letter from Calvin in 1553 addressed to “his dearly beloved, the pastors of the Church of Frankfurt.” In this letter Calvin tells the pastors of a new book of Servetus which was reaching Frankfurt for circulation at the Easter Fair. Calvin urged them to use every means to destroy this heretical work—a task in which they were well-nigh successful. The City Council itself regarded Calvin highly and corresponded with him, seeking advice on weighty problems. To them in turn Calvin dedicated his Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels. And in 1562 Calvin composed a Confession of Faith in name of the French Churches. Although this Confession was meant for the Diet meeting in Frankfurt, it did not reach its destination on time since the passes were closed. Yet it remains one of the last significant summaries of Calvin’s own faith.

The Calvin Jubilee in Frankfurt this September was sponsored jointly by Ver Reformierte Bund Fur Deutschland and Die Evangelisch Reformierte Stadtsynodee Frankfurt Am Main. The refugee character of this area during Reformation days is evident in the fact that this Frankfurt Synod is composed of congregations that are, at least in n am e, French, Dutch-Wallon, and Waldensian. Most of them use German almost exclusively, I was told, although there are still these national backgrounds present. Although the two Reformed congregations in the city of FrankFurt alone number about 15,000 officially, because these churches are in a predominantly Lutheran area they call themselves the diaspora, the churches of the dispersion.

The organizers of the Jubilee showed a great deal of enthusiasm for their project and produced a very interesting program. An attempt was made to get a wide ecumenical representation at the celebrations and words of greeting were brought from all parts of Germany, fro m the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Poland and the United States. Professor G. C. Berkouwer was an official delegate representing both the Gereformeerde Kerken and the Free University. The Reformed Church in America had delegated Chaplain H. J. Kregel. The U.S.A. Presbyterians were represented by Prof. A. Come who is also spending a year at Basel. I was present as an invited guest, although I did not artificially represent the Christian Reformed Church or Calvin Theological Seminary. Although all the guests were warmly welcomed, it was good to note that special attention and love was given to the brethren delegates from behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.

The program was varied. On the opening night a film was shown which depicted the life of Calvin and his spreading influence throughout the world. This film was produced in France and had its premiere, I believe, during the Geneva celebrations in May. It is mainly a documentary and does not approach the force and impact of the Luther film. It is greatly to be desired that .a worthwhile and inspiring film be produced to commemorate Calvin and his significant work. On Saturday afternoon about fifty of the delegates and guests were invited to a reception by the Lord Mayor (Oberbiirgemeister) of Frankfurt in the famous Riddersaal of the Homer (city hall). Also on Saturday afternoon a sort of picnic was held for the children, and one of the recently completed churches was dedicated. On Sunday morning a special “Dankgottesdienst” was held. Since the two large Reformed churches in the middle of the city had been destroyed by bombing and were not yet rebuilt, this service was held in the Lutheran St. Catherines Church, the church in which Goethe was confirmed. Here the Landessuperintendent, D. Walter Herrenbriick-Leer of Ostfriesland, preached from the appealing passage of Deuteronomy 4:9–13. I was unable to attend this service because of the kind invitation of Chaplain Ellens to conduct the morning worship service in his Chapel and administer the sacrament of baptism to the infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ellens.

The major part of the celebration was a series of three lectures on Calvin’s theology, his formative work for the church, and his ecumenical contributions. Interest on the part of the Reformed people of Frankfurt was exceptional. The attendance each night surpassed expectations so that chairs were pushed into every conceivable corner.

Professor D. Walter Kreck of Bonn spoke on “Die Theologie Calvins.” He described this theology as a theology of the Word of God. But since that could be said essentially of each of the Reformers, Prof. Kreck went on to depict the special character of Calvin’s Scripturally oriented thcology with relation to four points: 1. Scripture as the norm for the Church (and not vice versa). 2. Calvin’s Christology, 3. the relation of law and gospel, and 4. the doctrine of predestination.

Best known of the three lecturers was Prof. Otto Weber of Gottingen. Weber has given a German translation of the Institutes, has produced a widely used summary of Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik, and has published the first volume of his own systematic theology. Weber’s lecture, vigorously presented, was all “Calvin als Gestruter der Kirche.” Unique, thought Weber, was the fact that Calvin was a Reformer through a book. Weber showed further, with interesting historical references, how the specific form which Calvin gave to the work begun by Farel arose as a result of his exegesis of Scripture. Weber emphasized that the basic reason why Calvin does not appeal to men lies probably not with Calvin, but with the men to whom he docs not appeal.

The final lecture by Prof. C. Locher of Berne, Switzerland, had been aonounced as “Calvin—ein Vater der Oekumene”. Perhaps the term “father” of ecumenicity appeared too strong to Locher, for he changed it later to the “form” of his ecumenicity. This lecture too was one which contained numerous historical references and was thus more understandable to the numerous laymen who attended. Locher pointed a out that everything which Calvin did, from the writing of the Institutes to the work among refugee churches, bore the stamp of a true ecumenicity. Especially interesting were the geographical and historical references made by the Swiss professor to the reasons for Geneva’s strategic location then and now.

Only one part of the Jubilee proved quite uninteresting. It was a Monday morning meeting in which Prof. W. Niesel, best known for his book The Theology of Calvin, gave a Ion g report on the recent meeting of the Presbyterian World Alliance at Sao Paolo, Brazil. After the report, which majored in the minors, had rambled on for about an hour and a half, the deft chairman interrupted to suggest the singing of a psalm. When this had ended, and he suggested the sending of a congratulatory telegram to Prof. Karl Barth, Niesel strenuously interrupted to say he would be finished in three minutes and then they could send their telegrams. The speech did end shortly but I do not believe any further mention was made of the suggested telegram.

There were many features of this Calvin Jubilee which I found very interesting. Meeting of prominent theologians and representative clergymen from many countries is always interesting, of course. I was impressed by the way in which these Germans rose above the ties of blood in order to honor the French Reformer more than their own Luther. It was good also to hear an audience of this type use exclusively psalms for their praise, especially 33, 67, 89, 100, 103, 105. And it was inspiring to hear some of these psalms sung a cappella.

The concentration of the celebrations in the short time of a few days, and a weekend at that, made a high pitch of concentration possible. This was evident too from the participation of the members of the congregation. Although the total attendance was, no doubt, small compared to the membership figures mentioned above, I repeatedly felt that there was more interest in Calvin and what the lectures had to say about Calvin than was shown in Grand Rapids for the series of lectures put on by Calvin College last winter. This made me wonder about the zeal of our profession of Calvinism.

I was aware, of course, of a vague and general Barthian influence throughout the lectures. I was told that most of the ministers of the German Reformed churches had been stimulated most by Karl Barth and that it was the Barmen Declaration which they regarded most highly as a confession of faith. And yet it was obvious that something had gripped these people. The experiences of war and especially the experiences with Hitler and the “German Christians” had made their impact. Here were people who recognized that the Church could not rest on its laurels. Here were people desirous of being a Reformed Church. I left with the prayer that the Frankfurt to which Calvin had once shown such kinship might today become a Frankfurt which more fully demonstrates a real kinship with Calvin.