I was interested in what a former pastor of mine had to say about some things I had read that John Calvin had done that did not impress me. This pastor is an enthusiastic Calvinist and had recently written a tribute to Calvin, in honor of the day of his death (May 27, if you’re interested).
Now, the details of what Calvin did aren’t relevant to my discussion; my pastor’s response is what I want to focus on. His explanation, or perhaps excuse, for Calvin’s behavior is this: he was “a man of his times”.
I found this to be a surprising response. To paper over someone’s behavior with “everyone else is doing it” is hardly the defense I was expecting. Especially when dealing with a hugely popular and respected Christian patriarch (he has a whole theology named after him!), I was hoping for something a little more substantive.
Perhaps a little more about the particular incident would be helpful. I had written my pastor to ask about some oppressive practices I had read that Calvin participated in while in Geneva. His response included this statement: “People forget that virtually everyone in those days, especially those in the Roman Catholic Church, supported the execution of heretics. Calvin was a man of his times.”
Let me tell you my first response. I’d hate to be standing before the white throne on Judgment Day (assuming that’s not all some literary analogy) and tell Jesus, “everyone else was doing it.” Being a man of my times here in the 21st century is hardly a cause for boasting, and I can’t imagine it was any different in the 16th century.
Why, if I were a man of my times, what would I be doing today? Well, over 20% of us men commit adultery (some studies say 60%!). Half of us divorce. We cheat on our taxes and spend the profit on pornography. I need not go on.
I would hate to be called a man of my times. This would be the worst epitaph I can imagine. So now I’m thinking, what about my life, my morals, my behavior demonstrates that I am a man of my times? I’m afraid that these beliefs and behaviors are so much a part of me that I can’t identify them.
Here’s my hope: if I can act as much like Jesus as possible, then maybe I won’t need to worry about whether I am being a man of my times. I’ll be a man with eternity in mind, not current social custom. And perhaps, I’ll be one step ahead of John Calvin.