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H. Henry Meeter Center: Specializing in John Calvin, Calvinism, the Reformation, and Early Modern Studies

 

John Calvin's 492nd Birthday Party (2001)

Two minute birthday speech

Remarks By John Calvin on the Occasion of his 492nd Birthday, July 10, 2001

(prepared and delivered on his behalf by David Hoekema)

Vous êtes gentiles, que vous vous souvenez encore de l’anniversaire do ma naissance, et vous êtes tous
bienvenus. Bien que je soit un vieux de quatre cent
quatre-vingt douze ans, je voix que . . .

What, do you not all understand French? My colleagues cautioned me I should not speak in Latin, because the standards in today’s universities are not what they
were or should be. But surely you are not ignorant
savages who know no French? Very well, I will continue
in this barbaric bouillabaisse that you call English,
cobbled together from the leftover bits and pieces of so many languages.

Once more, then: You are very kind to remember each year the anniversary of my birth, and I extend to each of you a cordial welcome. Even though I am already an old man of 492 years, I see that certain of the theological and cultural ideas that our Lord entrusted to me remain alive here, at this college that bears my name.

I refer specifically to the new core curriculum, offered to your new pupils in September in order to foster “an engagement with God’s world.” There will be equal emphasis, I note in the rationale statement, on knowledge of God, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of ourselves. What a fitting celebration of the completion of your first 125 years as an institution of higher Christian learning! The perspicacity of the authors of this document astounds me, for they have translated into curricular concreteness the very leitmotif (as Luther might put it) of my Institutes of the Christian Religion. No doubt you could all recite together its opening sentence:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. ( Inst. I.1.1)

I was pleased to find that your excellent library contains editions of my Institutes not only in their original Latin and in the French translation that I authorized but also in Dutch, Portuguese, and Russian. Perhaps even today there are a few civilized and educated persons amongst the illiterate rabble of Russia, Portugal and its colonies, and the Netherlands who may benefit from the study of theology in their native tongue.

Already in my early years I knew of pastors who bore witness faithfully to the unlettered barbarians of East Friesland, for it was to them that I dedicated a Latin catechism that I wrote in 1545, nine years after completing my Institutes. The reasons that moved me to prepare this work might well be applied mutatis mutandis (excuse me—for the nonlatinate, the phrase means “that being changed which is to be changed”) to the college’s revised core curriculum. I wrote to the Frisian pastors that, because

the world is threatened with the extremity of barbarism, . . . we who aim at the restitution of the Church are everywhere faithfully exerting ourselves, in order that . . . the use of the Catechism . . . may now resume its lost rights. For neither can this holy custom be sufficiently commended for its utility, nor can the Papists be sufficiently condemned for the flagrant corruption, by which they . . . set it aside. . . . That spurious Confirmation, which they have substituted in its stead, they deck out like a harlot, with great splendor of ceremonies. . . and call those only half Christians who have not been besmeared with their oil. Meanwhile, the whole proceeding consists of nothing but theatrical gesticulations, or rather the wanton sporting of apes, without any skill in imitation. (“Dedication,” Catechism of the Church at Geneva, 1545)

Let my lighthearted jest directed against Rome serve to refute the calumny registered against me in a reference book in your own library which asserts baldly that my writings deploy “the weapons of a deadly logic” but exhibit “little humor.” Some scholars, including the authors of the Catholic Encyclopedia, just don’t recognize a joke.

Your core curriculum—I return to my topic—directs the attention of the young particularly to the discernment of their calling. In this it echoes the advice I gave in my monograph on Christian living, where I wrote:

. . . the Lord . . . knows the boiling restlessness of the human mind, the fickleness with which it is borne hither and thither, its eagerness to hold opposites at one time in its grasp, its ambition. Therefore, lest all things should be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings. Every man's mode of life, therefore, is a kind of station assigned him by the Lord, that he may not be always driven about at random.

Of all the many stations to which the Lord calls his chosen ones, none should be ranked higher than that of the teacher who seeks to impart the truths entrusted to us in the Gospel to young and inquiring minds. I commend you at Calvin College for your renewed dedication to that task, as evidenced in your core curriculum and indeed in every aspect of this college. Permit me in this regard to quote once more from my own writing, when I wrote to Madame Agnes de Microw concerning her decision to send her children to Zurich to secure a sound Christian education for them.

. . . In not hesitating to send your children far from you and into an almost unknown country, that they might better imbibe the pure doctrine of Christ, you have clearly shown how precious a virtuous and pious education is in your eyes. . . . For this holy desire is evangelical, and such as all good men should study to favour; and the pious discipline which flourishes in your house is no less worthy of praise . . . . It were also to be desired . . . that there were found not only more ladies, but men who should spread the light of a similar example. . . . But because, in the course of our lives, many obstacles occur which it would not be easy for us to surmount, I will pray the Lord that he may strengthen you to persevere, enrich you from day to day with the gifts of his Spirit, and in the meantime keep you in safety under his hand and protection. (Letter #377, 29 December 1544)

I note in passing that the Latin word here translated as “obstacles” not easy to surmount is more accurately rendered in English as “speed bumps.” The passage may warrant closer scrutiny by your Dean of Speed Bumps. (I cannot tell you how heartening it is, for one so devoted to the maintenance of proper order in human society, to learn that Calvin College has established the position of Dean of Speed Bumps—although I regret to report that my inquiries directed to that office have gone unanswered. Perhaps the good dean is putting in long days excavating the foundations of the Calvin Catapult.) I have also signed in advance a thousand copies of this letter at the request of Mr. Dale Kuiper, so that it can be dispatched in September over my signature to the parents of each entering student.

Your own college seal displays prominently the motto that I chose to guide me in my calling as pastor and scholar: Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere. The meaning of the motto, as I am sure you are all aware, is: “my core curriculum I offer, Lord,” prompte being the Latin word for “during my freshman year,” sincere indicating “and in my sophomore year too, depending on which exemptions have been granted by the registrar.” How appropriate the motto is to your new enterprise.

Once again I extend my heartfelt thanks to you for your kindness in remembering my birthday and my congratulations on your 125th year. I look forward to returning next year, and the next, until the college reaches my own current age of 492—in the year of our Lord 2368.