From the NTJ, October 2000
Ask any living Calvinist if he believed in conversion and ninety-nine percent of the responses would be unabashedly affirmative. And yet, if you followed up with a question about where the Reformed creeds and catechisms teach about conversion, the answer would probably not be so swift or positive. One reason for the latter reaction might be that the Reformed confessions have very little to say about conversion per se. And when they do, they mean something very different from contemporary evangelical usage which regards conversion as synonymous with an instantaneous new birth or â€œborn againâ€ experience. For instance, the Canons of Dort, best known for outlining the mnemonic TULIP, describe true conversion as consisting of the external preaching of the gospel combined with the work of the Holy Spirit, who â€œpowerfully illuminatesâ€ the mind, â€œpervades the inmost recesses of man; . . . opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised,â€ and transforms the will from being â€œevil, disobedient, and refactoryâ€ to being â€œgood, obedient, and pliable.â€ That way of looking at conversion might satisfy the most zealous of low-church evangelists, until learning that Dort is not referring to a moment of crisis or decision but is actually describing the whole of the Christian life. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, â€œgenuine repentance or conversionâ€ consists of two things: â€œthe dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the newâ€ (Q&A 88). It is not clear whether the Westminster Standards mention conversion.
Ironically, despite the Reformed traditionâ€™s teaching about conversion (or lack thereof), many conservative Presbyterians continue to speak of it as an experience of the born-again variety and ask prospective church members for a narrative of conversion. This is the consequence of almost 250 years of Presbyterian congeniality toward revivalism. This is the Jonathan Edwards School of Presbyterianism that looks upon his conversion as a model for genuine faith. While a student at Yale, Edwards recalled that he felt:
a calm, sweet Abstraction of Soul from all the Concerns of this World; and a kind of Vision, or fixâ€™d Ideas and Imaginations, of being alone in the Mountains, or some solitary Wilderness, far from all Mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in GOD. The Sense I had of divine Things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my Heart; and ardor of my Soul, that I know not how to express.
For Edwards, as for most other believers who have come to faith through revivalismâ€™s direct appeals, conversion equals ecstasy.
But Edwardsâ€™ mountain-top experience of God is a long way from the older Reformed notions of regeneration, repentance, and sanctification to which the term conversion typically applies. For that reason, Edwardsâ€™ conversion may not be the best model. Here is where many experimental Calvinists, uneasy already about elevating an ordinary human beingâ€™s experience too high, would likely appeal to the apostle Paul, whose conversion on the way to Damascus makes Edwardsâ€™ look like chopped liver. At the same time, however, appealing to Paul has the disadvantage of establishing a norm for conversion that is so exceptional that Reformed believers, who are supposed to believe in the closing of the canon and the cessation of miraculous signs, could never hope to experience Christ in any way.
For this reason, a better source for thoughts about conversion than Edwardsâ€™ or Paulâ€™s experience is the man from whom Calvinists derive their name. Ironically, John Calvin does not serve the interests of revival-friendly Presbyterians well because the record does not show convincingly that the French Reformer had any experience that would qualify as a conversion or that might even be regarded as remarkable. According to William J. Bouwsma, whose biography of Calvin admittedly has not received unanimous endorsement from orthodox Reformed and Presbyterians, â€œreligious conversion is a more problematic conception than is ordinarily recognized.â€ As a â€œcultural artifactâ€ or an â€œindividual experience,â€ it is an event that marks a â€œsharp break with the past.â€ Accordingly, â€œlife before conversion . . . is irrelevant except as preparation for this break or as a stimulus to repentance; life afterward is made new.â€ Bouwsma argues, however, that evidence for a conversion of this type in Calvinâ€™s life is â€œnegligible.â€ Most biographers have cited a single passage from Calvinâ€™s commentary on the Psalms, written in 1557. It reads:
God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honorable office of herald and minister of the Gospel. . . . What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years — for I was so strongly devoted to the superstitions of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner, a raw recruit.
Bouwsma interprets this passage as nothing more than â€œa shift and quickening of his interests,â€ certainly nothing incompatible with the evangelical humanism that many university students at Paris espoused, simply a willingness to be more teachable. In other words, there was no decisive break in Calvin with his former life until he ran afoul of Roman church authorities. But becoming a Protestant, something that was gradual and progressive, hardly qualifies as â€œgoing forwardâ€ at the time of an altar call or experiencing a unique and immediate sense of Godâ€™s presence somewhere in the woods outside Paris. Protestantism was a reformation, not a revival. Evidence of its transformation came in the form of changes in doctrine, liturgy and church polity, not in hearts strangely or normally warmed.
As Bouwsma also observes, Calvin was not enthusiastic about conversion as a precise event in his discussions of Christian piety. He â€œalways emphasized the gradualness rather than the suddenness of conversion and the difficulty of making progress in the Christian life.â€ In a statement that many contemporary Presbyterians would deem nonsensical, Calvin wrote that â€œwe are converted little by little to God, and by stages.â€ In his commentary on Acts, Calvin was even reluctant to attach much significance to Paulâ€™s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. â€œWe now have Paul tamed,â€ he wrote, â€œbut not yet a disciple of Christ.â€
Consequently, Bouwsma attributes more to family circumstances and educational influences than to the movement of the Spirit in explaining Calvinâ€™s move into the Protestant fold in 1535. The death of Calvinâ€™s mother and his subsequent exclusion from his fatherâ€™s household, according to Bouwsma, imparted a sense of homelessness that would later befit a French exile in Geneva. Then at Paris Calvin learned the three languages — Latin, Greek and Hebrew — that were so much a part of the Christian reform movement spearheaded by Erasmus. Bouwsma concludes that whatever conversion Calvin experienced it was not a radical break with his past but rather the fruit of personal, spiritual and intellectual seeds sown earlier in his life.