This month's issue of Modern Reformation (my favorite magazine) focuses on the lasting relevance of John Calvin (2009 is the 500 anniversary of Calvin's birth). In his article "Is Calvin Still Relevant after 500 Years" Michael Horton explains clearly why I am a deliberate Protestant and why Protestants must continue to point out our differences with Rome.
Not out of any relish for the five-century split, but out of concern for the only source of the church's existence, unity, and mission, a couple of fairly recent news items are worth bearing in mind when we ask whether John Calvin is still relevant after five centuries.
U.S. newspapers have recently been running stories on the Vatican's 'Year of St. Paul.' The focus of most articles is teh pope's decision to offer indulgences to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the apostle's birth. Best known for his rich proclamation of free grace and severe condemnation of any church that would preach a different gospel, Paul's birth being celebrated with indulgences is ironic in the extreme. The special year is to last unitl June 2009. According to the Vatican website:
"The gift of Indulgences which the Roman Pontiff offers to the universal Church, truly smoothes the way to attaining a supreme degree of inner purification which, while honouring the Blessed Apostle Paul, exalts the supernatural life in the hearts of the faithful and gently encourages them to do good deeds...[Supplicants who do this] will be granted the Plenary [full] Indulgence from temporal punishment for his/her sins, once sacramental forgiveness and pardon for any shortcomings has been obtained...The Christian faithful may benefit from the Plenary Indulgence both for themselves and for the deceased, as many times as they fulfill the required conditions but without prejudice to the norm stipulating that the Plenary Indulgence may be obtained only once a day."
The conditions of the indulgence are also clearly stipulated. Absolution will be granted to the soul that does penance, receives Communion, makes a pilgrimage to the Papal Basilica of St. Paul in Rome, 'devoutly recites the Our Father adn the Creed, adding pious invocations in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Paul...and who prays for the Supreme Pontiff's intentions.' If they do this 'in a spirit of total detachment from any inclination to sin' and also 'take part devoutly in a sacred function or in a pious public exercise in honour of the Apostle to the Gentiles' during this 'Pauline Year,' they may receive time off in purgatory up to full (plenary) exoneration.
For anyone who might not recall, the sale of indulgences built St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and provoked Luther's Ninety-Five Theses. Since the mid-nineteenth century, direct payment of money is forbidden, but charitable contributions are part of the penance that contributes to the indulgence. Like Luther, Calvin criticized indulgences not merely for overarching for salvation, but because of the grotesque distortion of the gospel that could make such a travesty possible...
[In] mid-celebration, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity issued a caution. The statement began by praising the consensus announced in the Joint Declaration, but then added, 'The Catholic Church is, however, of the opinion that we cannot yet speak of a consensus such as would eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justificaiton.' Citing the Council of Trent, the Pontifical Council reminded Roman Catholics that they must hold as dogma that 'eternal life, is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits.'