John Calvin and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

John R. Muether

John Calvin[1] was never a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Calvin died in 1564, and the OPC was formed in 1936. In those 372 intervening years, the work of John Calvin traveled through several nations and was interpreted by many voices as it made its way from Geneva to the new world.

Even where Calvinism would flourish in America it seemed to experience perpetual modification. The theological descendents of Jonathan Edwards in New England advocate a so-called "consistent Calvinism." The twentieth century saw the rise of "neo-Calvinism," a term elastic enough to describe both the followers of Karl Barth and Abraham Kuyper. We have suffered under the captivity of the "Calvin vs. the Calvinists" school of thought, which sought to convince the Reformed world that Calvin spoke to the church today only if he could be liberated from his heirs. One recent Calvin biographer has even identified a secular or atheistic Calvinism, which seeks to underscore the Reformer's contribution to the sciences, politics, and economics of Western culture without reference to his soteriology.[2] And now we have the new Calvinists—young, restless, and Reformed—and decidedly more hip than the "button-down bookworms" of an older American Calvinism.[3]

All of these trends remind us that American Calvinists must always distinguish genuine Calvinism from its counterfeit forms. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has never claimed to be the only Calvinist church in America, but it is a denomination that is not ashamed to call itself an heir of Calvin, and it has endeavored to embody a full-orbed Calvinism in its life and teaching. And so, in 2009, as the international Reformed community celebrated the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the Committee for the Historian of the OPC invited General Assembly commissioners and friends to a seminar that reflected on Calvin's ongoing importance to the church today.

The two essays that follow were presentations at this pre-Assembly seminar. The two authors are uniquely qualified to introduce us to important themes in the work of John Calvin that bear especially on the life of the church today.

Dr. Richard B. Gaffin needs no introduction to readers of this journal. Born a month after the formation of the OPC to Presbyterian missionaries in what is now Beijing, China, Gaffin attended Westminster Seminary where he earned B.D., Th.M., and Th.D. degrees. He joined the faculty at Westminster in 1965, where he taught for over forty years until his recent retirement.

What may be less well known about Professor Gaffin is his work as a Calvin scholar. He wrote his Th.M. thesis on Calvin on the Sabbath (subsequently published by Mentor books). His work on Calvin's doctrine of justification in relation to union with Christ was among the more important contributions in the recently published study of Calvin's Institutes.[4]

A native of Oklahoma, the Rev. Glen Clary is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Dallas. Since 2005 he has served as pastor of Immanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in West Collingswood, New Jersey, and he is currently engaged in a Doctor of Ministry program at the Institute for Reformed Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary, under the eminent scholar Hughes Oliphant Old. It is in the course of his doctoral research that he reflected at length on the topic he addressed at the pre-assembly seminar: John Calvin as Servant of the Word.

As a flood of conferences and books marks this quincentennary year, it is fitting for Orthodox Presbyterians to reflect on the witness of John Calvin and to return with profit to the fountainhead of the Reformed tradition. The Committee for the Historian is grateful to the editor of Ordained Servant for enabling these fine lectures to reach a broader audience.


[1] Adapted from the introduction to the lectures presented at the General Assembly Seminar, May 27, 2009, Kuyper College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

[3] Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008).

[4] David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback, eds. A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008).

John R. Muether is the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a ruling elder at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida. Ordained Servant, October 2009

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: October 2009

Calvin at 500: The Word

Also in this issue

The Humanity of John Calvin

John Calvin: Servant of the Word

Review: Why Johnny Can't Preach

Review: The Message of the Old Testament

Review: A Preparatory Grammar for New Testament Greek

Death, Be Not Proud [Holy Sonnet 10]

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church