Departing From—And Recovering—Tradition: John Calvin And The Imitation Of Christ -- By: Jimmy Agan

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 56:4 (Dec 2013)
Article: Departing From—And Recovering—Tradition: John Calvin And The Imitation Of Christ
Author: Jimmy Agan

Departing From—And Recovering—Tradition:
John Calvin And The Imitation Of Christ

Jimmy Agan*

* Jimmy Agan is professor of New Testament and director of homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141.

With respect to the imitation of Christ, E. J. Tinsley had the following to say in a 1972 article: “In Protestantism there is a perceptible nervousness about using the term at all. This has been particularly the case since the time of Luther. His final antipathy to the ideal became the orthodox protestant [sic] tradition on the matter.”1 The present article hopes to demonstrate two things: first, that evangelical scholarship continues to maintain this “orthodox Protestant tradition” through appeals to John Calvin and his perceived hostility toward the imitation of Christ; second, that such appeals to Calvin are misleading, since the Reformer himself displayed far less nervousness regarding the imitatio Christi than many of his theological heirs. As we shall see, while Calvin could speak strongly against the abuse of the imitation of Christ when necessary, the concept ultimately played a positive and prominent role in Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life. In other words, whereas Calvin speaks of imitation in terms of both abuse and proper use, many in the Protestant and Reformed heritage have heard only the former. As a result, many who believe they are maintaining Protestant tradition by downplaying the imitation of Christ are actually departing from that tradition, at least as it is represented by Calvin.2 The ultimate aim of this article, then, is to let the Reformer himself reform our views so that we might recover a neglected part of our tradition—namely, a proper emphasis on the imitation of Christ.3

I. “Maintaining” The Tradition:
Calvin And Imitation As Commonly Perceived

Before examining Calvin’s thought, we need to demonstrate that a common perception—or, as we will later argue, a common misperception—persists among some Protestant and Reformed scholars. While many Calvin specialists

acknowledge the key place the imitation of Christ has in the Reformer’s thought,4 evangelical scholarship frequently paints a different picture. By leveling serious criticisms against imitation, appealing to Calvin in support of these criticisms, and neglecting to present more positive evidence from Calvin, such scholarship points to three conclusions:

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