A theology of glory is a theology that 1) seeks to present one’s self to God on the basis of works; 2) that elevates human reason above divine revelation. The theology of the cross looks to Christ and his righteousness imputed, received through faith alone, resting in Christ alone, according to the Scripture alone. For Luther and for Calvin, the idea that there could be a social movement that would bring about heaven on earth was a theology of glory. It conflated heaven and earth. It failed to recognize the depth of human depravity and the consequences of the fall and sin.
Yesterday (August 13) was the 477th anniversary of a small but symbolic event in Reformation history. On that date in 1541 John Calvin returned to Geneva from Strasbourg, where he had been a happy exile for about three years. On his first Sunday back in the pulpit in Geneva, as he later recalled, he gave a brief account of his ministry, so that the people in St. Pierre would not think that he been voluntarily neglecting them and his ministry, and then he resumed preaching just where he had left off 3 years earlier. This was intentional. He did not crow. He just returned to his ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline.
Technically, he was only on temporary loan from Strasbourg but he never returned to Strasbourg, where he had been pastoring a French-speaking congregation. He was exiled from Geneva because he tried to reform their worship and church discipline according to the Word of God. This was, he thought, the reason they had called him to the ministry there in the first place but the influential, old-money families, whose names are still on the street signs (in the old city) in Geneva today, found that the reforms he proposed would mean that they would lose control over the churches and that some of them would find themselves excluded from the Lord’s Table for gross immorality—because that is just what Calvin, Farel, and the other ministers proposed to do.
Exile is a misleading word to describe Calvin’s three years in Strasbourg. It is a beautiful city. He had warm fellowship with Bucer, a humanist and Reformed theologian, who had become a Protestant at Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518). By the time Calvin joined him he had been thinking about and seeking to implement Reformation for 30 years. Bucer was a senior figure in the movement and an irenic figure, so much so that at Regensburg, while Calvin was with him, he tried with Melanchthon to craft an equivocal statement on justification that the Roman delegates to the conference could sign. It would be more accurate to describe his time in Strasbourg as a relief, as a kind of internship.
Two things make this episode interesting just now. First, it contradicts the widely held and repeated narrative that Calvin was a tyrant in Geneva and in the Reformed churches. I suppose tyrants might be exiled but they are not usually invited back, as Calvin was. Further, while he was away, the city fathers of Geneva faced a significant challenge by Jacopo Cardinal Sadoleto (d. 1547), who had written a letter inviting the Genevans to repent of their reformation of the church and to return to Rome. No one in Geneva was up to the task of replying and so they asked the one they had exiled to reply for them and Calvin graciously agreed. His reply to Sadoleto is one of the signal texts of the early Reformation.
Second, this episode signals something about Calvin’s eschatology. He was not looking for a glory-age on this earth. He expected the visible church to be mixed with believers and unbelievers. He expected civil justice to be imperfect. He did not begin a movement to bring heaven down to earth, i.e., a utopia. He had a semi-realized eschatology (the doctrine of the relations between heaven and earth and between the end of all things and now).
There are essentially three kinds of eschatologies: completely realized (e.g., full-preterism, Jesus has returned and this is the new heavens and the new earth); semi-realized (the dominant view among the Reformed and usually described as Amillennialism); and unrealized (or futurist; which would include most forms of chiliasm, premillennialism). Postmillennialism as we know it today has features that align it with the semi-realized and with the futurist views. It says that the Kingdom of God has been introduced into history but it also looks forward to an earthly golden age (prior to Christ’s return).