John Calvin - 500 years on

‘The impact of Calvin’s teaching has been enormous both in the range of countries affected and in the breadth of areas of life where his teaching has been applied.’

John Calvin was born in Noyon, France 500 years ago on 10th July 1509. His life was to impact the England of Henry VIII who came to the throne in the same year.

Calvin was only a boy when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. Striking a cord with German nationalism and supported by many of the German princes, Lutheranism became mainly identified with the German people and the Reformation might have died out but for John Calvin. His importance is that he internationalised the movement. He did this in two ways. First he set out a definitive theology of Protestantism in his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’. Secondly, he inspired the missionary movement that spread the evangelical Gospel across Europe from his Geneva base.

Brought up in a family closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church, the precocious twelve year old went to Paris to study the compulsory Arts course before specialising in theology, medicine and law. He graduated at least four years ahead of the normal age. His father had intended him for the priesthood until he realised reformed ideas threatened such a normally lucrative career (‘what prospect now for a basket of plums for the pluralist?’) and sent him to Orleans to study civil law, and later to Bourges. His friends were sympathetic to the new theological ideas and Calvin was probably converted in Orleans in his late teens.

Calvin was in touch with influential people and was implicated in the preparation of a sermon by the Rector of Paris University. Then in the aftermath of the notorious Placards incident when anti-Catholic placards came out like a rash all over France on 18 October 1534, Calvin had to flee from his native country. Apart from one brief visit, he was a refugee for the rest of his life, for 30 out of his 55 years, mainly in Geneva where his most famous ministry continued for 25 years. For himself he would have chosen the ivory tower existence of the scholar. The truth is that his amazing output of commentaries and other writings was produced in the regular life of a pastor, preaching every day in alternate weeks and twice each Sunday in a crowded cathedral, along with other pastoral duties (a wedding at least every fortnight in at least one decade) whilst seeking to spread the reform movement in the face of enormous political and religious pressures. Personally he faced opposition and persecution throughout his Christian life. But his main calling was to the preaching ministry as he worked his way verse by verse through large chunks of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. The Word of God for Calvin was ‘fresh, living, and explosive’. In this way primarily, he nurtured and sustained what was in effect a revival movement. Any thought of a dry, boring, vinegary character, ‘a doctrinal computer hard-wired on predestination’ - so often presented in caricatures of this godly man - is to be discarded. People came from all over Europe to learn at the feet of this extraordinary teacher.

Over the years in Geneva he produced successive editions of his ‘Institutes’, the first in 1536. It was not an academic exercise, but written for new believers, especially for his Swiss compatriots ‘hungering and thirsting for Christ’ in churches that were multiplying. It was also a confession of faith to demonstrate to King Francis that he had nothing to fear from his Protestant citizens. He was conscious that as he hid in Switzerland, ‘many faithful and holy persons were burnt alive in France’. He must write so that all ‘might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed’.

It can be said that his major emphasis was the doctrine of God, his Glory and Majesty that is above and beyond ‘the power of human understanding’, that should not be scrutinised but rather adored ‘lest we be overwhelmed by its brightness.’ It has been said that no-one had a profounder sense of God than John Calvin. The rest of his theology flowed from it. Only in the light of our knowledge of God can we truly know ourselves, as Isaiah discovered in his vision of the Holy One. In our sin and rebelliousness we are completely dependent upon God for salvation, hence the need for regeneration, a new birth. (In Wesley’s sermons ‘Original Sin’ is followed by ‘The New Birth’.) But then Calvin recognised a dilemma. Why were some people not regenerated when they had heard the same teaching as those who were? All were dead! Why did some come alive and not others? His answer was the doctrine of election, not original to him, but taught, he believed, not only by Peter and Paul but by Christ himself. Anyone who thinks that election makes evangelism unnecessary misunderstands Calvin. His career and that of those who followed him belies such a response.

Calvinism was known as a militant faith. It was a faith that flourished in circumstances of persecution. There were at least 2000 Huguenot congregations in France as she came within a hairsbreadth of becoming a Protestant country. Behind it lay the planning and training of Calvin. He regularly consulted with Protestant European leaders. John Knox described Geneva as ‘the most perfect school of Christ’. Thomas Cranmer corresponded with Calvin who supported his proposal of a meeting (that did not eventuate) of European leaders. The Prayer Book of Edward VI was Calvinist in theology and many English leaders went to Geneva when Mary came to the throne. In addition to England, Scotland and his native France, Calvin had great influence in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Poland and later in events in America.

The impact of Calvin’s teaching has been enormous both in the range of countries affected and in the breadth of areas of life where his teaching has been applied. Strong education systems, separation of state and church, political theories such as resistance to tyrants, the doctrine of vocation and the sacredness and dignity of all types of work are some examples of his influence. While the connection between Calvinism and capitalism has long been debated, it is an observable fact that the most prosperous countries are Protestant and it is in those countries that democracy has flourished most easily. A 19th century Harvard professor asserted that ‘he that will not honour the memory and respect the influence of John Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty’.

So what can we learn from him? Calvin’s life and work warn us that the type of Christianity that survives the heat of persecution is doctrinal Christianity with the obedience of faith that flows from it. What one observer has described as a ‘weak and flabby Protestantism that does not know what it believes’ will not stand before the serious challenges of today, whether from other faiths or from the new atheism. We, like Calvin, need to have big thoughts about God if, like him, we are to claim the whole of life for God. And the means of doing this? The ministry of the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To God alone be the Glory

Short introductions to John Calvin:
John Calvin and his passion for the Majesty of God by John Piper (IVP 2009) 59 pages
Truth for all time – a brief outline of the Christian Faith (1537) by John Calvin (B of T 1998)