In Recognition of John Calvin

This year has seen and heard much of the double anniversary of Charles Darwin (the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of the Species). But another man also has a double anniversary this year, a man just as influential and significant. Yet his life and work has largely been overlooked, while Darwin celebrations have been all the rage. I refer of course to the great Reformer, John Calvin.

Five hundred years ago John Calvin was born in France, and 450 years ago the fifth and final Latin edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion was published. Without question he has had a tremendous impact on the world, for a variety of reasons.

Many books over the years have chronicled the importance and significance of the man and his work. One thinks of John T. McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism (OUP, 1954), or W. Stanford Reid, ed., John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World (Zondervan, 1982).

A number of books have appeared just recently on the man and his legacy, and with good reason. If Luther is the ultimate expression of the Protestant Reformation, then Calvin would surely have to be the penultimate expression of it. Thus it is fitting that he be remembered and recognised during this anniversary year.

Of the many books which have appeared of late, let me draw your attention to just one set of books that is worth having a look at. “The Calvin 500 Series” is a very nice collection of volumes covering numerous aspects of the man and his thought. Three volumes are now out, although it is not clear if any further volumes are yet to appear.

The general editor of the series is American Presbyterian pastor David Hall. He penned two of the volumes: The Legacy of John Calvin (P&R, 2008), and Calvin in the Public Square (P&R, 2009). The third volume, A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (P&R, 2008), is edited by Hall and Peter Lillback. Taken together these three books offer a wide-ranging and detailed look at the life and impact of the Reformer.

In the two volumes written by Hall, a number of social, political and cultural achievements and accomplishments of Calvin are examined. Many can be mentioned. For example, in the area of governance, pluralism and human rights, Calvin played no small role. This may seem strange, since some consider Calvin to be little more than a crude theocrat. But this is far from the case.

Calvin for example insisted that the various branches of local government (councils) in Geneva should not act unilaterally, but that at least two councils should be required to approve measures before being ratified. Says Hall, “This early republican mechanism, which prevented consolidation of all governmental power into a single council, predated Montesquieu’s separation of powers doctrine by two centuries.”

Calvin’s theology is nicely explored and expounded upon in the volume looking at his famous Institutes. Here a number of Calvin experts and scholars look at his theological position on a range of topics, from his understanding of the Trinity to his views on worship.

Consider the chapter on election and predestination by R. Scott Clark. Many people wrongly assume that these theological distinctives are almost unique to Calvin, and constitute the primary focus of his thinking. Both assumptions are wrong, as Clark demonstrates.

He reminds us that most of the Christian church from at least the time of Augustine had strongly held to the doctrine of predestination. Indeed, the belief in double predestination (divine election and reprobation), which many assume to be a chief legacy of Calvin, was held by much of the Christian church. Aquinas, for example, taught it as clearly and unequivocally as anyone.

And these doctrines were not the central concern of Calvin’s thought. Sure, the sovereignty and majesty of God are overriding themes in the theology of Calvin, but the issue of predestination does not fully appear in the Institutes until book III. And his stance on the issue was fully informed by what he found in the Word of God, such as Romans 9, Ephesians 1, and so on.

To be sure, many of these doctrines can be, and often are, controversial and subject to heated debate. Given the infinite and eternal God that we serve, things cannot be otherwise. Some will find themselves more at home with Calvin’s theology than others.

But Calvin was not just some austere, cerebral theologian. He was also a pastor and a sincere disciple of Christ with a fervent faith. Consider his many writings on the topic of prayer. It might seem that a man who held such a high view of God’s sovereignty would have little to say about prayer. Not so.

As David Calhoun writes in his chapter on Calvin and prayer, Calvin wrote and preached extensively on the topic. Indeed, he was a man of prayer, both privately and publically. As Calhoun reminds us, one of “the longest chapters in Calvin’s 1559 Institutes is about prayer; it extends for seventy pages in the English translation”.

As to prayer and the sovereignty of God, Calvin taught that “God, by means of our prayers, does what he planned all along to do”. Indeed, prayer was ordained by God really more for our benefit than God’s, said Calvin.

Calvin was not interested in offering a rational explanation as to what might be seen by some as a logical contradiction here. He knew that Scripture affirmed both the sovereignty of God, and the need for his people to pray. Indeed, he offers six reasons why we should pray, and discussed four rules of right prayer.

Yet Calvin will always be the subject of controversy. His experiment at Geneva for example has long been the subject of much discussion and disagreement. Some relish his work there while others abhor it. Nor has Calvin the man been found to be above reproach. His dealing with Servetus is certainly considered by many to be a blot on his otherwise good work and character.

But love him or loathe him – or remaining somewhere in between – no one can doubt the significant impact and legacy of this one man. While Christians will have differing opinions of both his theology and his influence, it must be recognised that he has been a major player in the history of the Christian church.

If Darwin is going to receive so much attention this year, then it seems only proper to allow Calvin to also stand in the public spotlight. In the greater scheme of things, his legacy and influence may well be what will be remembered in years to come, rather than that of Darwin.

(Note: these three books on Calvin are all available in Australia at Koorong Books).

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12 Replies to “In Recognition of John Calvin”

  1. Thanks Bill, for a timely posting on a truly great man.
    I fear that even a mild post on Calvin will evoke a torrent of invective from some: Catholics, who see him as the extreme end of an already heretical Protestantism; and Arminian fundamentalists, who heap all manner of calumnies upon him over precisely the doctrines you mention.

    Let me highlight two important aspects of “Calvinism” which are relevant in today’s discussions:
    1. Calvin’s political philosophy. Calvin taught that resistance to political tyranny was a Divine mandate. If a ruler showed his opposition to God’s Word and enacted laws accordingly, he was to be resisted, by resort to arms if necessary. This resulted in the religious wars in France during the latter half of the C16th, culminating in the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which gave a period of peace until Louis XIV revoked the Edict in 1685.
    Calvin’s doctrine also, in part, lay behind the English Civil War of 1642-46, which led in turn to the Commonwealth of 1649-1660.
    The doctrine also motivated the Dutch Protestants to resist the tyrannies of the Spanish Duke of Alva, and to the the ultimate formation of the Dutch Republic late in the C16th.
    Short of these struggles, Calvinism tended toward limited monarchy or even outright republicanism, an aspect not lost on their Lutheran opponents who were much more compliant with the ruling powers. The dominating idea here was that “Christ, not man, is king”, to echo the dictum of Cromwell.

    In our present day Christians have either never heard of this aspect of Calvinism, or if they have, they abhor it. But it does bear thinking about in a day when Western states adopt more and more of the Leftist-Statist idea and at least “soft tyranny”.

    2. The Regulative Principle. In Lutheran – and Anglican – theology things are permissible in worship or church affairs if the Bible does not expressly forbid them, whereas the Calvinist approach is to forbid everything that does not have express Scriptural warrant. This principle was fundamental to our Puritan forbears, but is now all but forgotten. The result is obvious: worship has in many churches become nothing more than ribald entertainment, and a general free-for-all. In this appeal is constantly made to 1 Cor.9:22, even to the point of violating clear Scriptural commands, all in the name of evangelistic pragmatism, and “getting people in”. The result is that the Church looks little different from the world. It is hardly recognisable as Christ’s pure Bride.
    In this 500th anniversary of Calvin I would plead that the desperately sick Evangelical church return to the principles of our Reformation fathers, and the godly Puritans. Otherwise, to revere Calvin, and to write all sorts of appreciative books and articles about him is nothing more than building the tombs of the prophets, which Christ condemned in no uncertain terms (Matt.23:29-33).
    Murray Adamthwaite

  2. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross, perhaps the most influential non government agency working to alleviate suffering, especially through war. It is no co-indicence that Henri Dunant, it’s founder, came from John Calvin’s Geneva. Though in later life Henri Dunant was not so outspoken about his faith, there’s no doubt the Calvinism of his childhood formed his worldview; and gave him a compassion for the needy. Geneva today is what it is, a world centre for care of the needy, as a result of the ministry of John Calvin.
    Andrew Campbell

  3. Thanks Andrew

    Some years ago a noted Australian atheist attacked me in a newspaper column when I wrote that it was Christianity, not atheism, that has produced most of the charitable organisations. She said there were all kinds of secular groups, such as the Red Cross! I replied: Just what do you think the cross stands for in the Red Cross? And I pointed out Dunant’s Calvinist faith. Needless to say, she did not reply!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Well done, Bill.

    Presbyterians have been doing and will continue doing various things to celebrate Calvin’s birth.

    I did an article on Calvin and Worship for the Sydney Anglican website found here:

    Love your website Benno, but where is that article?

    Calvin’s fourfold teaching on the Christian LIfe (Institutes Book 3, Chapters vi-x) is well worth reading whilst the I agree with Bill the section on prayer including the Lord’s Prayer is magnificent.

    David Palmer

  5. Bill,
    If you ask Christians today if they have heard of Martin Luther they would likely say yes, but for John Calvin, most answers would be in the negative; and those who at least heard of the name would be those with some association with the Presbyterians and the Reformed churches. The political side of Calvin is not as familiar to many as his doctrinal aspect regarding salvation through the sovereign will of God in election or predestination. This is a doctrine that still divides the church and is quite unsettling in the minds of many. But the Reformed churches must be credited for their good and sound expository preaching from the Word.
    Barry Koh

  6. Thanks Barry

    But it might be even worse than you suggest. Perhaps most Christians today, if asked about Martin Luther, would confuse the 16th century Reformer with Martin Luther King, the 20th century American civil rights leader. I have heard it happen – more than once!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. I agree with your appraisal, Bill! Another unique contribution Calvin made was to the French language. I think it was McNeill (or perhaps Schaff?) who pointed out how Calvin was responsible for making French such a literary language. His Institutes are still considered one of the best examples of classic French ever written.
    Wanda Wilkening, USA

  8. The doctrines of John Calvin and Luther are at odds with the first 1,500 years of the Church. Calvin and Luther’s rejections, loathings, revisions of certain sacraments and also their completely different worship services which reject the Catholic Mass ( and by extension the Mass of the Eastern Rite Catholics and even the Orthodox Eastern Christianity) is novelty adn rupture from historical church living tradition of real time Christian peoples.
    Even when calvinist admire St Augustine or any of the other Church fathers of the earliest centuries, they need to admit that these same church fathers were Catholics, celebrated the Mass that is loathed and dreaded as a blasphemy by many Protestants etc etc as per the other Catholic doctrines. How do you Calvinists reconcile the huge differences between your beliefs and that of real people, real Catholic Christians for the first 1,500 years before Calvin was born. And of course the same Chrsitianity continued right through to today by the same Church?
    Michael Webb

  9. Thanks Michael

    As a non-Catholic I do not fully share all your concerns. And since I am neither a Calvinist nor a Lutheran, I do not feel the need to defend their positions. The purpose of the article was simply to highlight the impact and influence of Calvin – something which even an agnostic could do. I said not everyone would agree with him.

    I try, as C.S. Lewis did, to promote “mere Christianity”. I hope people who come here can share in that vision. Sure, I have plenty of theological preferences and biases – but so does everyone. If people want to respectfully and politely debate some of these theological differences, that is one thing. But if people want to engage in sectarian warfare, they can – just not here. There are hundreds of websites devoted to bashing Protestants, just as there are hundreds of websites devoted to bashing Catholics. It is not my aim to go down that path here.

    I know I am just being a glutton for punishment by having a website like this, trying as I do to unite folk as at least co-belligerents. But often things just degenerate into belligerency! Pray for wisdom as I seek to keep this site on an even keel, and bring glory to God.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Je ne connais pas de “John” Calvin, mais uniquement Jean Calvin…
    Merci Bill pour cet autre bon article et pour tout votre bon travail.

    Pascal Denault, Québec

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