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This upcoming Wednesday, July 10, marks the 504th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the Protestant reformer/theologian that has had the biggest impact on worldwide Presbyterianism.
1. A brief biographical sketch of Calvin
Like any other French boy growing up in early 16th century France, Calvin began his life as a Roman Catholic. When he grew up, he became convinced that the Protestant cause was where Biblical Christianity was really to be found. Of his own conversion to Christ, he said very little, but we know that once he joined the Protestant cause, he was committed for the rest of his life. It wasn’t popular or exactly legal to be a Protestant in 16th century France, so persecution caused Calvin to relocate in Geneva, Switzerland. It was here that he had his most lasting impact as a preacher, church reformer, and Biblical commentator. He wrote commentaries on all of the New Testament, except the book of Revelation.
Like practically all 16th century Europeans, Calvin believed the civil government had a responsibility to punish heresy. Calvin advocated that his famous opponent Servetus, who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, should be executed, and Calvin’s opponents sometimes bring up this very tragic case to portray Calvin in a negative light. It was tragic—there’s no denying that. To put it in context, though, Calvin was a man of his times and most of his contemporaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, took it for granted that people who espoused heresy should be punished as criminals.
Calvin spent most of his adult life in ill health and died at the young age of 54. Through his writings, Calvin continued to influence the Reformation throughout Europe. A century after he died, the Westminster Confession (1647) and Catechisms were written in England and later adopted by the Church of Scotland. To this day they remain the most widely used, most authoritative church confessions in the “Calvinist” tradition of Christianity.
2. The Gallican Confession of 1559
Due to his prominence in the world of Reformed theology, Reformed Christians understandably are interested in Calvin, but due to the massive size of Calvin’s best known book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, many will be reluctant to wade through it. What, then, are some accessible alternatives where people can go to get a thumbnail sketch of Calvin’s theology?
The French Confession of Faith, or Gallican Confession, which takes up no more than 14 pages in Phillip Schaff’s classic Creeds of Christendom collection, is the best place to get a brief, but all-encompassing look at Calvin’s theology. The confession, written by Calvin along with his pupil De Chandieu, was approved by a Paris synod in 1559. It is divided into 40 articles, covering doctrines such as the Trinity, the canon of Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, God’s providence, election and predestination, Christ’s atonement, justification by faith alone, perseverance of the saints, invocation to the saints, purgatory, church government, the marks of a true church, sacraments, etc.
People who have an image of Calvin as a mean-spirited doctrinaire who hated all of his theological opponents will likely be surprised when reading the Gallican Confession at just how pastoral, and generally speaking, non-polemical Calvin is.
3. Contrasting Luther and Calvin
It’s difficult to evaluate Calvin’s legacy without comparing it to that of the other 16th century reformer who’s had the most lasting impact on evangelical Christianity, Martin Luther. It is unfortunate that history remembers Luther, more than anything else, for his doctrine of justification by faith alone, and it remembers Calvin more than anything else for his doctrine of unconditional predestination. In reality, both men believed the same doctrine of justification and unconditional predestination and, if anything, Luther placed more emphasis upon predestination than Calvin did. That’s not to say, though, that nothing distinguished Calvin from Luther.
• Calvin emphasized “double predestination” in a way that Luther didn’t. Basically, double predestination refers to God not only predestining believers for salvation but also predestining unbelievers for damnation. While Calvin was willing to delve into these matters in his Institutes, Luther, on the other hand, when he delved into this at all, usually did so in the context of correspondence with friends or opponents. Luther’s confessional writings, which were drafted as statements of belief for Lutheran churches, say almost nothing about the subject.
• While Calvin was still a boy, Reformed and Lutheran churches were already dividing over the Lord’s Supper. Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli taught that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial meal in which Christ’s death on the cross was commemorated. According to Zwingli, the bread and wine served merely as symbols of Christ’s body and blood. Luther taught that Christ’s physical body and blood is present in the Lord’s Supper and that communicants participate in far more than symbolism. Calvin, who rejected both Zwingli’s and Luther’s interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, attempted to find a middle way between Zwingli and Luther. Calvin didn’t believe in a physical presence in Holy Communion, but he also didn’t believe the meal was nothing more than a memorial. He emphasized an intense spiritual presence of Christ and was able to use much the same terminology as Lutherans when speaking of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The difference, though, was the Calvin believed Christ’s physical body was in heaven, not in the elements of bread and wine.
• Calvin advocated more extreme reform than Luther. For Luther, if Scripture didn’t forbid it, it was allowable. Hence, Lutherans retained the basic liturgical structure of the Western Catholic worship service while Reformed Christians purged it of all that wasn’t explicitly commanded in Scripture. Luther believed in singing new hymns while Calvin believed it was only appropriate to sing psalms from the Bible. Calvin believed any sort of images or icons of Christ were forbidden by the Ten Commandments while Luther believed crucifixes and other images should be retained as long as they weren’t made objects of worship.
Calvin was a human, a flawed human. That he made mistakes hopefully any Christian within the Reformed communion is willing to admit. In spite of that, though, God did use Calvin to help bring the church greater doctrinal stability during a time of great upheaval within the Body of Christ. Christians, while not at all overlooking or sugarcoating what Calvin did wrong, can rightly give thanks to God for using this man to help bring the church back to a more solid understanding of the Biblical gospel of salvation by God’s grace.