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This week marks the 449th anniversary of the death of French reformer, John Calvin, the reformer most widely associated with Presbyterian/Reformed theology.
1. Calvin’s legacy
What Calvin will always be most remembered for is his book, Institutes of Christian Religion, which the reformer first published at the amazingly young age of 26. He edited throughout the course of his life. His theology profoundly shaped the Church of Scotland, the Church of Holland, and American Presbyterianism, just to name a few. In 17th century Holland, the Synod of Dort was convened to address a number of theological controversies that had arisen via the supporters of Dutch Reformed minister James Arminius. The “Canons of Dort” (1619) ratified and solidified what have since become known as the “Five Points of Calvinism”.
These five points (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) were not specifically formulated in Calvin’s Institutes, but the Synod of Dort felt like they accurately summed up Calvin’s own theology.
Total Depravity is the doctrine that mankind is enslaved to sin and that every aspect of a person—mind, will, emotions, etc.—is totally tainted by sin. Unconditional Election is the doctrine that God has chosen to redeem a multitude out of the mass of fallen humanity, bring them to saving faith in the gospel, and reconcile them to himself. Limited Atonement is the doctrine that though Christ’s death on the cross was for the world, it was specially and uniquely for the elect, securing their redemption and atoning for all their sins.
Irresistible Grace is the doctrine that that when God draws one of his chosen people to himself through the preaching of the gospel, that drawing always “works”—no member of God’s elect whom God draws to Christ will ever finally and fully resist; God’s grace always is effective, bringing about the desired result. Perseverance of the Saints is the doctrine that God ensures that all of his elect remain in the faith until their death, and that though they may fall and “backslide”, they never permanently fall away, but through God’s grace persevere to the end.
2. Calvin and Luther compared
Institutes illustrates one of the most significant differences between John Calvin and Martin Luther—whereas Luther was a first rate Biblical commentator and preacher, Calvin was more of a systematic theologian. Luther never wrote such a broad, exhaustive systematic theological work; in fact, what he is best known for writing today is his Small Catechism, which is more of a family devotional than a work of theology.
Many—usually Presbyterians—have argued that Calvin and Luther taught essentially the same doctrine of predestination. Though predestination is more associated with John Calvin than Martin Luther, if anything Luther wrote on the subject more than Calvin did. Also, if anything, Luther’s treatment of the subject was more vehement than Calvin’s. Calvin approved of Luther’s classic book which dealt with the subject, Bondage of the Will, yet disapproved of some of Luther’s hyperbole. In the respective traditions which have descended from these two men, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism, differing doctrines of predestination have developed, and the reason why is hard to pinpoint. Those who believe Luther and Calvin were on the same page on this issue usually blame later Lutheran theologians who arose after Luther’s death for steering Lutheranism away from Luther’s own view. Lutherans, on the other hand, usually argue that they have remained faithful to Luther’s theology and that Presbyterians have simply wrongly assumed that Luther and Calvin held the same view. Which side is correct?
If one reads Calvin’s Institutes and Luther’s Bondage of the Will, a number of similarities can be pinpointed. Both Luther and Calvin taught that justification is entirely a work of God and that humans contribute nothing at all to it. Both taught that mankind is enslaved to sin due to the Fall of Adam and Eve, and that as a result people cannot be converted or believe the gospel apart from the Holy Spirit doing a work of grace in the heart. Both taught that God changed hearts through the preaching of the good news about Christ and that God could, if he so chose, do a work of converting grace in every heart. Both taught that for profoundly mysterious and unexplainable reasons God has chosen to bestow the grace of saving faith on the elect, but not upon everyone.
All that said, what distinguishes the two theologians is that Lutherans reject the doctrine of “double predestination” attributed to Calvin, saying that election and predestination refers only to the salvation of the elect; it is not the cause in any sense of the damnation of unbelievers. In practice, Reformed churches have placed much greater emphasis on the subject than the Lutheran Church. Reformed confessions often begin with the majesty and sovereignty of God and proceed from there; Lutheran confessions, on the other hand, usually begin with the gospel itself—the good news of Christ redeeming us.
Most Reformed Confessions, with the possible exception of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, spell out the Five Points of Calvinism in some way. The Lutheran Confessions affirm some of the points, such as Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and perhaps Irresistible Grace, but they do not affirm Limited Atonement or Perseverance of the Saints. Also, the introspective question—“Am I a member of the elect?”—tends to arise more in Reformed circles than in Lutheran. Consider Luther’s own treatment of the question, “How does a person determine if he or she is elect?” in his Table Talk:
“The sentences in Holy Scripture touching predestination, as, ‘No man can come to me except the Father draws him,’ seem to terrify and affright us; yet they but show that we can do nothing of our own strength and will that is good before God, and put the godly also in mind to pray. When people do this, they may conclude they are predestined.”
3. Why Calvin matters today
Calvin still matters today because the issues he wrote about are just as important now as they were in the 16th century. Theologians still grapple with the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. They still grapple with the relationship between God’s promise to preserve his people from falling away and man’s responsibility to persevere. They still grapple with the tension between how conversion can be, on one hand, altogether a work of God, and yet on the other hand, a free decision made.
These are questions that will continue to be explored in the church for generations to come. Hopefully, future generations will be able to look at Calvin’s treatment of these subjects and not only find a greater measure of doctrinal clarity, but also be enriched in their faith.