Christian History: The Reformation – John Calvin and Misunderstanding


Rockin’ beard.

So, we have one more luminary of the Reformation to go: John Calvin. Whereas the other two didn’t live long enough, or we on the run so long as to not develop their system fully, Calvin ended up living a long life full of theologicsal work. He was introduced to humanism like Zwingli, and read many Roman authors such as Seneca, even producing commentaries on them. Unlike Luther, who abandoned his lawyer training to enter the Augustinians, Calvin finished his education in its entirety. Thus, he learned the legitimate legal form of argumentation common to lawyers at the time. One suspects this brought a great deal of influence into the way he thought about the Christian faith as well.

At some point in 1532, he converted to Protestantism. In his own words (from two different accounts, no less):

God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardour…

Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears. And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me, but instead of defence, earnestly to supplicate you not to judge that fearful abandonment of your Word according to its deserts, from which in your wondrous goodness you have at last delivered me…

Calvin received his licentiate and then, like any good Reformer, decided to speak for reform in the Catholic Church. Probably not the best of ideas from a worldly standpoint!In France, he was part of the new Protestant movement, which angered the king Francis I who led vicious persecutions. Calvin fled, as per the usual, but local wars eventually forced him into Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin’s name is nearly synonymous with the region; it’s where, for a time, he established a sort of theocratic government, guided and ruled by God. If this sounds insane, Calvin wasn’t; he arranged it, as all Reformers did, onto God’s Word.

Geneva had recently accepted the Reformation, both for religious and political reasons, and desired Calvin’s help. In the end, they were able to convince him to stay, but controversies over Church government made him flee and withdraw once again. In other words, the Genevans almost went back to Catholicism and tried to find Calvin (to execute him, what else? Does that seem like a common solution back then, or am I just reading too much into it?)! Geneva once again fell into disarray, and Calvin had to pull them out. He imposed rigorous medieval laws prohibiting dancing and dressing properly on all members of society. He always had conflicts with the local magistrates, but he eventually won out…by beheading heretics and people opposed to him after a vote among members of a ruling council in Geneva. Michael Servetus remains the most prominent example of this, but others exist. Yes, Jean Calvin is pretty hardcore.

It’s no surprise these sorts of actions earned John Calvin a less-than-sterling reputation in the modern world. Calvin, in recent years, has gained a reputation as sort of a crazy legalistic, and deterministic, preacher who did nothing for Christianity. This is not good press. He was blamed for a doctrine of predestination he never really: taught Augustine started it, medieval theologians taught it, and even the other Reformers agreed (of course, he did emphasize it, but that’s beside the point)! Predestination became an issue when his followers made it the focal point of his teaching, rather than keeping it in its place as Calvin did. Furthermore, he is villified for his execution of heretics who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, even as his contemporaries applauded him for the same. He is accused of being a Christian dictator, even when his power was more moral than legal: he had to get the Geneva city council’s approval to publish his books!. He had flaws, such as a bad temper, intolerance, and believed that a rejection of Calvin’s theology meant, in most cases, a rejection of God’s Word). Yet, for all this, he seems no better or worse than the men and women that came before and after him.

So, enough talk about the negatives: why do I care about John Calvin? We must  clear up some misunderstandings to see. We tend to denigrate those to whom we don’t agree, and we also tend to let them disappear in the grand sweeping narrative of history. Still, John Calvin strikes an imposing stature, what with the endless writings and full Biblical commentaries.  He founded Protestant academies; even though he was exiled from France, he trained the generation of French Protestants who would go into the world with the Protestant message.

He was also one of the most proli c writers in the entire history of the Christian church, somehow fitting a commentary of the entire Bible (for meaning, not just for edification), sermons, systematic theologies, and other into a fulltime job as preacher, teacher, and government official. He was also important to the early networking of Reformation leaders, sending letters to and fro. In this sense, he tried for a middle way between Luther and Zwingli, even as followers of both rejected Calvin. Remember that Zwingli believed the eucharist symbolized common faith, while Luther found consubstantiation (the body and blood of Jesus exist in, with, and under the bread and wine – doesn’t transform them, though) in the line of Catholic tradition. Calvin said this to them (indirectly) in A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper:

When we see the visible sign we must consider what it represents, and by whom it has been given to us. The bread is given us to figured the body of Jesus Christ, with command to eat it – and it is given to us by God, who is certain and immutable truth. If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that it accomplishes all which it signifies. We must then truly receive in the Supper the body and blood of Jesus Christ, since the Lord there represents to us the communion of both. Were it otherwise, what could be meant by saying, that we eat the bread and drink the wine as a sign that his body is our meat and his blood our drink? If he gave us only bread and wine, leaving the spiritual reality behind, wold it not be under false colours that this ordinance had be instituted?…We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the irdinance of the Lord , we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ How that is done, some may deduce better and explain more clearly than others. Be this as it may, on the one hand, in order to exclude all carnal fancies [the Lutheran view is what he means], we must raise our hearts upward to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus is so debased as to be enclosed under some corruptible elements. On the other hand, so as not to impair the efficacy of this holy ordinance, we must hold that it is made effectual by the secret and miraculous power of God and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation – this being the reason why [the sacrament] is called spiritual.

That a man so convicted in his beliefs would also attempt to bring conciliation towards two opposing views strikes you as a bit odd. Predestination, as we think we know it, talks in absolutes and Calvin clearly couches his language here. Even The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic work detailing the entirety of his beliefs on the Christian religion, goes for the same tone. Continually revised since 1536 up until Calvin’s death in 1559. His theology contains a systemic explanation of the whole entire faith, from alpha to omega. He gave us a readable help and guide, but not a definitive statement.

He believed in total depravity enough that he knew his “carnal mind”, so to speak, could never fully explicate Christianity and the depths of God’s justice and love. He could only begin to make baby steps towards the true reality; though he believed it with all his mind and heart, he knew himself fallible like all Christian writers/speakers knew themselves as flawed human creatures. John Calvin only sought to help others through a variety of means, and in the process helped many millions more after his death. I guess he took Phillipians 2 as a rule, as should we all:

3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This will be a help to see how theology moves into the “modernist” era, but not entirely, as the focus changes rapidly from Scripture to other sources. That is a discussion for another day, however…

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.