“John Calvin has long had an image problem,” wrote Amy Burnett in a collection of essays on the 500th birthday of the Reformer in 2009. He has been cast as a theological villain, picture of intolerance, genius, founder of capitalism, existential basketcase, and more. On this, his 510th birthday, I would like to walk through the basic questions surrounding the life and thought of John Calvin with a few bibliographic references, as well as suggest a historical approach to this confessional figure without the sectarian pitfalls.
Who Was John Calvin?
John Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509. His mother died when he was young, and his father, the secretary to the Bishop of Noyon, sent him off to boarding school where his intellect gained him attention. He went on to the University of Paris, where he studied theology and was a classmate of Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits). Calvin switched to the study of law, nevertheless, he would dedicate his life to theology. He spent the rest of his life mostly in France, then Geneva, where he died in 1564. He was responsible for civic and theological reform, pastoring the people of Geneva, and writing many works, including commentaries on most books of the Bible as well as his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The facts of his life are slim compared to other Reformers, in part because he rarely wrote about himself. There are no shortage of biographies, but the one that does the least speculation is 2009’s Calvin by Bruce Gordon (full disclosure, Bruce was my doctoral supervisor, but I am hardly alone in calling his work the new gold standard for Calvin biographies).
What is Calvinism?
Calvinism is a broad and varied approach to theology usually stressing the formal principle of Calvin’s thought: the Sovereignty of God. As an -ism, it is popular although it is as vague as all -isms are. Calvinism is part of the second wave of the Reformation which took place outside Germany from the mid, 16th-century through the age of Confessionalization (1550-1618).
Calvinism, and an interest in reading Calvin, has long been the subject of sociological scrutiny. British statesmen, William Pitt the Elder wrote, “We have a Calvinist Creed,” referring to 18th century life as ordered and strict, and stressing both the role of the individual and God’s providence. Max Weber famously credited much of the success of America and the Protestant work ethic to the Reformer. The widespread effects of Calvinism as an international movement make it arguably the most “successful” of the 16th-century reform movements. At one point or another, much of the history of the Western world over the past 500 years has been influenced to some degree by Calvin (or at least his -ism, see more on both below). As a result, there are no shortage of Calvin FAQ’s and “What You Should Know” articles. What follows is a little crash course in how to read Calvin with respect, for our benefit, and with an eye to how we keep Reformation giants at a proper historical arms distance.
On Reading Calvin:
After picking up a brief biography online, start with Calvin’s Institutes, or at least part of them. Calvin’s clear, organized prose as well as his structure is a necessary component to understanding Calvin (you can read it in translation and I would recommend the Battles/McNeill edition).
You don’t need to commit to the whole thing, but get his words, style, and organization in your head. Originally written in French, the Institutes were revolutionary for their style and prose and helped shift the language of the Academy in Europe from Latin to French (and thus, Lingua Franca has become a shorthand for “the dominant language”).
Secondly, read his Commentary on Romans and his Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Within both of these commentaries, you can see two sometimes overlooked, yet very important, elements of Calvin’s thought. In his Romans Commentary, Calvin identifies himself with St. Paul and thus sets off a larger trend of reading one’s own biography into the preeminent Apostle’s life. While this can be problematic, it gives you a sense of his own understanding of his role on the European stage and also bolsters the Reformation reading of the Pauline doctrine of being simultaneously saint and sinner. Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms show a devotional character not often associated with the dour caricature of the Reformer. In it, he writes:
To call this book not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul' for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has brought to life all the grief, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, ties, in short, all the distracting emotions with which our minds are agitated. The other parts of scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are presented to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their innermost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of ourselves. In particular, that none of our many infirmities and many vices may remain concealed (Calvin’s Preface to the Commentary on the Book of Psalms).
Such a deeply affective approach to reading the Bible is a call to self reflection through the witness of the Spirit; this is a hallmark of Calvin’s distinctive blend of Scriptural and Spirit-led piety.
More on Calvin’s Teachings
Many focus on Calvin’s teaching on the eternal decrees of God (predestination, double or single) as emblematic of the Reformer. For Calvin, God’s sovereignty is the central doctrine that clears the deck and then allows us to construct the doctrines of Grace (Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone). It is important not to draw too stark a distinction between the Calvinist and other Reformation traditions when it comes to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). A common teaching tool for understanding Calvin has long been the “5 Points of Calvinism” summed up in the acronym TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). These “5 Points” however, would have been foreign to Calvin. Originally, they were used in a 17th-century argument against Calvinism from the Dutch theologian and founder of the Arminians, Jacob Arminius. The ubiquitous “TULIP” was therefore not meant to be a positive statement of theology, but instead a defense of a few disputed points. These points can be helpful, but it’s important to remember they tell us more about the -ism than Calvin himself.
To truly get at Calvin’s theology, from his own writings and most pressing concerns, we must look at his doctrine of church discipline which holds as much practical weight as any of his other doctrines. Calvin followed St. Augustine in distinguishing between the “visible” and “invisible” church. The “visible” church made up all of those who were members of a church but did not imply that they were all saved. The “invisible” church consisted of all of those saved, regardless of where they are located. According to Calvin, the members of the invisible church have been eternally decreed to be saved. Calvin’s central doctrine of church discipline wasn’t an outworking of his natural crankiness or justified as a sociological necessity. Rather, Calvin believed that one could, and should, get as close to identifying the visible and invisible churches as possible. For Calvin, this was an issue of church discipline. Calvin believed the church should distinguish the wheat from the chaff as much as possible. Church discipline, for both moral and theological reasons, was meant to divide the sheep and goats, as well as bring the erring “sheep” back to true faith by cutting off the benefits of Christ for a season in order to bring them to repentance. Calvin would add the proper use of Church Discipline as the third essential mark of the church, in addition to the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.
Because of his training as a lawyer and his service as a magistrate in Geneva, Calvin can be understood politically as well as theologically. One example of this, his treatment of Michael Servetus, is also likely the darkest mark on the reformer’s life. While initially friends, Calvin grew wary of Servetus’ heterodox statements. When Servetus came to Geneva in 1553, he was arrested by the Genevans, and famously burned at the stake with a copy of his latest work tied around his leg.
How involved was Calvin? Was Calvin an overbearing, theological bully who would have his opponents put to death? Or was he unwittingly carried along with a rabid Genevan consistory that was out for blood? Understanding Calvin’s context here helps us immensely with these questions. While Calvin considered Servetus theologically dangerous, he pled with the Consistory in Geneva for his old friend merely to have his head cut off, rather than burn at the stake. In Calvin’s context, beheading was the sentence for a crime against the state, while burning was a punishment for heresy. Calvin did not believe that any political state could operate with a two-confession solution. Instead, he believed that there must be a single confession of faith (e.g. Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed) shared by magistrates and citizens alike. Heretics were thought to be dangerous to the state as much as they were to the church. Servetus’ teachings were heretical, but Calvin stressed that he was seditious towards the state and thus a political liability. It’s a troubling story, regardless, but understanding Calvin’s background in politics gives us a more nuanced picture of the tragedy of Servetus. Calvin’s role in the Servetus affair was one of bad politics as much as bad theology.
Thinking about Calvin Historically
In conclusion, I leave you with three quick hits on how to think historically both about Calvin, as well as other figures in the church:
First, don’t read people back into their -isms. An “-ism” is a shorthand, usually developed over the years and in different locations. Furthermore, it takes into account historical events and changes since it’s founders death and thus cannot serve as a completely accurate reflection of that person's thought. On separating Calvin from Calvinism, check out Richard Muller’s book.
Secondly, distinguish between historical and devotional works. This is not saying either is more or less profitable than the other. A historical piece will likely have a broader readership and thus less “insider” talk or unqualified praise. However, to read him devotionally, as a brother in Christ, giving us guidance in thinking through the Scriptures would have been the way Calvin would likely want to be read. Contemplation of history, great men and women, and the impact on their descendants in the faith cannot be overlooked, especially with someone like Calvin whose pastoral work was as central to his life as his writing. Playing out the implications of the life of the regenerate mind, and the work of the Spirit in service of the church was Calvin’s driving obsession.
And lastly, when reading about any Christian from history, always keep in mind the doctrine of being both simultaneously sinner and saint, both for yourself as well as the subject at hand. When we can humbly approach a church figure with the understanding that they were sinners just like you and me, we can hopefully avoid making either hasty generalizations or hero worship. With that in mind, praise Calvin’s contributions (you can decide which ones) and lament his shortcomings. Happy Birthday, John Calvin: pastor, theologian, sinner, and saint.