Presentation: John Calvin

This presentation was initially prepared for the course Reformation and Revival in Winter 2012.

I think everybody here is probably already familiar with at least some aspects of John Calvin’s life and theology so I’m basically going to whirlwind tour to try to touch on as many different aspects of the life and work of John Calvin as possible. Most of it is drawn right out of the Gonzalez text although I’ve mixed in bits and pieces from other classes or other sources as well.


I’ll start with a general biography of Calvin’s life. Calvin’s background before he becomes an influential theologian is not as well-known as that of Luther. Like Zwingli, Calvin’s theology developed out of a strong sense of intellectualism and with a significant humanist influence, unlike Luther whose theology can largely be traced to his own experiences.  Exactly when Calvin converted to Protestantism is not exactly known, but it was some time between 1533 and 1534. This means that we’re talking approximately a generation after Luther got the ball rolling on reformation and after Zwingli started the Reformed movement, and by now there has been some effort to unite those two Protestant movements. Calvin has now joined this new and partly-established Protestant movement, particularly picking up where Zwingli left off centred around Switzerland while the Lutheran movement was centred in Germany. Calvin would be the one to continue a lot of streams of thought that were already happening in that movement and to go a long way towards solidifying it.

Calvin became a very prolific writer. His first work came in 1532 on Seneca’s De Clementia and made no noticeable impact, but Gonzalez points out that you can see his future theology in formation throughout it. His most famous work was Institutes of the Christian Religion with its first edition in 1536 which went through a few revisions and essentially laid out his entire systematic theology. The revisions greatly expanded it as it eventually grow from 6 chapters to 80 chapters. He also wrote biblical commentaries on almost every book of Scripture and wrote other texts, but they mostly pale in comparison to Institutes and the effect it still has even today on influencing theology.

Calvin’s reformation years came in a few different places. Around the time of the writing of the first edition of the Institutes would be considered the beginning of his reform work. Calvin left France and intended to go to Strasbourg which was a refuge for reformers in the Holy Roman Empire. On the way there, he was forced to detour to Geneva, intending to only stay one night. William Farel who was also a French reformer living there convinced him to stay and help with the reform movements. At this point Calvin wasn’t that interested in becoming a reformer but he eventually accepted in a limited role where he could mostly keep his privacy. Calvin and Farel wrote a confession of faith which was then accepted by the city council. The council then began to enforce this confession of faith and most of the citizens did not subscribe to it. Eventually a disagreement between Farel, Calvin, and the council forced the two reformers to leave Geneva.

Calvin then accepted a ministerial role in Strasbourg under reformer Martin Bucer while Farel went to lead a church in Neuchatel. The second edition of Institutes was published in this time, expanding it from 6 chapters to 17. He also was scheduled for one wedding in this time, as people believed that he should get married, but he remained reluctant and it never happened. Instead, he married a widow named Idelette de Bure. After a short time, the religious and political situation in Geneva changed and so the council changed their mind and invited him to return.

Calvin’s most famous influence came when he returned to Geneva, as a pseudo-theocracy developed with the city council now fully behind his reforms. Calvin became a very frequent preacher and with the city council they defined four levels of ministerial function for this new branch of the church: pastors for preaching and the sacraments; doctors to teach; elders to provide discipline; and deacons to care for the poor and otherwise-needy. In this time he also dealt with a lot of opposition that arose with the libertines who believed that because of grace they were not bound by ecclesiastical or civil law and then famously came in opposition with Michael Servetus, a teacher who did not accept the doctrines of the Trinity or of infant baptism. He was condemned as a heretic in Calvin’s Geneva and was burned at the stake. From then on, Calvin’s position as a dominant reformer with Geneva’s city council’s support was relatively unchallenged.

Calvin’s Theology

For beginning to look at Calvin’s theology, the starting point is his understanding of revelation. Calvin opens his Institutes with a discussion of the knowledge of God. He says that there are basically two types of knowledge: knowledge of God and knowledge of self. He then argues why it is better to begin with knowledge of God, because in discerning knowledge of self, we are too likely to deceive ourselves with the inherent bias that comes with that. This knowledge of God is not simply intellectually accepting that there is a God and is not even so much about God’s character as it is about knowing how we are to act in a way that God wants.

Calvin does not entirely dismiss other revelations such as natural law but, because of the fallen nature of humanity and the rest of creation, priority is given to the revelation of God in Scripture. Strictly speaking, he would say that the Word of God is Jesus – the second person of the Trinity – but he would also call the Bible the Word of God, as many still do today, because it is the divine revelation that points us to Jesus. This picture of God in Scripture is “accommodated,” meaning that it is reduced or simplified to be understandable to our limited human understanding. It is analogous to the way that a parent may reduce the complexity of a concept in order for a child to understand. This is one aspect of the huge distance he sees between God and humanity and this understanding of the distance will shape a lot of his theology.

For this reason, I’ve heard many Reformed Christians say that the core theme to understand Reformed theology even up to today is the word “sovereignty.”  From Calvin’s understanding, sovereignty specifically means a distance, a distinct “otherness,” or even a complete separation from the reprobate, so far above fallen humanity that there is nothing we can do on our own to relate to God. This lines up with Luther’s emphasis on the grace of God and flatly rejects any role for works in salvation, even the “work” of accepting God’s grace. While for Luther this came out of his own paranoid need for assurance of salvation, for Calvin it came out of a purely rational argument from his belief in human total depravity.

Probably Calvin’s most famous theology to come out of this is that of double predestination. Predestination means simply that God has predetermined everything in its finest detail, including most importantly the question of who is saved and who is not. Like Luther he believed that salvation was solely the decision of God, predetermined from the beginning of time. The “double” of double predestination means that this predestining works both ways. While some argue that God predestines the elect to be saved, they cannot accept that he would also predestine many others to damnation. They would instead argue that people choose condemnation, essentially by default, and they are unable to choose otherwise but they still technically choose it, and God only saves but never condemns. This would generally be called soft Calvinism. Of course you could also argue then that God not saving some is in effect the same as just condemning them in the first place, but some make that distinction. Calvin himself had no problem with the other side of the predestination coin, though, and said that God did predestine some to damnation. He doesn’t attempt to explain why God would do this, but says simply that God is beyond our comprehension – again with the theme of the separateness of God – and we are to simply trust in his wisdom.

Shifting gears a bit, Calvin had a very well developed understanding of the Trinity. During the summer term some of us took a course in Pneumatology and one of the readings I presented on for that course was from the Institutes. Calvin provides an extremely well-argued defense of the Trinity. Few if any texts present a better explanation even up to today. My assumption for the reason of this great defense of the doctrine is the dispute with Servetus. In needing to refute Servetus, Calvin’s arguments on this matter became very refined. Calvin has even been called the theologian of the Spirit because relative to many others he paid a lot of attention to the Holy Spirit, although as we discussed in that class it still wasn’t nearly as much attention as paid to the Creator and to Jesus.

Calvin sticks with traditional understandings of Jesus. In Jesus, Calvin says there were two natures in one person, fully human and fully divine, as with the Constantinopolitan Creed. Against one of his opponents, he argued that Christ became incarnate specifically for our redemption and that there isn’t any reason to believe anything beyond that. He also made sure to reinforce the understanding of Christ’s humanity, not just a body from Heaven passing through Mary’s womb – as some Anabaptists like Menno Simons were saying – but truly fully human. Calvin also defended against Francesco Stancaro that Christ’s redemptive activity is due to his hypostatic (two natures in one) union of God and man, not just his humanity.

Calvin also developed the idea of three functions of Christ: priest, prophet, and king. As priest, Jesus is the intercessor between humanity and God. He also empowers his followers, all of us and not just the clergy, to be priests as well. Jesus is the greatest prophet because he is the fulfillment of all the other prophecies and he is the ultimate revelation of God to us. He is the supreme and unique king over everything, governing from his very-sovereign position every aspect of our lives.

The work of Christ was primarily defined in terms of a penal substitution understanding of the atonement. Jesus paid the penalty for sin on behalf of humanity so that the elect could be made right with God. As with Luther, the idea of faith became central for receiving this pardon from sin. Faith was something which could only be given from God through the work of the Holy Spirit and thus only those elected to have it did. If you weren’t elect, the Holy Spirit wasn’t working in you and you did not have faith. This is the main work of the Holy Spirit for Calvin – bringing the elect to Christ. Faith is primarily an intellectual concept, although it is also a relational concept of trusting in the person of Jesus as well. The Gonzalez text sums that all up with a quote, saying “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

The function of law was different for Calvin than it was for Luther, which is why emphasizing the kingship of Christ made sense. Calvin does not mean the counterpart of gospel as Luther did, but instead simply meant the revelation of God to ancient Israel. Instead of having an opposition between the two, albeit an opposition that has a functional tension between the two kingdoms in Luther’s view, law and gospel are essentially continuous. Both testaments for Calvin are about Jesus, so they are continuous in that one main point. He also differentiates the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament from the moral laws. The ceremonial laws he said point to Christ and thus do not need to be continued because Christ has fulfilled the real meaning of them already.

The moral laws for Calvin had three purposes. First, in agreement with Luther, the moral law shows us our sinfulness. It demonstrates that we are totally depraved and thus need God to rescue us. Calvin’s second purpose was that the moral law is used to restrain the wicked. This doesn’t actually lead to redemption of the wicked in any way but it is necessary for social order in a fallen world. This is a similar reasoning to just war theory: war is not ideal and should be avoided when possible but it is necessary for restraining evil and the moral law is not the end goal but it is necessary for restraining evil. The third purpose of the moral law goes back to the idea of Christ as king, as the moral law in both the old and new testaments for Calvin and for the Reformed tradition since also has a heavy emphasis on how we are supposed to live today. In summary, Calvin believed that we are freed from the ceremonial law because they have been fulfilled, and we have been freed from the curse of the moral law but are still bound to follow the moral law out of obedience to Christ our king.

Of the various Reformation movements, Calvin had the strongest connection between the church and state. Luther was still tied to the state but had a distinct two kingdoms theology which separated the two at least in principle. Calvin did not make as much of a distinction, which is why his agreement with the Geneva City Council was so essential to establishing his pseudo-theocracy. This makes a lot of sense particularly from the second purpose of the law that I mentioned. If the moral law is to help restrain the evil in society, this is a universal ethic and not just an ecclesial ethic. It was therefore the duty of the state, informed by the church, to enforce these moral laws. These moral laws could even be things that we would consider intolerant of other religious beliefs as with Michael Servetus’ death as a heretic carried out by the church and state in agreement. Geneva under Calvin’s leadership also enforced other religious laws such as Sabbath-keeping with very stiff punishments.

The church, although tied to the state, does have another distinction within itself between the visible and the invisible church. The invisible church is the “real” church and is comprised of all the elect, living and dead, around the world. The visible church is the necessary but secondary public outworking and organization of that invisible church: our institutions and religious practices. In a fallen world, this is a necessity and in effect we consider the visible church to be our church for practical reasons, but there are clearly some who are in the visible church who Calvin would say are clearly not in the invisible church, such as the Pope. Calvin believed there are ways to tell the members of the invisible church, although only God really knows for certain. These are the people who confess God and Christ, participate in the sacraments, and lead a good life. The church therefore is for preaching the Word of God – meaning primarily Jesus but also Scripture as opposed to the church itself as authoritative – and for administering the sacraments.

On the Eucharist, Calvin tries to strike a position somewhere between the Lutheran position on the one hand and the Zwinglian and Anabaptist position on the other. He does call them sacraments as opposed to ordinances and argues that they do have special meaning inherent in them and it is therefore not purely a symbol. The Holy Spirit works through the sacraments to fortify the faith of believers. On the other hand, this meaning is not an element of grace which leads to salvation because that is only possible through the grace of God.  On baptism, Calvin affirmed infant baptism primarily as a replacement for circumcision, which is a coherent argument because of the continuous function of the law that I discussed earlier. He rejected the believer’s baptism of the Anabaptists because that required a choice to be baptized and therefore there was “work” involved and not simply grace which could be given to anybody of any age.

500 years later, Calvin is still one of the most influential theologians in the history of the church, close behind Augustine and Aquinas in my opinion. The Institutes remains one of the most influential theological documents of all time. So these twenty minutes barely scratched the surface of the life and theology of John Calvin.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.