John Calvin

From New World Encyclopedia

Young John Calvin

John Calvin (July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564) was a prominent Christian theologian during the Protestant Reformation and is the namesake of the system of Christian theology called Calvinism. Jean Chauvin (or Cauvin) was born in Noyon, Picardie, France. French was his mother tongue; Calvin derives from the Latin version of his name, Calvinus. In 1517, when Calvin was only eight years old, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses.

John Calvin was a leader of the Swiss protestant reformation. Reformed and Presbyterian churches trace themselves from his reforms, while others including Congregationalist and Baptist and the English Puritans draw on his theology. Calvinism dominated the England and Scotland Civil Wars and Cromwellian period. It also subsequently influenced Anglican thought. Calvin wrote numerous significant works but his personality remains somewhat opaque. He wrote a constitution for Geneva, and virtually ruled over an experiment in Christian government, though he did not officially hold any office other than chief pastor. He has been described as the first thinker to try to organize social life and governance entirely on Biblical principles. Clergy were involved in the governance of the city. Calvin was not as much of a popularist as Luther, but his social reforms in Geneva continued to have an impact on succeeding generations.

Calvin’s emphasis on work (which became known as the “Protestant work ethic”) had a direct impact on the Industrial Revolution. His influence is felt on the development of several European nations as commercial and colonial powers as well. Calvin is widely known for his “doctrine of election,” which lay behind his work ethic—a sign of being numbered among those whom God has predestined for salvation is an industrious, pious, and successful life lived according to the commandments of God. This also contributed to the rise of capitalism.

Calvinism stresses self-denial, sobriety, thriftiness, efficiency, and morality, which can result in high production and low consumption, creating a surplus that cannot be consumed, which is instead invested for the greater glory of God. Previously, many Christians had regarded excess wealth as immoral. Calvin also advocated that all believers have a calling, not just the clergy, which opened up the possibility of service inside and outside the church and also made faith more relevant to secular life, sanctifying work as a holy activity.

Calvin committed some excesses in his leadership at Geneva, but set out to create the perfect society under God's ultimate rule. His covenantal or contractual view of church and of society as voluntary associations, with rulers (magistrates) and those who lead chosen by and accountable to the members became the basis of civil society and eventually of political organization in Europe, North America and elsewhere. On the one hand, Calvin recognized social responsibility; on the other he stressed individual responsibility to live a good, productive, and moral life before God. Stressing the dignity of man, Calvin's social reforms included relief for the poor, construction of hospitals, schools (which were free), new prisons, consumer protection laws, provisions for refugees, and a sanitation system that made Geneva one of the cleanest and healthiest cities in Europe. Calvin was morally strict but humane, almost a humanist in his concern to reach the heart not only the mind of men and women.


John Calvin was born Jean Chauvin in Noyon, Picardie, France on July 10, 1509. His father, an attorney, sent him to the Sorbonne University in Paris to study humanities and law. By 1532, he was a Doctor of Law at Orléans. His first published work was an edition of the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger's De clementia, accompanied by a thorough commentary. Attracted by humanism, he set out to establish Biblical grounds for humanistic concerns. He mastered Greek and Hebrew in order to read the scriptures in their original languages. In 1533, he underwent what is usually called a conversion experience, which, since Calvin did not stress the need for such, surprisingly appears to have been a sudden event (subita conversio) (Schaff: 72).

The Protestant motto, scriptura sola became a dominant motif in his thought, which was Biblically based, although his reading of scripture would be literal and so anything not found in the Bible was to be rejected, while what is found there must be followed without question. Calvin did not think he could understand everything, but he was prepared to follow scripture even when he could not understand, trusting in the Spirit to guide him. He developed an overwhelming passion to meet human needs, and believed that scriptures needed to be applied to practical issues and in present circumstances. The teachings in the Bible could not be presented as a set of timeless abstractions but had to be brought to life in relevant ways.

In 1536, he settled in Geneva, halted in the path of an intended journey to Basel by the personal persuasion of the reformer William Farel (Guillaume Farel (1489-1565)). Calvin served as a pastor in Strasbourg, organizing his church along what he took to be Biblical principles and compiling his Psalter from 1538 until 1541 before returning to Geneva. He would live there until his death in 1564. It was in Strasbourg that he met and was influenced by Martin Bucer (1491-1551). Attending conferences at Worms and Regensberg in Germany debating Protestant and Catholic theology, he gained a reputation as a speaker and also met many of the leading Christian thinkers of the day. Calvin's view on predestination, church governance, and communion derive from Bucer.

John Calvin sought marriage to affirm his approval of marriage over celibacy. Like Luther he disapproved both of celibate priests and of the institution of monasticism. He asked friends to help him find a woman who was "modest, obliging, not haughty, not extravagant, patient, and solicitous for my health." In 1539, he married Idelette de Bure, daughter of Lewis Jaqueman of Orleans France, and widow of a converted Anabaptist in Strasbourg. Idelette had a son and daughter from the previous marriage. Only the daughter moved with her to Geneva. In 1542, the Calvins had a son who died after only two weeks. Idelette Calvin died in 1549. Calvin wrote that she was a helper in ministry, never stood in his way, never troubled him about her children, and had a greatness of spirit. They appear to have enjoyed a warm relationship and a happy marriage. He grieved her death, revealing a depth of emotion that many depictions of him fail to notice. He wrote to Farel that he was all but overwhelmed with grief (Schaff, 92). He chided Catholic priests for pretending to be celibate while providing “for themselves while they can” and he described Rome as “a fetid and abominable brothel” (cited in Bouwsma, 60). However, such sexual misdemeanors were actually excusable, since celibacy was contrary to nature in the first place.


Reformed Geneva

John Calvin had been traveling to Strasbourg during the time of the Ottoman wars and passed through the cantons of Switzerland. While in Geneva William Farel asked Calvin to help him with the cause of the church. Geneva had been controlled by its prince-bishop and by the Duke of Savoy. At that time, Geneva had about 12,000 citizens. Other Swiss and German cities were emerging as independent city-states or as republics. Geneva, however, was struggling to assert its independence. Calvin wrote of Farel's request, "I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course" (Schaff, 81). He had been very reluctant to accept the invitation, but was eventually convinced and accepted the call to the ministry as teacher and pastor of the evangelical Church of Geneva.

Together with Farel, Calvin attempted to institute a number of changes to the city's governance and religious life. In 1530 the city achieved independence. In 1537 it accepted Calvin's articles of governance more or less unchanged. Calvin and Farel also drew up a catechism and a confession of faith, which they insisted all citizens must affirm. The city council refused to adopt Calvin and Farel's creed, and in January 1538 denied them the power to excommunicate, a power they saw as critical to their work. The city finally granted Calvin this power in 1555. At the time, the pair responded with a blanket denial of the Lord's Supper to all Genevans at Easter services. For this, the city council expelled them from the city. Farel traveled to Neuchâtel, Calvin to Strasbourg.

Pastor in Strasbourg

For three years Calvin served as a lecturer and pastor to a church of French Huguenots in Strasbourg. It was during his exile that Calvin married Idelette de Bure. At Strasbourg, he administered communion once a month. His parishioners had to tell him before divine service whether they wished to receive instruction, warning, or comfort. He also came under the influence, as noted above, of Martin Bucer, who advocated a system of political and ecclesiastical structure along New Testament lines. Calvin also met such men as Philipp Melancthon (1497-1560), the colleague and friend of Luther, with whom he also developed a close relationship.

He continued to follow developments in Geneva, and when Jacopo Sadoleto, a Catholic cardinal, penned an open letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the mother church, Calvin's response on behalf of embattled Genevan Protestants helped him to regain the respect he had lost. Although Luther and Calvin never met, Luther expressed his approval when he heard about Calvin's letter (see Fosdick 1952, “Letter to Cardinal James Sadolet” 203-214). A number of Calvin's supporters won election to the Geneva city council, and he was invited back to the city in 1541. He was reluctant to return, describing Geneva as a cross he has already carried, but he was again persuaded by Farel.

Calvin thought he was better skilled at writing than at leadership. He had little desire to return to what he called a "chamber of torture" and his congregation also did not want to lose him. Strasbourg made him a citizen and begged him to retain a life salary as professor or theology. He accepted the former but not the latter, commenting that “the care of riches occupied his mind the least of anything” (Schaff, 95).

Return to Geneva

Calvin did express some regret that he may have been overzealous during his first period in Geneva. Armed with the authority to craft the institutional form of the church, Calvin began his program of reform. In his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, approved by the City Council in the same year, he established four categories of ministry, with distinct roles and powers:

  • Doctors held an office of theological scholarship and teaching for the edification of the people and the training of other ministers.
  • Pastors were to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise pastoral discipline, teaching and admonishing the people.
  • Deacons oversaw institutional charity, including hospitals and anti-poverty programs.
  • Elders were 12 laymen whose task was to serve as a kind of moral police force, mostly issuing warnings, but referring offenders to the Consistory when necessary.

Civic Governance

Calvin played a major part in drafting the City's statutes. These established the Consistory as an ecclesiastical court consisting of the elders and pastors, charged with maintaining order in the church and among its members.

John Calvin

For Calvin, the key to both good civic and good church governance was the responsibility of the leaders towards the led. The magistrates exercised power, but the church possessed the spiritual weapon of God's word. Calvin maintained that power comes from God, and civil officials must also “think of Him whom they serve in their office…[They must] procure the welfare and the tranquility of their subjects, both in public and in private.” Citing the Bible, Calvin believed that ultimately, a magistrate who fails in their duty can be disobeyed, since “it is necessary to obey God rather than men” (Acts 4: 19) (238).

Two magistrates and a minister regularly visited every parish, to make sure all was well. Offenses ranged from propounding false doctrine to moral infractions, such as wild dancing and bawdy singing. Public houses were shut and replaced by Christian refreshment places, where alcohol could be drunk while listening to Bible readings. Wine was healthy but not when drunk in excess (he made a similar comment on sex) (see Bouwsma, 52). Typical punishments were mild—an offender might be required to attend public sermons or catechism classes. It is important to bear in mind the broader geopolitical context of this institution before passing judgment. Protestants in the sixteenth century were particularly vulnerable to the Catholic charge that they were innovators in doctrine, and that such innovation led inevitably to moral decay and, ultimately, the dissolution of society itself. Calvin was keen to establish the moral legitimacy of the church reformed according to his program, but also to promote the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Recently discovered documentation of Consistory proceedings shows that body's concern for domestic life, and women in particular. For the first time men's infidelity was punished as harshly as that of women, and the Consistory showed absolutely no tolerance for spousal abuse. The role of the Consistory was complex. It helped to transform Geneva into the city described by Scottish reformer John Knox as "the most perfect school of Christ." Some clergy were elected to the Consistory. The idea was a partnership of equals between the church (in which some magistrates were also elders) and the city government, with the former providing the moral guidance and the latter ensuring discipline. The moral code was derived from the Bible. It favored sobriety and hard work, and penalized drunkenness, dishonesty, and immoral conduct.

The Execution of Servetus

Calvin moved quickly and brutally to suppress Genevans who questioned his authority. The most notable episodes are the cases of Pierre Ameaux and Jacques Gruet. Calvin was reluctant to ordain Genevans, preferring to choose pastors from the stream of French immigrants pouring into the city for the express purpose of supporting Calvin's program of reform. When Pierre Ameaux complained about this practice, Calvin took it as an attack on his authority as a minister, and he persuaded the city council to require Ameaux to walk through the town dressed in a hair shirt and begging for mercy in the public squares. Jacques Gruet sided with some of the old Genevan families, who resented the power and methods of the Consistory. He was implicated in an incident in which someone had placed a placard in one of the city's churches, reading: "When too much has been endured revenge is taken." Calvin consented to the torture and beheading of Gruet, who was accused of colluding in a French plot to invade the city.

In 1553, Calvin approved of the execution by burning of the Spanish Unitarian, Michael Servetus for heresy. Servetus had already been condemned by the authorities in Spain (by the Spanish Inquisition), but escaped. Calvin, who did not himself hold magisterial office, was a witness at the trial, so while he was directly responsible for Servetus' arrest and conviction, he had personally wanted a less brutal penalty. The approval of other Protestant Swiss cities was also sought and gained. This incident has contributed greatly to Calvin's reputation as a harsh, strict, ruthless authoritarian—but at the time, such an execution was not unusual, nor was Calvin solely responsible. In fact, he wielded power through persuasion, not compulsion. It was the city council itself that, in 1552, declared Calvin's Institutes above criticism. For some, Servetus' execution totally damns Calvin. The Servetus International Society exists to “foster the spirit of Humanism, tolerance of ideas and respect for the rights of the individual by promoting and preserving the Servetus heritage as intellectual giant, model of integrity and standard-bearer in the struggle for freedom of conscience.”

Social Reformer and Pastor

In 1559, as part of his social reforms, Calvin founded a school for training children as well as a hospital for the indigent. His Geneva Academy attracted students from all over Europe and in 1564, when he died, had 1,200 on the roll. Education could inculcate values and morality. His pedagogy was quite progressive; teachers should not be authoritarian but “should join [and] walk with [students] as companions” (qtd. in Bouwsma, 90). Calvin has been called “the father of popular education and the inventor of free schools” (Schaff 83, quoting George Bancroft). He made provision for 5,000 refugees between 1542 and 1560. Throughout his time in Geneva, he preached, performed numerous marriages and baptisms, gave spiritual advice, took part in controversy by correspondence with other reformers, as well as guiding the life of the city. He was a conscientious pastor. He took the care of souls very seriously. Preaching was for him primarily a pastoral act (see Willimon, 141). His main concerns were always pastoral and theological. One of the standard texts on the care of souls in the reformed tradition would be penned by a leading English Calvinist, Richard Baxter (1615-1691).


Calvin's health began to fail when he suffered migraines, lung hemorrhages, gout, and kidney stones. At times, he was carried to the pulpit. Calvin preached his last sermon on February 6, 1564. He died in Geneva on May 27, 1564. He had been unwell for some time, having worn himself out as a pastor and civic reformer. He was buried in the Cimetière des Rois under a tombstone marked simply with the initials "J.C.," partially honoring his request that he be buried in an unknown place, without witnesses or ceremony. Although the people of the city had at times expressed their doubts, fearing that they had exchanged one authoritarian church for another, when he died he was universally mourned by the city he helped to lead and shape.

Writings by Calvin

Calvin published several revisions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion — a seminal work in Christian theology that is still read today — in Latin in 1536 (at the age of 26) and then in his native French in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 and 1560, respectively.

He also produced many volumes of commentary on most of the books of the Bible. For the Old Testament (referring to the Protestant, he published commentaries for all books except the histories after Joshua (though he did publish his sermons on the First Samuel) and the Wisdom literature other than the Book of Psalms. For the New Testament, he omitted only the brief Second and Third Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. (Some have suggested that Calvin questioned the canonicity of the Book of Revelation, but his citation of it as authoritative in his other writings casts doubt on that theory.) These commentaries, too, have proved to be of lasting value to students of the Bible, and they are still in print after over 400 years. Calvin also wrote thousands of sermons, letters, and hymns, published a psalter as all matters relating to worship had to be Biblical, so psalms replaced hymns in worship. Many Calvinists frown on hymns and organ music in church, since these are not referred to in the Bible, although Calvin did allow singing.

In Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, the historian quotes Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (after whom the anti-Calvinistic movement Arminianism was named) with regard to the value of Calvin's writings:

Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin's Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men (Schaff 2002 version, 68).

Teaching and Theology

Calvin was a systematic thinker. His writings and his sermons are logical but aimed to speak to the heart as well as to the intellect. He stressed the power but also the love of God. His was not an angry but a gentle, kind God, and Calvin believed that it is only the Bible gives access to truth about God. Calvin did not dismiss “general revelation,” that is, knowledge of God communicated through the world of nature. On this, he wrote:

…in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its creator (qtd. in Kirwan, 27).

Calvin also believed that all men and women, “however barbarous and even savage [they may be are] trounced by some idea of religion [and are] created in order they may know the majesty of God” (Fosdick 1952, 215).

Calvin, however, took the Fall of man very seriously, believing in human depravity. The Fall separated people from God's warmth, love, vitality and power, which also neutralize men's and women's ability to fulfill their potential. The result is death and darkness during life, as the light of God is cut off. The Devil constantly tries to keep us in darkness, to drain out strength. “Sin,” he wrote, “means ... the perversity of human nature, which is the fountain of all vices, and the evil desires which are born from this” (Fosdick 1952, 219).

The Doctrine of Predestination

Did you know?
Calvin's doctrine of predestination teaches that salvation is given only to those whom God has chosen, and that it is a free gift not contingent on anything they have done or will do

Calvin is perhaps best known for the doctrine of predestination, which was not original to him. Classically, it is found in Augustine. Calvin believed, as did Luther, that salvation is God's free gift but contended that God, who is Omniscient, knows who is saved, and who is not. Those who are saved are “living saints” and their salvation is not contingent on anything they do, or indeed on giving their hearts or lives to Jesus. However, asking how do we recognize the saved, Calvin (like Augustine) replied that we cannot know for sure but we can confidently say that immoral people are not saved and good people are. Thus, the saints will be those who pray, attend divine service, work hard, who are honest, thrifty, and generous of spirit. Calvin made charity and relief of poverty an essential sign of being counted among the saints. Calvin did not argue that all good people are saved, but he argued that morality and piety are divine duties that do no harm.

Calvin was also interested in the spiritual nurture of souls, seeing life as pilgrimage towards God. As individuals become sanctified, so does society. He was much less interested than Luther in conversion (since people are 'saved' already) than in the process of sanctification (see Willimon, 228). His aim was to bring the whole of life under divine guidance, to create a society obedient to God. He spoke of how each day we might increase a little in purity and knowledge and as these increased, so would our love for God and for humanity. As a reward, the saints may see visions of God's beauty and peace, and know in their hearts how “calm and gracious [he is] towards us.” Grace can permeate, and sanctify, the whole of life. “We cannot,” he wrote, “receive through faith [Christ's] righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification [which he also gives us freely]” (Fosdick, 227).


Five points, making up the word TULIP, are used to summarize Calvin's doctrines:

Total Depravity of Man: That man’s nature is basically evil, not basically good. Apart from the direct influence of God, man will never truly seek God or God’s will, though he may seek the benefits of association with God.

Unconditional Election: That God chooses or “elects” His children from before the foundation of time. God does not “look down the corridors of time to see what decision people will make”… rather, God causes them to make the decision to seek Him.

Limited Atonement: That the death and resurrection of Christ is a substitutionary payment for the sins of only those who are God’s elect children… not the entire world.

Irresistible Grace: That when God calls a person, His call cannot ultimately be ignored.

Perseverance of the Saints: That it is not possible for one to “lose his salvation.”

Sense of History

Calvin understood history as a providential process through which God's purposes are progressively realized. Faith in Jesus' incarnation and in his sacrificial death, followed by the sanctification of our lives, represent object steps by which “through continual and sometimes even slow advances” people recover their original relationship with God and regain the lost energy that results from this relationship (qtd. in Willimon, 229). Calvin speaks of the “regeneration” of people as God cleanses them and “consecrates them to himself as temples, renewing ... their minds to true purity that they may practice repentance throughout their lives and know that this warfare will end only in death” (Willimon). Calvin called this a “quickening”; it brings believers back from death to life and makes exertion in God's service not only possible but a joy.

Capitalism is said to be a corollary of Calvin's emphasis on hard work and on his idea that all work represents a calling. Surplus wealth should thus be invested, both to create more wealth and to fund philanthropic acts. Since God reigns everywhere, he can be served everywhere, not only in a church but also in business, science, and the arts. Calvin's view that God reigns everywhere and over all things led him to develop the biblical idea that man can serve God in every area of life—in church, civil government, education, art, music, business, law, journalism, and so forth. People did not have to become a priest, a monk, or a nun to get closer to God. God is to be glorified in work activities and in family life. Waking up early, working hard, being sober and thrifty are all signs but not proof of being “elect.”

Engraved from the original oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, this is considered Calvin's best likeness.

Church Governance

Calvin's system of church governance allowed for lay leadership. Elected elders share with the ordained pastors responsibility not only for leading the congregation but also for ensuring that its responsibilities of service are fulfilled. Deacons had duties towards the poor. He saw both church and society in contractual terms; they are voluntary associations. Those who are called to lead are accountable to the led. Calvin stripped the liturgy of non-Biblical practices, vastly simplifying services, which centered on the reading and exposition of the word. communion was offered four times a year. He liked music but banned it from church. He allowed singing but preferred Psalms. Citizens who would not sign the “articles of faith” were counted as “non-jurors,” and could not take communion.

Calvin stressed preaching but for him the sacraments, especially communion, were also essential for Christian growth.

The Sacraments

He described the church as that place where the story of salvation is told and where the sacraments are “seen,” or displayed.

“Where the word is heard with reverence and the sacraments are not neglected, there we discover the appearance of the church” (qtd. in Willimon, 142). Through the bread and wine, we are spiritually nourished. The Holy Spirit enables us to experience the 'real presence' of Christ. This is a spiritual, not a metaphysical presence. By taking communion less frequently, the sacrament's significance is actually enhanced. Sacraments help is to overcome our mistrust of God.

For Calvin, communion was relationship—bringing us closer to God. Calvin differed from Luther and from Zwingli on this issue; for Luther, the presence of Christ was physical (consubstantiation: the bread and wine remain bread and wine but Jesus is really present, physically, in the sacrament itself), for Zwingli the act of communion was one of remembrance (a memorial) only. All these reformers rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation by which the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus.


Calvin's personality has been maligned. Some have depicted him as psychotic, repressed, or even schizophrenic, loving liberty and pleading eloquently for individual freedom to interpret the Bible on one hand and burning a heretic on the other. His personality has often seemed opaque. Unlike Luther's, Calvin’s writings do not reveal much of the inner man.

He is assumed to have been somber, strict, and austere. Certainly, he struggled to gain control of Geneva, a city that had been renowned for its rowdiness, and he had to give the appearance of authority. Yet that authority was not autocratic; in fact he had very little if any power, only influence. Those who knew him have written of his aptitude to make and keep friends, and of the way he could empathize with people's physical and spiritual needs and find an appropriate Biblical text to help deal with a wide range of situations. He did have a hot temper but he was also a sensitive man towards the condition of his fellow men and women. He was able to win over many of his opponents, as he wrote in a letter dated March 14, 1542 to Myconius of Basel,

…from day to day, those who were once open enemies have become friends; others I conciliate by courtesy…Nothing is more welcome in grief,” he said, “than to have friends near us to show us kindness, to share our sorrow and to offer such consolations as are possible. (cited in Bouwsma, 58)

Philip Schaff (1910) commented:

Calvin’s character is less attractive, and his life less dramatic than Luther’s or Zwingli’s, but he left his Church in a much better condition. He lacked the genial element of humor and pleasantry; he was a Christian stoic: stern, severe, unbending, yet with fires of passion and affection glowing beneath the marble surface. His name will never rouse popular enthusiasm, as Luther’s and Zwingli’s did at the celebration of the fourth centennial of their birth; no statues of marble or bronze have been erected to his memory; even the spot of his grave in the cemetery at Geneva is unknown. But he surpassed them in consistency and self-discipline, and by his exegetical, doctrinal, and polemical writings, he has exerted and still exerts more influence than any other Reformer upon the Protestant Churches of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races (2002 version: 65; Bk 3, Ch VIII)

Comparing Calvin and Luther, Schaff continued: “Luther’s home life was enlivened and cheered by humor, poetry, and song; Calvin’s was sober, quiet, controlled by the fear of God, and regulated by a sense of duty, but none the less happy. Nothing can be more unjust than the charge that Calvin was cold and unsympathetic” (92).

Calvin took human doubt seriously. Suffering anxiety himself about his convictions, he stressed the need to take control of one's life and environment. Bouwsma (1998) says that Calvin wrestled with self-doubt until the end of his life (9).

The spreading of Calvinism

As much as Calvin's practice in Geneva, his publications spread his ideas of a correctly reformed church to many parts of Europe. Calvinism became the theological system of the majority in Scotland (where it became the established Church), the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and was influential in France, Hungary (especially in Transylvania), and Poland.

Most settlers in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England were Calvinists, including the Puritans and Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York). Dutch Calvinist settlers were also the first successful European colonizers of South Africa, beginning in the seventeenth century, who became known as Boers or Afrikaners.

Sierra Leone was largely colonized by Calvinist settlers from Nova Scotia, Canada who were largely Black Loyalists, blacks who had fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War. John Marrant had organized a congregation there under the auspices of the Huntingdon Connection (a Methodist church).

Some of the largest Calvinist communities were started by nineteenth- and twentieth-century missionaries; especially large are those in Korea and Nigeria. Calvin's doctrine of predestination initially made Reformed and Presbyterian Christians and also Baptists reluctant to engage in mission, since God would save people regardless of human action. However, Calvinists such as George Whitefield (1714-1770) and Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) distinguished between evangelism as “proclaiming good news,” and saving souls, that is, those who will respond are already saved through Christ's death. Those whose names are already written in the Book of Life, too, need to be disciplined and taught and to have the opportunity to grow spiritually. In practice, Calvinists have engaged in very successful missionary endeavors. David Livingstone, (1813-1873) one of the most famous missionaries of the Congregationalist London Missionary Society, brought European civilization and culture, as well as the gospel, into the heart of Africa. Church of Scotland (Calvinist) missionaries were especially successful in many Pacific islands, as well as in parts of Africa.

Usury and Capitalism

One school of thought about Calvinism long has been that it represented a revolt against the medieval condemnation of usury, and implicitly profit, helping to set the stage for the development of capitalism in northern Europe. Such a connection was advanced in influential works by R.H. Tawney (1880-1962) (see Tawney 1998) and by Max Weber (1864-1920) (see Weber 2001).

Calvin expressed himself on usury in a letter to a friend, Johannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531), who was also a friend and associate of Zwingli. In this letter, he criticized the use of certain passages of scripture invoked by people opposed to the charging of interest. He re-interpreted some of these passages, and suggested that others of them had been rendered irrelevant by changed conditions.

He also dismissed the argument (based upon the writings of Aristotle) that it is wrong to charge interest for money because money itself is barren. He said that the walls and the roof of a house are barren, too, but it is permissible to charge someone for allowing him to use them. In the same way, money can be made fruitful.

He also said, though, that money should be lent to people in dire need without hope of interest.


Philip Schaff (1910) describes Calvin as not as much of a genius as Luther or Zwingli but as having “surpassed them in consistency and self-discipline, and by his exegetical, doctrinal, and polemical writings, he has exerted and still exerts more influence than any other Reformer upon the Protestant Churches of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races.” Calvin's name does not evoke as much affection as Luther's, nor was he as popular in his lifetime, though he did enjoy respect. Calvin's stress on work did much to stimulate the development of what came to be called the “Protestant work ethic” (see Weber 2001), and his contractual view of society helped to shape civil life and Western democracy. Many have called him the greatest theologian of his time. Calvin was aware that Christianity is often countercultural, and that people need courage to run against the flow. The French humanist and biographer of Jesus, Ernest Renan (1823–1892) described him thus: “Careless of wealth, of titles, of honors, indifferent to pomp, modest in his life, apparently humble, sacrificing everything to the desire of making others like himself, I hardly know of a man, save Ignatius Loyola, who could match him in those terrible transports ... [he was] the most Christian man of his century… (l’homme le plus chrétien de son siècle)" (cited in Schaff 2002, 68).

His idea that grace must penetrate all of life and sanctify it and that God calls men and women to replenish the earth and subdue it also led to scientific progress. The English Puritans, inspired by Calvin, would diligently explore science and physics, believing that the mandate to explore and develop human knowledge is based on Genesis 1:28-30. The Christian should strive to be perfect in every good work, and as he strives he will come to know that it is only God who can make him perfect (see Heb. 13:21). Most of the founding members of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, usually referred to as the Royal Society, were Puritan (1660). In 1663, 62 percent of the members were Puritans. One of the founders, Robert Boyle, often called the "father of chemistry," set up a trust fund in his will for a series of eight lectures to be given annually in a London Church as an apology for Christian faith.

Calvin's predestinarian theology may not have attracted universal support, but his system of church order has dominated Protestantism, so that all Protestants churches allow lay participation in leadership, none are run solely by clergy. His vision of a humane society covenanted together under God inspired early settlers in America to try to create commonwealths as foretastes of the Kingdom that is to come. In the extreme, Calvin has even been represented as the father of the American way of life (see Johnson 1998). His emphasis on education led to the establishment of several eminent universities and of course Calvinism has dominated the theological schools in such countries as Scotland and the Netherlands, where Reformed Christianity took root. In the United States, Princeton, Yale, and Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan are among other institutions were founded by Calvinists.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bainton, Roland. Women of the Reformation in England and France. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1974. ISBN 0807056499.
  • Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A sixteenth century portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0195059514
  • Fosdick, Henry Emerson. Great Voices of the Reformation: An Anthology. New York: Random House, 1952 (see 215-238 for Calvin's 'Instruction in the Faith').
  • Johnson, Gregory. "The Many Faces of John Calvin: The Historiography of Calvin's Political Thought over Five Centuries," Saint Louis University, Fall 1998.
  • Kirwan, William T. Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984. ISBN 978-0801054549
  • Kingdon, Robert M. "The Geneva Consistory in the Time of Calvin," in Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620, Andrew Pettegree et al., eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0521574528
  • Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation. (original, 1881. Based on 1910 version, this is the 2002 electronic edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library).
  • Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Somerset, NJ: Transaction Books, 1998. ISBN 0765804557
  • Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 041525406X
  • Willimon, William H. Pastor. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2002. ISBN 0687045320

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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