I originally wrote this article in 2009 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. I soon realized that my desire to do Calvin justice was an impossible task. Books have been written about the man and continue to be written. There are seminary classes that cover his life and doctrine. It would have been folly for me to think that I could sum up the life of such a man in a simple article. So, with less ambitious aims, I would like to celebrate Calvin’s contributions in what small way I can.
It is a testimony to our times that the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth passed with little notice and no fanfare because few Christians and fewer Americans today even know who he was. Even though Calvin was one of the most important men in history and has profoundly influenced the lives of all Americans, and especially all Christians, he is primarily, and incorrectly, known as the founder of the doctrines that bear his name.
Calvinism, as it is called, is a body of doctrine that exalts the sovereignty of God in salvation and contains such controversial teachings as sovereign election and predestination. These doctrines were the teachings of the Protestant Reformation but became associated with John Calvin because he taught them and was the primary theologian of the Reformation. The doctrines had their post-biblical origin with Augustine in the 4th century but adherents will say that they reach back to the teachings of Jesus and Paul in Scripture. Calvin’s main notoriety today then comes from something that many wrongly believe him to have invented.
John Calvin’s importance goes far beyond doctrinal controversy though. He was a giant in Christian history and left a legacy that no extra-biblical figure can surpass and few, perhaps only Augustine, can equal. His contributions reached beyond theology and doctrine to government and even commerce. Though physically weak and sickly, he was tireless in his work for the church and the Gospel of Christ, burning himself out and dying an early death at the age of 54.
I would like to briefly enumerate some of the ways that Calvin has influenced our modern world.
Interpretation of Scripture
Calvin was first and foremost a preacher and teacher of the Scriptures. In many ways, he taught us all how to do it. He shunned the allegorical methods that were so prevalent in the Middle Ages and sought the meaning of the text through history, grammar and, more importantly, the other Scriptures. Calvin was a great believer in “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” To read Calvin is to see a very modern method of scriptural interpretation at work.
Calvin was not the first of the reformers but did more than any other to enunciate the theology of the Reformation. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was a massive work of theology that he continually expanded until it reached its final form in 1559, five years before his death. This great work is profitable reading today but also laid the foundation for the great books of theology that followed and that would exert profound influence upon Protestant Christianity.
Church and State
Calvin believed that church and state operated in two different spheres. In other words, he believed that church and state should be separate. These views were in opposition to the state church concept of Roman Catholicism and even of some other Protestant groups coming out of the Reformation. Calvin was not always consistent in his application of this principle because he exercised considerable authority (some would say domination) over secular society in Geneva. Despite Calvin’s inconsistency, his views were radical for their day and paved the way for such monumental events as the founding of the United States upon the principle of church-state separation.
With his love for order, Calvin believed that the church’s ministers should exercise strong authority within the church but also recognized their need to be accountable to the people. Pastors were “ministers and helpers” to the congregation and the laity had the obligation to examine what their ministers were teaching. Calvin believed that ministers should be elected by the people. To prevent abuse of this privilege, the elections should be supervised by other ministers. It was not congregational government in the modern sense but it was a radical change from the rule of priests within Catholicism. This democratic innovation had a great influence upon political thinking and many today credit Calvin as being one of the prime architects of the modern democratic age in Europe and America.
Calvin was a strong believer in the importance of private property, thinking it fundamental to the order of society. He valued free enterprise and commerce though he recognized that men could abuse it. He was totally opposed to early forms of communism which he said would “turn all the world into a forest of brigands where, without reckoning of paying, each one takes for himself what he can get.” Calvin believed that society was bettered when all men work hard to improve themselves saying that there was “nothing more disgraceful than a lazy good-for-nothing who is of no use either to himself or to others.”
No discussion of John Calvin would be complete without mention of the incident for which he receives his harshest criticism, the burning of the heretic Servetus. While scholars debate just how responsible Calvin was for the way Servetus died (strong evidence exists that he argued for a more humane means of punishment), there can be no doubt that he fully approved of his execution for heresy. In sixteenth century Europe, societal order was highly valued and closely guarded. Heresies and non-orthodox religions were considered to be threats to that order and greatly injurious to societal stability. Calvin and his contemporaries (Catholic and Protestant) were fully prepared to use force when necessary to eliminate those threats to order. Calvin was very far from our modern ideas of religious liberty. On this issue, He was very much a man of the sixteenth century.
In conclusion, a man of John Calvin’s talents sometimes defies definition but possibly the most accurate assessment of him came from R. L. Dabney, Presbyterian theologian from the 19th century, who said that Calvin “was a very gifted, learned, and, in the main, godly man, who still had his faults.” John Calvin’s contributions to the church and modern society were immense. He loved Christ; he loved the Scriptures and wanted to see God glorified in all areas of human existence. He was not a perfect man; his great flaws reflected the times in which he lived, but Calvin desired to glorify God in all that he did.
John Calvin was both a man of his day and a man who was ahead of his time. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to him for the legacy he left and the world he helped to create.