This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the magisterial1 reformer John Calvin who was born in Noyon, northeast of Paris, in 1509. Calvin is probably the most loved and hated of all the Reformers or in the words of LEWIS SPITZ, adored and abhorred! Sadly, many people judge the man without ever bothering to read his writings. This is probably due in the main to the excesses and extremes of so-called hyper-Calvinism. It is a moot point as to whether Calvin would have agreed with much of what is attributed to him today.2
John Calvin came much later to the Reformation scene than Luther, being only eight years of age when Luther fastened his Ninety-five Theses to the castle church door at Wittenberg. His background and temperament were very different from Luthers. Luther was intuitively a public disputant, often bold and brash. Calvin by contrast was a more reticent public figure. On the rare occasion that he reflected on his life, Calvin wrote in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms (1557) that he had always loved the shade and retirement and sought some secluded spot where he might withdraw from the public view. Although historians suggest that Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus laid, it was Calvin who synthesized Reformed teaching and shaped it into a coherent entity.3 Calvin had originally been groomed as a lawyer, but he abandoned this to pursue his interest in humanism. God, however, had other plans for his life. After experiencing God’s salvation sometime in 1533 or 1534, Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg to study. Once again God intervened. War between France and the Holy Roman Empire meant that he could not go directly to Strasbourg, but had to take a detour via Geneva. It was during this initial stay at Geneva that Guillaume Farel persuaded the younger Calvin to help him advance the gospel in the city. This was a formidable task as the city had only just embraced the Reformation. Even though he was expelled from the city in 1538, Calvin returned triumphantly to Geneva in 1541 and lived the rest of his life in the city as the leading exponent of Reformed theology. He died in 1564, and typical of a man who was hostile to any form of hero-worship, he was buried in an unmarked grave to avoid any possibility of a Calvin cult developing. He believed that the glory of God should not be overshadowed by honouring people. It is a pity that Calvin’s heirs did not take a leaf out of his book!
At age 26 (possibly only two years after his conversion) Calvin produced an introduction to Christian doctrine entitled The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This work (which is available as a free download from Esword) set out a systematic approach to Reformed theology principally for the direction of students as they sought to engage with scripture. F. F. BRUCE notes that, ‘the whole of the Institutio is biblically based; scripture is quoted copiously from start to finish in support of its successive propositions and arguments’. In similar vein to Luther, Calvin maintained the authority of scripture over the Roman Catholic church and rejected any idea that the church took precedence over the scriptures. When referring to Ephesians chapter 2 verse 20, he said, ‘If the doctrine of the prophets and apostles be the foundation of the church, it must have been certain, antecedent to the existence of the church. The scriptures existed before the church, so it is absurd to say that the church is the power that determines the scriptures’ authority’.4 This reflects the logical approach of Calvin who bore all the hallmarks of a scholar, masterful in exegesis yet at the same time recognizing his limitations. In his introduction to his commentary on Romans (1540), Calvin acknowledged that in the interpretation of scripture, ‘God has never so blessed His servants that they each possessed full and perfect knowledge of every part of their subject, this was so that we should be kept humble’. Calvin’s other reason for writing the Institutes was to enable him later to concentrate his efforts on publishing commentaries on the scripture without the further need of going back over the same ground again. His commentaries are always condensed and had to be supplemented by referring back to the Institutes. ALEXANDER GANOCZY labelled this movement from Calvin’s exposition of the biblical text to his Institutes and back again to the biblical text as Calvin’s interpretive circle. Calvin’s output in terms of biblical commentaries was prolific. He expounded every book in the Bible apart from 2 John, 3 John and Revelation. These are still used routinely by serious Bible students – some achievement after 500 years! What made Calvin an exegete par excellence was his ability to focus his mind on the biblical writer and determine the plain and simple meaning of the text for his readers.5 But as DAVID STEINMETZ observes, Calvin’s exegesis was not an end in itself, but was directed toward the edification of his reader. In short, Calvin had the ability and the equipment6 to make the text live for his reader because for him the Bible was God’s word to man. Calvin was not comfortable with the allegorical interpretation of scripture as in his view it concealed the true meaning of the text. Yet he seemed quite comfortable with the use of typology although even here he would revert back to the literal meaning.7 It is important, however, to make the point that what Calvin brought to the surface was not ultimately something new, but simply a re-emphasis on the sufficiency and authority of scripture.
Calvin hated the glare of publicity, but his life was punctuated with controversy, particularly around the death of the notorious heretic Michael Servetus who was burnt at the stake in Geneva in 1553. Whilst Calvin agreed with the verdict and sentence, he did recommend a more humane form of execution, but this was ignored by the court. Being put to death for heresy might seem to us today to be somewhat inhumane, but this was an age of extreme brutality. DIARMAID MACCULLOCH suggests that it was from this time that Calvin began widely to be perceived as not only one reformer among many, but the major voice in Reformation Protestantism. Perhaps though, more than any other issue, Calvin is known for his emphasis upon the doctrines of grace, especially election and predestination. Contrary to popular belief, Calvin was simply following in the line of many of his predecessors including Augustine of Hippo. Nor did he make this a central doctrine in his theology, and his teaching in this context is very similar to that of other Reformers including Luther, Zwingli and Bucer. TIMOTHY GEORGE states that Calvin did not permit the doctrine of predestination to be used as an excuse for not preaching the gospel. Whether we agree with Calvin is another matter especially on the issue of double predestination, but as the late E. W. ROGERS has well stated, ‘Salvation is entirely of grace and no one can either complain if passed over or boast himself if saved’.
Calvin’s legacy is extensive, and is of course, a matter of history. But what does Calvin mean today for people in assembly fellowship? Space permits us to consider only two issues that Calvin strongly adhered to, and which ought to resonate with us. The first is the right and duty of private judgement in relationship to the scriptures and matters of Christian faith. Calvin (and other Reformers) saw this as an unbreakable principle in his opposition to the Roman Catholic church which insisted upon implicit faith in what the church taught. The words of 2 Peter chapter 1 verse 20 were interpreted by the Roman Catholic church as prohibiting any usage of the Bible by individuals. Calvin argued that this was an incorrect interpretation of the word ‘private’, which did not mean ‘individual’ but ‘humanly devised’. So the text was not about the interpretation of scripture but with its origination. Secondly, Calvin emphasized that Christianity extended beyond the walls of church buildings and that Christian living extended beyond the hearing of sermons. He saw engagement with society as an important way of communicating the gospel with the caveat that society was kept at a critical distance. He summed this up by stating that we are to learn to pass through this world as though it were a foreign country, treating lightly all earthly things and declining to set our hearts upon them.
The jury will perhaps always be out on John Calvin as he provokes such different responses. Being human he made mistakes and many of his actions may appear to us to be contemptible. But overarching everything else that he did in his life he always put God first. That seems a good enough reason to commemorate his short but influential life.