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Calvin and Calvinism

compiled by Lewis Loflin

Please note what is stated below is taken from A History of the Modern World by R.R Palmer, Joel Colton, P 78-79. 1950 Allford Knoff Inc. Also see Why we should know John Calvin

John Calvin was a Frenchman, born Jean Cauvin, who called himself Calvinus in Latin. Born in 1509, he was a full generation younger than Luther. He was trained both as a priest and as a lawyer, and had a humanist's knowledge of Latin and Greek, as well as Hebrew. At the age of twenty-four, experiencing a sudden conversion, or fresh insight into the meaning of Christianity, he joined forces with the religious revolutionaries of whom the best known was then Luther.

Three years later, in 1536, he published, in the international language, Latin, his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Where Luther had aimed much of his writing either at the existing rulers of Germany, or at the German national feeling against Rome, Calvin addressed his Institutes to all the world. He seemed to appeal to human reason itself; he wrote in the severe, logical style of the trained lawyer; he dealt firmly, lucidly, and convincingly with the most basic issues.

In the Institutes men in all countries, if dissatisfied with the existing Roman church, could find cogent expression of universal propositions, which they could apply to their own local circumstances as they required.

With Luther's criticisms of the Roman church, and with most of Luther's fundamental religious ideas, such as justification by faith and not by works, Calvin agreed. In what they retained of the Catholic Mass, the communion or Lord's Supper as they called it, Luther and Calvin developed certain doctrinal differences. Both rejected transubstantiation, but where Luther insisted that God was somehow actually present in the bread and wine used in the service ("consubstantiation"), Calvin and his followers tended more to regard it as a pious act of symbolic or commemorative character.

The chief differences between Calvin and Luther were two. Calvin made far more of the idea of predestination. Both, drawing heavily on St. Augustine, held that man by his own actions could earn no merit in the sight of divine justice, that any grace which anyone possessed came from the free action of God alone. God, being Almighty, knew and willed in advance all things that happened, including the way in which every life would turn out. He knew and willed, from all eternity, that some were saved and some were damned. Calvin, a severe critic of human nature, felt that those who had grace were relatively few. They were the "elect," the "godly," the little band chosen without merit of their own, from all eternity, for salvation.

A person could feel in his own mind that he was among the saved, God's chosen few, if throughout all trials and temptations he persisted in a saintly life. Thus the idea of predestination, of God's omnipotence, instead of turning to fatalism and resignation, became a challenge to unrelenting effort, a sense of burning conviction, a conviction of being on the side of that Almighty Power which must in the end be everlastingly triumphant. It was the most resolute spirits that were attracted to Calvinism. Calvinists, in all countries, were militant, uncompromising, perfectionist-or Puritan, as they were called first in England and later in America.

The second way in which Calvinism differed from Lutheranism was in its attitude to society and to the state. Calvinists refused to recognize the subordination of church to state, or the right of any government-king, parliament, or civic magistracy-to lay down laws for religion. On the contrary, they insisted that true Christians, the elect or godly, should Christianize the state.

They wished to remake society itself into the image of a religious community. They rejected the institution of bishops (which both the Lutheran and Anglican churches retained), and provided instead that the church should be governed by presbyteries, elected bodies made up of ministers and devout laymen. By thus bringing an element of lay control into church affairs, they broke the monopoly of priestly power and so promoted secularization. On the other hand, they were the reverse of secular, for they wished to Christianize all society.

Calvin, called in by earlier reformers who had driven out their bishop, was able to set up his model Christian community at Geneva in Switzerland. A body of ministers ruled the church; a consistory of ministers and elders ruled the town. The rule was strict; all loose, light, or frivolous living was suppressed; disaffected persons were driven into exile. The form of worship was severe, and favored the intellectual rather than the emotional or the aesthetic.

The service was devoted largely to long sermons elucidating Christian doctrine, and all appeals to the senses-color, music, incense-were rigidly subdued. The black gown of Geneva replaced brighter clerical vestments. Images, representing the saints, Mary, or Christ, were taken down and destroyed. Candles went the way of incense. Chanting was replaced by the singing of hymns. Instrumental music was frowned upon, and many Calvinists thought even bells to be a survival of "popery."

In all things Calvin undertook to regulate his church by the Bible. Nor was he more willing than Luther to countenance any doctrine more radical than his own. When a Spanish refugee, Michael Servetus, who denied the Trinity, i.e., the divinity of Christ, sought asylum at Geneva, Calvin pronounced him a heretic and burned him at the stake.

To Geneva flocked reformers of all nationalities, Englishmen, Scots, Frenchmen, Netherlanders, Germans, Poles, and Hungarians, to see and study a true scriptural community so that they might reproduce it in their own countries. Geneva became the Protestant Rome, the one great international center of Reformed doctrine. Everywhere Calvinists made their teachings heard (even in Spain and Italy in isolated cases), and everywhere, or almost everywhere, little groups which had locally and spontaneously broken with the old church found in Calvin's Institutes a reasoned statement of doctrine and a suggested method of organization. Thus Calvinism spread, or was adopted, very widely.

In Hungary and Bohemia large elements turned Protestant, and usually Calvinist, partly as a way of opposing the Habsburg rule. In Poland there were many Calvinists, along with less organized Anabaptists and Unitarians, or Socinians, as those who denied the Trinity were then called. Calvinists spread in Germany, where, opposing both Lutheran and Catholic churches as ungodly impositions of worldly power, they were disliked equally by both. In France the Huguenots were Calvinist, as were the Protestants of the Netherlands.

John Knox in the 1550s brought Calvinism to Scotland, where Presbyterianism became and remained the established religion. At the same time Calvinism began to penetrate England, from which it was later to reach British America, giving birth to the Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches of the United States.

Calvinism was far from democratic in any modern sense, being rather of an almost aristocratic outlook, in that those who sensed themselves to be God's chosen few felt free to dictate to the common run of mankind. Yet in many ways Calvinism entered into the development of what became democracy. For one thing, Calvinists never venerated the state; they always held that the sphere of the state and of public life was subject to moral judgment. For another, the Calvinist doctrine of the "calling" taught that a man's labor had a religious dignity, and that any form of honest work was pleasing in the sight of God. In the conduct of their own affairs Calvinists developed a type of self-government.

They formed "covenants" with one another, and devised machinery for the election of presbyteries. They refused to believe that authority was transmitted downward through bishops or through kings. They were inclined also to a democratic outlook by the circumstance that in most countries they remained an unofficial minority.

Only at Geneva, in the Dutch Netherlands, in Scotland, and in New England (and for a few years in England in the seventeenth century) were Calvinists ever able to prescribe the mode of life and religion of a whole country. In England, France, and Germany, Calvinists remained in opposition to the established authorities of church and state and hence were disposed to favor limitations upon established power. In Poland and Hungary many Calvinists were nobles who disliked royal authority.

More on Calvin

by Richard Hooker

The spirit of Zwinglianism reached its fullest development in the theology, political theories, and ecclesiastic thought of John Calvin (1509-1564). Perhaps even more so than Martin Luther, Calvin created the patterns and thought that would dominate Western culture throughout the modern period. American culture, in particular, is thoroughly Calvinist in some form or another; at the heart of the way Americans think and act, you'll find this fierce and imposing reformer.

Calvin was originally a lawyer, but like Zwingli, he was saturated with the ideas of Northern Renaissance humanism. He was dedicated to reform of the church and he got his chance to build a reformed church when the citizens of Geneva revolted against their rulers in the 1520's.

Geneva had been under the rule of the House of Savoy, but the Genevans successfully overthrew the Savoys and the local bishop-prince of Geneva in the waning years of the 1520's. The Genevans, however, unlike the citizens of Zurich, Bern, Basel, and other cities that became Protestant in the 1520's, were not German-speakers but primarily French-speakers.

As such, they did not have close cultural ties with the reformed churches in Germany and Switzerland. The Protestant canton of Bern, however, was determined to see Protestantism spread throughout Switzerland. In 1533, Bern sent Protestant reformers to convert Geneva into a Protestant city; after considerable conflict, Geneva officially became Protestant in 1535. Calvin, by now a successful lawyer, was invited to Geneva to build the new Reformed church.

Calvin's efforts radically changed the face of Protestantism, for he directly addressed issues that early Reformers didn't know how or didn't want to answer. His most important work involved the organization of church governance and the social organization of the church and the city. He was, in fact, the first major political thinker to model social organization entirely on biblical principles.

At first his reforms did not go over well. He addressed the issue of church governance by creating leaders within the new church; he himself developed a catechism designed to impose doctrine on all the members of the church. He and Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) imposed a strict moral code on the citizens of Geneva; this moral code was derived from a literal reading of Christian scriptures.

Naturally, the people of Geneva believed that they had thrown away one church only to see it replaced by an identical twin; in particular, they saw Calvin's reforms as imposing a new form of papacy on the people, only with different names and different people. So the Genevans tossed him out. In early 1538, Calvin and the Protestant reformers were exiled from Geneva. Calvin, for his part, moved to Strasbourg where he began writing commentaries on the Bible and finished his massive account of Protestant doctrine, The Institutes of the Christian Church.

Calvin's commentaries are almost endless, but within these commentaries he developed all the central principles of Calvinism in his strict readings of the Old and New Testaments. The purpose of commentaries in Western literary tradition was to explain both the literary technique and the difficult passages in literary and historical works.

Calvin wrote commentaries to ostensibly explain scriptural writings, but in reality he, like theologians before him, used the commentaries to argue for his own theology as he believed was present in scriptural writings. They are less an explanation of the Bible than a piece by piece construction of his theological, social, and political philosophy. In 1540 a new crop of city officials in Geneva invited Calvin back to the city.

As soon as he arrived he set about revolutionizing Genevan society. His most important innovation was the incorporation of the church into city government; he immediately helped to restructure municipal government so that clergy would be involved in municipal decisions, particularly in disciplining the populace. He imposed a hierarchy on the Genevan church and began a series of statute reforms to impose a strict and uncompromising moral code on the city.

By the mid-1550's, Geneva was thoroughly Calvinist in thought and structure. It became the most important Protestant center of Europe in the sixteenth century, for Protestants driven out of their native countries of France, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands all came to Geneva to take refuge. By the middle of the sixteenth century, between one-third and one-half of the city was made up of these foreign Protestants.

In Geneva, these foreign reformers adopted the more radical Calvinist doctrines; most of them had arrived as moderate Reformers and left as thorough-going Calvinists. It is probably for this reason that Calvin's brand of reform eventually became the dominant branch of Protestantism from the seventeenth century onwards.

Calvin's Thought: Since Calvin literally transformed the philosophical, political, religious, and social landscape of Europe, what was the substance of his radical reform? The core of Calvinism is the Zwinglian insistence on the literal reading of Christian scriptures. Anything not contained explicitly and literally in these scriptures was to be rejected; on the other hand, anything that was contained explicitly and literally in these scriptures was to be followed unwaveringly. It is the latter point that Calvin developed beyond Zwingli's model; not only should all religious belief be founded on the literal reading of Scriptures, but church organization, political organization, and society itself should be founded on this literal reading.

Following the history of the earliest church recounted in the New Testament book, The Acts of the Apostles , Calvin divided church organization into four levels:

Pastors: These were five men who exercised authority over religious matters in Geneva;

Teachers: This was a larger group whose job it was to teach doctrine to the population. Elders: The Elders were twelve men (after the twelve Apostles) who were chosen by the municipal council; their job was to oversee everything that everybody did in the city.

Deacons: Modeled after the Seven in Acts 6-8, the deacons were appointed to care for the sick, the elderly, the widowed and the poor.

The most important theological position that Calvin took was his formulation of the doctrine of predestination. The early church had struggled with this issue. Since God knew the future, did that mean that salvation was predestined? That is, do human beings have any choice in the matter, or did God make the salvation decision for each of us at the beginning of time?

The early church, and the moderate Protestant churches, had decided that God had not predestined salvation for individuals. Salvation was in part the product of human choice. Calvin, on the other hand, built his reformed church on the concept that salvation was not a choice, but was rather pre-decided by God from the beginning of time. This mean that individuals were "elected" for salvation by God; this "elect" would form the population of the Calvinist church.

This view of human salvation is called either the "doctrine of the elect" or "the doctrine of living saints" (in Catholic theology, a "saint" is a human being that the church is certain has gained salvation; in Calvinist theology, a "saint" or "living saint" is a living, breathing human being who is guaranteed to gain salvation no matter what he or she does here on earth, although the elect obviously don't engage in flagrant sin; not all good people were among the elect, but people with bad behavior were certainly not among the elect). It was incumbent on churches filled with living saints to only admit other living saints; this organizational principle was called voluntary associations.

Voluntary associations are predicated on the idea that a community or association chooses its own members and those members, of their own free will, choose to be a member of that community or association. In time, the concept of voluntary associations would become the basis of civil society and later political society in Europe.


Visitor Comment

I wanted to set the record straight about something. Pat Robertson is not a Calvinist. The chief distinquishing feature between Calvinism (Augustinianism) and Arminianism is that Arminians believe that the individual must choose to have faith and is therefore free to choose salvation or reject it. Pat Robertson is an evangelist who believes that salvation is a choice. That makes him an Arminian by default no matter what he himself may claim. Calvinism teaches that God's will is immutable and that he alone dictates all that was, is, and is to come. In other words, it is God who decides who is saved and who is not irregardless and in spite of human will (the five points of Calvinism). I suggest you look to modern theologians like R.C. Sproul to see a true Calvinist at work.

I am no Christian so please don't misconstrue my message as a defense of the faith, but in all fairness, your characterization of Calvinism is distinctively off base. Calvinism is most commonly found among Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed Churches. Hank Hannegraff, who has done a lot to expose the utter quackery of people like Robertson, Benny Hinn, as well as the whole T.B.N. empire... is himself of Dutch Reform extraction and a Calvinist. He's one of the few "public" Christian figures that has actually done the nation a favor.

Admittedly, Calvinists are sometimes biblical literalists to the maximum, but it is Calvinists such as Sproul who encourage believers to try to understand that the bible is very often written in figurative and metaphorical language and there is a great deal about it that should not be taken literally. In fact, Calvinism is historically ammillenial, which means they reject all the "end-time" eschatological nonsense that figures so prominently in most Charismatic and Fundamentalist circles.

Its up to you, but you might want to cut Calvinism some slack. The whole Word-Faith, Evangelical, Charismatic movement that has been sweeping and perverting Christianity for a century and a half now is decidedly Arminian and Calvinists have been the only Protestants willing to take the heat (and believe me...they get it in buckets) to expose the charlatanism of televangelism and arena revivals.

It would surprise you the things I've seen and heard. I remember I tried one time to sort of categorize and catalog all the so called "utterances from the Lord" that I heard from various preachers and lay people alike. I found so many glaring contradictions. I also noticed a correlation between the gossip of some church-goers and some of the "utterances." I mentioned this to a pastor and several friends and basically got a "don't rock the boat" know, for the sake of the "new-borns in Christ.

One musn't confuse them with facts". It not only left me confused but concerned. I just couldn't fathom what a supposedly perfect god would be doing "indwelling" such petty people. Its one thing to reform from pettiness, but its quite another to continuously make bold statements then claim that the "Lord" told you to. The hypocrisy was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I realized early on also that churchs by in large do not like to have an intellectual in their midst. If you do not respond "properly" which means if you do not have an emotional outburst, fall on the floor, start yabbering in an unkown tongue, so on and so forth, then you get eyed suspiciously. The worst possible sin one can commit in the typical church is to question. I can't tell you how many times I've had self appointed deputies of god and "prophets" tell me, "Feel. Don't think."

I was told that in no uncertain terms, the bible does not contradict itself. Even if you produce one of the many many sections where it does, you are told that you are mistaken and not to dwell on it. On a weekly basis, I witnessed people, normal hardworking people, being conditioned that to have doubt is the worst way to fail god. You can backslide, cheat on your wife, steal from your neighbor, and lie to your mother's face, but don't ever doubt or you literally have to go to the back of the line. What a palaver! It that most reject predistination but of the five points they pick combinations of the others. What they want is the Calvinist political/social system complete with tyranny minus predistination.

The vast majority of Christians reject the "five points of Calvinism" as an institution. Some of their tennets may resemble one or two of the points, but that's only because they use one book in common... the bible. But if you dig, you'll likely realize that most believers don't even know what the five points are. Most won't even know who Calvin is. Protestants know who Luther was (although they are rarely told that he was a raving loony). Typically you will only find a scholarly discourse about historic Church leaders either in seminary or from a professor of theology.

You see, history is bad for church meetings. History is full of bad things done in the name of god and there is little if anything historic that the church actually did that was fundamentally for good reasons (rightness for the sake of rightness). Most church-goers haven't the slightest inkling as to what you would be talking about if mentioned Calvinists or Arminians. Ask them about the end times and the rapture, however, and you'll typically get a whole story about how the antichrist is somewhere in Europe and that the European Union is going to try to take over the world...yadda yadda yadda... mark of the beast is in the bar code code....yadda yadda....Israel.

It is true that there are a number of fundamentalist movements who want to impose their "way of life" on the rest of the country, but make no mistake, most of their energy is spent on theology. Because it goes against even common sense, it takes a great deal of effort to maintain faith. For the religious right, the nation is only a stepping stone. They have higher ideals in mind. But as a movement, they are not stupid. They know that a secular government is a real threat to their institutions.

And lets face it. It is. As it stands, the only thing still providing Christianity, or any "revealed religion" with any measure of legitimacy is the fact of the shear numbers of adherents. That's a lot of voting power. It is already a documented fact that the medical community see cronic religious fervor as a possible sign of instability. But you try to institutionalize 40% of the population. Once their stranglehold on government institutions is finally broken, reason and science will fill the void as they should. The result will be a dramatic drop in active adherence to systematic theology within two generations.

In short, it would mean an end to their political clout. They wouldn't go away of course. The only way that can be accomplished is if each and every person achieved a certain level of education. You may have noticed that the uneducated and the "poor" tend to flock to religion and its hollow promises of a better life. A completely secularized nation must see to the wellbeing of ALL its citizens, primarily where education is concerned.

I'm a Libertarian myself, so I have little confidence in government beyond defense of borders, but even I would like to see the entire education system, basic and collegiate, become open to all regardless of income...and naturally, free from religious interference. Maybe someday.

Anyway, I enjoy your site.

Thank you for your time, Stewart C.

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