In preparation for THINK|17, we looked last week at the most prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation—Martin Luther. Today, we’re going to look at perhaps the most controversial figure in the Protestant Reformation—John Calvin. Calvin is not controversial for his life or his actions—though he did play a part in having a heretic burned at the stake—but instead is controversial because of the theology that bears his name: Calvinism. Together with Martin Luther, John Calvin drastically shaped the landscape of the church today.
Lawyer turned pastor
John Calvin was born in France in 1509. Though the Reformation had been underway for years in Germany under the influence of Martin Luther, France was slow to catch up on the theological movement. Catholicism was deeply ingrained in France and Protestant early-adopters were swiftly persecuted.
While young, John Calvin originally planned on practicing law and he even published a book on the matter. Eventually, he encountered the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone under the influence of Nicholas Cop. In 1534, Calvin was converted to Protestantism and dove headfirst into pastoral ministry. One year later, in 1535, he published the first edition of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion—a book that would undergo several more editions and today is still required reading for numerous seminaries (including the one I attended!).
From France to Switzerland
Since France was such a hostile environment and since there were opportunities in Switzerland, Calvin decided to join another Reformer, Martin Bucer, in the city of Strasbourg. But as he was traveling there, he ran into an acquaintance, William Farel, who was ministering in Geneva and implored him to join him. Here’s how one historian captured the scene:
“As Calvin prepared to leave the next day, Farel implored him to stay [in Geneva], going so far as to throw in an ultimate threat. “If you refuse,” Farel warned, punctuating each syllable with his pointed finger, “God will unquestionably condemn you.” Calvin deferred to his wishes.1“
Calvin ministered in Geneva for a few years before eventually being kicked out of the city for calling for reform. Calvin found his way to Strasbourg and married a widow named Idelette de Bure. But when things began to get hectic back in Geneva as the city began to flirt with returning back to Roman Catholicism, the leaders of the city came back to Calvin and begged him to return to serve in Geneva.
Calvin’s Influence in the Church and in Society
In Geneva, Calvin’s impact was monumental, and not only upon the theology of the church but also on the laws and flourishing of the entire city:
“Under [Calvin’s] leadership the city promoted laws that supported the family, outlawing spousal abuse and elevating marriage as an institution. His sphere of leadership also extended to cleaning up the streets, with laws against public drunkenness and public disorderly conduct. On the positive side, hospitals were built and the entire education overhauled. A “no child left behind” policy was truly enacted, seeing that all of Geneva’s children had an education.2“
All of this good work was done, while faithfully preaching and pastoring week after week. Truly this was a man who cared about holistic Christian discipleship.
Of Flowers and Fires
Calvin is controversial today for two particular aspects of his life: his theology and the Servetus incident.
Calvin’s theology has been boiled down to the acronym TULIP, also known as the doctrines of grace:
- Total Depravity – apart from Christ nothing good dwells in man’s flesh and he is unable to save himself apart from grace.
- Unconditional Election – before the foundation of the world, God predestined those who would trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
- Limited Atonement – Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is effectual for a particular people; namely, those who trust in Christ.
- Irresistible Grace – When God purposes to save his elect, he no one can ultimately withstand his purpose of grace.
- Perseverance of the Saints – All those who believe in Christ will persevere to the end because God’s grace keeps them trusting
While some people are resistant to these doctrines of grace because of their understanding of the limitations of the human will, others are encouraged because of the way that they highlight God’s sovereign ability to save sinners. At College Park, we are grateful to have people in both camps—and even in between.
Servetus fled to Geneva to escape Roman Catholicism. He was not looking to join the Reformation, but instead was looking to escape being killed by the Catholic church for being a heretic. Servetus did not believe that Christ was God and had sought refuge in Geneva. Since the separation between Church and State was not present at this point in Christendom, people with heretical views of God were able to be legally punished, even killed. When Servetus began spreading his heresy in Geneva, the town council sentenced him to be burned at the stake. Though he could have stopped the sentence, Calvin failed to intervene and has since been remembered with this black spot on his church history resume.
While this is certainly a low part in Calvin’s story, we must remember the manifold ways that he worked for the good of the city and church of Geneva. God used him powerfully to shape the landscape of Christianity.
Gratitude for a Grace-Preaching Man
Calvin held to a big and beautiful view of a sovereign God who does whatever He pleases. Calvin held a robust view of the local church that seeks the good of the city and engages in holistic discipleship. And Calvin’s theology of the doctrines of grace plays out in men today like John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, and Mark Dever. So whether we agree or disagree with his theology, we can be grateful for such a grace-preaching man as John Calvin.
1 Stephen Nichols, The Reformation, 74.
2 Ibid, 79–80.