John Calvin was one of the great voices of the Protestant Reformation, but what exactly did he believe, and what else did he contribute to Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of John Calvin—and why he still matters today.
Who Was John Calvin?
John Calvin (1509–1564) was born in Noyon, Picardy, France, to a devoted Roman Catholic family. He studied the liberal arts at the University of Paris, but his father wanted him to study law, so he went on to receive a law degree at the University of Orléans. Because John Calvin didn’t want to be a lawyer, he returned to the study of classical literature. In Paris, he left the Roman Catholic Church and became part of the Protestant Reformation movement that was then spreading through Europe. He later moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he became one of the leaders of the emerging Reformed theological tradition. Though he was a second-generation reformer, John Calvin would become the second greatest voice of the Protestant Reformation after Martin Luther. He is often called the greatest systematic theologian of the Reformation and is the most influential figure in the entire Reformed theological tradition. But he was an unpretentious man. Upon his own request, he was buried in an unmarked grave. I think pastor Calvin would not appreciate that the Reformed theological tradition is popularly referred to as “Calvinism.”
What Did John Calvin Write?
Perhaps Calvin’s two most important works are Institutes of the Christian Religion and his extensive commentaries on the Bible. The first started out as a basic catechism of the Reformed faith but was later developed by Calvin into a full systematic presentation of Reformed theology. It is considered a true theological masterpiece of the Protestant Reformation. The second work is not a single book but rather a group of individual commentaries that Calvin, a gifted biblical exegete, wrote on many books of the Bible.
What Did John Calvin Believe?
Christians of various traditions continue to defend several of John Calvin’s beliefs. The following are perhaps three of John Calvin’s most important theological ideas:
- Sensus Divinitatis (Sense of the Divine): Calvin affirmed that because human beings are made in God’s image, they possess a basic and intuitive awareness of God that is enhanced by their encounter with the created order.
- John Calvin believed, like followers of the Reformed movement after him, that human beings were created in the image of God. However, their fall into sin has negatively impacted their entire being and thus left their will enslaved by sin, rendering them incapable of choosing God apart from regenerative grace.
- Convinced that he was following the apostle Paul’s writings in Scripture, Calvin proclaimed that out of fallen humanity, God has chosen certain people (the elect) and has extended saving grace to them through the person of Jesus Christ, ensuring that these individuals persevere unto salvation.
Why Does John Calvin Matter Today?
John Calvin is criticized for his strong view of predestination and election, as well as for his connection to the execution of sixteenth-century schismatic Michael Servetus, who was charged with heresy by the Reformed political authorities in Geneva. However, it was Geneva’s political leaders, not Calvin, who had Servetus executed. Still, John Calvin is clearly one of the great Christian theologians of all time and one of the most influential men in the history of Christendom and in Western civilization. While often mistaken as a speculative thinker, Calvin was at heart a textual scholar and an insightful interpreter of the Bible.
When evangelical Christians affirm God’s sovereignty and yet also believe humans are somehow morally responsible agents, they are raising that controversial theological issue that John Calvin famously wrote about. Moreover, when evangelicals affirm that human beings seem to be religious by nature, they are touching upon an idea Calvin highlighted.
Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards; Søren Kierkegaard; St. Bonaventure; Martin Luther
Reflections: Your Turn
While the theological doctrine of God’s sovereignty can be quite controversial, is there a sense in which it can be practically comforting? If so, how?
- A good biography of Calvin is found in John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey.
- For a study of Calvin and the theological tradition that often bears his name, see The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition by Richard A. Muller.
- To explore the hotly contested theological debate over the truth or falsity of Calvinism among evangelical Protestants, see the books For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson.
When I realized that there is no higher authority in anything than God, the answers to every theological question fell into place. He was, is, and always will be, and created us and everything else for His eternal glory. Every page of the Bible speaks of it. That’s not dogma, that’s what God is. He does not sit and watch and wish for outcomes; He is in control of all and finishes all according to His pleasure and His perspective, not ours. He is pure and perfect, so much so that He even created beings with the free will to reject Him, which we all have done, and still He made a way for us wretched rebels to come back to Him, through His person of Christ, giving us a love for Him that is not forced or captive. What a comfort and joy it is to be among His children, and worship and serve Him forever.
Thanks for your eloquent devotional comments, MFD.
Great article, Ken. Thanks for this series on Christian thinkers.
God’s sovereignty, though I do not understand it, is comforting to me in that God is directing all things toward the accomplishment of his eternal purpose in Christ Jesus (Eph 3:11). Because predestination and election are components of God’s sovereignty, they too, mysteriously, play an essential role in the consummation of (earthly) human history and the ushering-in of “all things new” in Revelation 21.
Though I believe this, I still struggle with the question: why would the God of love–Love himself–create beings that he knew would reject him, refuse his grace, and ultimately choose eternal separation, darkness, and torment? At this stage in my journey, I do not see how love is infused in that sovereign choice, though, again, I believe that love is ultimately the basis for it. But love for whom–the elect only or all people (2 Peter 3:19; Ezekiel 33:11)?
But setting aside the moral dimension to this problem, perhaps progress may be found in considering what is the utility or function of the non-elect? What purpose do they serve in accomplishing or bringing about God’s eternal purpose? Before taking on that question, I must pause to observe the nature of good and of evil. Whereas goodness is infinite because it is a characteristic of infinite God, evil is finite because it is a characteristic of finite, sinful beings. Evil, then, has a limit. Now for God’s victory over sin and death to be final and complete, he must judge it all. And to judge it all means that evil must be allowed its full expression (perhaps hinted at in the latter part of 1 Thes 2:16). Could it be that the full expression of evil (and, consequently, God’s final victory over it) can only be possible if there are a sufficient quantity and diversity of sinful beings to ‘produce’ the fullness of evil? Is just one finite sinful being capable of producing all possible evil? If not, then perhaps the non-elect (as well as the elect) serve a function in this way.
Just some speculation on my part. Thanks again for the article and discussion.
I appreciate your thoughtful theological comments and reflections.
God’s sovereignty, especially as it relates to sin and evil, is a mystery. I write about it in my book 7 Truths That Changes the World.
Best regards in Christ.
Why “Roman Catholic”? That’s an Anglican term. What relation does it have to do with the Reformed understanding?
I don’t understand what you’re asking. The only place in my article that I use the term “Roman Catholic” is in describing Calvin’s faith before he became a Protestant.
How did you come to the conclusion that “Roman Catholic” is an Anglican term? “Roman Catholic” is the name of the Catholic Church.
Reformed understanding of what?
I’m sorry but I’m not following you.
Thank you, Ken, for this series, and the research you’re doing to better educate us. I don’t know a whole lot about Calvin’s thinking, but after a little reading I appreciated his thoughts, but felt I leaned a bit more toward Arminian thinking. But God’s sovereignty is mysterious and am comforted knowing He is omnicient and we are not. Thanks again.
Both Reformed and Arminian Christians can appreciate God’s sovereignty even if they define it somewhat differently.
In my opinion, a fundamental flaw in Calvinism is Calvin’s belief that a person cannot accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior through an act of choosing (an act of his will) because we are all “dead” in our sins and apart from God choosing us, we cannot respond. This belief seems to conflict with Calvin’s other belief that all of us have an innate understanding that there is a God. It makes more sense that such a person with an innate understanding can also choose to trust Christ. This is not meant to suggest that, at the same time, God could not choose those of us who believe. I believe that both predestination and free will can be true at the same time because the Bible teaches both. These seemingly contradictory propositions can be true for a God, as Hugh Ross argues, who is outside human time and space.
Thanks, Bob, for your comments.
Calvin was a compatiblist. Meaning that God is sovereign and human beings are responsible agents (as opposed to possessing freewill). As you said, for Calvin and the Reformed sin enslaves the human will which can only be freed through regenerative grace. Compatiblism affirms that a soft determinism is compatible with responsible human choices.
Regarding the issue of people being enslaved by sin and yet having an innate sense of God, Calvin would argue that sinners desire and resist God simultaneously (appealing to Romans 1).
Best regards in Christ.
In the end there is no diffrence between compatibilism and determinism. A fair portrayal of Arminius’ theology would be appropriate in a great thinkers series.
Thanks for your comments.
You might be right that compatibilism fails to maintain soft determinism and human responsibility. But it is the consensus position of historic Christianity. The vast majority of Christianity’s classical theologians and philosophers affirmed the position.
The Great Christian Thinkers series now includes 18 people. I’ve considered Arminius but will likely address Wesley instead.
Reblogged this on Is Christianity True?.
Thanks again for the reblog, Steve.
With my best regards.