Old Dead Guy Notes #8: John Calvin
Notes #8– John Calvin
John Wiers PhD 2020
- One of the most loved and most vilified theologians we will study. K Barth said: “I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend the rest of my life just with Calvin.”
- Most people think of him in one of 3 ways: the theologian who invented predestinarian theology and centered his whole theology around it, the autocratic ruler of Reformation Geneva, or the man who executed Servetus over a trivial doctrinal issue. None of these caricatures is accurate.
- He was a 2nd generation Reformer– Luther was 25 when Calvin was born.
- He was also not the author of the so-called 5 points of Calvinism. He would have agreed with them, but he never set out his theology under 5 points. The closest thing to that was at the Synod of Dordt in the Netherlands in 1618-1919 which responded to the 5 points of the Remonstrant (Arminian) party, but not in the form of the acrostic TULIP, although it was in Holland. The actual TULIP acrostic was invented in the early 20th century. Most earlier theologians simply referred to them as the Reformed doctrines of grace.
- Calvin was quite different than Luther in that he was shy and retiring by temperament and really wanted to live a life of scholarly studies. However, he was driven by a sense of duty to do what he believed God had called him to do. He also alluded to his understanding that his theology was not really all that valuable. His colleagues and posterity have certainly differed from that assessment.
- He was a prolific author, the Latin edition of his works are 59 volumes.
- He was also the best scriptural exegete among all of the Reformers– Arminian theologian, Roger Olson, concurs with that as does Lutheran theologian Otto Heick– and his commentaries– on every book except Revelation– are seen as models of succinct, almost modern commentaries.
- He was reluctant to speak of himself and we mostly know of his life from the biography of his close associate Theodore Beza.
- He wrote elegant Latin and French and is sometimes called the father of the modern French language.
- His motto was “My heart I offer to you Lord, promptly and sincerely.” This appears on the crest the city of Geneva made for him near the end of his life.
- HIs life
- Calvin was born in Picardy in northern France, about 60 miles north of Paris.
- His father was a sort of accountant/business manager for the local bishop, but his grandfather was of more humble origins. His mother died when he was 5 or 6.
- His father at first seemed to have intended him for a church career and sent him to a well-respected grade school, later moving to Paris to study liberal arts.
- However, for some unclear reason, his father had him switch to law. In his studies he became familiar with Renaissance humanism and the study of literature seems to have been his first love before his conversion. His first written work was commentary on one of the works of the Roman author, Seneca.
- After his father died, he intended to study the humanities.
- Calvin seems to have developed a sympathy to the new ideas of the Reformation, but we aren’t sure exactly when. The only hint is in his preface to his commentary on the Psalms, where he refers to a ‘sudden conversion’ where his mind was subdued by God.
- While living in Paris, he helped the rector of the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) to write a convocation address which was very Luther-like. Some have even suggested that Calvin wrote the whole thing.
- He and the rector, Nicolas Cop, had to leave France. Calvin resigned his church financial support his father had found for him and went to Basel in Switzerland, since it was becoming unsafe for evangelicals in France.
- While in Basel, he became acquainted with the reformer Martin Bucer, who was attempting to run a middle ground between Luther and Zwingli and was in negotiations with the RC church on whether the Protestant beliefs could be accepted in the RC church– there were some RC bishops who were sympathetic. Bucer would have a great influence on Calvin, even though their styles were quite different– Bucer was verbose in his writing for example, while Calvin was succinct.
- Calvin wrote the 1st, of 5, editions of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. It started out a small handbook for catechetical instruction and grew to 2 large volumes 5 times that size of the original and the definitive systematic theology text of the Reformation.
- K. He returned briefly to France after a short stay in Basel to tidy up a few of his personal affairs and planned to settle in Strasburg, where Bucer, who had become somewhat of a mentor had settled.
- Troop movements made him make a detour to Geneva, a free city of 12,000 on the French-Swiss border, which was just moving towards Reformation theology. The key leader, a fiery red-head, William Farel, recognized Calvin and boldly told him God would curse his desired life of quiet study if he didn’t stay to help them in Geneva.
- Calvin reluctantly agreed to stay and wrote up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances for the church, but the city council didn’t like all them. There would be periodic violent disputes between the council and church leaders like Calvin, which insisted on sticking its nose in church affairs until the very end of Calvin’s life there.
- Although he wanted to be primarily a teacher in the academy, he soon began preaching regularly, but tensions with the council meant he and Farel were driven out. The actual issue was the city council dictating to them that they had to use unleavened bread exclusively in the Lord’s Supper, like the church in Bern.
- Calvin went to Strasburg, where he became the pastor to the more than 500 French Protestant refugees living there. This lasted for 3 years and he would have been more than content to stay in Strasburg. While there he accompanied Bucer to several meetings he had with RCs who were seeking compromise.
- Calvin was asked to come back to Geneva when the RC archbishop Sadoleto was trying to woo them back to Rome. Calvin wrote his famous letter– a short treatise that is a masterpiece of Reformation theology.
- Calvin clearly didn’t want to go back to Geneva- he said that he would rather die a 1,000 deaths– but Bucer accused him of being a Jonah, so he returned and spent the rest of his life there.
- When he returned he picked up the same spot in the New Testament that he was preaching when he was forced out and continued his practice of exposition through biblical books.
- Calvin would spend his life preaching, teaching, and writing theology. He revised his Institutes, wrote commentaries and numerous small tracts. He wrote thousands of letters to those interested in the subject of Reform all across Europe.
- He never forgot his homeland of France, training hundreds of pastors who went back, a fair number who actually suffered martyrdom. A significant portion of France became Protestant until the persecution killed or drove out the majority.
- While in Strasburg, he had married a widow, Idellete de Bure, with 2 small children. They had one child together who died in infancy. She died after 9 years of marriage.
- In addition to these personal tragedies he was dogged by ill-health most of his life: severe kidney stones, hemorrhoids, stomach colic, spitting of blood, headaches, and occasional other maladies.
Y. He really brought moral reform in Geneva, in spite of continuous opposition from some of the old families who resented him and his other French refugees, who numbered in the 1,000s. His Ecclesiastical Ordinances included an annual visit to each family and those who showed that they did not understand and believe the basics of the gospel were barred from receiving the Lord’s Supper.
Z. Sometimes discipline could seem to be over rather trivial matters, such as saying that the pope was a good man, but overall it was pastoral and mostly dealt with family marriages, family matters etc. Calvin experienced some disappointments in this regard; his sister in law and one of his step children had to be disciplined for adultery.
AA. He was fearless in the pulpit, although a bit timid in person. He did admit that he struggled with a fierce, angry temper as his besetting sin.
BB. The Consistory, the ruling body of elders and pastor, took church discipline very seriously and one man, who had been disciplined for coming to the Lord’s Supper drunk, vowed the next time he would take it anyway. Calvin flung himself over the elements and basically said it would be over his dead body.
CC. Many have railed over the Servetus affair, but the facts are important to know.
- Servetus, a brash anti-Trinitarian, had been condemned by the Inquisition of the RC church and had escaped execution by fleeing.
- Nearly all of Europe, including the Protestant Reformers Bucer and Melanchthon, had agreed that he should be executed for his blasphemous heresy.
- All of Christendom was watching Geneva when it was learned that Servetus had been captured there.
- Calvin certainly agreed to the execution of Servetus– Servetus had publically mocked Calvin– but tried to have his execution more humane by beheading rather than burning at the stake.
- This happened at a time when Calvin was at odds with the city council and had little influence over them. He wasn’t even actually a citizen of Geneva until after the Servetus affair and and only became a citizen just a few years before he died.
- If there is to be judgment it is to be on the whole of European Christendom which saw such strong heresy as a capital offence, not singling out Calvin.
III. General outlines of his theology
- Calvin does not have a single, central doctrine, as many have tried to find, certainly not predestination.
- There is nothing new in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination– Arminian theologian Roger Olson, concurs with that. Calvin finally put it in the section on salvation in the last edition of the Institutes after moving it around in earlier editions– one edition had it under the doctrine of the church near the end.
- His Institutes were originally organized around the Apostles’ Creed and there is both a strong Trinitarian and Christological orientation.
- Calvin was not bound to any particular philosophical system, although he clearly knew classical philosophy quite well, and his Institutes are mostly biblical exposition– he designed it as a handbook to help understand the commentaries which he kept rather brief. He had an actual horror of those who preached their own ideas rather than the Bible in the pulpit.
- He didn’t like philosophically based theologians, such as Aquinas, once calling them Sophists. However, he did use various philosophies eclectically if they were helpful. For example, in expounding election from Ephesians 1:3, he used the various types of causality found in Aristotle as helpful in explaining that doctrine.
F. Although he was extremely biblical– some have said the most biblically based of all of the Reformers– he had a rather wide knowledge of the church fathers and used them effectively to show that his doctrines were not really novel. For example, on the Trinity, he showed great familiarity with Augustine and the eastern fathers such as the Cappodocians on that doctrine. Augustine appears the most of any church father.
G. He emphasized the condescension of God toward us. God talks “baby talk” to us in the Bible
H. His main method is knowledge of God. His Institutes are organized in 4 books around knowledge of God the Creator, followed by Knowledge of God the Redeemer, Christ, the Way Receive the Grace of Christ and the External Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein.
- It is a very “church oriented” theology. It is the most extensive doctrine of the church among Reformation theologians. The true church is where the Word is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. He didn’t add discipline as many later Reformed theologians did, but he had a high place for it.
J. His anti-idolatry often shows up in his theology- cf. historian C Eire’s claim that the War on Idolatry was the real distinct genius of the Reformed tradition during the Reformation.
K. This lead to his strong opposition to any images, including images of Christ. They were simply idolatry and prone to the human ability to corrupt the true knowledge of God. The Word and the sacraments were the only means God had chosen to reveal himself. The sacraments took their meaning from the Word. They were God’s only approved visual media.
L. Calvin was not opposed to art in general and actually encouraged it.
M. He was especially interested in music and left behind the Genevan Psalter of 1562, which went through 62 reprints in its first 2 years of existence and was translated into 24 languages.
N. He recruited noted Renaissance poet, Clement Marot to set the Psalms to verse and Louis Bourgeois, a noted French composer to set them to music.
O. They were sung a canella so that the music would not distract. Calvin was not a principled absolute exclusive Psalmist, but he believed Scripture commanded Psalm singing and that both the historic practice of the church and their scriptural soundness should lead us to make Psalm singing the major focus of congregational worship.
P. His idea of calling built upon Luther’s foundation and made the focus of good works, not ways to earn God’s merit, but rather ways in which we lived out our Christian life in this world. All godly callings were on the same level and he encouraged each believer to serve God in his calling. He retained a high view of the ministry, but their job was to preach the word, administer the sacraments and counsel troubled souls. It was not a higher calling, just a different one.
Q. The heart of his theology is that we are not our own, but belong to God.
IV. His doctrine of predestination and election
- There is no question that he had a strong doctrine of both election and reprobation, but it was biblical and not philosophical.
- It was the way to ensure the truly gracious character of salvation. It also fit with his sudden conversion in which God subdued him.
- It is seen as having the primary practical benefit of giving us assurance that God is for us. His concern for those French refugees who would return to possible martyrdom in France may likely have been strongly on his mind.
- Election is the mother of our faith, rather than faith being the cause of our election.
- Even though he said election and reprobation are, from our perspective, an “awful decree,” by which he meant not easy for us to accept, it was scriptural, upheld the glory of God and should be vigorously upheld.
- He related it to Christ and said that not only were we chosen in Christ, but that Christ is the ‘mirror of our election.” In other words we know that we are elect when we the Holy Spirit empowers us to trust in Christ alone for our salvation.
V. Calvin’s doctrine of the knowledge of God
- Calvin had a strong doctrine of general revelation, but disdained the philosophical natural theology such as found in Aquinas.
- Calvin argued from Romans 1 that God’s existence in this world was clear and that we all had a sensus divinitatus within that should recognized that. However, our sinful hearts, fallen creatures, suppressed that knowledge of God.
- In other words natural knowledge of God is enough rope to hang over selves spiritually.
- He also said that our hearts were a perpetual labyrinth of idols– an idol factory– and all attempts to understand God apart from His revelation in the Bible always lead to idolatry.
- Scripture, which was self attesting, although as far as human reason is concerned there is adequate evidence to prove its divine origins. Yet final certainty is from the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit
- Faith is even defined as kind of knowledge– not just knowledge that God exists, but a sure and certain knowledge that God is gracious in Christ.
- In Christ we come to know God in a way that maintains the glory and grace of God.
- Salvation primarily consists in knowing God’s fatherly affection towards us.
VI. Calvin’s doctrine of the sacraments
- This is perhaps his most important contribution– it is kind of a middle road between Luther and Zwingli– Luther, who never actually met Calvin, said that if Calvin had been at Marburg in 1529, there might not have been a rift between Luther and Zwingli. He was quoted as saying that if he had to choose he would choose Luther over Zwingli.
- Calvin has a high role for the sacraments, but not in the same way as Luther. He agreed with Luther that the primary role of the sacraments was to confirm God’s grace to us and their role as a testimony of our faith, was very secondary. Sacraments have no inherent power to confer grace, but only as they are used by the Holy Spirit.
- For Calvin, for example, baptism was not absolutely necessary as it was for Luther, and the reality promised by baptism could come either before or after the sacrament.
- He upheld infant baptism on the grounds of the continuity of the covenant plan of God in both Old and New Testaments, and said that infants are baptized for future faith and repentance, but still receive the promises of God. It is a gesture of charity to see them as elect without assuming that they are regenerate automatically when baptized.
- In the Lord’s Supper, he emphasized the spiritual rather than the physical presence of Christ in the LS. He agreed with Zwingli that Christ’s body was in one physical place and that in the LS, the body of Christ doesn’t come down to earth to enter the elements, but he argued that Christ was spiritually present in the sacrament and likened it to God raising us up to heaven through the HS to spiritually feed on Christ.
- Unlike Luther, he didn’t believe unbelievers actually ate the body of Christ. Ultimately how Christ was spiritually present in the Supper to believers was a mystery.
- Calvin’s favorite phrase was that there was a “sacramental union” between the sacraments” and the promise so that what was true of one could be distinguished but ultimately not separated.
VI. What we can learn from Calvin
- A radical God-centeredness
- A nuanced, yet evangelical view of the sacraments.
- A warning about the propensity toward idolatry in all of us.
- A biblically based theology and a willingness to follow where scripture leads even, when it goes against our natural inclinations.
- The importance of biblically based worship, rather than emotionally based worship.
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