Updated: Nov 21, 2021
One would be hard-pressed to create a list of Christian heroes without mentioning a reformer like John Calvin. His influence and contribution to Christian doctrine continue to have a substantial impact on the life of today’s Church. Though some of Calvin’s doctrines are conflictual with today’s Free Will Baptist theology, his views are broader than those sticky items.
Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. His mother died while he was a young child, while his father served as a legal consultant in France’s religious court. At twelve years old, Calvin was employed as a clerk by the bishop and adopted garments and shaven head to represent his dedication to the Roman Catholic Church’s work.
Later in 1525, John’s father enrolled him at the University of Orleans to study law. There he led a quiet life of study and reflection until his enrollment in the University of Bourges to continue his advanced study. Bourges was known for the study of liberal arts and classics, leading Calvin to study religion and the Bible. He studied the Greek language and applied his learning to the study of the New Testament. From these studies, in 1533, Calvin renounced his Roman Catholic faith in exchange for the relatively new evangelical faith.
Calvin proved to be a prolific writer and began writing his views of congregational organization and doctrine. In 1536, he began writing what would become the formal doctrinal defense of his faith. His work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, was intended to be a primer for any churchman who wished to explore the deeper meaning of Christian faith. His first edition was published in 1536 and was no more than six chapters. Other editions, or perhaps more correctly additions, followed as Calvin’s views expanded to other faith and doctrinal areas. The second edition was completed in 1539 and was three times longer than the original. In 1559 the third edition was issued with some additions, but most notably an extended expose on the Apostle’s Creed. Finally, in 1559, his final version was published as four books with eighty chapters.
Calvin drove himself beyond his body’s limits. When he could not walk the couple of hundred yards to church, he was carried in a chair to preach. When the doctor forbade him to go out in the winter air to lecture, he crowded the audience into his bedroom and gave lectures there. To those who would urge him to rest, he asked, “What? Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?”
After a long journey of faithful Christian and civic service, Calvin preached his last sermon on February 6, 1564, at St. Pierre Church in Geneva, Switzerland. After dealing with a minor illness, he strained his voice, which brought on a sudden coughing fit, and he burst blood vessels in his lung, and from that point, his health began to deteriorate. John Calvin died May 27, 1564, and after laying in state in Geneva for no longer than one day, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Cimetiere des Rois, Geneva, Switzerland.
Space will not permit an extended overview of Calvin’s personal and professional contributions to Geneva and the infant development of the Protestant Church. His moral influence was so notable that the congregations of Geneva gave themselves to social engagement with the poor and infirmed. Reformers like Martin Luther and John Knox reported the Church was so vibrant, there were no beggars in the city. Knox visited the city in 1554 and recorded in a letter that the city “is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.”
As with Calvin’s public contributions, no publication of this type can hold the volumes of Calvin’s theological work. Yet, his doctrinal teachings are important to the Christian faith. Using his final edition of Institutes as a framework, let us briefly explore the points of his teaching.
Book One: God the Creator. Calvin writes, “For anyone to arrive at [the revelation of] God the Creator he needs Scripture as his guide and teacher.” He does not try to prove the authority of Scripture, but believes the Scripture is self-authenticating. In this book, he defends the Trinity and argues against creating icons or images depicting God by calling them idolatry. He concludes book one by asserting that humans cannot fully comprehend why God performs actions, but regardless of human choice and freedom, God’s will and judgment are predetermined.
Book Two: Redeemer Christ. The second book included several chapters on original sin and the fall of humanity. In his view, sin began with Adam’s fall and was passed through humanity by the act of sexual reproduction. The dominion of sin is so strong that we are driven to evil. Therefore, humans need a salvation that is only found in Christ Jesus. The death [and resurrection] of Jesus removed the gulf between humanity and God.
Book Three: Grace of Christ. The third book describes Calvin’s view of the union between Christ and humanity. He defines faith as the firm and certain knowledge of Christ. Our response in faith is through repentance, remission of sin, and spiritual regeneration, which returns a believer to a state of holiness before Adam’s original sin (also known as justification.) Near the end of the book, Calvin describes and defends a doctrine of predestination. To quote Calvin, “all are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death.”
Book Four: Society of Christ. Calvin’s final book focused on forming the true Church of Christ and its ministry, authority, and sacraments. He asserted the Church was the body of believers who placed Jesus as the supreme head. Further, he accepted only two biblical sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Like Luther and others, he rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, believing that upon the words of institution, the bread and wine continued to be such without becoming the literal body and blood of Christ. However, unlike Martin Luther, Calvin believed the act was more than mere symbolism. Instead, it was full participation of the Holy Spirit.
After Calvin’s death, his influence continued to shape the theology of the Christian Church. Many of his points were adopted in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and various confessions of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1571. Though he did not live long enough to see his work grow into an international movement, his influence only grew after his death. Today, Calvin is recognized as a “Renewer of the Church” in the Lutheran church and as a saint in the Church of England, whose festival is celebrated on May 26 and May 28 by Episcopalians in the United States.
Calvinist doctrine can be summarized by the acrostic T.U.L.I.P. T stands for Total Depravity of any goodness or holiness humans possess due to the original sin of Adam. U stands for Unconditional Election by God of humans for eternal bliss or damnation. L is for the belief in the Limited nature of Christ’s atonement for only the elect of Christ. I represents the Irresistible Grace of God for those who are the elect of Christ. P stands for Perseverance of the Saints, or more commonly called “once saved, always saved.” Calvinist groups throughout the world, such as Presbyterians, Reformed, and even some Particular Baptist groups, hold these points. However, Free Will Baptists have opposing views on these five points. These items will be explored in the next issue of Heroes of Faith: Jacob Arminius.
Ganoczy, Alexandre. “Calvin’s life,” in McKim, Donald K. (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2004.
McGrath, Alister E. A Life of John Calvin. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell) 1990.
Calvin, John , Institutio Christianae religionis [Institutes of the Christian Religion] (in Latin), Translated by Henry Beveridge. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.) 1989.
Wikipedia.com, 2020. “Calvinism,” Accessed October 26th, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinism