Saturday, July 11, 2009


John Calvin (1509-1564) was born a half a millenium ago in Noyon, France. Yesterday, July 10, was the 500 year anniversary of his birth. The son of a lawyer for the Roman Catholic Church, John Calvin had a conversion experience between 1528 and 1533, and formally broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1533. John Calvin eventually became a dominant leader in the Protestant Reformation through his powerful preaching, systematic theological writing, organizational and administrative skills, and missionary zeal. Reformers associated with Calvin in Geneva and Strasbourg included Guillaume Farel, Martin Bucer, and Theodore Beza.

The Protestant Reformation began on the European continent with intensive study of New Testament texts by scholars such as Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and John Calvin. Geneva in particular became the center of Reformation scholarship, as John Calvin and Theodore Beza were Greek and Latin scholars.The Reformers were involved in translating the Scripture into the vernacular. Many English Protestant leaders found safe haven in Switzerland and Germany. They studied and wrote primarily in Geneva. English and French translations of the New Testament and the whole Bible were produced. Miles Coverdale completed the first complete Bible with Apochrypha, in the English language. It was published in Zurich in 1535. A French Bible was translated by Pierre Olivetan, a cousin of Calvin. Notable English and Scotish Protestant exiles to the continent were William Wittingham, John Knox, John Foxe, John Bodley, John Bale, William Kethe, William Williams, Anthony Gilby, Christopher Goodman, Thomas Wood, Thomas Sampson, William Cole, and Thomas Cole. The Geneva Bible translation was supported by John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox, all considered some of the greatest Protestant theologians in history. Beza had published several editions of the Greek and Latin New Testaments. The Geneva Bible New Testament was finished in 1557 and the complete Geneva Bible in 1560, a year and a half after the death of Queen Mary, who had persecuted the Protestants. The Geneva Bible was in English, but the sources for the translation were in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and prior English translations. The Geneva Bible had extensive Calvinist-oriented notes on the Bible text. John Bodley (father of the Bodelian Library of Oxford's namesake, Thomas Bodley) was the primary financial backer of the Geneva Bible. One of the primary translators, William Wittingham, a Greek scholar, was married to the sister of John Calvin's wife. The King James Bible was very indebted to the Geneva Bible, as were both translations to the earlier Tyndale Bible.

John Calvin's followers also were leaders in the developement of constitutional and representative government, the right of the people to change government, and the separation of church and civil government. In France his followers were refered to as Huguenots, and, in the British Isles and the Americas, they were called Puritans. These ideas of representative government were originally limited to the land-owning aristocracy but over the next century, especially in Holland, England and Scotland, and Colonial America more democratic ideals developed and flourished, culminating in the first flowering of extensive liberty in the small state of Rhode Island, founded by the Calvinist (or "Particular") Baptists Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke.

It is true that Calvin's administration of justice erred. Some of his opponents were tortured and executed, the most notable being Servetus, who was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1559.

Will Durant called John Calvin's massive masterpiece, Institutes of the Christian Religion, "one of the ten books that shook the world." This influential and systematic exposition of Bible doctrine, followed and expanded on the articles of the Apostle's Creed. It was revised at least five times between 1536 (first edition) and 1559. The book became the fundamental treatise in the developement of a truly evangelical theology. Calvin held that the Bible was the basis of all Christian teaching. He was indebted, however, to the writings of Augustine, the Apostles' Creed, and the Nicene Creed, as well as to other early church writings. Calvin published the first of his many Bible commentaries, the Commentary on Romans, in Strasbourg in 1539.

His only child died at birth in 1542, and his wife died in 1549. In 1559 Calvin founded an academy in Geneva, which eventually became a university. Calvin has been described as a simple, reticent, and austere man, and not very much is known about his personal life.

Max Weber's well-known, but flawed, thesis (translated into English and published as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) pictured Calvin as the source and spirit of modern capitalism, drawing heavily on the ideas of deist Benjamin Franklin, and misconstruing prolific English Puritan writer Richard Baxter. Calvinists were portrayed as exhibiting brotherly love only as a means of bringing glory to God, and thus devoid of real interest in the welfare of individuals or the community. Calvin did, it is true, as opposed to Luther, encourage the taking of interest. Robert Mitchell shines a beam of light on the issue: "Calvin's theological doctrines are based upon Scripture, and his social and economic views are related to his teachings of the Bible and how he should conduct his life." Georgia Harkness states " More consistently than any other Reformation leader, Calvin taught that the Bible was the sole authority in matters of faith and conduct." William Williston argues "...Far more than Luther... Calvin treated the Scriptures as a new law regulative of the Christian life." Richard Baxter (1615-1691), himself, probably better describes this ethic than does Max Webber. In his 17th century English, Baxter writes," True Morality of the Christian Ethick, is the Love of God and Man, stirred up by the Spirit of Christ, through faith: and exercised in works of Piety, Justice, Charity, and Temperance."

Calvinists have often, and unfairly been criticized for a lack of missionary passion and activity. Roger Greenway, in his article on Calvinism, in the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, refutes this view both with Scripture and from history. He shows that Calvinism stresses truths that encourage missions. Three truths or doctrines are analyzed in relationship to missions: the glory of God, the kingdom of God, and the sovereignty of God. Historically, Calvinists have fielded the majority of missionaries in many parts of Asia (Korea for example) and the South Pacific , Africa (Moffat, Livingstone, Laws, Lovedale, etc.) and Latin America, and have had a major role in the missionary enterprise for over two centuries. Greenway writes, "There are critics who argue that Cavinism's emphasis on the sovereinty of God discourages mission...Calvinism's defense lies in its submission to the Scriptures which clearly teach both divine sovereignty and Christian duty to co-labor with God in mission."

John Calvin, himself, was, ostensibly, the most mission minded of all the early Reformers sending many evangelists back into his French homeland. He also in 1555 commissioned four missionaries to evangelize the indiginous people (Native Americans) of Brazil. Tragically, the mission and colony was plundered by the Portuguese and the few survivors martyred by Jesuits.

Calvin taght that the Bible was the supreme authority not only in spiritual matters, but also on the nature of all human institutions. His doctrinal statements began and ended with Scripture, even though he was well versed in the early church fathers and in the classic literature of the ages. Calvin writes in his Institutes "Read Demosthenes or Cicero, read Plato, Aristotle, or any others of that class; I grant you that you will be attracted, delighted, moved, enraptured by them in a surprising manner; but if, after reading them, you turn to the perusal of the sacred volume, whether you are willing or unwilling, it will affect you so powerfully, it will so penetrate your heart, and impress itself so strangely on your mind that, compared with its energetic influence, the beauties of rhetoricians and philosophers will almost entirely disappear; so that it is easy to perceive something divine in the sacred Scriptures, which far surpasses the highest attainments and ornaments of human industry." Further, he writes 'This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion, but that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare."

Further Reading:

Brake, Donald, A Visual History of the English Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge, 2 volumes, Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1983.

Harkness, Georgia, John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics, New York: Abingdon Press, 1931, 1958.

McNeill, John T., editor and introduction, John Calvin on God and Political Duty, New York: Liberal Arts Press, , 1950, 1956

Mitchell, Robert M., Calvin's and the Puritan's View of the Protestant Ethic, Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979

Moreau, A. Scott, Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990. See "Calvinism" article by Roger S. Greenway.

Van Halsema, Thea B., This was John Calvin, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959, 1990