The movement known as the “Reformation” is characteristically spiritual. It denotes that work of God whereby His people, His Church, was liberated out of the shackles of Roman Catholicism. To be sure, the Reformation also had far-reaching political results. Yet, to many it was merely political. This is due to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, besides being a spiritual power, was also clothed with political might. Nevertheless, the Reformation, in its origin and according to its fundamental significance, is decidedly spiritual.
We associate especially two names with the Reformation: Martin Luther and John Calvin. In this essay we are mainly interested in the latter. The subject “Calvin and the Reformation” is, of course, a very broad subject and can be treated from many angles. We, however, purpose to treat it from the viewpoint of Calvin’s place in the Reformation. John Calvin, in the opinion of the writer of this essay, is one of the men most wonderfully gifted by the grace of God since the days of the apostles. Permit me, then, to develop the subject of this essay from the viewpoint of Calvin’s training, his work, and the place which is undeniably his in God’s work of the Reformation.
When I speak of Calvin’s training I purpose to emphasize that God very clearly trained him with a view to his life’s task. John Calvin was born at Noyon, France, some sixty miles northeast of Paris, July 10, 1509, twenty-six years after the birth of Martin Luther at Eisleben, Germany, and eight years before the nailing of the ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittemberg. Calvin was brought up in all the superstitions of popery, and this scholar of Noyon was blindly submissive to the Church, cheerfully complying with all her observances and persuaded that the heretics had richly deserved their fate. Naturally of a timid and fearful disposition he possessed that uprightness of heart which leads a man to sacrifice everything to his sacred convictions. Strictness of morals was led by God’s grace into strictness of doctrine. He was quiet and serious during his lessons, never shared in the amusements or follies of his schoolfellows during the hours of recreation, held himself ever aloof, and, filled with horror at sin, he would often reprimand their disorders with severity and even bitterness. Among them he was the representative of conscience and of duty, so far was he from being as some of his calumniators have depicted him. The pale features and the piercing eyes of this scholar had already at the age of sixteen inspired his comrades with more respect than the black gowns of their masters. He was preeminently a scholar. He consecrated to study the whole force of his genius and of his will. He comprehended everything with inconceivable facility. He ran in his studies while his companions were lazily creeping along. Accordingly, his master was compelled to take him out of the classes and introduce him singly to fresh studies.
Although belonging to the humbler class of his age, John Calvin nevertheless received an aristocratic training. His father, Gerard Calvin, not to be reckoned among the rich, desired that his children should receive the same education as those of the best families. A thorough Catholic, Gerard himself held an important office in the Roman Catholic Church, and lived therefore in familiar intercourse with the clergy and the chief persons in the province. This undoubtedly prompted him to seek the best in the field of education for his children. John was brought up strictly; from his earliest years he was compelled to bend to the inflexible rule of duty which soon became habitual to him. And it was chiefly to study that he devoted his time.
A spirit of piety showed itself early in the child’s heart. Hence, his father conceived the design of devoting his son to theology, then known as the “queen of sciences”. At that time it was customary to bestow ecclesiastical titles and revenues on children. Children at ages of seven to eleven were made cardinals. Accordingly, upon John Calvin, at the age of twelve, was conferred by the bishop to his community the benefice of chaplain. A benefice was an ecclesiastical financial allowance to pursue one’s studies in theology. He received the chaplaincy attached to an altar in the cathedral of Noyon. Thus Calvin became a member of the clergy and capable of entering into the holy order. Later the Catholic Church declared bitterly that she fed John
Calvin at her breast and harbored a snake in her bosom. At the age of fourteen, in 1523, John Calvin went to Paris to continue his studies. There he made great progress in Latin literature. Being a member of the holy order because of the benefice bestowed upon him, he came into contact with the godlessness among the clergy, in whose piety he, as a good catholic, had had implicit faith. How he must have been shocked! It was also at this time, while the future reformer was growing to maturity in the college of La Marche in Paris, that Rome and her satellites were uniting every effort to hunt down and tread under foot everything that bore any resemblance to the Reformation. Already six years before the ninety-five these had been nailed to the church door at Wittenberg. And the blood of the Protestants was flowing freely in the country of France, inasmuch as the Reformation in France did not enjoy the political support as in Germany.
In 1528 John Calvin’s father ordered him to change his studies to law. Gerard had fallen out of the grace of the ecclesiastical authorities in Noyon. So he left Paris for Orleans. The following year he continued his studies at Bourges. At these schools he came under the influence of a certain Melchior Wolmar, a humanist and favorable to the Reformation. However, in 1531 his father died, and Calvin returned to Paris and to the study of Greek and Hebrew, although from the summer of 1532 to that of 1533 he again was a law student at Orleans. It was during this time at Orleans that his fellow students honored him, and students will not honor of their own accord dubious or disagreeable characters. It was also meantime in 1533 that “God by a sudden conversion subdued his mind to a teachable frame”, according to his own words, having been, to use Calvin’s own words again, “too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mine.” Of the circumstances of this conversion nothing is certainly known, but its central experience was that God spoke to him through the Scriptures and the will of God must be obeyed. Now, however, he was immediately inflamed with as intense desire to make progress in the spiritual knowledge of true godliness, so that religion had henceforth the first place in his thoughts. Humanism was replaced by a thirst after the living God and a knowledge of Him out of the Scriptures. With renewed energy he applied himself to the study of the Scriptures and, particularly, to the subjects of Greek and Hebrew.
Among those with whom he discussed Reformed doctrine was his bosom friend, Nicolas Cop, who was elected rector of the university of Paris. In connection with Cop’s address as head of the university, it seemed to the two friends a splendid opportunity to commend the Reformation to the cultured and brilliant audience which would attend. This address they planned together. Cop delivered it. He spoke on “Christian Philosophy.” By “Christian Philosophy” he meant the gospel. This speech amazed the audience. In it Cop pleaded for reform, using language borrowed from Luther, but its concluding part was more independent, and in it was struck that note of certainty as to salvation which was to be a feature of Calvinism and Calvinistic doctrine. Because Cop had infuriated the theologians of the Sorbonne (the theological school in Paris), having branded them as sophists, he had to flee Paris. Also Calvin fled because his intimacy with Cop was known. Shortly afterward Calvin returned to Paris, but his sympathy with the Reformation could not be hidden, and hence he no longer felt safe in the city where already so many had been imprisoned for their faith’s sake. In January of 1534, at the age of twenty-five, he went forth a wanderer, usually living under an assumed name. Apparently his light was to remain hidden.
Calvin’s life’s work centered in Geneva. Except for a, brief stay in Strassburg he labored in Geneva until the end of his life. It was in September of 1536 that he, at the age of twenty-seven, accepted the position of teacher in this city of Switzerland. In the year 1535, during his wanderings, while at Basel, he wrote his famous “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” To be sure, this work underwent considerable revision and alteration at various times; yet, it is amazing that such a profound work, even as far as its first edition is concerned, should have been completed by a man at the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven. Calvin took up his abode in Geneva upon the urging of Farel, who proclaimed upon him the curse of God if he were to leave Geneva. With Farel Calvin worked in perfect harmony, himself declaring: We were one heart and one soul. Calvin’s career in Geneva was a turbulent one. In 1538 he was banished from Geneva and labored in the midst of a congregation for approximately a year in Strassburg. He returned to Geneva because, when a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, during Calvin’s absence, attempted to induce the city to return to Catholicism, this city realized that only Calvin was able to refute convincingly the arguments of the Catholic. Of course, we cannot enter into a detailed discussion of Calvin’s work in Geneva. There he encountered fierce opposition from many quarters, particularly from those who resented his rule as with an iron hand and his determination to preserve and maintain the purity of the Church of God. With untiring vigor he fought against the evils of the people. Calvin believed in church discipline to the fullest extent. We must remember in this connection, that, although he believed that only the Church was authorized to exercise discipline and determine whether a person should be subjected to censure, nevertheless the civil government was called upon to punish all evildoers, including those who committed sins which today are not considered punishable by the state. Calvin believed that also in this manner the state must ever stand ready to defend and aid the church. With respect to the Church the great reformer distinguished between the Church Visible and Invisible. Only, when he spoke of this distinction he did not mean to imply that the former, in distinction from the latter, consisted of good and evil. The Church Invisible was, according to Calvin, the elect body of Christ. The Church Visible was its manifestation, revealing itself in the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and a Christian walk. To maintain the purity of the Church of God he labored in Geneva, and he regarded the state as obliged to assist him therein.
Many were his labors and untiring his efforts i:i the city of Geneva. His work concerned primarily the proclamation of the Word of the living God. Besides preaching, catechetical instruction was given to the seed of the church. Calvin wrote his own catechism books. Although his catechism did not have the genial and artless simplicity of Luther, it, like everything else which flowed from the pen of the reformer, is remarkable for its theological thoroughness and solidity. In concluding our brief account of Calvin’s work we desire to mention one very important matter. In 1558, when Calvin’s was forty-nine years old, an academy was founded in Geneva. This institution was primarily designed for the education of theologians. Calvin would gladly have expanded it into a university, but for this the financial resources of the small community of Geneva were inadequate. Theodore Beza was its first rector. In the very first year after its founding nine hundred men, from almost all the nations of Europe, entered their names upon the rolls of the institution. Tremendous was the reformer’s influence which he exerted upon foreign countries. His correspondence was immense and extended in all directions. His industry was marvelous. To be condemned to idleness, as he occasionally was when sickness interfered with his labors, was most painful to him. His works are well-known. Besides his “Institutes” he completed a commentary on almost all the books of the Bible, a work which is noted for its general soundness. However, his incessant mental exertions at length consumed his physical strength. These troubles at the last increased to such an extent that he went to the pulpit from his bed and returned to the latter immediately after the close of the service. He was at last obliged to permit himself to be either carried, or supported to his lecture-room. Exhausted with labor and borne down by sickness, he longed for repose. On the sixth of February, 1564, he preached his last. sermon. On the Second of April he caused himself to be carried to the church on a litter, listened to the sermon, and received the sacrament from the hand of Beza. He died at eight o’clock in the evening of May 27, retaining his consciousness to his last breath. His burial was very simple, without the slightest ostentation.
Calvin’s Place in the Reformation.
Finally we face the question, “What is Calvin’s place in the Reformation?” He was the third of the three reformers: Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. However, he was the third only in the order of time. Much has been written of Luther and Calvin with respect to their personal characteristics. One hears of the immediate attraction to the heart-winning Luther; Calvin, on the other hand, because of his oft times startling severity, is often viewed as devoid of all sensibility, as one destitute of love. To this we answer, firstly, that a zeal for the truth of God’s Word consumed him, as it were. Secondly, it is known that the French reformer at no time disdained diligently to visit and care for the sick in the city whenever it was possible. The inexhaustibleness of Calvin’s loving impulse to help and advice on every side, and to comply with all requisitions upon him, from the weightiest demands upon his Christian charity to the little courtesies of friendship, is most brilliantly evidenced by his extensive correspondence. How many tears were dried up by this apparently austere man! In this respect he is in no wise inferior to Luther, and it may well be that he not infrequently surpassed him in tact and tenderness. The most loving tenderness and care are always exhibited by those who are thoroughly acquainted with the Word of God.
With Luther the Reformation was mainly soteriological. His salvation stood upon the foreground. Luther is characterized throughout by seeking peace for his soul. Overwhelmed by his sense of sinfulness was he even after he became priest and professor in Wittenberg. In fact, it was this seeking for peace which led him from the study of the law to the priesthood. However, his pursuit of peace quickly led him into conflict with the customs and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. Yea, what is more, the practices and very heart of that Church hindered him in the pursuit of peace, was to his soul a barrier in his seeking for the living God. Luther, finally assured of justification only through faith, assured of this justification as received from God alone without any human intermediaries, began to labor against these false practices within the Church. Doing so, it became apparent that he attacked her very foundations, and was therefore excommunicated.
John Calvin went further. Understood correctly, Luther’s struggle was not a superficial one. The question of peace for one’s soul is profound. Yet, Calvin went further. And, make no mistake about Calvin. He also knew by experience the meaning and the power of sin. However, and this was true particularly of Calvin, the matter of salvation was still more profound than mere personal salvation. Man’s salvation is not an end but only a means. We are saved only for God’s Name’s sake. We have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light in order that we may proclaim the blessed virtues of that God. The glory of God was Calvin’s theme throughout. Of that glory of God the Scriptures spoke to him. And with all his amazing learning and almost unbelievable capacity for work and understanding he applied himself, with all the God-given love of his heart for the truth, to the study of the Word of God. That Word he studied; that Word he preached; the honor of that Word he upheld. Scripture was his only guide, his only rule of life. His knee he bowed to nothing else. All his life Ion £ the Lord had led him in that way. God had gifted him with a brilliant mind. His childhood and youth had been spent in study. With the writings of the scholastics and early fathers he was thoroughly acquainted. His tireless passion for study gave him tremendous learning. And God had subjected, by His Spirit, that brilliant mind to the knowledge of Himself, revealed in His Word. “A dog”, thus he wrote once, “barks when he sees his master attacked; it would be cowardice for me to see the truth of God attacked and keep silence.” This man, who could treat his most bitter enemies with the greatest kindness, became an uncontrollable fury when the glory of God was at stake.
Calvin’s importance in the Divine work of the Reformation, the return of the people of God out of the shackles and darkness of Roman Catholicism is, as we see it, three-fold. In the first place, he maintained the principle of the authority of Holy Writ as the only authority and basis for the faith and life of the church, in contrast with the usurped authority of the Roman clergy and the exclusive authority of the pope. Maintaining this principle he rocked and caused to crumble the very foundations of that church. Scripture was his only text-book. Scripture was his only rule of life. To the Scriptures be turned, and through his God-given genius he preached, revealed the Scriptures to the people. The Word of God was John Calvin’s sword. And how he wielded it! Secondly, in maintaining the Scriptures, he maintained its cardinal truth: the sovereignty of God. It is hardly necessary for me to prove this. People today prate of Calvinism, a Calvinism which certainly would sound strangely foreign to the Reformer, whose name it bears. People today prate of a Calvinism, whose underlying principle seems to be a control of the whole world, in a universal, general sense, for God, possible by and based on the theory of common grace, I say, it is hardly necessary for me to refute this. Since when is natural goodness ever to be viewed as the heart of the Reformer’s teaching? Calvin’s common grace (which he taught—we deny it not) was to the Reformer a secondary issue, something which seems to fit in very awkwardly with his conception. Calvin is known in history as the fearless champion of the sovereignty of our God. This, of course, controlled all his other conceptions. Hence, he proclaimed the truths of unconditional election and reprobation, man’s natural hopelessness and corruption, so that his virtues are but brilliant vices, the Christ as the only and all-powerful Savior and the irresistible efficacy of grace—this is Calvinism. And also this shook the very foundations of the Roman Catholic Church. In the third place, Calvin’s importance was universal. To him there was neither Greek nor Scythian, neither Frenchman, German, not Swiss, but only the new creature in Christ Jesus. Calvin’s influence, by means of his theological academy and immense correspondence, reached out to the nations of the then known world. Luther provided the spark which set the Church of God on fire; Calvin laid its foundation, as upon the Word of the living God. Calvin died at the age of fifty-five. He passed away because he could live no longer. He died because he was thoroughly exhausted. Rut his work was finished. He had split wide open the human defenses of the Church which barred the way for God’s people unto the living God. To God be ascribed all glory for His work accomplished through this servant of our God.