John Calvin’s ideas are both celebrated and mourned. Some present them as the first flowering of rational Christianity; by others as a terrible deformation of the doctrine of God.
Yet no matter the genius of the idea: logic alone won’t perpetuate itself in the lives of succeeding generations.
Calvin’s influence, then and now
John Calvin became the single-most influential Protestant Reformer, overshadowing even Martin Luther. Numerous Continental Reformed churches consider him their founder. The Scottish Church and numerous Presbyterian churches follow his doctrine of church polity, and Calvin’s doctrine of salvation became normative for Anglicanism and much of American Evangelicalism. His influence today is far broader than those who explicitly uphold his immediate tradition.
Calvin spread his ideas through preaching, teaching and voluminous writings. Geneva, the Swiss city which adopted him, became an oasis for Protestants who were being persecuted across Europe. Having fled to Geneva they came to know Calvin and his work in person. When they inevitably left Geneva, Calvin maintained active correspondence with many of them.
Calvin was an inveterate pamphleteer. One edition of his collected pamphlets runs to over 1,000 pages.
His formal publications, including commentaries and the oft-revised “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” were among the most widely read publications of the Reformation. His commentaries use the historico-grammatical empirical method. It is sometimes asserted that Calvin single-handedly popularised this method of inquiry.
The fruits of Calvinism has deeply affected culture. Here’s one example. Roman Catholicism had positioned the idea of a holy calling as being for priests and monastics, whereas Calvin emphasised that every person and every occupation has a holy calling from God.
Calvin also championed the idea of equality of mankind under natural law which in many ways became the intellectual foundation for democracy. Sixteenth century Calvinists were recognised as being among the leading radicals right across Europe.
As recently as 2009, Time magazine lists “New Calvinism” as being one of the top ten ideas changing the world today. In the fifty-five years of his life Calvin was able to make an impact that few in history have equaled.
The appeal of Calvin’s thinking lies in its tight, logical theological system. It strongly appeals to people’s rationality. On the other hand, Calvinism downplays mystery; charisma; and the intensely personal relations of the Holy Trinity, the Church and the world. Because Calvinism accepts only certain rational elements of the Christian Tradition, it often leaves people craving for a deeper experience of God.
Humanism and Calvin’s culture
Before his conversion to Protestantism Calvin was already fully involved in the study of humanism. Catholic humanists had begun developing the idea that there was a sphere of human activity that was neither fallen nor oriented toward God. Some humanists were prosecuting Renaissance art as a display of human activity divorced from God.
While Calvin was highly trained in humanism, he utterly rejected the idea of human activity being independent of God. For Calvin, everything anyone did expressed the glory of God, and God's power and glory pervades all of society.
Having first established himself as a humanist, Calvin pursued a train of thought that sought to relate humanism to the Gospel, and new ways of interpreting the modern world in its light.
Calvin's teaching wasn’t just about theology. His ideas were infused with intensely practical concerns. He championed the development of music for worship. He founded an academy for educating clergy and lawyers. He spearheaded law reform in Geneva, causing the civil code to be based on Roman civil law rather than Church canon law. For Calvin, the Word of God was to radiate out into the entire world and permeate all of life.
Calvin was just eight years old when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church at Wittenburg. In many ways, he was an inheritor of ideas from Luther and Zwingli. For example, he inherited Luther and Zwingli’s understanding that the Roman Catholic Tradition had been corrupted, and accepted that the way to recover unblemished worship was to retrieve it from the Bible. He also accepted from Luther and Zwingli the idea that the Ecumenical Councils had erred. In practice this meant that he felt free to accept or reject their ideas. So he adopted, refined and became the principal Reformation practitioner of what was named sola Scriptura.
Calvin’s method showed that he felt free to accept or reject ideas from the Church Councils and canons, the Church Fathers and Liturgical worship. In practise, this means that Calvin acted as a judge of the Councils, the writings of the Fathers, and the mind of the Church.
When you explore how Calvin’s ideas differ from the ideas of the undivided Church, you gain some sense of the cost of this approach.
Reading Scripture within the Tradition of the Undivided Church
One of the key advantages of reading the Scriptures within the Tradition of the undivided Church is that the key assumptions for understanding Scripture are constantly being communicated. Here’s an example.
During the Vespers service, following the prayer in which the Deacon and the People, recognising God’s goodness, ask for His mercy on the whole Church, the Priest then concludes with these words:
“For You are merciful, O God, and the Lover of mankind, and to You we ascribe glory; to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.”
The basis for asking for God’s mercy, then, is His goodness and the fact that He is “The Lover of mankind.” God’s goodness, His graciousness, His Loving of mankind is communicated again and again. This sets the tone for how we read Scripture.
Because we come to Scripture with eyes attuned to God’s mercy and love, we understand that “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8) express the fundamental truth of God: He is Love. It is God’s love that underwrites His character and all His interactions with humanity.
Calvin, however, didn’t start His thinking by considering God’s love. He started by saying that what matters most is that God is sovereign.
God is Love
That God is sovereign is the doctrine that formed the basis of, and foundation for, all of Calvin’s doctrines. He filtered all his explanations of Scripture and development of doctrine through the lens of God’s sovereign action. If any formulation of doctrine impinged on God’s sovereignty, then it was reworded or rejected.
For Calvin, God as sovereign means that if God wills something to occur, then it will occur. So if God wills that you be saved, then you will be saved — not on the basis of choices you make — but on the basis of God’s sovereign decision. So too, if God wills you be damned, then you will be damned — not on the basis of choices you make — but on the basis of God’s sovereign decision.1
Why would God choose to save some and damn others? According to Calvin, God needs to be merciful to some people so that He can show His mercy; while He needs to be judging toward others to demonstrate His justice. You see, it’s about God, not about you.
Somehow, Calvin managed to read about God’s love (John 3:16, 1 John 4:8), His desire that none perish (1 Timothy 2:3–4, 2 Peter 3:9), and about Christ’s self-emptying nature (Philippians 2:5–11), and see it through the lens of God’s glory rather than His love.
The choice to emphasise the Sovereign Will of God over and above His Love has had terrible consequences. Some of Calvin’s followers, taking this train of thought to an extreme, describe God’s actions in ways that many have interpreted as making God a self-seeking, sadistic, schizophrenic sociopath.2 Others, tragically, so torn by the ethical implications of people being unilaterally sent to hell for the sake of God’s glory have been driven to atheism.
Jesus is mediator
The entire Tradition — from the first sermon at Pentecost, to the writings of the Church Fathers, to the decisions of all seven of the Ecumenical Councils, to the Liturgy of the Church — has emphasised how the person of Jesus is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit and, simultaneously, being one with humanity.
In the view of the Church, the entire economy of salvation is founded on the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the link between God and mankind. He stands between God and humanity as the only One Who is both Divine and Human. It is the fact that Jesus simultaneously shares the nature of God and the nature of people (“union without confusion”) that makes Him the mediator between God and humanity.
Being “in the middle” (i.e. mediator) between God and man, Jesus saves by sharing His Divine attributes (e.g. humility, holiness, eternal life) with humanity. Thus St. Athanasius writes,
“[the Word] was made man that we might be made Divine.”3
When St. Paul writes of the indwelling of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit within people’s hearts, he is describing how the Holy Trinity saves us, which is His Presence.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14–19).
Standing in judgment of the Councils and the Church Fathers seemingly blinded Calvin to this fundamental teaching. Instead of recognising the person of Christ as the only mediator, Calvin began to depersonalise the Gospel by introducing constructs4 that additionally mediated between God and humanity.
For example, Calvin took a biblical term, “the covenant,” and began to fill it with properties and actions properly belonging to God. The Bible identifies Christ as the covenant (Isaiah 42:6; Hebrews 9:20), while Calvin identifies the covenant as being a construct separate to Christ and to God. Calvin writes,
“By the way of God is meant his covenant, which is the source or spring of salvation, and by which he discovered himself in the character of a Father to his ancient people, and afterwards more clearly under the Gospel, when the Spirit of adoption was shed abroad in greater abundance” (Comm. on Ps. 67:2).
Thus for Calvin, “the source or spring of salvation” is not Christ Himself, but the covenant.
So too, Calvin identifies the problem of fallen humanity, not as a separation from the life of God, but as a transgression of a Law which is a part of the created order. For Calvin, Law and Covenant are the twin constructs around which people’s condemnation or redemption revolves.
Calvin’s teaching effectively demotes Christ’s role in salvation. Instead of people being saved through union with Christ, in Calvin’s thinking Christ is merely the satisfier of the demands of the Law and the means by which people access the Covenant of Grace, which is the true source of salvation.
Calvin’s teaching depersonalises the narrative of salvation. Sadly, He teaches “another gospel” (Galatians 1:8).
Jesus is Present
The Holy Gospel has forever been an offence to both Jews and Gentiles. Christ offended many Jews by teaching that eternal life is obtained through eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6:54–56); while the Gospel offended Greeks by teaching that God resurrected human flesh (Acts 17:22–32). The declaration of the Holy Gospel was no less an offence to John Calvin.
From the earliest days, Christians have understood that Christ sanctified, blessed and enobled matter through the Incarnation. By being baptised, Christ blessed the waters of baptism. By eating with thanksgiving offered to the Father, He blessed our food and drink. By inserting Himself into our existence, He restored the intimate relationship between the Divine and the created order.
This is why people were healed when they merely touched Christ’s body (Matthew 14:36), or a garment worn by an Apostle (Acts 19:12). It is why St. Peter writes that “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). And it is why eating Christ’s Body and Blood sanctifies and heals a communicant's soul and body (John 6:54–56; 1 Corinthians 11:23–30). For St. Paul writes,
“Anyone who eats and drinks [the Eucharist] without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
But just like the Greeks who unilaterally rejected the idea of the Incarnation, John Calvin rejected the idea that matter might convey grace. Despite the experience of the multitudes with Jesus and the Apostles, Calvin taught that grace can only be received by faith awakened through preaching.
Calvin rejected the experience of people who were changed through Jesus’ touch. He rejected the testimony of people who have been converted through the presence of holy icons or relics, or who have been healed by grace communicated through holy oil. Calvin asserted that God only acts to save people through spiritual means; through invisible spiritual channels.
Thus Calvin, similar to Luther and Zwingli before him, rejected the idea that Jesus is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Also, just as Luther and Zwingli disagreed over the doctrine of the Eucharist, Calvin provided a third explanation for what occurs within the Eucharist.
To this day, inheritors of Luther’s ideas, Zwingli’s ideas and Calvin’s ideas hold incompatible understandings of the Eucharist. Thus the central act of Christian worship, which throughout history unites Christians everywhere with and through the Body of Christ, actually and tragically divides Protestants from each other.
Division, sectarianism and a spirit of judgmentalism is what history tells us is the unfortunate consequence of applying sola Scriptura.
The Calvinistic Tradition
Ironically, by rejecting Holy Tradition, which is the outgrowth of the Life of the Spirit in the Church, Calvin’s thought initiated a new tradition. Yet Calvin’s tradition did not remain consistent with his thinking. Immediately following his death Calvin’s followers began to morph his teachings.
While some scholars attest that Calvin taught unlimited atonement and that assurance of one’s faith is found in the person of Christ,5 Beza, his immediate successor, emphasised limited atonement and pointed people to sanctification as their assurance of salvation.6
Bullinger, who was Zwingli’s immediate successor in Geneva, wanted to assert that people are not simply God’s puppets,7 and so introduced the idea of “secondary causes.”
Peter Martyr Vermigli went well beyond Calvin’s emphasis by pushing both limited atonement and double pre-destination.8
William Perkins became the foremost promoter of Calvinism in England. Although he understood himself to be following Calvinism, what he actually followed were Beza’s emphases. He taught that people’s assurance of salvation was dependent on the fruit of the works they saw evidenced in their life. Irony of ironies, the straight-jacket of “works-righteousness” that Luther and Calvin had so sought to escape were re-imposed on “Calvinists” within a generation.
While Calvin had sought law reform in Geneva to “free” civil government from Church canon law, the Calvinist Puritans who traveled to New England ironically re-applied to their own society Old Covenant Law, which the Church has always9 taught that Christians are freed from.
Today Calvin’s thoughts continue to be morphed by his followers. There are Old Calvinists and New Calvinists, Radical Calvinists and Mercersburg Calvinists. Many of the modern ideas of Calvinism betray an extremism that Calvin would surely reject.10
Quite shockingly, the Presbyterian Church of Australia11 in 1934 took no action against a pastor who rejected the entirety of the Christian witness when he said, “The Presbyterian Church of Australia has no doctrine of the Trinity which it declares to be valid or vital.”12 He rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the sacrificial nature of His death as an atonement for sin, and His bodily resurrection.
The history of Calvinism in the last five hundred years shows that doctrine alone has no staying power. Doctrines disconnected from the vitality of the Spirit in the Church are subject to intellectual whims and fashions.
Most of those today who hold to Calvinist theology actually hold understandings quite alien to Calvin’s teaching. For Calvin, although surely correct in rejecting some of the corrupted traditions that surrounded him, was unable to bring himself to reach for the conciliar, canonical and charismatic traditions of the undivided Church, despite admiring many aspects of it.
Picking and choosing those aspects of the life of the Church that seemed good to Calvin caused Him to miss the intimate union Christ has with His Church. As brilliant and influential as Calvin was, he communicated a flawed vision of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and their relation with humanity. The tradition that flowed from Calvin’s pen morphed continuously through the years until it adopted manifestations that Calvin himself would surely condemn.
Ironically, what John Calvin sought most to uphold — the glory of God — is most pronounced in the Tradition of the undivided Orthodox Church. For the glory of God was uniquely on display when Christ was transfigured on Mt. Tabor.
Peter, James and John, looking on, received a unique personal insight as to Who Jesus Really Is. They received this revelation of Christ together with power that came from on high. They received from Christ the way to read Scriptures such that they could see Him on every page. All of this they passed along to the Church, that the Church may know Christ, may have intimate union with Christ, and may be transformed by union with Christ.
The Tradition of the Orthodox Church, sustained in organic communion for nearly 2,000 years, is not the result of anyone’s genius, intellect or learning. It is the outgrowth of the Holy Spirit who blessed the Apostles with Divine Power on Pentecost, and Who continues to empower and perpetuate the Life of Christ in His Church.
The Apostles’ joy is complete when we enter into fellowship with those who have fellowship with them who teach the same Jesus they taught (1 John 1:3).
“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).
First Article in this Series: How Rome gave birth to Protestantism
- Fr. Josiah Trenham’s “Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings” provides a thoroughly Orthodox review of the life and teachings of the major Protestant Reformers (including John Calvin).
- Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape” reviews the teachings of the Magisterial Reformers and examines subsequent Calvinist doctrines.
- For a more technical introduction to the heretical aspets of John Calvin’s thought, see Cyril Jenkins’, “Ancient Heresies in the Sixteenth Century, Part 1.”
1 This pair of statements is what is known as double predestination. Calvin’s disciple Beza emphasised predestination; while Peter Martyr Vermigli emphasised double predestination. Scholars are divided as to whether Beza and Vermigli’s doctrines are novel to or in continuity with Calvin’s own thought.
2 See for example, Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (parts 1 through 5).
3 St. Athanasius, The Incarnation, 54:3
4 Second century gnostic heretics introduced intermediate entities between God and humanity in the form of demiurges. Although Calvin’s constructs are depersonalised, they still function as intermediate created things that stand between God and humanity akin to the demiurges of the gnostic heretics.
5 See W. Stanford Reid (ed.), 1982, John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, Chapters 2 and 3.
6 Calvinistic scholars are divided as to the extent to which Beza is continuous or discontinuous with the thoughts of Calvin.
7 He wanted to protect Calvinism against the charge of fatalism.
8 Calvin’s reprobation taught that God chooses not to cause some people to have saving faith. Vermigli’s double pre-destination says that God from all eternity chose to pre-destine most people to damnation.
9 Since the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).
10 See, for example, some of the implications of modern Calvinism explained in “Why I stopped being a Calvinist.”
11 One of the three predecessor churches to the Uniting Church of Australia, which was formed through merger of the Congregational Union of Australia with the Methodist Church of Australasia and two thirds of the congregations of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, in 1977.
12 S. Angus, 1934, Truth and Tradition, Sydney.