John Calvin's Impact
Calvin and The Transformation of Christendom
Dr. Roger Schultz
The year 2009 commemorates the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (1509–64), the greatest of the Protestant Reformers. Calvin left an astonishing record of Biblical scholarship, pastoral ministry, theological production, and ecclesiastical and governmental reform. His influence spread throughout Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and German historian Leopold van Ranke notes, “Calvin was the virtual founder of America.”1
The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to protest Roman Catholic practice, especially regarding indulgences. As did the Reformers who followed him, Luther focused on the redeeming work of Christ and vital issues of personal salvation, Biblical authority and church reform. Calvin shared Luther’s sentiments, but developed a more consistent and far-reaching Biblical theology.
There was much for the Reformers to protest. The pre-Reformation church suffered from grotesque moral and spiritual abuses. Many priests, for instance, kept concubines. Powerful Renaissance popes were notorious for their mistresses and illegitimate progeny. The gospel was obscured. The Bible was often inaccessible, even for priests, and superstition frequently substituted for genuine faith. Frederick the Wise, Luther’s prince and protector, had a relic collection numbering 5,000 holy items, purportedly including wood from the true cross and straw from the manager in Bethlehem.2 Even Johannes Gutenberg, made famous by his press and publication of the Bible, made his living printing thousands of indulgence forms for the Roman Catholic Church (sold to abbreviate the penitent’s time in purgatory) and manufacturing mirrors that pilgrims used when visiting venerated relics.3 Europe desperately needed a reformation.
God used Luther to launch a powerful reformation of Western Christendom. Calvin provided a more systematic, full-orbed expression of the Reformation faith, which is the focus of this article. But this is not merely a historical study. Calvin’s testimony can provide a foundation for a twenty-first century reformation.
The Reformers were committed to the gospel or evangel. The evangelical faith emphasizes the good news of salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul makes this crystal clear in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, when he “evangelizes” his readers with the message that he preached, they believed, and through which Christians are saved. He delivered this message as of “first importance”—“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures …” (NIV).
This message sounds very simple to those who were raised in gospel-preaching churches. For the medieval Christian, however, the road to heaven had been paved with sacraments, good works, penitential duties, spiritual uncertainty and purgatorial sufferings. Luther languished in monastic misery striving to be good enough for God. He felt liberated by God’s grace and the truth of justification by faith alone. Romans 1:17 (“the just shall live by faith”) was, for Luther, “the very gate of paradise.” Calvin describes his own experience with redeeming grace and “sudden conversion” simply as “God subdued my heart to teachableness.”4
In time, Reformation evangelical teaching condensed into five “Solas.” Sola Scriptura stressed the absolute authority of the Word of God—in contrast to the Roman view of authority resting on tradition, popes and councils. Sola Gratia emphasized salvation solely through the grace of God rather than the synergistic work of man and God. Sola Fide pointed to “justification by faith alone,” rather than the combination of faith and meritorious human works. Solus Christus affirms that salvation is only through Christ our Mediator. Soli Deo Gloria provides a theocentric Reformation understanding of God’s eternal plan of redemption—that all things pertaining to our salvation are to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1: 6, 12, 14).5
Evangelicalism sometimes gets a bad name today, because of sloppy theology and a compromising spirit. (Bob Jones once defined an evangelical as “someone who says to a liberal, ‘I’ll call you a Christian, if you’ll call me a scholar.’”6) Despite the weaknesses of some contemporary evangelicals, however, Reformed Christians should not be ashamed of the evangel of Jesus Christ—since it is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).
Christians committed to ongoing reformation must first—like the Apostles and Reformers—stress the gospel. The Chalcedon Foundation provides an excellent example, articulating in “Credo” what genuine Christians must believe: “As Calvinists, we believe that sinners are saved solely on the ground of Christ’s substitutionary, atoning death and law-keeping life, the passive and active obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). Further, we believe that justification, man’s legal acceptance in the sight of God as ‘not guilty,’ is appropriated by faith alone (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8-10).”7
The Reformers were committed to Scripture as God’s inspired and absolutely trustworthy Word. In his study of Calvin’s Preaching, T. H. L. Parker notes that week after week, Calvin climbed the steps to his pulpit and “patiently led his congregation verse by verse through book after book in the Bible.” This fundamental biblocentricism highlights Calvin’s faith. For Calvin, Parker concludes, “Scripture demands the right of complete submission, complete credence.”8
Calvin’s approach to Scripture, furthermore, was Christocentric. He loved the Bible because it pointed to Christ, the cross and salvation. As Stanford Reid notes, “[H]e always brought the hearers back to the fact that the center of the Christian life was Christ Himself.” When Scottish Reformer John Knox was dying, he asked that Calvin’s sermons (on the passion of the Savior) be read to him. Before he died, it seemed, Knox wanted once again to hear from his old mentor the Biblical testimony of salvation through the cross of Christ.9
The Reformers also stressed the law of God and its manifold uses. The civil use referred to the basic principles of equity and justice contained in the law. All societies have laws regarding killing and stealing, for example, which are proscribed by God’s commandments. The evangelical use of the law shows that men are fallen and need a savior. The law is a tutor leading sinners to Christ. Lutherans were slow to accept the “third use” of the law, but Reformed Christians affirmed that it also had a didactic use. The law taught basic principles of holy living. As those saved by grace through faith and empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christians were to faithfully obey the commands of Scripture.
Calvin’s sermons were also practical, filled with pointed, contemporary applications. He stressed Old Testament law and its continuing application and sanctions. His sermon from Deuteronomy 28:25–28, for instance, deals with diseases, particularly the sexually transmitted diseases that plagued Europe after the Columbian contact. Calvin’s warnings must have been frightening: “I pray you, have we not seen that God within these fifty years has brought up new diseases against harlotry? Whence comes syphilis and all the other filthy diseases, which cannot be counted at this time? Where do they come from except from God, who utters forth His vengeance as formerly was never seen? [F]or a time men were greatly afraid of it; but … it has become so ordinary a matter that the despisers of God (I mean the lecherous sort and the whoremongers, who give themselves over to all sorts of lewdness) do but wring their groins at it. Though God smites them with such a leprosy (for it is a leprosy indeed), so that they are eaten up with fretting and other filthiness, yet they do not cease following their practices and only mock at the illness.”10
The twenty-first century is a rootless, postmodern and relativistic age. Now more than ever, people need a clear testimony of the absolute trustworthiness of Scripture and the unwavering moral standards of God’s law. Christians must present their generation with a faithful Biblical witness, as did their Reformation forefathers.
The Reformers were vigorously confessional and creedal. Constantly facing the prospect of persecution or martyrdom, they were compelled to give a clear testimony of their faith. Calvin’s Genevan Confession of 1536 is an excellent example. The Westminster Standards is the crowning achievement of this confessional age.11
The twenty-first century is not a confessional century. Christians, even in conservative churches, are not taught systematically. It is time for Reformed churches to emphasize theologically-focused training. An elderly Scottish lady recently told me about growing up on the Isle of Lewis. There, in the public schools, she memorized the Shorter Catechism. Though not a believer until later, she thought catechizing was invaluable because it provided such a sturdy theological framework. “If you learn the catechism,” she told me, “you can never go too far off-base in theology.”
The Bible itself includes confessions and creeds. Nehemiah 9 and Deuteronomy 6:5 are Old Testament examples. New Testament examples include Acts 4:24, Romans 10:9–10 and 1 Timothy 3:16. Scripture constantly affirms the value of personal and corporate confessions of faith.
The Practice of Confessional Subscription is an excellent resource for church officers, explaining what it means (and meant historically) to take ordination vows and subscribe to doctrinal standards. It includes a discussion of the positive purposes of creeds and confessions. Their functions include: Confessional (to confess the faith), Apologetic (to defend the faith), Fraternal (to establish common ground), Pedagogical (to teach the youth), Uniformity (to standardize doctrine), Testing (to reveal soundness of candidates’ theology), Qualifying (to prepare men for church office), and Polemical (to attack error and heretical viewpoints).12 This was critically important for the Reformers.
Churches will inevitably have theological and confessional standards. They may be simple or highly structured. They may be published and visible, or implicit and assumed. They may be official and serious standards, or merely loose guidelines. A key strength of truly Reformed churches is their structured, explicit, public, Biblically-anchored theological standards.
Calvin’s name is immediately associated with Calvinism, election and predestination. All of the Reformers had a strong Augustinian emphasis on the sovereignty of God. Luther’s Bondage of the Will, written against the humanism of the day, is an excellent example. Of all the Reformers, however, Calvin best represents this emphasis on sovereign grace.
I made a commitment to reread Calvin’s Institutes in 2009. I first read Calvin’s great work thirty-some years ago as a university student, and I filled the margins with my Arminian objections. I loved Calvin’s passion, however, and found it difficult to ignore his careful reasoning and his dependence on Scripture.
Calvin’s theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God, human depravity, God’s special revelation, and the redeeming work of Christ. No one better illustrates human rebellion, self-deception, and wretchedness. For Calvin, man was “a five-foot worm.” And no one better points the way to the Redeemer. Even when Calvin recoils at some of the teaching of Scripture (the decree of reprobation, for instance, which he considered “dreadful”), he faithfully presents the Bible’s perspective.
In a humanistic and self-centered age, there will inevitably be opposition to the doctrine of predestination. But that didn’t stop Paul, speaking to the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17:24–28), from proclaiming God’s comprehensive providence and sovereign control of history. Jesus frequently spoke on election and effectual calling (John 6:65), and His teaching was unpopular (John 6:66). Christians are called to faithfully present the doctrines of Scripture, even if they are difficult to understand or unpopular. The Great Commission requires Christians to disciple the nations, teaching all things that Christ commanded.
The Reformed Church is “reformed—and always reforming according to the Word of God.” “Semper reformandum” has long been associated with Reformed Churches. But it is important to maintain the final clause—“according to the Word of God”—lest liberals corrupt the formulation to mean “constant change according to the prevailing spirit of the age.”
I still remember my first (and last) Presbytery meeting in the liberal, mainline UPCUSA. Preparing to go to seminary, I was coming under care of presbytery. Everyone assumed this would be automatic, and I was not dismissed from the floor of presbytery after giving my testimony. A shaggy minister, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, denounced my chosen seminary, which was evangelical. (Afterwards, people told me that he was sore because of opposition to his wife, who was a pantheist. At the last Presbytery meeting, she had been barely approved for ordination to the gospel ministry. She was now seated beside her hippie husband, knitting.) The liberal condemned evangelicals in general, saying that they could not serve well in a Presbyterian denomination, which was “reformed and always reforming.” For him, I suspect, “always reforming” meant “always becoming more liberal.” The Reformers, by contrast, were committed to reformation according to Scripture.
Luther’s clash with Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms is a famous event of the Reformation. Here Luther “took his stand,” saying, “I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word …” Luther would not budge from his reforms, unless they were shown to be contrary to Scripture.
Calvin gave a similar testimony to Charles V in the “Necessity of Reforming the Church.” Calvin notes that God had raised up Luther and others to bring reformation. Reformation in doctrine was necessary, especially to make clear the doctrine of salvation. Reform of worship was needed to distinguish the “pure and legitimate worship of God” from superstition and idolatry. The government of the church had to be reformed, since it had degenerated into “horrible and insufferable tyranny.”13
The Reformed Church, then, was reforming in doctrine, worship and discipline according to the Word of God. This three-fold initiative corresponds to the offices of Christ, who is our prophet, priest and king. This also corresponds to the marks of the true church, where the Word was rightly proclaimed, the sacraments rightly administered, and discipline properly dispensed.
The word “reformed” doesn’t appear in the Bible, with one notable exception. Leviticus 26:23–24 (NKJV) reads: “And if by these things you are not reformed by Me, but walk contrary to Me, then I also will walk contrary to you, and I will punish you yet seven times for your sins.”
The term “reformed” in Leviticus 26 could also be translated “chastised,” “instructed,” “disciplined,” or “corrected.” The idea is that God’s people are reformed by God’s careful discipline. It is interesting to note that the areas where God expected reformation in Israel were the very things that the Reformers stressed. They emphasized proper worship and repudiation of idolatry (Lev. 26:1), the Lord’s Day (Lev. 26:2, 43), the Law of God and consequences of disobedience (Lev. 26:3, 27, 40, 46), a personal walk with the LORD (Lev. 26:12), and the doctrine of the covenant (Lev. 26:9, 42, 44, 45). Finally, like the Reformers, Leviticus emphasizes sovereign grace (Lev. 26:23), in that God’s people are “reformed” by God. Jehovah is the one who renews His people. Leviticus 26, then, has a dramatic exhortation from the LORD: be Reformed … or else!
The Reformation gave important roles to laymen. Both Luther and Calvin encouraged lay involvement in the work of the Kingdom. Both stressed the idea of vocation and the legitimacy of glorifying God through secular callings. Luther particularly emphasized the priesthood of all believers.
When Calvin reformed the church in Geneva, he did so along Presbyterian lines. He developed a simple, Scripture-heavy liturgy for the church that influenced Presbyterian and Puritan worship. His church order established principles of ecclesiastical polity that were copied throughout the Reformed world. He proposed four church offices: Pastor, Teacher, Elder, and Deacon. This same polity is found in the Westminster Form of Government and, with modifications, in modern American Presbyterian denominations. The Reformed churches, emphasizing the work of Ruling Elders, encouraged broad involvement.
Hierarchical and bureaucratic churches opposed Biblical Presbyterianism. “The church has by and large paid lip service to the priesthood of all believers,” Rushdoony comments, “because its hierarchy has distrusted the implications of the doctrine, and because it has seen the church as an end in itself, not as an instrument.”15 Yet man has a proper calling as a royal priest, to serve God in his area of vocation. As Rushdoony notes, “[T]he purpose of the church should not be to bring men into subjection to the church, but rather to train them into a royal priesthood capable of bringing the world into subjection to Christ the King. The church is the recruiting station, the training field, and the armory for Christ’s army of royal priests.”16 Christian leaders are necessary in every sphere of action—in the church, family, state, education, and various vocations. “It is the duty of the Christian home, school, and the church,” Rushdoony argues, “to train elders who will apply the law of God to all the world.”17 This is the engaged faith the Reformers emphasized.
The Reformation faith was a complete faith, touching and transforming every area of life. The Great Commission requires believers to teach all things that Christ commanded. The Christian faith cannot be restricted to pious platitudes and Sunday morning religion.
Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) revived the Reformation commitment to comprehensive, applied Christianity. Kuyper lived what he taught, working as a pastor, theologian and journalist; establishing a new Dutch Reformed denomination, the Christian Democratic Party and the Free University of Amsterdam; and serving as the Prime Minster of the Netherlands. His overarching commitment to the Lordship of Christ is expressed in his most famous quotation: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” His Lectures on Calvinism, the 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton, is an excellent example of all-encompassing Reformed principles.
Kuyper stressed integrated and coherent worldview thinking. He described a mighty contest between Christianity and Modernism, saying “two life systems are wrestling with one another in mortal combat.” As Christians, Kuyper charged, “[W]e have to take our stand in a life system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power.”18
He emphasized sphere sovereignty, arguing that beneath the overarching sovereignty of God existed distinct spheres (church, state, family, vocations) with unique structures of authority. The state does not function independent of God’s sovereignty. Kuyper argued, for instance, that there were three distinct Western approaches to state authority: atheistic popular sovereignty (French Revolution), pantheistic state sovereignty (German philosophers); sovereignty of God (Christianity). The state’s power was limited, and it had no right to dominate other spheres, such as the church. “Calvinism protests against State omnipotence, against the horrible conception that no right exists above and beyond existing laws.” Each sphere is distinct, Kuyper argued, and in every sphere “God’s Word must rule.”19
Kuyper was confident about the future, but he believed that Christians should be active. They should emphasize Calvinist creeds, study Calvinism’s historical roots, and apply principles of the Reformation to “every department of life.” All disciplines—philosophy, law, literature, science—must be studied from Biblical and Christian perspectives. As the Apostle Paul proclaimed, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge
of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.
(2 Cor. 10:5)”20
Kuyper’s “ruling passion” was clear: “That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the state for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the consciousness of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage to God.” His comprehensive vision was the goal of the Protestant Reformers, and it should be the goal of every revival-minded Christian today.
1. Quoted in William Roberts, “Calvin’s Influence on America,” in John Calvin: Theologian, Preacher, Educator, Statesman, Ed. Philip Vollmer (Philadelphia: Heidelberg Press, 1909), 202.
2. Lewis Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements (Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1971), 312–315.
3. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning (New York: Random House, 2001), 9–16.
4. John McNeill, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), li; Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1988), 172–174.
5. Good essays on the “Five Solas” are available at http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Five-Solas/ (29 May 2009).
6. Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again (New York: Oxford, 1997), 241.
7. “What Chalcedon Believes,” http://www.chalcedon.edu/credo.php (29 May 2009).
8. T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 1–2.
9. W. Stanford Reid, editor, John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 45.
10. John Calvin, The Covenant Enforced: Sermons of Deuteronomy 27 and 28, Ed. James Jordan (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), 159.
11. See Joel Beeke and Sinclair Ferguson, Reformed Confessions Harmonized (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999).
12. Peter Lilbeck, “Confessional Subscription Among Sixteenth Century Reformers,” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. David Hall (New York: University Press of America, 1995), 58.
13. John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J. K. S. Reid (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 186.
14. John Calvin, “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, 38. Calvin’s polity was likely influenced by Martin Bucer.
15. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philipsburg, NJ: Craig Press, 1973), 764.
17. Ibid., 742.
18. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 11.
19. Ibid , 90, 98, 104.
20. Ibid, 192–194.
Dr. Roger Schultz