In The Legacy of John Calvin, David W. Hall divides leaders into two categories. Some predict the future, and others change it. Calvin, Hall said, is in the second category.
Moreover, Hall continues, Calvin has influenced modern history like no other. The 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth was also marked by the publication of the book by Philip Vollmer, which, by its title (John Calvin: Man of the Millennium), nominated Calvin for the title of the man of the millennium.
Charles Spurgeon, “the prince of preachers,” considered Calvin the most consistent thinker of the Bible who ever lived: “Calvin knew more about the gospel than almost any man who ever lived and who was not directly inspired by God… Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else.” These are some of the statements made by preacher Charles Spurgeon.
Karl Barth, a leading modern theologian and intellectual, writes of Calvin as of one who wears a mythological garment and whose words cannot be penetrated within a lifetime. When you encounter Calvin’s life, you have only two options, you either love him or you hate him. “Calvin is a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon… I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”
Calvin the theologian
From the age of 22, Calvin had a reputation as a humanist intellectual because he had written a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia treatise. At the age of 26, in 1536, he published a textbook for the Reformed Christians, entitled Institutes of the Christian Religion. This work would become the most important theological writing of the Protestant Reformation.
He also wrote commentaries on books of the Bible, treatises on theology, volumes of correspondence, and reference works in the legal field. He wrote commentaries on almost every book of the New Testament, with the exception of Revelation and 2 and 3 John. Although the Old Testament was not equally the subject of his theological concerns, many of the Old Testament books were commented on in articles or even in dedicated volumes.
Calvin was born into a family of high social status, which favoured his studies in theology and law. His childhood habits followed him as a student. He ate little, slept even less, and studied much. Forced to flee Paris in order to protect himself from the persecution against Reformed Christians, Calvin relinquished his parents’ faith, his social status honours, his homeland, and eventually moved to Geneva, where he devoted his whole life to the service of God.
Geneva had declared itself Reformed just a month before John Calvin crossed the Ron River and set out to take shelter there for a day. One day turned into 25 years, during which time Calvin fundamentally transformed the city’s religious and social life. Inspired by the theocratic model of government, Geneva was, from the perspective of those fleeing the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church, a land of freedom and divine protection. However, from the perspective of those who lived in Geneva, the reality was fundamentally different from what we call freedom today.
Out of a desire for God’s law to be the norm for every citizen, Calvin organised a church consistory with civil authority to ensure that every citizen lived according to the new Reformed constitution. The imposed rules applied to both religious life and attire or social behaviour. If anyone violated a divine precept, they were put in the corner, their hair was cut off, they were punished, or even tortured. During a “witch hunt,” 45 women were caught and tortured in order to admit to being witches, and then were burned alive in public.
Once the Reformed doctrine was assimilated to civil duty, dogmatic offences were punished like any other crime. All those who spoke out against Calvin’s doctrines were persecuted or even killed. Among them are Ameaux, who was publicly humiliated for denouncing Calvin’s regime as deception and tyranny, Gruet, beheaded for reasons of faith, J. H. Bolsec and, the best-known of all, Calvin’s critic Michael Servetus, and others. Servetus ended up being burned at the stake because, among other things, he did not accept the belief that God is “triune,” one and yet three persons.
So bright, yet not without shadows
Calvin cannot be completely relieved of the moral condemnation imposed by the judgement of history. It should be noted, however, that the understanding of religious freedom was still in its infancy. Many reformers of the time took on more or less the mediaeval ideology of how heretics should be treated.
Calvin was convinced that he had done the right thing in the case of Servetus, whose execution was permanently imputed to him throughout history. To justify his position, he wrote a text entitled “Is it lawful for Christian princes and judges to punish heretics?” in the book Defensio Orthodoxae Fidei. For Calvin, who quoted Augustine, it was not the punishment, but the cause that made a martyr.
Calvin had a huge influence on England and America—on Anglicans in general, as well as on the Puritan Movement. Moreover, some of the English separatists followed Calvin in the doctrines regarding predestination, salvation, and the church. Even a century after his death, Calvin is still quoted as an argument in favour of using state power against those of other religious persuasions.
At the same time, the independence of the church from the state, as an important component of religious freedom, had Calvin as its supporter. John Adams acknowledged Calvin’s contribution in this regard. In other words, in Calvin’s case we are talking about a partial understanding of religious freedom, which, however, did not prevent Calvin’s massive spiritual influence even on some of the later European and American artisans of religious freedom.
Calvin’s friendship with Thomas Cranmer, his influence on Oliver Cromwell, and his letters to the English rulers shaped English society. In America, pilgrims had Geneva Bibles. The great American spiritual awakening in the days of Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield came as a result of the work of these leaders influenced by Calvin’s teachings.
Ștefăniţă Poenariu is the president of the Holistic Christian Education Association, which operates the Transylvania International School.