In 2017, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the French publication La Reforme conducted a survey to find out what people knew about two famous personalities of Protestantism: the German Luther and the Frenchman Calvin. To the amazement of the initiators, the study showed that Luther’s name was much more familiar to the French than that of their compatriot, John Calvin.
However, Calvin’s role in building and consolidating European Protestantism was immense. In the mid-16th century, Protestants seemed doomed to extinction. The powerful sovereigns of France and Spain had joined forces to eradicate from their countries what they called the “Lutheran heresy”.
In England, Mary Tudor (nicknamed Bloody Mary) had set out to bring the kingdom back to Catholicism by any means. The German princes who supported the Reformation had been crushed in the battle of Mühlberg (1547) by the armies of Emperor Charles V and forced to sign a treaty by which they lost much of their freedoms.
The Roman Church, recovering from the blows it received, had established a solid doctrinal line at the Council of Trent, and the newly established Jesuit Company began the Counter-Reformation, an action to ideologically reclaim the territory lost by Catholicism.
We must make the invisible kingdom visible in our midst (John Calvin)
There was, however, a seemingly insignificant place in Europe that not only stubbornly resisted, but even dreamed of and took steps toward a new social and religious order—the small city of Geneva, with its 11,000 inhabitants. Under the vault of the city’s cathedral, the weary Calvin, bitten and bent by osteoarthritis, turned every day into a prophet of biblical times, explaining, updating, and giving new meanings to the words of the Bible.
John Knox, the fearless Scotsman who spread the Reformation to his homeland, found refuge in Geneva. Here, too, many others were received, encouraged, and trained: Dutch, Italians, Waldenses, Spaniards, French, Transylvanians. All of them would then return with fresh energy to their countries, with a plan of organisation and a well-articulated doctrine.
The major ideas of Calvinism, as conceived by the great reformer in his actions, in his published writings, and especially in the over 4,000 sermons given and recorded, are as follows:
- The starting point of the authentic Christian life is personal conversion, which is the exclusive work of God and not of the human mind.
- Salvation is given to us as a gift by faith, without merit. Calvin’s faith is an unshakable confidence in divine wisdom, strengthened by the study of the Scriptures. Knowledge of God comes from the Word, not from contemplating nature or philosophy.
- The Bible is the perfect expression of divine revelation. There is no qualitative difference between the Old and New Testament. Both are normative and complementary. Israel and the church are two sides of God’s people, with Christ as their spiritual centre.
- The biblical text was given to us by divine inspiration, in simple, concrete terms, in a precise historical setting. Therefore, its interpretation should not deviate from the real-life context in which God’s messenger lived. Calvin thus dismantled mediaeval scholasticism, which had devitalized the Bible through speculative hermeneutics.
- The Christian Church is found where the Word of God is preached, heard, and practised by believers, united by the faithful administration of the sacraments.
- In the Calvinist view, the church of Rome betrayed the teachings of the apostles and forerunners of the first centuries. Luther and the other reformers are the restorers of the bond broken by papacy, through the false doctrines promoted and the abuses committed. Thus, the “Protestant” and the “Reformed” are not the bastards of Christianity, but its true representatives.
- The sacraments instituted by Christ are two—the Holy Supper and the Baptism. Even though he did not believe that Christ was incarnate in the bread and the wine, as Catholics claim, Calvin believed that in a miraculous way the body and blood of the Saviour were present in the Eucharist more than in just a symbolic way, as Zwingli believed.
- The church, being a community of born-again believers, partakers of a universal priesthood, was to be organised in a representative, not hierarchical, form. For effective ministry, the Calvinists created four eligible positions in the church: “pastors,” charged with preaching the Word; “doctors,” called to instruct men in understanding doctrines; the “elders” (presbyters), empowered to apply ecclesiastical discipline, and the “deacons,” involved in helping the poor and sick. Those elected to these positions met in a council called the “consistory”, which discussed and debated community issues, making decisions by a democratic vote.
- Geneva, being the first Calvinist state entity, adopted a form of organisation that included Calvinism among the Protestant magisterial currents. The “Council of Magistrates”, elected by the citizens for a limited term, managed the political and social affairs of the city. The “consistory” dealt with the spirituality of the inhabitants, administering Christian teaching, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline. The two institutions were called to harmonise in building a society governed by the ethical principles of Scripture.
Of the things the Genoese reformer is blamed for, two are notorious:
- The double predestination: In his main work, the Institutio Christianae Religionis, Calvin claimed that God has established, since the foundation of the world, by decree, two realities: those who will be saved and those who will be convicted. Thus, according to this radical and exaggerated interpretation of the biblical testimony, our existence is conditioned by this divine arbitrariness. The conclusion of God’s double choice from the beginning is also the fruit of Calvin’s experience. In his own life he realised that an unseen and mysterious hand had pushed him on roads unsuspected and unseen by his nature. Without understanding why, God chose him, the sickly, fearful, and unworthy John, to carry out His plans. This providential rule seemed to Calvin proof that, in His wisdom, God had so established things from the beginning.
- The burning at the stake of Miguel Servetus in 1554: The death sentence of Miguel Servetus—a Spanish humanist and theologian, refugee in Geneva, challenger of the doctrine of the Trinity, predestination, and baptism of children—is a tragic event in history. However, the portrayal of Calvin as a bloody tyrant, eager to take revenge on an opponent, is an exaggeration. In reality, no matter how enlightened the great reformer was, in some respects he remained a man of his time. Servetus’ trial in Geneva was investigated by the Council of Magistrates, and Calvin was heard as an expert in theology to assess whether or not the Spanish humanist was advocating a dangerous heresy. The dignitaries pronounced the death sentence. This is how they (and Calvin) mistakenly and regrettably believed that they were protecting themselves against the danger of a divided city.
Calvin’s teachings, with their emphasis on predestination, still influence a part of Protestantism to this day. But his teachings, like Luther’s, also influenced the transformation of a medieval society into a modern one. In the Middle Ages, the population was divided into three categories: the rulers (aristocracy), the clergy, and the workers.
The highest life ideal was that of the church minister, who abandoned the ordinary life to devote himself to the spiritual one. John Calvin presented work as the highest form of dignity, a principle that was shared by the predominantly reformed societies of the following centuries. No matter where one is born, effort, balance, an abstemious spirit, and zeal in doing one’s duty raise one to the highest level of humanity and make one equal to nobles and princes.
Emil Lazăr regards John Calvin not only as a great reformer, but also as a man of his time. From this perspective, the reformer from Geneva can be understood in a balanced way.