I once described myself in print as ‘a cautious, studious Calvinist’. This led to an invitation to give a talk about Calvin at another church. What follows is the first part of the text of that talk. I can’t recall, at this distance of time, what sources I used, so any plagiarism is unintentional.
John Calvin was born 500 years ago, in 1509.
Here is a man who, it seems, people either hate or love. In the opinion of some, he was a tyrant: brilliantly gifted, but cold, calculating and callous. “We shall always find it hard,” wrote Will Durant, “to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” But in the eyes of not a few, Calvin was one of the very greatest of Christians to have graced the human scene since the days of the apostles. In the opinion of B.B. Warfield:
Adolf Harnack has said that between Paul and Apostle and Luther the Reformer, Augustine was the greatest man God gave his Church. We may surely add that from Luther the Reformer to our day God has given his Church no greater man than John Calvin.
Calvin was born about 60 miles from Paris. He would have been just eight years old when Luther took that decisive step of nailing his 95 Theses (objections to Roman Catholic doctrine and practices) to the door of the church at Wittenburg. The Reformation was under way, but John Calvin did not come under its influence until he reached his early twenties. Then, he explains quite simply, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.”
From that time he dedicated himself to the cause of the Reformation. One of the first things he did was to publish the first edition of a book which was destined to become one of the most influential in all Christian theology: ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion’.
Because of fierce persecution in his home country, Calvin decided to make his way to Strasburg, where he knew there was a strong Reformed community. An unexpected detour took him to Geneva, where he planned to stay one night. William Farel, leader of the Reformation in Geneva, had other plans. He implored Calvin to stay and help him. Calvin reluctantly consented, and together they set about the Herculean task of promoting biblical Christianity in a town which had become a by-word for immorality right across Europe.
The work of Calvin and Farel in Geneva at this time was in a large measure successful. But after two years a crisis arose when the two leaders said that those people who did not sign the agreed Confession of Faith should not be admitted to the Lord’s Table for Communion. Calvin and Farel were eventually ordered to leave Geneva, and Calvin made his way to Strasburg.
At Strasburg, Calvin became the pastor of a French congregation, continued his literary labours, and married. His marriage was a happy one; they had but one child, a boy who survived only a few days.
Calvin found life in Strasburg very congenial, for he was, by nature, a scholar rather than a public man of affairs. But, after three years, he was asked to return to Geneva, and he hesitatingly did so. His action upon returning was typical of the man: the Sunday after his arrival, he mounted the steps of the pulpit, opened the Bible at the same page at which he had left off three and a half years before, and continued his exposition of the Word of God as if nothing had intervened.
Year after years, he gave himself unstintingly to the task of completing the Reformation in Geneva. He introduced sweeping moral reforms, ecclesiastical changes, he promoted education and the care of the poor and aged. He preached, on average, ten times in a fortnight. He kept up a voluminous corresponedence. He continued writing theological treatises and biblical commentaries. It is not surprising that his health broke down, especially after the death of his wife in 1549.
By the time of death at the age of 54, Calvin was suffering from some 30 different medical disorders. He was broken in body, but not in mind or in spirit. Shortly before his death, he wrote to Farel,
It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is to his followers gain both in life and in death.
No sane person would claim infallibility for Calvin, any more than he claimed it for himself. “But certainly I can say this,” he stated at the end of his life, “that I have willed what is good, that my vices have always displeased me, and that the root of the fear of God has been in my heart; and you may say that the disposition was good; and I pray you, that the evil be forgiven me, and if there was any good, that you conform yourselves to it and make it an example.”
In fact, many have made Calvin their example. He exerted an enormous influence during his lifetime, by his published writings, by his correspondence by his preaching, by his sheer moral and intellectual energy. Not a few English and Scots Protestants found temporary refuge in Geneva, and then brought the Reformed message hime.
Thus it was that Calvinism found its way into the heart of the English Reformation. The early theologians in the Church of England were predominantly Calvinists. The Puritans, “who have done more to elevate the national character than any class of Englishmen that ever lived,” (J.C. Ryle) were Calvinists. Calvinism was written into the confessions of most of the major Protestant denominations which were formed in the 17th century.
Calvinism has sometimes been represented as being unfriendly towards evangelism. Let it be said that many of the greatest evangelists have been Calvinists. George Whitefield was perhaps the greatest of them, and he was a convinced Calvinist. Calvinism has sometimes been represented as hostile to overseas missions. But many many of the missionary pioneers, including William Carey, were Calvinists.
Many of the great preachers have been Calvinists. C.H. Spurgeon was, and, nearer our own day, the late D.M. Lloyd-Jones was.
Many of the most able theologians have been Calvinists. For insight into scriptural truth, and for profound spiritual insight and practical application, who can compare with John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, R.L. Dabney, B.B. Warfield, J.I. Packer – Calvinists, to a man?
Of course, no amount of evidence as to Calvin’s influence can prove that he was right. But it does suggest that he is a man to be reckoned with; a man whose teaching caanot be easily or lightly dismissed.
The question still remains: What is Calvinism? For many people, this query is soon answered: Calvin, they say, gave us the doctrine of predestination. Now it, is certainly true that Calvin believed and taught the doctrine of predestination. But it is not true that this doctrine lies at the heart of Calvinistic theology. The simple fact is that all of the Reformers believed and taught this doctrine. Luther did. And so did Zwingli. So this doctrine cannot be the distinguishing mark of Calvinism.
A study of Calvin himself, and of some of the Calvinistic theologians (especially B.B. Warfield) has led me to the following conclusions concerning the genius of Calvinism.
1. The Calvinist is the person who sees God. He sees the power of God in nature. He sees the hand of God in history. He sees the grade of God in salvation. He recognises the profound implications involved in Paul’s expression “God…who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.” (Eph 1:11).
2. The Calvinist is the person who is profoundly aware of his total dependence upon God. He views God’s own majesty, and glory, and omnipotence, and holiness; he views his own sinfulness and weakness; and he falls to his knees and says, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, and the son of man, that you care for him?” (Psa 8).
3. The Calvinist is the person who recognises that salvation is God’s work, from beginning to end. He knows that he can contribute nothing; that, left to himself, he would have continued at enmity with God forever; that, when he believed in Christ for salvation, it was God who enabled him to believe. We hear much about human ‘free will’. The Calvinist places the stress on God’s free will. He believes that man’s will, along with the rest of his faculties, is under bondage to sin, and only God’s free grace can release it. (See Jn 15:16).
It might be claimed that these three points are only what good Christians have always held to. So be it. If Calvin had originated a wholly new system of teaching, then it would be self-condemned as unbiblical. Calvin only taught what he reckoned he found in Scripture, and there have been others (Augustine, for example), who came to substantially the same conclusions. We only claim that Calvin taught with greater clarity what every Bible-taught and Spirit-taught believer has felt and know to be true.
The three points above show us what Calvin himself was. He was not pre-eminently a theologian. He was first and foremost a man of God. “If there is anything,”writes Warfield, “that will make a man great, surely it is placing himself unreservedly at the disposal of God and seeking not only to do nothing but God’s will, but to do all God’s will. This is what Calvin did, and it is because he did this that he was so great.”