Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin


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What is Calvinism?

Even those of us who do not subscribe to many of their views are forced to admit that they stood out as great leaders, notwithstanding their mistakes, in the historical movement which was moving toward individual responsibility and freedom of thought. The reformation was inevitable and certainly we cannot point to any single individual as being responsible for its coming.

It was a development in the social order. But in all fairness, we must give some credit to the individual. The significance of the individual in such a period of history is that he stands in the midst of the ongoing social movement and gives it guidance and direction. Such credit must be given to men like Luther and Calvin. The theology of these two great reformers and the great churches that sprang from them are quite different in temper and character.

Philip Schaff, in his Creeds of Christendom , lists nine distinctions between the two. However, Schaff goes on, and rightly so, to emphasize the close affinity between these two men and the churches that owe their existence to them. But this distinction is largely a matter of emphasis and ought not leave the impression that Luther did not speak of the sovereignty of God or that Calvin did not speak of justification by faith. For Luther, as for Calvin, God is the great sovereign power. For Calvin, as for Luther, justification by faith is the heart of the Christian faith.

They were at one in their scorn of the Roman Church; they were at one in their stand upon Scripture as the final authority for the faith; they were at one in emphasizing the evangelical doctrines of the Gospel. First, for those outside of Christ, God is the great judge who passes penalty upon sinful men. He is the God of wrath, the stern judge who hates sin.

Luther insisted that the very nature of God would be contradictory if he did not hate sin, therefore, his wrath is an inevitable corollary of his nature. But Luther does not stop here, he goes on to a second view of God, which to him is all important. For those in Christ, God is an all loving Father who is constantly revealing himself through his son Jesus Christ.

Actually, God does not want to be a wrathful God, but men with their sin make it so. In emphasizing this primacy of a God of love, Luther was well in line with the true Christian view of God. But amid all of this emphasis on a God of love, Luther sets forth a third view of God which complicates his whole theology.

He comes forth saying that God is an absolute sovereign power who predestines some men to eternal salvation and others to eternal damnation. God is responsible for everything that happens. Man is denied of free will when it comes to choosing ultimates. He is free, but not free to choose the good. How man could have any freedom at all in the face of an absolute sovereign God is a question which Luther never answers.

He goes on insisting that man is free in a limited sense, and yet God is still absolute sovereign. The difference between the two is primarily a matter of emphasis rather than a matter of content. For Calvin, God is strictly a personal being whose omnipotence controls everything. Like Luther, he held that God is absolute sovereign.

However, Calvin goes a little beyond Luther in his emphasis on this point. According to Calvin everything that happens is decreed by God. Such things as being shipwrecked on a stormy sea, or being robbered, or being killed by the fall of a tree must be attributed to God as causal agency rather than to fate.

Of course, God wills nothing but the right. This is how Calvin accounted for the problem of evil. If God wills a thing it is right, for everything that he wills is determined by his glory and honor.


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As a logical corollary of his major premise, Calvin posits a view of absolute predestination. Like Luther, Calvin insisted that some men are elected for salvation and others for damnation. But Calvin goes beyond Luther in emphasizing this point. The former, although recognizing the wrath of God, placed emphasis on the love of God. Primarily, God is an all loving father.

To the Reformed Theologian, though he recognized the love of God, the power and will of God were fundamental. God the creator and ruler of the world was the God of Calvin. Luther would say that we do not know God through intellectual speculation, nor through the mystic flight, but through Jesus alone. When he comes to the person of Jesus, Luther quite readily accepts the orthodox views of the councils.

However, Luther went beyond the councils by setting forth the views that the human nature of Jesus absorbs the divine nature and the divine nature of Jesus absorbs the human nature. It is probably that Luther posited this view in order to give logical validation to his view of consubstantiation. Like Luther, Calvin accepts the orthodox views of the Church councils as to the person of Christ. In The Institutes , he states,. Choosing from the womb of the Virgin a temple for his residence, he who was the Son of God, became also the Son of man, not by a confusion of substance, but by a unity of person.

For we assert such a connection and union of the Divinity with the humanity, that each nature retains its properties entire, and yet both together constitute one Christ. As stated above, Luther was insistant on the point that knowledge of God is only possible through Christ. First, we may turn to Luther. His view of man grows mainly out of two sources, viz. Luther became convinced with Augustine that God alone begins and ends the salvation process.

God alone has free will. Because of this, everything is from God to man. Man can never make a move toward God. Man, like a helpless creature in the bottom of a well, can do nothing until God reaches down and pulls him up. Man finds himself in this condition because he misused his original freedom which resulted in the fall. He came to the conclusion that memory, understanding and will were totally corrupted by the fall. Before the fall, Adam was inclined only to the good. In this state of original righteousness, man could know God, love God, and believe God, but the loss of original righteousness wrought man incapable of doing either of these.

From this point on the human race became a mass of perdition. Like Luther, Calvin asserts that every man is evil from periphery to core and never can hope to be good unless God elects him to be so. The image of God, though not totally effaced from man, is in a terrible condition. At birth, every man stands before God as a sinner. Every evil tendency in human nature is a decree by God.

Even the fall itself was decreed by God. Luther never went to the extreme of Calvin at this point. Luther contended that salvation is of God alone, independent of all human effort. Following Paul, Luther maintained constantly that man is saved by faith and not by works. His position at this point is most emphatic and probably the most familiar part of his teaching. God produces it, and so it is not in any sense a form of human merit. Luther was thus a thoroughgoing predestinarian; this fact has been emphasized above. It is true that in his desire to show the sole activity of God in the salvation process, he was led to present his predestinarian views in theological form, but this was not the essence of the matter.

He had attempted to find salvation through meritorious work and this was to no avail, but finally he was able to gain peace because of his vision of the forgiving love of God in Christ. We may call this a monogistic view of salvation. These sacraments could accomplish a deal of results in the lives of men, such as the forgiveness of sin, and the rendering of Grace, provided that the recipient was a believer.

Luther could not accept the Roman Catholic view of ex opere operato the view that the sacraments take effect in and of themselves without regards to the faith of the individual or the moral condition of the priest ; instead he held the view of nullum sacramentum sine fide no sacrament without faith. Luther would say that the sacraments depend basically on faith. If the recipient has not faith, the sacrament has no meaning. The view held by the latter is known as transubstantiation trans-change; substantia-substance.

Here it is held that the bread and the wine change into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. On the other hand, Luther held a view known as consubstantiation con-with; substantion substance. Here it is held that the body and blood of Christ are along with the bread and wine rather than the latter changing into the former. The question arises, how can a physical body be in more than one place? Calvin, like Luther posits the view that salvation is by God alone. Since God determines everything he determines salvation. Spiritually, the natural man is as dead as a stone. The result is for Calvin a one way traffic.

This doctrine for Calvin is a logical outgrowth of his view of the majesty and might of God. To reject or even to minimize predestination seemed to limit God and throw contempt upon him. Calvin was quite as convinced as Luther that salvation is by faith alone. We never dream either of a faith destitute of good works, or of a justification unattended by them; this is the sole difference, that while we acknowledge a necessary connection between faith and good works, we attribute justification, not to works, but to faith.

Calvin and Calvinism

Hence, faith is always accompanied by works. The former seems to say trust God and do your duty. The latter seems to say trust God and do as you please. Luther had taught the Real Presence in the emblems while Zwingli had taken the diametrically opposite position and declared for the unalloyed symbolism of the holy meal. Calvin mediated these two positions with a leaning toward the Swiss reformer in form, and to the German in spirit. With Zwingli, he denied any physical presence of Christ; yet he asserts in the clearest terms a real, though spiritual presence received by faith.

The sacrament is a channel through which the divine grace enters the elect. It seems that Luther and Calvin were at one on this point. They shaped a theory of atonement with the analogies of criminal law. They agreed that the enormity of sin required an infinite satisfaction to God if he was to release the sinner. To meet this requirement Christ actually took the place of sinners in the sight of God, and as a substitute suffered the punishment that was due to men.

Upon him fell all the punishment of all the sins of men for whom he died; against them, therefore, penal justice could have no further claim. Calvin continually emphasized the fact that this atonement was limited only to the elect. It seems that this whole theory of atonement grew out of the influence that legalistic training had had on these two reformers.

He speaks of the Church in a twofold manner. Says Luther:. For the sake of brevity and a better understanding, we shall call the two Churches by different names. The first which is the natural, essential, real and true one, let us call a spiritual, inner Christendom. The other, which is man-made and external, let us call a bodily, external Christendom; not as if we would part them asunder, but just as when I speak of a man, and call him, according to the soul, a spiritual, according to the body, a physical man; or as the Apostle is want to speak of the inner and of the outward man.

Thus, also the Christian assembly, according to the soul, is a communion of one accord in one faith, although according to the body it cannot be assembled at one place, and yet every group is assembled in one place. It is quite possible, argues Luther, to be in the visible Church without being in the invisible Church. However, this assertion never caused Luther to think of the visible Church as being separated from the invisible Church; the two are together like body and soul. The invisible Church exists within the visible Church. Needless to say that Luther sees no earthly head of the Church.

Christ alone is the head of the Church. Just as little can the doctrine of justification by faith be represented as specifically Lutheran. It is as central to the Reformed as to the Lutheran system.

Happy Birthday, John Calvin! Pastor, Theologian, Sinner, and Saint

Nay, it is only in the Reformed system that it retains the purity of its conception and resists the tendency to make it a doctrine of justification on account of; instead of by, faith. It is true that Lutheranism is prone to rest in faith as a kind of ultimate fact, while Calvinism penetrates to its causes, and places faith in its due relation to the other products of God's activity looking to the salvation of man.

And this difference may, on due consideration, conduct us back to the formative principle of each type of thought. But it, too, is rather an outgrowth of the divergent formative principles than the embodiment of them. Lutheranism, sprung from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul seeking peace with God, finds peace in faith, and stops right there. It is so absorbed in rejoicing in the blessings which flow from faith that it refuses or neglects to inquire whence faith itself flows.

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It thus loses itself in a sort of divine euthumia [greek: cheerfulness], and knows, and will know nothing beyond the peace of the justified soul. Calvinism asks with the same eagerness as Lutheranism the great question, "What shall I do to be saved? But it cannot stop there. The deeper question presses upon it, "Whence this faith by which I am justified?

It has zeal, no doubt, for salvation but its highest zeal is for the honour of God, and it is this that quickens its emotions and vitalizes its efforts. It begins, it centres and it ends with the vision of God in His glory and it sets itself; before all things, to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity. If thus the formative principle of Calvinism is not to be identified with the points of difference which it has developed with its sister type of Protestantism, Lutheranism, much less can it be identified with those heads of doctrine--severally or in sum--which have been singled out by its own rebellious daughter, Arminianism, as its specially vunerable points.

The "five points of Calvinism," we have no doubt learned to call them, and not without justice. They are, each and every one of them, essential elements in the Calvinistic system, the denial of which in any of their essential details is logically the rejection of the entirety of Calvinism; and in their sum they provide what is far from being a bad epitome of the Calvinistic system.

The sovereignty of the election of God, the substitutive definiteness of the atonement of Christ, the inability of the sinful will to good, the creative energy of the saving grace of the Spirit, the safety of the redeemed soul in the keeping of its Redeemer,--are not these the distinctive teachings of Calvinism, as precious to every Calvinist's heart as they are necessary to the integrity of the system?

Selected as the objects of the Arminian assault, these "five-points" have been reaffirmed, therefore, with the constancy of profound conviction by the whole Calvinistic world. It is well however to bear in mind that they owe their prominence in our minds to the Arminian debate, and however well fitted they may prove in point of fact to stand as a fair epitome of Cavinistic doctrine, they are historically at least only the Calvinistic obverse of "the five points of Arminianism.

Clearly at the root of the stock which bears these branches must lie a most profound sense of God and an equally profound sense of the relation in which the creature stands to God, whether conceived merely as creature or, more specifically as sinful creature. It is the vision of God and His Majesty, in a word, which lies at the foundation of the entirety of Calvinistic thinking. The exact formulation of the formative principle of Calvinism, as I have said, has taxed the acumen of a long line of distinguished thinkers.

Many modes of stating it have been proposed. Perhaps after all, however, its simplest statement is the best. It lies then, let me repeat, in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the poignant realization which inevitably accompanies this apprehension, of the relation sustained to God by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand, with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God's sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners.

He who believes in God without reserve and is determined that God shall be God to him, in all his thinking, feeling, willing--in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual--throughout all his individual, social, religious relations--is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist. If we wish to reduce this statement to a more formal theoretical form, we may say perhaps, that Calvinism in its fundamental idea implies three things.

In it, i objectively speaking, theism comes to its rights; ii subjectively speaking, the religious relation attains its purity; iii soteriologically speaking, evangelical religion finds at length its full expression and its secure stability. Theism comes to its rights only in a teleological view of the universe, which recognizes in the whole course of events the orderly working out of the plan of God, whose will is consequently conceived as the ultimate cause of all things.

The religious relation attains its purity only when an attitude of absolute dependence on God is not merely assumed, as in the act, say, of prayer, but is sustained through all the activities of life, intellectual, emotional, executive. And evangelical religion reaches its full manifestation and its stable form only when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace as the immediate and sole source of all the efficiency which enters into its salvation.

From these things shine out upon us the formative principle of Calvinism. The Calvinist is the man who sees God behind all phenomena, and in all that occurs recognizes the hand of God, working out His will; who makes the attitude of the soul to God in prayer the permanent attitude in all its life activities; and who casts himself on the grace of God alone, excluding every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of his salvation.

I think it important to insist here that Calvinism is not a specific variety of theistic thought, religious experience, evangelical faith, but the perfect expression of these things. The difference between it and other forms of theism, religion, evangelicalism, is a difference not of kind but of degree. There are not many kinds of theism, religion, evangelicalism, each with its own special characteristics, among which men are at liberty to choose, as may suit their individual tastes.

There is but one kind of theism, religion, evangelicalism, and if there are several constructions laying claim to these names they differ from one another, not as correlative species of a more inclusive genus, but only as more or less good or bad specimens of the same thing differ from one another. Calvinism comes forward simply as pure theism, religion, evangelicalism, as over against less pure theism, religion, evangelicalism. It does not take its position then by the side of other types of these things; it takes its place over them, as what they too ought to be.

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It has no difficulty thus, in recognizing the theistic character of all truly theistic thought, the religious note in all really religious manifestations, the evangelical quality of all actual evangelical faith. It refuses to be set antagonistically over against these where they really exist in any degree. It claims them in every instance of their emergence as its own, and seeks only to give them their due place in thought and life. Whoever believes in God, whoever recognizes his dependence on God, whoever hears in his heart the echo of the Soli Deo gloria of the evangelical profession--by whatever name he may call himself; by whatever logical puzzles his understanding may be confused--Calvinism recognizes such as its own, and as only requiring to give full validity to those fundamental principles which underlie and give its body to all true religion to become explicitly a Calvinist.

Calvinism is born, we perceive, of the sense of God.

Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin
Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin
Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin
Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin
Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin
Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin
Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin
Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin Essays on the Life, Work, and Theology of John Calvin

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