Critical Biography of John Calvin

John Calvin
John Calvin

Critical Biography of John Calvin

Introduction

The protestant reformation movement was started as a way to repudiate some of the long-held beliefs that had been propagated by the Catholic Church. The growing sentiments against the tight control the papacy had over religious expression contributed to the eventual schism between the reformers and the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation had two critical components: Lutheran and English Reformation.

Luther is acknowledged as the father of reformation that led to the birth of the Protestant church while the Church of England is credited with leading the way in the later reformation. One of the early reformers who profoundly influenced Reformation was John Calvin.

Calvin was pivotal in moving forward the reform agenda but was also vilified by his detractors for some of his teachings such as predestination, weak personality, false spirituality and his participation in the Servetus execution. The following critical review is based on the literary work by Bernard Cottret, Calvin, A Biography: A Biography (2003).

Background History

John Calvin or Jean Cauvin according to French pronunciation was born on July 10th 1509 in France in Noyon Picardy and died at a relatively young age of 55 years in the year 1564. Calvin was born into a family of parents who came from the middle class, with his father being employed in the service of the local bishop[1]. The employment of his father affected his initial decision to send him to further his studies as a priest but later changed his mind and decided to enroll Calvin for training as a lawyer.

According to Cottret[2], Calvin was trained as a lawyer in Orleans and Bourges in the law schools that operated there. While studying, Calvin was profoundly impacted by the emerging ideas of Erasmus which centered on RenaissanceHumanism[3]. Renaissance Humanism aimed to reform the status quo of the church and society, and this laid the foundation for Calvin’s involvement later in the Reformation movement.

The Renaissance Humanism that emphasized salvation by grace and not good works inspired Calvin to undertake studies in Latin, Greek and Hebrew languages which were the primary languages of discourse in Christian antiquity. His studies eventually led him to write his first discourse on clemency based on the commentaries of Seneca in 1532. Bouwsma[4]

Posits that the growing lack of tolerance in Paris to the reform movement forced Calvin to relocate to Basel where his conversion grew stronger as he engaged in intensive studying of the scriptures and theology. This time that was spent in Basel resulted in the first writings of what would later constitute his masterwork publications- the Institutes. This paper in the Institute gave him prominence within the Protestant movement and led leaders of the movement to seek him out as an authority in the movement.

In 1536, Calvin was invited to extend his stay in Geneva where he was temporarily staying, to strengthen the Protestant movement in the town[5]. He later came back to Geneva in 1541 and contributed to the change of leadership of the town under his ordinances. The town efficiently was run under the concepts postulated by Calvin which included the enforcement of morality laws and the abolition of abortion.

Calvin instituted leadership and laws that were meant to make the town to be aligned to the laws of God. The measures initiated by Calvin were humanist in nature including setting up an Academy to train for positions of leadership that were secular based on humanist principles. He is criticized for this period of his life for leaning more on principles that espoused humanist beliefs rather than doctrinal teachings by his detractors.

Calvin was instrumental in making sure that there was continuity in the reformation movement by giving refuge to protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution. The refugees came from as far as England while others came from France. One such refugee who went back to change his country positively was John Knox from England who found refuge in Geneva under the control of Calvin. Many refugees who sought protection in Geneva were drawn to Calvin and to his teachings on reformation which they took back home with them[6].

The school of theology he founded in Geneva was outstanding in offering training for the refugees who went back home after receiving theological training. According to Treasure[7] Calvin was involved in sending back home to France more than 100 Reformed missionaries, and this was critical in strengthening the Reformed Church in the early years of the Reformation.

Criticism

Personality- Calvin was a man whom many considered cold and impersonal when compared to Luther who was considered warm and approachable. His perspectives in life were considered as abstract rather than ideas that were practical for everyday Christian living. This writing was more his solace that portrayed him as a person who lived in his world, cut off from the ordinary laity.

His introvert character could have been caused by feelings of inadequacy about salvation, and these inner deficiencies made him a man of letters. His character of being cold and aloof could also have been contributed to his early upbringing in a class that was relatively privileged and cut off from the common people. The writings were only beneficial to a few within the circles of the Protestant movement much in the same as most liturgical readings in the Catholic Church.

The character of the man Calvin is seen today in Calvinists who today come across as being unemotional, cold and emphasize the ability to control oneself and the environment. This characterization of Calvinists has been an impediment to believers who may embrace the tenets of his philosophy but are put off by the practicality of the ideal Calvinist characterization.

The Institutes- The institutes that were written by Calvin is largely made up of logical and reasoned arguments which are designed to appeal to the academic mind. The writings are more of the personal beliefs of Calvin and which have played a significant role as the central theology of Calvinism. They point to God yet at the same time over emphasize on the frailties of man such as reprobation and depravity. The writings come across as being narrow regarding hermeneutics with the negative portrayal of humanity[8].

Calvin in his writings takes on a prescriptive view of discipleship that is based on instilling fear rather than love. His humanist beliefs are seen to exert influence in his writings where he posits that the middle order of human life is a utility. This emphasis on utility and practicality in Christianity is influenced by his conviction and early influences from Renaissance Humanism. Thus his writings are a strange mix of theology infused with thoughts from the school of humanism.

Calvin rejects some of the sacramental claims of the Catholic Church and retains two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in his writings. The point of departure between Calvin and the Catholic Church seem to be superficial as he claims that sacraments are dependent on the faith of the recipient and not on the form of ritual for its sake. This is repudiated in his acceptance of infant baptism which negates the principle of faith by the recipient of the sacrament[9].

His approach to the Lord’s Supper is closer to the consubstantiation position of Luther while rejecting the transubstantiation position of the Catholic Church. His position on the sacrament of the Lord’s Table is thus theologically correct while his position on child baptism is faulty in the same measure.This, therefore, shows his selective rejection of some beliefs of the Catholic Church while holding on to others which question his sincerity as a reformer.

Theology One of the major criticisms about Calvin is in the theology that he espoused on predestination. According to Perry[10]Calvin posits that certain people were predestined by God to be the “elect” from the foundations of the world. This carries the implications that those who were not predestined were already condemned from the foundations of eternity and therefore no amount of preaching and evangelism can save them.

This presumption by Calvin states that people will be saved and serve God because God chose them and therefore man has no choice in salvation. This is the foundation of Calvinism that is represented by the acronym TULIP. This stands for Total- total inability of man to be good. U- Unconditional election of man. L-limited atonement meaning Christ paid for the few elect.

An i-irresistible meaning man has no choice. P-perseverance meaning that one is always saved if chosen to be among the elect few.The theology of Calvin is therefore unsound due to the shortcomings that are in contrast to the scriptures.

His theology negates the tenets of evangelism since God has already chosen the select fewhe predestined[11]. It negates prayer for family, friends and the sick. It implicitly implies that God is complicit in creating sin. The assumption that man is incapable of being good implies that man cannot be truly remorseful or to repent truly. If man cannot be truly good, he cannot be faulted for acts which are considered sin.

The eternal condemnation of the non-elect portrays God as an unjust God by the concept of double-predestination[12]. John 10:11 states that Christ died for all and not a few elect while James 5:19-20 warns against going back to the sinful ways of the world. This is contrary to Calvinist theology that once a person is saved, they will stay saved.

Protestant Work Ethic– Calvin is credited as being one of the founders of the philosophy known as the Protestant Work  Ethic. This philosophy postulates that work is a path to salvation or deliverance. This was from the earliest theology that was developing from the Protestant church, influenced by teaching of Lither on work as a calling or beruft. Calvin expounded on this early thoughts based on his Calvinist ideology that the elect should work daily to perfect their calling with regards to righteousness.

His time spent in Geneva contributed in shaping his thoughts on the work ethic from a Protestant view. While at Geneva, Calvin espoused teachings that work was more beneficial to God than the individual and thus disdained accumulation of wealth. The role of work was to serve God and his work (evangelism) and to serve one’s, neighbor. This is a false premise according to the scripture as seen in 3 John 1:2 which openly shows that it is the will of God for Christians to prosper.

The philosophical teachings of Calvin based on his ideology of Calvinism was contrary to the belief that self-improvement was a viable attainment of work.[13]This is based on his humanist philosophy rather than Scripture which declares that we are expected to be fruitful and to grow ( 2 Peter 1: 8,  Genesis 1:22).[14]The humanist philosophical ideals of Calvin which he institutionalized in literature distort the foundational constructs that are scriptural.

The Calvinist ideals that founded the false premise of the Protestant work ethic have a wrong foundation from that man was doomed to work after his fall. Work is not necessary to expiate humankind before a merciful God rather it is an extension of the divinity of God in his creation. This is because God is a worker having created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day ( Genesis 2:2)[15]

Prosperity comes with diligence and self-improvement which leads to the creation of wealth as seen from the scriptures in Proverbs (12:14, 27: 18-27).[16] Work for its sake as the center of moral life and as a measure of virtue and worth is less of scripture and more of Calvinist philosophy. The encouragement of labor as way to edify the Church laid the foundation for Capitalism as part of the Protestant work ethic. Capitalism brought sweeping beneficial changes to the society but also resulted in great inequalities in equal measure.

Spirituality- Calvin posits two metaphors for the Christian life that are found to be wanting from practical application in everyday Christian living. The first metaphor he posits is to compare the life of a Christian to that of a soldier who is called to live a life of rigorous discipline. The Christian soldier is called to bear arms in war against his wickedness in the flesh while learning from the punishments that are visited upon the wicked.

This can be traced to his stay at Geneva where he controlled the town and enforced his strict interpretations of morality according to scripture. The citizens of Geneva who resented his teachings were punished for their intransigence including hangings so that others could learn from such example[17]. The belief that other people suffer so that the elect can learn from their sufferings is false spirituality with no Biblical foundation.

The belief that the misfortune of other people especially the non-elect helps to purge the wickedness of the elect lacks merit in the scriptures. It, therefore, offers a hollow sense of spirituality to the believer. The suffering of the non-elect could be because of demonic oppression, sin or even for God to be glorified according to John 11:4 (NKJV)[18]. Thus the simplification of suffering of the non-elect to their shortcomings which draws the wrath of God is faulty.

The approach is taken to the Christian life as a perpetual conflict negates the rest that was promised to the body of Christ. The finished work of the cross is not complete without works in the flesh. The Christian is expected to suffer as part of the atonement each pays for sin. The suffering of the elect can thus be seen as a manifestation of inward sin that is not confessed that has drawn the ire of God, and thus the elect is punished with affliction.

Another metaphor Calvin draws is to compare the Christian walk with a journey that strenuously progresses in holiness. The journey in holiness involves progressive sanctification in on a daily basis. This presumption by Calvin is faulty from Scripture and offers a Christianity that becomes strenuous by human endeavor and effort. The scriptures declare that we receive the righteousness of God according to Romans 3:22 which are imputed to be by faith (NKJV). 

We cannot increase in righteousness but we can increase daily in faith: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall by faith’” (NKJV Romans 1:17)[19]. The pursuit of progressive holiness and sanctification by Calvinists according to Calvin becomes their single-minded goal in their journey of Christianity. The pursuit of the superior virtues may sound spiritual but has no scriptural foundation and therefore sets the Calvinist adherent on a journey of false spirituality.

Apologist– In the tradition of the founding fathers of the Reformation who were apologists, Calvin comes across as a weak apologist. Calvin in his Institutes posits that faith is always reasonable even though it may appear at times as being reasonable. This is contrary to the leanings of other apologists like Luther who steadfastly faith is unchanging and central to understanding the workings of God in human affairs.

This is seen when Calvin wrote an epistle dedicated to King Francis who was purging the early reform movement in Paris. The dedicatory epistle sounds more like a letter of apology from an individual who seems to be undergoing internal struggles as to his beliefs. This epistle questions his true allegiance to the Reformation movement as it introduces some skepticism as regards his core theology.

This epistle can be interpreted as the surest sign that Calvin was still willing to make a rapprochement with the Catholic Church and thus not a true reformer. It could also be due to his belief that rulers and authorities could be instrumental in propagating the reform movement.[20]

Michael Servetus The role that Calvin played in the execution of Michael Servetus helped put a blemish on his beliefs which were compared to the Catholic Church from which he had broken way from. Servetus was of the same age as Calvin and equally learned in theology but was considered a heretic by both Catholics and Protestants[21].

While fleeing from certain death from Roman Catholic authorities; he entered by chance into a church where Calvin was preaching. Calvin ordered his arrest, and he was subsequently charged with heresy and blasphemy. This arrest of a non-citizen of Geneva has raised questions as to the legality of his arrest and subsequent execution by burning at the stake[22].

The Protestant Council that tried him condemned him to death at a time when Calvin was in charge of the city of Geneva. Calvin is accused of not being forthright for his role in the execution of Servetus especially for a movement that was based on reform.

The execution by the Protestant church under a leading reformer such as Calvin was no different from the practices that had estranged the movement from the Catholic Church. Burning at the stake was the common form of execution for heretics, some of whom were innocent. The expected reforms within this movement included the forms of punishment that were to be meted on heretics such as imprisonment.

The decision to follow in the traditional Catholic forms of punishment was blight on the record of the early reformers under the leadership of Calvin. The practice of burning at stake had been misused by the Catholic Church, and this execution of Servetus negatively impacted the gains that were being made by the Protestant Church[23]. Most reformers of this period rejected the verdict that was reached by the council under the leadership of Calvin as being anti-reformist.

Missionary Work– The perspective taken by Calvin on evangelism and missionary work is faulty and is a product of his humanistic philosophy combined with theology. Calvin believed that Christian rulers and magistrates could play a major role in spreading Christianity. This is seen from his belief that the ascension to the throne by Queen Elizabeth in 1558 could help propagate Christianity[24]

The lack of demarcation between Church and the State could also have been influenced from his time as the chief authority in the town of Geneva where he sought to join the Church and the civic authority. This is also seen from his correspondence with Jeanne d’Albret who was a woman from the French nobility to support the reformation in France[25].

His approach to missionary work was more from a theological perspective rather than from a practical approach. He believed more in sending literature to the mission fields rather than personally engaging on the ground. His academic approach to evangelism could partly have been influenced by his doctrinal beliefs in predestination.

Assessment

John Calvin played an important role within the reformation movement that led to the growth of a strong and vibrant Protestant Church as it stands today[26]. His scholarly approach to interpreting Scripture made him write several Bible commentaries on the New and Old Testament. He is credited as being the founder of the Presbyterian system of church leadership which is widely used today by most churches.

The structure he founded on church government has remained largely unchanged to this day. The theological principles he posited laid the foundation of Calvinism and the modern day Calvinist Church. His influences can be seen in the Reformations that were impacted by his works in churches in Scotland, France, and Germany. His works also affected the Baptist Church tremendously as well as the churches that were planted in North America.

The influence of Calvin was not only limited to the church but also contributed to the aspects of Western civilization such as capitalism and Puritanism. His writings contributed to the development of the concept of the Protestant work ethic and capitalism. His writings on theology also contributed to the corporate body knowledge within Christianity[27].

His influence on leading reformers of his time impacted the reformation with his focus on his peculiar form of evangelism by writing letters. His writings and focus on distributing the Bible as well as his writings helped to propagate the gospel across Europe and the rest of the world. His thoughts on morality and ethics have contributed to the development of the philosophy of Humanism as well as Utilitarianism.

Despite his divergent views from some leading reformers such as Martin Luther, Calvin made significant contributions as an apologist for Reformation as well as a Bible expositor of his generation. He lived a life that was predestined to make an impact that is still felt in this generation.

Conclusion

The life of John Calvin was a life that was lived to the dedication of reforming the body of Christ. The pursuit of education in his formative years was instrumental in shaping his mental astuteness that would be pivotal in his theological studies. The early proponents of Renaissance Humanism inspired him on the journey to a deeper study of the scriptures and led him to begin his writings. The works of Calvin have both positive and negative aspects that are attached to them.

Critics of Calvin majorly criticize him on his theological perspectives on predestination. Some other shortcomings can be found in his beliefs on infant baptism. His detractors fault his participation in the execution of Michael Servetus. His personality is equally faulted as being a cold and unapproachable person. Despite the many negative aspects of his life and writings, Calvin is still acknowledged today as one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the church and therefore a church Statesman.

Bibliography

Boa, Kenneth D and Bowman, Robert D. “Faith has its Reasons” Retrieved from https://bible.org/series/faith-has-its-reasons

Bouwsma, W., J. John Calvin, French Theologian. Encyclopedia Brittanica. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Calvin

Cottret, B. Calvin, A Biography: A Biography. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.(2003). 

Gordon, B. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.(2016). 

Goroncy, J. John Calvin: Servant of the Word. In Rae M., Matheson P., & Knowles B. (Eds.), Calvin The Man and the Legacy. ATF (Australia). (2013). (pp. 13-40). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt163t9d3.5

Halfond, G. The History Teacher, 45(2), 313-314. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23265936

Haykin, M., A.G. “A Sacrifice Well Pleasing to God”; John Calvin and the Missionary Endeavor of the Church.pdf. (2015). Retrieved from http://equip.sbts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/9037-SBJT-V13-N.4-Haykin.pdf

John. New King James Version. Bible Society. (2012).

Kim, S. Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination. In Deus provide bit: Calvin, Schleiermacher, and Barth on the Providence of God. Augsburg Fortress. (2014). (pp. 25-86). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9m0v8x.7

McKee, E. A Week in the Life of John Calvin. In Rae M., Matheson P., & Knowles B. (Eds.), Calvin The Man and the Legacy. ATF (Australia). (2013).(pp. 61-78). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt163t9d3.7

Perry, B. Arguments against Calvinism and Predestination. (2017). Retrieved from http://people.cs.ksu.edu/~bbp9857/calvinism.html

Romans. New King James Version. Bible Society.(2012).

Smith, Virgil O., and Yvonne S. Smith. “Bias, History, and the Protestant Work Ethic.” Journal of Management History 17, no. 3 (2011): 282-98, https://search.proquest.com/docview/875621956?accountid=45049

Treasure, G. Calvin: THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE. In The Huguenots. Yale University Press.(2013). (pp. 75-83). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm0ht.14

[1]Bouwsma, W., J. John Calvin, French Theologian. Encyclopedia Brittanica. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Calvin

[2]Cottret, B. Calvin, A Biography: A Biography. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.(2003). Pg. 53.

[3]Cottret, B. Calvin, A Biography: A Biography. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.(2003). Pg. 263.

[4]Bouwsma, W., J. John Calvin, French Theologian. Encyclopedia Brittanica. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Calvin

[5] Ibid, pg. 110.

[6]Cottret, B. Calvin, A Biography: A Biography. London: Continuum International Pub. Group. (2003). Pg. 184.

[7]Treasure, G. Calvin: THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE. In The Huguenots. Yale University Press. (2013). (pp. 78). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm0ht.14

[8]Cottret, B. Calvin, A Biography: A Biography. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.(2003). Pg. 320.

[9]Goroncy, J. John Calvin: Servant of the Word. In Rae M., Matheson P., & Knowles B. (Eds.), Calvin The Man and the Legacy. ATF (Australia). (2013). (pp. 25). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt163t9d3.5

[10]Perry, B. Arguments against Calvinism and Predestination. (2017). Retrieved from http://people.cs.ksu.edu/~bbp9857/calvinism.html

[11]Kim, S. Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination. In Deus provide bit: Calvin, Schleiermacher, and Barth on the Providence of God. (2014). (pp. 62). Augsburg Fortress. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9m0v8x.7

[12]Perry, B. Arguments against Calvinism and Predestination. (2017). Retrieved from http://people.cs.ksu.edu/~bbp9857/calvinism.html

[13] Smith, Virgil O., and Yvonne S. Smith. “Bias, History, and the Protestant Work Ethic.” Journal of Management History 17, no. 3 (2011): 282-98, https://search.proquest.com/docview/875621956?accountid=45049.

[14] 2Peter 1:8 New King James Version, Bible Society, 2012, Genesis 1:22 New King James Version, Bible Society, 2012.

[15] Genesis 2:2 New King James Version, Bible Society, 2012.

[16] Proverbs 12:14 New King James Version, Bible Society, Proverbs 27:18-27 New King James Version, Bible Society, 2012.

[17]Cottret, B. Calvin, A Biography: A Biography. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.(2003). Pg. 220.

[18]John. New King James Version. Bible Society. (2012).

[19]Romans. New King James Version. Bible Society.(2012).

[20] Boa, Kenneth D and Bowman, Robert D. “Faith has its Reasons” Retrieved from https://bible.org/series/faith-has-its-reasons

[21]Gordon, B. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.(2016). Pg. 25-29.

[22]Cottret, B. Calvin, A Biography: A Biography. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.(2003). Pg. 208.

[23]Ibid. Pp. 230.

[24]Haykin, M., A.G. “A Sacrifice Well Pleasing to God”; John Calvin and the Missionary Endeavor of the Church.pdf. (2015). Retrieved from http://equip.sbts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/9037-SBJT-V13-N.4-Haykin.pdf

[25] Ibid.

[26]Halfond, G. The History Teacher, 45(2), (2012). 313-314. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23265936

[27]McKee, E. A Week in the Life of John Calvin. In Rae M., Matheson P., & Knowles B. (Eds.), Calvin The Man and the Legacy. ATF (Australia). (2013). (pp. 70). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt163t9d3.7

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