John Calvin

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
John Calvin, Barcelona, 1554.
Christ died for
our articles about

Icon christianity.svg
Devil's in the details

Jean Cauvin, alias John Calvin (1509-1564), was a lawyer and heresiarch best known for founding the Christian theological school of Calvinism, which is professed by a variety of church denominations, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and some Baptist sects.

Education and break with Rome[edit]

The son of a notary and an innkeeper's daughter, he began by studying philosophy as part of a seminary course, but his father rapidly moved him to law school before he could get much formal theological training. He received an education in the law and came under the influence of Renaissance humanism.

One day, circa 1529, he was of a sudden inflamed with desire and broke off from the church without waiting to be kicked out.[1] However, unlike your typical heretic, Calvin apparently enjoyed being the only true Christian about, hence stayed comparatively quiet about his newfound holiness for more than two years. On November 1, 1533, he was exposed for a member of a ring of academic subversives and soon found himself on the lam.


Coming into safe territory in Switzerland, Calvin was prevailed upon to become a pastor. Unfortunately for him, he had not taken care to be ordained as such before becoming an heresiarch; and as it says in his denomination's Second Helvetic Confession, "Let the ministers of the Church be called and chosen by lawful and ecclesiastical election; that is to say, let them be carefully chosen by the Church."[2] So he did the next best thing and employed what Jonathan Sarfati has termed "semantic gymnastics ... found in the ramblings of liberal 'Christians'"[3] in order to alter the meaning of a portion of the Nicene Creed, the part talking about the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church."

Specifically, he interpreted it in the light of Plato's Theory of Forms, according to which tangible objects are imperfect reflections of abstract ideas;[4] this allowed him to put forth his concept of a church invisible. As he summarized it in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

The hinges on which the controversy turns are these: first, in [Catholics] contending that the form of the Church is always visible and apparent; and, secondly, in their placing this form in the see of the Church of Rome and its hierarchy. We, on the contrary, maintain, both that the Church may exist without any apparent form, and, moreover, that the form is not ascertained by that external splendour which they foolishly admire, but by a very different mark, namely, by the pure preaching of the word of God, and the due administration of the sacraments.[5]

Having executed the bait-and-switch, he promptly declared himself a pastor of the invisible church that only he could see and went right on, becoming involved in political radicalism.

Reform work in Switzerland[edit]

In Switzerland, other reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli, had already started work; Calvin now cast in his lot with them. Geneva at that time was a prince-bishopric, under temporal church rule, although there was a charter granting an elected city council. In 1536, the bishop having been deposed, the council announced that Geneva was now a republic. Calvin started with reform work there, but when a minor dispute over whether communion wafers should contain yeast or not caused a riot in the church, the council booted him out.

But they invited him back, eventually; he then entered a protracted political struggle with his opponents on the council, whom he was occasionally accustomed to harass by such means as hauling their wives before the courts on suspicion of the crime of dancing. He was aided in this task by the immigration of large numbers of Protestant refugees to Geneva; these people, being given citizenship, promptly reciprocated by electing Calvin's friends to the council and secured the future of Calvinism, for instance by burning the heretic Michael Servetus at the stake.[6]

Later years[edit]

His position in Geneva secure, he continued work on his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Protestants' answer to the Summa Theologica. He also was actively engaged in bickering with the Lutherans over exactly what happened to the wine and wafers during communion.


Calvinism is most notable today for being the theology espoused by the English Puritans who were among the early European settlers of the area that became the United States, thus causing that country to have and attract more than its share of religious fanatics.

Also, there were some points in Calvin's theology that seemed to run counter to long-established tenets of Christianity. For example, one of the central selling points of Christianity in the Apostolic Age had been that the coming of Jesus had wiped out the distinction between God's "chosen people" and others, so that salvation was possible for anyone.

Calvin, on the other hand, instituted two new theological concepts called limited atonement and unconditional election. Unconditional election dates back to Augustine,[7] but Calvin brought it back to prominence. It had previously been held that Jesus had given his life to buy God off for the benefit of all the world's people; Calvin restricted this to a special set of people "chosen" by the unconditional election of God, thus restoring the idea of the "chosen nation."[8] Furthermore, in their Second Helvetic Confession, Calvin and his fellows reintroduced an ethnic component to this "chosen" set, stating, i.a., that infant baptism is acceptable on account of the child of a God-chosen mother being also chosen, and that baptism "separates us from all strange religions and peoples."[9] So seriously did they take this idea that Anabaptists, who supported adult baptism instead, were put to death by drowning.

The Puritan emigrants to North America made even more of the "chosen people" idea than Calvin did, probably because they thought that they were the chosen people in question. They placed much less emphasis on the New Testament than many Christian groups; this is partly evidenced by the fact that entire generations of New Englanders were named after Old Testament figures, a massive departure from the mix of Germanic, New Testament, and Christian mythic names then common in England.[10]

The Puritans also slapped some new restrictions on marriage. Previously, a somewhat pragmatic view had been taken of marriages between orthodox Christians and others, citing mythic passages stating that in a mixed marriage, the non-Christian spouse was sanctified via the Christian one.[11] On the other hand, the Puritan confession of faith gives a flat condemnation of marriage between Puritans and non-Puritans.[12]

These ideas of the Puritans as a chosen people later served as an inspiration both for Dominionists and for British Israelism, both of which have been nuisances at best for their nations and the rest of the world alike.

See also[edit]


  1. Calvin, Commentary on Psalms
  2. Second Helvetic Confession chapter XVIII
  3. Sarfati, 1998
  4. Cf. the Allegory of the Cave (Republic 514a). In other places he interprets Bible verses in the light of this theory, e.g., "The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews elegantly describes the visible worlds as images of the invisible (Heb. 11:3)" (Institutes of the Christian Religion I.5.1).
  5. Institutes of the Christian Religion pref. 6
  6. Bernard Cottret, Calvin, a Biography, trans. M. Wallace McDonald, pp. 189 & 225.
  7. ↑ Calvinism Was Taught First by Augustine
  8. Institutes of the Christian Religion III.21.7
  9. Second Helvetic Confession chapter XX; emphasis added
  10. Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature, Beardsley, Charles W. Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly. London, 1880. Pg. 59
  11. 1 Corinthians 7:12-14
  12. Westminster Confession XXIV