John Calvin and the Reform Tradition

calvin-selfknowledgeIf Martin Luther laid the foundation for the reform movement, than John Calvin, along with Huldrych Zwingli, were the primary builders of the new faith. After Zwingli’s death during the Second War of Kappe, Calvin became the architect of the reformed church. Yet it cannot be overlooked that, according to Alister McGrath, “Calvin’s success as a reformer thus owes more to Zwingli than is generally realized.”[i]

John Calvin was a French lawyer whose passion for the reformation was scholarly. In 1534 he published a small pamphlet entitled Institutes of the Christian Religion. According to Justo Gonzalez, “Until then, most Protestant literature, drawn by the urgency of polemics, had dealt exclusively with the points at issue, and had said little regarding other basic doctrines such as the Trinity, the incarnation, and so on.”[ii] Thus Calvin’s writing was an effort to expand the doctrines of the new church that Luther was overlooking.

After fleeing France, a strong Catholic nation, “Calvin had no intention of following the active lifestyle of the many Protestants who, in various parts of Europe, had become leaders of the Reformation. Although he respected and admired them, he was convinced that his gifts were not those of the pastor or the leader, but rather those of the scholar and author.”[iii]

Seeking “…to settle down to a life of private study in the city of Strasbourg.”[iv] He instead ended up in Geneva and began working with the newly established Reform Church. Despite resistance to his ideas which would force him to leave Geneva, Calvin developed much of the doctrines and disciplines for the Geneva church that would influence reformed churches throughout Europe.

He left Geneva for Strasbourg in 1538 and continued to develop doctrines from there. “In quick succession he produced a series of major theological works. He revised and expanded his Institutes (1539), and produced the first French translation of this work (1541); he produced a major defense of Reformation principles in his famous Reply to Sadoleto.”[v] In Strasbourg he also became a pastor to the French speaking people by which, “Calvin was able to gain experience of the practical problems facing Reformed pastors.”[vi] This experience allowed him to return to Geneva in 1541 and more efficiently manage the reformed church there.

The concept of predestination is strongly associated with Calvin “The doctrine of predestination is often thought of as being the central feature of Reformed theology. For many, the term “Calvinist” is virtually identical with “placing great emphasis upon the doctrine of predestination.”[vii] But as Gonzalez points out: “Though predestination and Calvinism are persistently linked, it was other writer who made this link. It was in the following century, as we shall see as our story unfolds, that predestination came to be seen as the hallmark of Calvinism. This was not so during the lifetime of Luther and Calvin, for both affirmed the doctrine of predestination.”[viii]

The concept of transubstantiation, was rejected by nearly all reformers. However Luther and Zwingli disagreed with each other on the body of Christ in the Eucharist. “Eventually, the question of how Christ is present in communion became one of the main points at issue in the debates between Lutherans and Reformed.”[ix] Martin Luther “… took the words of Jesus at the institution of the sacrament as very clear and undeniable proof of his physical presence at the sacrament: “this is my body.” [x] Zwingle felt the elements were symbolic of the presence of Christ but there was no manifestation of the bodily Christ in them.

John Calvin supported his friend Martin Brucer of Strasbourg which attempted to find a middle ground between Zwingle and Luther “Calvin affirmed that the presence of Christ in communion is real, although spiritual.”[xi] It is not an emblematic or pious observance. “…rather, there is in it a true divine action for the church that partakes of the sacrament.”[xii]

Calvin, as most of the reform movement leaders, believed that the sacraments should be made available to all laity and it should be said in the vernacular, which is the laity’s language. He also argued that it needed to be expressed in a manner which the congregation could understand, so uneducated laity should receive it differently than those who able to read. “They modify their language to suit the needs and limitations of their listeners, avoiding difficult words and ideas where necessary and using more appropriate ways of speaking in their place.”[xiii] The diversity of worship in Protestant church reflects this philosophy.

Calvin reasoned that God did the same, adjusting his message and messenger to our abilities. Calvin argues. “God accommodates himself to our limitations. God comes down to our level, using powerful images and ways of speaking as means of self-disclosure.”[xiv] Calvin and Zwingli both saw the sacraments as a seal which allows God to support and sustain us in our weakness.

“A sacrament is never without a preceding promise, but is joined to it as a kind of appendix, in order to confirm and seal the promise itself, making it more clear to us, and in a sense ratifying it … As our faith is weak unless it is supported on every side and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, and finally collapses. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so adjusts himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always cling to the earth and cleave to fleshly things, and do not think about or even conceive spiritual matters, he condescends to lead us to himself by just such earthly things, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings”[xv]

Calvin gave structure to the reform movement and began to more clearly define the liturgy which was used in church service. His Institutes of the Christian Religion and the Genevan Academy where pastors of the Reformed church could be taught were instrumental in establishing the theology of the protestant reformation throughout Europe.

Bibliography

[i] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Wiley & Sons Ltd, West Sussex, UK Kindle Edition.) Kindle Location p 83

[ii] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (Kindle Locations 1333-1335)

[iii]Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day.

Kindle Locations 1358-1360

[iv] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction Kindle Location p 87

[v] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction Kindle Location p. 87

[vi] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction Kindle Location p. 88

[vii] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction Kindle Location p 191

[viii] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. Kindle Locations 1447-1449

[ix] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. Kindle Location 892

[x] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. Kindle Locations 881-883

[xi] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. Kindle Locations 1432-1435

[xii] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. Kindle Locations 1432-1435

[xiii] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction Kindle Location p 165

[xiv] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction Kindle Location p 165

[xv] McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction Kindle Location p 185

 

Bibliography

Placher, William C. Readings in the History of Christian Theology Vol 2, (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1988)

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction ( Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

McGrath, Alister, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day . HarperCollins ebooks. Kindle Edition.

 

Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Luther, Martin, On the Freedom of a Christian: With Related Texts . Hackett Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

Church, Episcopal, THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER (Special Version): Authorized Edition | Christian Miracle Foundation Press. Kindle Edition.