Why Do People Love or Hate John Calvin?

John Calvin polarized the Western world with his theology and his politics. Whether you loved him or hated him, everyone had an opinion.

Mar 1, 2024By Jim Alexander, Grad Cert Ethics & Legal Studies, BTh, BA Govt & International Relations
john calvin controversies

 

John Calvin is the Vegemite of theology — you either love him or you hate him. Calvin came of age in a period of major religious and political upheaval — he was eight years old when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg. Europe was divided between the new Protestant territories and those faithful to the Church of Rome. Luther brought the revolution. Calvin would bring the Reformation.

 

John Calvin’s Early Life

book of hours medieval french codex
Book of Hours, Use of Rouen in Latin and French, c. 1430, Source: Sotheby’s

 

Calvin began his life as a son of the Catholic church. He was born in Noyon, France on July 10th 1509, 26 years after Luther. He was a second-generation reformer. At age eleven, his father obtained a church scholarship for him. Calvin used this income to study in Paris to train for a career in the church. During his time in Paris, Calvin became involved with a number of humanists — many of whom were sympathetic to Reformation ideals.

 

Calvin and the Humanists

hebrew manuscript in red and black lettering
The oldest known example of music printed in Hebrew, by Johann Reuchlin, 1518, Source: Sotheby’s

 

These days when we hear the word humanism, we tend to think of secular humanism. The humanism of Calvin’s day was more concerned with a return to original languages and sources of ancient documents — including the Bible. Some of the great humanists of Calvin’s day were key figures within the Catholic church, like Erasmus of Rotterdam.

 

Calvin was a blossoming intellectual with a keen interest in the original languages of the Bible — Hebrew and Greek. Calvin befriended some of the leading humanists of the era including the new rector of the University of Paris, Nicholas Cop.

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In 1533, Cop preached a sermon that criticized the Catholic faculty at the University. There is some disagreement as to whether this sermon originated from Cop’s humanism or his emerging Protestantism.

 

Whether Protestant or not, the sermon deeply offended the faculty. Calvin and Cop fled the city and were on the run for the following year. In May 1534, Calvin returned to Noyon where he resigned his scholarship and effectively left the Catholic church.

 

The Institutes of the Christian Religion

john calvin reading the institutes in his library
Portrait of John Calvin reading, 16th century, Source: University of Toronto Library

 

The Institutes of the Christian Religion is John Calvin’s most famous work. It started as a short manual on how to read the Bible. Over his lifetime, it spread to a multivolume work of hundreds of pages.

 

Originally published in 1536, the Institutes seeks to use the Bible to construct a system to coherently explain how God acts in the world. Calvin’s emphasis is that God is sovereign (completely in control) over everything. This relates to his emphasis on predestination (also called election) — that God is totally responsible for who will be saved. Calvin continued to develop these ideas expanding and republishing the Institutes several times throughout his life.

 

Arminius and the Synod of Dort

synod of dort john calvin
The Synod of Dort, G Van Hove, 1630, Source: Canonvannetherlands.nl

 

Calvin’s emphasis on predestination was not without its critics. Calvin baldly states that “it is now sufficiently plain that God by his secret counsel chooses whom he will while he rejects others.”

 

The issue of free will had already been extensively debated in the earlier years of the Reformation. The generation after Calvin, Jacobus Arminus would push back further on Calvin’s emphasis on predestination for being overly harsh.

 

The controversy culminated in the Synod of Dort in 1618-9 and the Canons of Dort reaffirmed Calvin’s views focusing on:

 

  • Total depravity — that every part of a person is touched by sin.
  • Unconditional election — that people are chosen by God apart from any good work
  • Limited atonement — that Christ only died for those God has chosen (not the whole world)
  • Irresistible grace — that no one can resist God’s call of grace in their heart
  • Perseverance of the saints — that those who are elected will continue to believe until the end.

 

This is summarized with the TULIP acronym — the first letter of each of these points. It remains a distinguishing feature between Calvinists and non-Calvinists around the world to this day.

 

Calvin and the Genevans

drawing of geneva in 1548
Vue de Geneve, by Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch, 1548, Source: International Reformation Museum, Geneva

 

In 1537 Calvin was invited to Geneva to help establish Reformation ideals. All the townspeople were called to swear loyalty to a Protestant statement of belief. The Genevans opposed Calvin and disputes in the town resulted in his expulsion.

 

Calvin was invited back to Geneva in 1541. The town council eventually accepted his revision of the city laws. Calvin’s aim was to bring every citizen under the moral discipline of the church. This included the creation of the Consistory which administered church discipline in the city.

 

The Consistory did not show any favoritism to the wealthy classes of the city. Calvin’s readiness to punish the politically powerful for not attending church or drunkenness led to serious tensions between church and state. Many naturally resented such restrictions — especially when imposed by an outsider. Calvin remained in Geneva for the rest of his life. In his later years, Calvin’s authority in Geneva was less disputed.

 

Michael Servetus

michael servetus burnt at the stake in background
Michael Servetus, Amsterdam, 1607, Source: Edinburgh University Library

 

In 1546, a Spaniard called Michael Servetus began to correspond with Calvin. The letters started as questions about doctrine but eventually became hostile. Calvin remarked in a letter to one of his contemporaries: “Servetus lately wrote to me and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies. I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come [to Geneva] I will never permit him to depart alive.” 

 

In August 1553, Michael Servetus, fleeing the authorities for charges of heresy in France, stopped briefly in Geneva on his way to Italy. He decided to go to church to hear Calvin preach. He was recognized at the service, arrested, brought to trial, and burned at the stake.

 

Calvin and Other Reformers

martin luther portrait
Martin Luther (1483-1546), by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1532, Source: The MET

 

Calvin was influenced and well-received by many of the early reformers. His views on salvation by faith alone aligned with Luther’s. Calvin considered himself a follower of Luther — not the creator of a new movement. His emphasis on the authority of the Bible — instead of the teaching of the church — also aligned him with other Reformers.

 

However, Calvin diverged from other Reformers on the Lord’s Supper. The Catholic church taught that the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of Christ. Part of the priest’s job was to re-sacrifice these elements as part of the ceremony.

 

Luther agreed that the bread and wine were changed at the Lord’s Supper but disagreed it was a sacrifice. Ulrich Zwingli believed that the bread and wine were not changed, nor was it a sacrifice. Zwingli taught that the Lord’s Supper was a purely symbolic memorial.

 

Calvin agreed with Zwingli and Luther that the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice. However, Calvin taught that Christ is spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper. Not really present in the bread and wine like Luther, nor purely a symbol like Zwingli.

 

Divisions between the reformers are recorded with Luther saying “Calvin was educated but strongly suspected of the error of the Sacramentarians.” Calvin said of Zwingli that he was “too contaminated by the philosophers too profane and also too fond of paradoxes.”

 

The Counter-Reformation

luther and john calvin riding into hell
Luther et Calvin en enfer, by Egbert II van Heemskerck, c. 1700-1710, Source: RTS

 

Calvin was in conflict with the Catholic Church throughout his life. The Counter-Reformation was a period in which the Catholic Church sought to unify around agreed doctrinal positions. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) identified several reformed doctrinal positions and sought to refute them.

 

Several key doctrines were in direct opposition to Luther and Calvin’s teaching. Calvin attacked the Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper saying: “men have… out of their own head invented that it is a sacrifice by which we obtain the remission of our sins before God. This is a blasphemy which is intolerable.” 

 

It is sometimes hard for us to understand how seriously these views were taken at the time. The Council of Trent declared that: “If any one saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God; or, that to be offered is nothing else but that Christ is given us to eat; let him be anathema.”

 

Calvinism Today

huguenot refugees disembark their boats
Emigration of the Huguenots 1566, by Jan Antoon Neuhuys, 1891, Source: londonist.com

 

John Calvin was the spiritual forefather of the Huguenots. These French Protestants were severely persecuted in France. They fled and settled across the world including in Great Britain, Florida, and South Africa.

 

There is an ongoing link between Great Britain and the United States as some of the most committed English Calvinists were also the Puritans who traveled to settle the New World. Calvinism continues to have deep links to major Christian denominations including Anglicanism and Presbyterianism.

 

There are also some reports that Calvinism is growing in denominations not traditionally affiliated with Calvinism. Nevertheless, many of the traditional differences between the Reformed and Catholic churches remain.

 

john calvin writing with a quill
Calvin, by Ary Scheffler, 1858, via the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

Calvin may very well be the Vegemite of theology — either loved or hated. He can be too quickly dismissed as an agitator or too quickly appealed to as the final authoritative word. He is a complex character who divided and united people throughout his lifetime. More than five centuries after his birth, his views are the subject of spirited debate throughout the Western world.

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By Jim AlexanderGrad Cert Ethics & Legal Studies, BTh, BA Govt & International RelationsJim holds degrees in Political Science, Theology and graduate qualifications in Environmental Law. It’s a struggle at dinner parties when all he wants to discuss is religion and politics. Jim is a freelance researcher and copywriter.