Martin Luther vs. John Calvin: The French vs the German Reformation

When John Calvin died in 1564, he considered his work done; Calvinism had spread through Europe. Yet, in the years to come, new battles against the Lutherans would storm Europe.

Dec 14, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

martin luther vs john calvin


As more and more souls turned to Calvinism, the Lutherans felt threatened, and some even allied with the Catholics. Why would the Protestants fight against each other? Were they really so different? Despite attempts to find common ground, they never did. Their differences were mainly political and even personal in some cases. What made these two confessions so distinct? Let us look carefully at the teachings of the two founders, John Calvin and Martin Luther.


Before John Calvin and Martin Luther: Humanism vs the Middle Ages

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Six Tucscan Poets, by Giorgio Vasari, 1544, via Minneapolis Institue of Art


Martin Luther grew up in a monastery and honored St. Augustine and the Church Fathers. In his youth, he studied the scholastics and underwent many classical disputations. His movement and teaching started a new era, yet Luther remained deeply rooted in the Middle Ages in regard to his thinking, philosophy, and even his language. Whenever Luther wrote in Latin, his Latin was dry and straightforward.


John Calvin, however, used complex humanistic Latin phrases that he learned from Cicero. Calvin was a humanist, a preacher a generation younger than Luther; he grew up studying humanistic texts, loved antiquity, and shared the humanist’s belief that humans should be at the center of all things. His famous saying, “Without the knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God,” expressed his belief that God should be studied through man. This represents the shift in thinking from the Middle Ages to the humanism of the Renaissance.


How Does Philosophy Fit into All This

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Portrait of John Calvin, by French School, 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons


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John Calvin was an educated philosopher. He read the classical works of Roman and Greek authors. His favorite was Seneca, and Calvin loved stoic philosophy. Calvinist morals were partly derived from Seneca. The Calvinists accept their fate with stoic calm like the Lutherans never did.


As a humanist, Calvin encouraged even common people to read and educate themselves on philosophy. While Martin Luther started as a university professor and a monk, Calvin preached to wealthy and educated townspeople. Luther despised philosophy, and humanism the worst of all. Luther remained scholastic, meaning he held that philosophy is beneath Theology. However, Luther encouraged ordinary people to read the Scripture, thus bringing a rise in literacy. Philosophy should remain at university, where it could not do much damage.


How They Approached the Catholic Church

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Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877, via State Gallery of Stuttgart


Martin Luther was the first person in history to create a separate church within the Western Catholic see. Before him, something like that was unimaginable. All the reformers, like John Wycliffe, John Hus and his Hussite followers, and Catherine of Sienna, reformist monastic orders, criticized the church and wanted to change it, sometimes significantly and to various ends. But none dared to think they should break the church apart. Neither did Luther in the beginning. If you told the young Luther that one day his teaching would tear Christianity in half, he might have locked himself in his cell, ripped out his tongue, and maimed his hands to prevent that from happening. Yet, his circumstances and further developments drove Luther to establish the German church, although he still had doubts. In one of his letters, he explained his reluctance to marry due to these doubts. He was still unsure whether or not he would not burn in hell for what he did, and could not have a family under these circumstances.


John Calvin did not have to go through such mental torment. Luther paved the path for him; Calvin lived in a world where the scission already happened. The German church had already split off from the Catholic Sea, which was good for them. While Luther started with the thought of reforming the Catholic world, writing supportive letters to the Pope, and being willing to attend councils organized by archbishops, Calvinism was not open to discussion.


Martin Luther and John Calvin: As Different as Can Be

Portrait of John Calvin, Unknown author, 1550, via Wikimedia Commons


Luther was a plump, pleasant man with a sense of humor, and although he suffered from depression, he was a friendly company. He liked good beer and food and enjoyed the world’s pleasures with reason and without doubts. His letters are full of witty remarks, and for all, we know about the German reformer, he got along well with people around him, including his wife and children.


Calvin was a clever charismatic leader with a stern look and strict morals. He lacked even a basic sense of humor and, with age, grew pricky and paranoid. These different characteristics are reflected in the religions the two men founded. While Lutherans kept beautiful paintings in their churches and did not lead the believers to become ascetics, the Calvinists are famous for their strict moral values and strenuous approach to work.


Predestination and Morals

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Illustration from History of the Great Reformation in Europe in the Times of Luther and Calvin, by Merle d’Aubigné and Jean Henri, 1870, via The Library of Congress


Calvinism emphasized predestination, the idea that all is set in stone and that our deeds have no meaning. While Luther agreed with this idea (crafted by St. Augustine), he never emphasized it, and predestination remained a theological concept debated at universities.


Among the Calvinists, the notion of predestination was widely known and led to a pessimistic worldview. Moreover, the Lutheran moral code did not differ much from that of Catholics. The Calvinists despised all worldly pleasures and fine clothes — both Calvinist women and men dressed in black, with no jewels and no fancy hairdos. With no lavish parties and clothes to spend their money on, the Calvinists invested in their work and businesses. It was the religion of townspeople and contributed highly to the development of the business social class.


Calvin was very severe when judging the morals of the people in his city and encouraged his followers to do the same. This resulted in people spying on each other. People learned to behave differently in public and at home. In Geneva, even today, you won’t find any curtains. The Calvinists would not put curtains in their windows, publicly showing they had nothing to hide. Still, even the Genevans were people and did what people do. Thus, natural family life took place in the rooms far from the windows.


Language and Geography

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Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517, by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872, via Wikimedia Commons


Martin Luther spoke German and founded the church in Saxony, naming it the German Church. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Lutherans remained in German-speaking regions. In bilingual and multilingual countries, the Germans usually proclaimed themselves Lutheran, and Lutheranism allied itself with nationalism in the 19th century.


Luther’s Bible contributed to the development of the German tongue, as did Luther’s emphasis on literacy. On the contrary, John Calvin spoke French but began his journey in Strasbourg, a free city with ties to the German and French worlds. Although the Calvinist Reformation started as a French-speaking movement and spread through France, pushing it into the turmoil of religious wars, it did not ally with the French language as such. Maybe, because in France itself, the Huguenots (French Calvinists) were suppressed by the crown. Calvinism then spread through Holy Roman Empire, conquering many German-speaking areas.


John Calvin and the Arts

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Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists in 1562, by Antoine Caron, 1565, via Wikipedia Commons


Perhaps the most striking difference between the two confessions is their approach to the arts. The Lutherans promoted the arts, and their churches may not be as lavish as the baroque Catholic houses of devotion, but they were not bare either. And indeed, Martin Luther did not encourage anybody to destroy works of art. Luther was a man of the old world. He kept back from any spark that may start a fire. The German reformer was anxious not to cause any change in the social order of things, not even for just cases. John Calvin lacked any such prejudices and was confident that the paintings, statues, and holy objects depicting the saints, Jesus, or even God were blasphemy and against the Ten Commandments. Thus, the Calvinists cleansed any church within their grasp, destroying relics and works of art alike. Their houses of devotion were simple, with bare white walls and a single white cross in the center. Nothing should distract the believers from the holy message that they were listening to.


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John Calvin and Martin Luther church window in City church of Wiesloch, via Wikimedia Commons


While reading this article, you may feel that the Lutheran and Calvinist confessions have nothing in common. Yet, today when you enter a Protestant church, it might be difficult for you to tell whether John Calvin or Martin Luther stood at the beginning. After the dust created by the religious wars of the 17th century had settled, it became clear that neither the dogma nor the founders’ character kept the confessions apart.


The political interests of different rulers and social classes drove the confessions against each other. Thus, today we may wonder why these two Protestant confessions never united. We are living in ecumenic times. Pastors of different confessions speak on TV; believers of other religions sit in the same pub and discuss their faith over beer or coffee. When the first Lutherans and Calvinists lived, the church had its political agenda and watched over every aspect of people’s lives. That made any discussion difficult.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.