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The Birth of Calvinism

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 The series continues: John Calvin enters the history of the Reformation and introduces the doctrine of predestination.

The Truth Behind

The Protestant Reformation

Part 6

The Birth of Calvinism

Did the Protestant reformers get back to the “faith once delivered”?
Were they led by God’s Holy Spirit? The naked facts in this series of articles are a revelation of long-hidden truth!

The startling fact that rank paganism came in and took over the early professing Christian Church is difficult for some to believe. Yet this has been proven.

We have seen from numerous historians the admission that pagan ceremonies and traditions were embraced by the early Catholic Church. We have seen that many pagan beliefs were woven into professing “Christendom” after the death of Christ and the original apostles.

Martin Luther rebelled against the corrupt and apostate organized “Christianity” of his day. But at the same time he rebelled against all the authoritative commands of God and His word. We have seen that Luther presumptuously added a word to the Bible and taught, “The just shall live by faith alone.”

Having an aversion to the stress James puts upon obedience to God’s law, Luther called this inspired book “an epistle of straw.” Courting the political favor of the German princes to back his movement, we have seen that during the Peasant War, he urged the princes to “smite, strangle, and stab” the peasants in the name of God.

When the sexual lust of one of his political backers became too strong, Luther and his fellow theologians gave written permission to the Landgrave of Hesse to take a second wife and commit bigamy! Unlike certain Old Testament heroes with whom Luther’s followers like to compare him, Luther never really REPENTED of these vile acts and the “reasoning” behind them.

In the fifth part of this series, we began the story of the Swiss reformation, and saw the part that Ulrich Zwingli played in it. Again, we were forced to observe that Zwingli’s example was also in striking contrast to the teaching and example of Christ and the early apostles. Zwingli’s violent death in a war he himself had urged certainly confirms Jesus’ warning, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

Often, we have paused to ask: Was the Protestant movement a reformation of God’s true Church gone wrong? Was this movement inspired and guided by God’s Holy Spirit?

Now we will come to the story of the man who really dominated the Swiss reformation—and has dominated much of Protestantism since.

The Reformation Under John Calvin

John Calvin now enters the Reformation drama, and we will see that the powerful influence of his mind and personality will dramatically shape the doctrinal system of the reformed congregations for generations to come (Kurtz, Church History, pp. 304–305). Like Luther and Zwingli before him, Calvin was trained for the Catholic priesthood. Thus, he too, had deeply ingrained in his mind many concepts imparted by the Roman Church, although his doctrinal break with the papacy was more complete than Luther’s had been.

It is nevertheless significant that the three most prominent leaders among the early reformers were all trained as “Roman” theologians before beginning their reformatory activities. Perhaps this may explain, in part, why they all retained many pagan concepts and traditions that had crept into the Roman system during the Dark Ages.

While Zwingli was busy transforming the religious and political life of Switzerland, John Calvin was still a youth—training for the Catholic priesthood.

Calvin was a Frenchman, and he was born in the year 1509 at Noyon, in Picardy. His father was a fiscal agent, and Calvin was educated with children of noble birth. At just twelve years of age, he was appointed to a chaplaincy with an income sufficient for his support.

Soon after, he was sent to Paris to study for the priesthood, but his father later changed his plans and wished Calvin to become a lawyer. He then went to Orleans and Bourges, and studied under celebrated doctors of the law. He was such a brilliant scholar that he was often invited to take over in a professor’s absence.

At this time, he came under the influence of a relative, Peter Olivetan, who was the first Protestant to translate the Bible into French. By studying the New Testament in the original Greek, Calvin further strengthened his interest in the Protestant doctrines.

Not long after publishing a learned humanistic treatise on the writings of Seneca, his “sudden conversion”—as he later described it—took place. He now desired to throw himself upon the mercy of God, and began an earnest study of the Bible (Fisher, The History of the Christian Church, p. 319).

Calvin returned to Paris and soon became a recognized leader of the Protestants there. Persecution drove him out of the city, and Calvin eventually settled temporarily in Protestant Basel.

It was at this time that the French monarch, Francis I, was trying to get the aid of the German Lutheran princes against the emperor, Charles V. In order to justify his persecutions of French Protestants, he accused them of all the lawless fanaticism of some of the extreme Anabaptist sects.

This called forth from Calvin an elaborate defense of his French fellow believers. This work was intended to prove the falsity of Francis I’s charges, and to set forth the Protestant beliefs in a systematic and logical way that might win sympathy from the king and others for the reformers’ cause (Kurtz, Church History, p. 302).

Calvin’s Institutes

This work was entitled, Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was regarded as a tremendous contribution to theology, and to literature as well. No French Protestant had yet spoken with such logic and power. This work is still regarded as the most orderly and systematic presentation of doctrine and of the Christian life that the Reformation produced (Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 392).

To briefly comprehend Calvin’s doctrine as contained in the Institutes, we can do no better than to quote excerpts from Walker’s summary of the position Calvin took in this work:

Without Luther’s antecedent labors, his work could not have been done. It is Luther’s conception of justification by faith, and of the sacraments as seals of God’s promises that he presents. Much he derived from Butzer, notably his emphasis on the glory of God as that for which all things are created, on election as a doctrine of Christian confidence, and on the consequences of election as a strenuous endeavor after a life of conformity to the will of God. But all is systematized and clarified with a skill that was Calvin’s own.

Man’s highest knowledge, Calvin taught, is that of God and of himself. Enough comes by nature to leave man without excuse, but adequate knowledge is given only in the Scriptures, which the witness of the Spirit in the heart of the believing reader attests as the very voice of God. The Scriptures teach that God is good, and the source of all goodness everywhere. Obedience to God’s will is man’s primal duty. As originally created, man was good and capable of obeying God’s will, but he lost goodness and power alike in Adam’s fall, and is now, of himself, absolutely incapable of goodness. Hence no work of man’s can have any merit; and all men are in a state of ruin meriting only damnation. From this helpless and hopeless condition some men are undeservedly rescued through the work of Christ.

Since all good is of God, and man is unable to initiate or resist his conversion, it follows that the reason some are saved and others are lost is the divine choice—election and reprobation. For a reason for that choice beyond the will of God it is absurd to inquire, since God’s will is an ultimate fact.

Three institutions have been divinely established by which the Christian life is maintained—the church, the sacraments, and civil government. In the last analysis the church consists of “all the elect of God”; but it also properly denotes “the whole body of mankind… who profess to worship one God and Christ.” Yet there is no true church “where lying and falsehood have usurped the ascendancy” (Walker, pp. 392–394).

Calvin’s Doctrinal Position Examined

We can see that Calvin’s doctrine of justification by faith alone came from Luther. Yet Calvin did believe that a “saved” person is to produce good works as necessary fruit of his conversion.

Calvin emphasized man’s responsibility to follow the law of God as a guide to the Christian life (Walker, p. 393). However, in no sense did he mean this to include the letter of the Ten Commandments, but only the “spirit” of God’s moral law as it came to be defined by Calvin. In actual practice, as we shall see, there were many times when this led men to break both the letter and the spirit of the literal Ten Commandments. We shall cite examples of this later.

Without question, the foundational principle of Calvin’s entire theological system is his doctrine of predestination. In it, all other things were made to conform to the irrevocable will of God. As did Luther, Calvin derived many of his ideas on this subject from Augustine (Fisher, History of The Christian Church, p. 321).

In the section on predestination in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin dogmatically states:

No one who wishes to be thought religious dares outright to deny predestination, by which God chooses some for the hope of life, and condemns others to eternal death.… By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he has decided in his own mind what he wishes to happen in the case of each individual. For all men are not created on an equal footing, but for some eternal life is preordained, for others eternal damnation… (Bettenson, Documents, p. 302).

As the Protestant historians themselves tell us, this is the essence of Calvinism!

Let us consider the meaning of these dogmatic assertions. First, Calvin says that all men are not created equal before God. But the Apostles Peter and Paul were both inspired to write: “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11).

Next, Calvin tells us that—regardless of what they may do—some men are absolutely predetermined for eternal life, others for eternal damnation.

Calvin’s Idea of Predestination

Thus we find that the terrifying proposition that men are born to be “saved” or “lost” was one of the basic tenets of Calvin’s doctrine. According to this theory, you are predestined from all eternity to either the joys of heaven, or the torments of a burning hell. Of your own will, you are not able to repent and be converted. This is only possible for those whom God has “elected” to grace.

As we have seen, Calvin also taught that once a person has been forgiven and justified through Christ, he can never fall away. Viewing this practically, it means that no matter how wicked a “saved” person might become, no matter how utterly depraved, blasphemous, and reprobate he might be at the end of his days, he is nevertheless foreordained and bound to inherit the unspeakable delights of heaven through all eternity. Those predestined to be “lost” are doomed—as the “reformed” preachers would put it—to an eternity in the burning, screaming, horrifying tortures of a never-ending hell.

Such was the doctrine of John Calvin. And this became the teaching of the “reformed” congregations as they later spread throughout parts of France, into Scotland, to other nations of Europe, and finally—through the “Puritans”—to the New England states.

Calvin at Geneva

Shortly after publishing his Institutes, Calvin visited Italy for a brief time. On his way back to Basel, he had to pass through Geneva. An event occurred there that changed the course of his life.

In 1532, after the Protestant defeat at the battle of Cappel, a reforming preacher named William Farel had come to Geneva to revive the Protestant forces in their city. Like Calvin, he had been driven out of France by Catholic persecution. Because of his powerful and unrestrained preaching, he had at first been expelled from Geneva. But he later returned, and led the Protestants to gain complete control of this city.

Because all “worldly” pleasures and entertainment were banned by his religious party, a great deal of strife had arisen and the city was in turmoil. Farel, therefore, knowing the great ability of Calvin and his interest in the Protestant cause, persuaded him to stay and help the reformed party control the city. Calvin at first had preferred the quiet seclusion of the scholarly life, but finally yielded when Farel warned that “God’s curse” would fall on him if he refused to help.

Calvin then set to work immediately. He composed a catechism for the instruction of the young, and aided in formulating a stringent set of laws that forbade the people to wear “vain” ornaments or participate in “obnoxious” sports and other worldly amusements (Fisher, The History of the Christian Church, p. 324).

But the Libertines, as the opposing party was called, soon gained the upper hand and banished Calvin and Farel from the city.

This was 1538, and Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he spent most of his three years’ absence from Geneva. He took charge of a Protestant church for French refugees there, and soon took a wife. It was here also that he formed a personal acquaintance with Melanchthon, who gradually came over to his view of the Lord’s Supper, though the two never agreed on predestination.

He was now recalled to Geneva to help the triumphant reformed party found a political and ecclesiastical government upon the principles of their belief. From here on we notice Calvin’s increasing involvement in politics and resulting religious strife (Walker, pp. 397–398).

Calvin’s Return to Geneva

Calvin returned victorious to Geneva in 1541, and set up a new political and ecclesiastical order. It was surprisingly similar to the Catholic church-state relationship of obedient nations within the Holy Roman Empire.

The state was dominated by the religious leaders, and was bound to foster the interests of the church, carry out its orders, and to punish or execute all those who opposed the established religion. Calvin had never rid himself of the Catholic concept of the church ruling the state and mixing in worldly politics.

Not only profaneness and drunkenness, but innocent amusements and the teaching of divergent theological doctrines, were severely punished. Nor was this all. Trifling offenses were visited with severe penalties. It was impossible that a city of twenty thousand inhabitants should rest content under such stringent discipline and such stern enactments. The elements of disaffection disclosed themselves soon after Calvin’s return. His chief opponents, as before, were the Libertines (Fisher, History of the Christian Church, p. 325).

Calvin tried to enforce this kind of dogmatic system on the entire city from this time until his death. Naturally, it could lead to nothing but trouble, and the chronicle of Calvin’s later life is mainly concerned with his problems in trying to suppress the city of Geneva and coerce its inhabitants into yielding to his views. There is no denying the fact that he was a kind of religious dictator!

The Calvinistic Discipline

Beyond noting the famous case of Michael Servetus, which will be covered in a later issue, a detailed explanation of the cruelty and rigor with which Calvin enforced his system of belief on the hapless Genevans is unnecessary. The only thing that needs to be said is that the “fruits” of Calvin’s teaching at Geneva make a striking contrast to the inspired statement of Paul: “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17, KJV).

The following summary of the effect of Calvin’s “Theocracy” on Geneva should provide ample basis for comparison:

Let us give a summary of the most striking cases of discipline. Several women, among them the wife of Ami Perrin, the captain-general, were imprisoned for dancing (which was usually connected with excesses). Bonivard, the hero of political liberty, and a friend of Calvin, was cited before the Consistory because he had played at dice with Clement Marot, the poet, for a quart of wine. A man was banished from the city for three months because, on hearing an ass bray, he said jestingly: “He prays a beautiful psalm.” A young man was punished because he gave his bride a book on housekeeping with the remark: “This is the best Psalter.” A lady of Ferrara was expelled from the city for expressing sympathy with the Libertines, and abusing Calvin and the Consistory. Three men who had laughed during the sermon were imprisoned for three days. Another had to do public penance for neglecting to commune on Whitsunday. Three children were punished because they remained outside of the church during the sermon to eat cakes… A person named Chapuis was imprisoned for four days because he persisted in calling his child Claude (a Roman Catholic saint) instead of Abraham, as the minister wished, and saying that he would sooner keep his son unbaptized for fifteen years. Bolsec, Gentilis, and Castellio were expelled from the Republic for heretical opinions. Men and women were burnt for witchcraft. Gruet was beheaded for sedition and atheism. Servetus was burnt for heresy and blasphemy. The last is the most flagrant case which, more than all others combined, has exposed the name of Calvin to abuse and execration; but it should be remembered that he wished to substitute the milder punishment of the sword for the stake, and in this point at least he was in advance of the public opinion and usual practice of his age (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. VIII, pp. 490–492).

Schaff’s plea that Calvin’s “mercy” was in advance of his age sounds somewhat hollow when we remember that he and the other reformers condemned the papacy for the same brutalities and referred to Christ’s example of love by way of contrast.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that Jesus taught Christians in His age, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). And again, “But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).

This teaching certainly is in contrast with Calvin’s “theocracy” in Geneva. We continue Schaff’s description of that frightful system:

The official acts of the Council from 1541 to 1559 exhibit a dark chapter of censures, fines, imprisonments, and executions. During the ravages of the pestilence in 1545 more than twenty men and women were burnt alive for witchcraft, and a wicked conspiracy to spread the horrible disease. From 1542 to 1546 fifty-eight judgments of death and seventy-six decrees of banishments were passed. During the years 1558 and 1559 the cases of various punishments for all sorts of offenses amounted to four hundred and fourteen—a very large proportion for a population of 20,000 (Schaff, p. 492).

Thus we see that Calvin was willing not only to punish, but to execute those who failed to go along with his theological system. Two years after the burning of Servetus, the Libertine party in Geneva made a last determined effort to overthrow the religious hierarchy that Calvin had set up. They first attempted intrigue and secret diplomacy, but finally resorted to armed conflict in May of 1555.

But Calvin’s forces were the stronger, and this last rebellion was a death blow to the Libertine party. Many now had to flee for their lives from the “justice” of Calvin (Walker, p. 400).

At this point, we should take note of the fact—as evidenced by the foregoing examples of Calvin’s system—that he was the primary reformer who stressed the idea that men are to forsake all pleasure in this life.

Therefore, as we have seen, such trifling things as card-playing, dancing, jesting and theatre-going were treated as major sins. In many cases, Geneva’s religious courts would punish such an offender with public whipping or even possibly death!

These harsh measures were the result of the concept that God is a stern, unrelenting Judge who wishes all men to suffer. He frowns upon any of the common pleasures of man. Most pleasing to Him, taught Calvin, is a life of barrenness, poverty and severity.

Perhaps without realizing it, thousands of Protestants to this day have been influenced by this concept and have a feeling of guilt even regarding many of the innocent pleasures of life. The strict “blue laws” of the New England Puritans are an example of this, and the same tendency is evident to this day among many of the stricter Protestant sects.

It is well to realize that this teaching did not come from the Bible. For the most part, it came from John Calvin’s rigid mind.

Calvin’s Last Days

The Libertine rebellion having been crushed, Calvin was the undisputed master of Geneva. In 1559, he founded the “Geneva Academy”—later to be known as the University of Geneva. It soon became the greatest center of theological instruction in the Reformed communities, as distinguished from the Lutheran.

Those in all nations who were struggling to advance the cause of Reformed Protestantism looked to Geneva for instruction and support. It became the great seminary from which ministers went forth to France, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany, and Italy. Almost as an absolute ruler of Geneva, Calvin, as Hausser comments, “acquired and maintained more power than was ever exercised by the most powerful popes” (The Period of the Reformation, p. 250).

To the end, Calvin labored diligently in preaching and writing. He came to look upon the spread of the Protestant Churches over the world as being synonymous with the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Here is one of the most significant differences between Calvin and the previous reformers. He rejected their expectation of the speedy coming of the Lord and projected the final cataclysm into an indefinite future. Luther looked wistfully for the end of the age before his own demise and the Anabaptists often set dates. But Calvin renewed the role of St. Augustine who terminated the early Christian expectation of the speedy coming of the Lord, and envisaged successive acts in the historical drama in which the Church came well-nigh to be equated with the Kingdom of God. Even so Calvin substituted for the great and imminent day of the Lord the dream of the Holy Commonwealth in the terrestrial sphere. Its erection depended upon human agents, God’s chosen instruments, the elect (Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, p. 114).

This attitude caused men to become so absorbed in what we today must sadly speak of as “churchianity” that they failed to grow into more spiritual truths than Calvin had found and to correct his peculiar errors. It also caused a notable lack of interest in and understanding of the prophetic portions of the Bible, which has persisted to this day.

Calvin’s Death and the Spread of His Doctrines

We will not attempt to cover in detail the spread of Calvinism, or the Reformed theology, to other lands, because the doctrinal pattern remained substantially the same. The same spirit guided the movement everywhere. Indeed, the Reformed churches to this day still bear the indelible stamp of Calvin’s powerful mind and personality.

From Geneva, Calvinism spread into France, Holland, England, Scotland, and New England. The pattern of Geneva could not be reproduced in these lands, at least not at the outset. A single city might be turned into a select community. In the case of an entire land this was a very difficult matter. Eventually the ideal was most nearly achieved in Scotland and New England (Bainton, p. 121).

When we read of the public whipping post and of burning people at the stake in the “Puritan” New England settlements, we may realize that this was just a continuation of Calvin’s system. As illustrated in New England, and with John Knox in Scotland, Calvin’s adherents tried whenever possible to rule or at least dominate the political government and the entire population by force.

Even to the time of Calvin’s death, his mind was alert and sharp, although his body was wasted with disease. When he felt his time had come, he sent for the Senate, in whose deliberations he had so often participated and dominated. He urged its members to guard the State from enemies who still threatened it.

Shortly after, he died peacefully. His fellow ministers were full of grief, for his great personality had inspired them all—and his death left a vacuum, which no one else could fill. His dominant mind and personality were such that “he excited the most profound admiration in some, and an equally profound aversion in others” (Fisher, History of the Christian Church, p. 329).

This very dominance of Luther and Calvin was, in many ways, detrimental. It led men to accept without question their doctrine and practice—never thinking to prove these ideas by the holy word of God.

Actually, as we have seen, many of the tenets and actions of the leading reformers are as far removed from the teaching and practice of Christ and the apostles as would seem possible in a civilized religious society!

Perhaps the Protestant doctrine was an improvement over the corruptions of the Roman church and its authoritarian popes. But how much of an improvement was it? Was it a genuine restoration of the original Christianity’s faith and practice?

Even a respected Protestant historian has stated:

Protestantism deposed the infallible pope in a large part of Europe and it did well. It was, unfortunately, too much disposed to make infallible popes of the Reformers and to place Luther and Calvin, the infallible theologians, in the place of Christ Himself as an authority that could not be gainsaid. This tendency was, perhaps, its strength at a time of conflict, when it avails much to have intense beliefs and no doubts, to march and to battle at the word of command. It was a source of weakness and stagnation when the battle was over and theology became more a matter of accepted dogmas than a creed to live by and fight for. Calvinism, like Lutheranism, degenerated into a sort of scholasticism against which it had been, in part, a protest (James MacKinnon, Calvin and the Reformation, p. 291).

As MacKinnon has wisely observed, Protestants today—instead of open-mindedly seeking for more truth—have “accepted dogmas,” which they strive to defend in the manner of medieval scholastics. God commands us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Protestants often have tended to make infallible popes out of Luther, Calvin and the other early reformers.

In the next issue of Tomorrow’s World, we will continue this factual and gripping series with the shocking account of the real facts behind the Reformation in England and the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII. Be sure to read it.

To read the previous installments of this series, please follow these links:

To read the next installment: "Part 7: England Rebels Against Rome"


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