Who Was John Calvin? | Part One

January 14, 2015

Dr. Marty Comer | Pastor
Sand Ridge Baptist Church, Lexington, TN

*This article was originally published HERE and was used by permission.

The theology of John Calvin is currently experiencing quite a renaissance. His followers are today called “young, restless, and reformed” or adherents of “The New Calvinism.” In fact, Time magazine in 2009 listed “The New Calvinism” as one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Calvin and his ideas are making inroads among Southern Baptists. Many seminarians and young pastors identify with his doctrines, while long established traditional Southern Baptist Churches (and their leadership) generally stay away from the thinking of Calvin.  Because of the contemporary emphasis on Calvinism I thought that perhaps we should take a closer look at a man who, although he has been dead for over 400 years, still speaks to many in our day. Who was John Calvin? Where did he live? What did he teach? And would you want to live in a place where he exerted a dominating influence?

John Calvin was born in France in 1509. He was educated in the law and trained for a legal career and only later on became interested in religion. While living in Paris he became acquainted with numerous Protestant Christians who dissented from Catholic teachings on things such as transubstantiation (the view that at communion the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ and are not just symbolic of his body and blood). In 1533 many Protestants were forced to leave Paris because of their call for reform in the Church. Calvin “disguised as a vinedresser, escaped in a basket” from the city. [1]

Calvin was eventually asked by a friend to assist in the Reformation efforts in Geneva. In 1536 he arrived in Geneva, but was banished for three years in 1538 before returning for good in 1541. His banishment came at the behest of Roman Catholics who were aligned with less religious people in the city in opposing Calvin’s desire to make Geneva a “model Christian community.” [2] Upon his return to Geneva, Calvin began to work in earnest to transform the city into his vision of a model Christian city. Until his death in 1564 this was the focus of his life.

What kind of community did Calvin seek to build? Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin did not believe in the separation of church and state. Religious Liberty was not to be found in Calvin’s Geneva. Although Calvin never officially held public office, he ruled the city as pastor of the church. How did he rule? An ecclesiastical court called The Consistory was formed that included laymen and ministers. Though not a member, Calvin’s will was expressed through this group. His teachings and reforms were the foundation of their decisions.

According to historian Clyde L. Manschreck, in Calvin’s Geneva “between 1542 and 1546, fifty-eight people were executed and seventy six people were banished.” [3] During Calvin’s time in Geneva many were forced to leave the city while many who supported his teachings moved there from other areas of Europe. Manschreck goes on to report that people were sentenced to death in Geneva for things such as adultery, being a witch, blasphemy, and various other offenses. One child was beheaded for striking his parents.

On one occasion, one of Calvin’s numerous critics in Geneva placed an unsigned letter on Calvin’s pulpit. The authorities conducted an investigation and searched the home of a man named Jaques Gruet. In Calvin’s Geneva, homes could be searched at any time without notice. In Gruet’s home they found evidence they used to arrest him. After being tortured, Gruet confessed to writing the letter along with other crimes.  His confession, derived under torture, was cause for him to be condemned to death. He was beheaded for freely expressing his views. In Calvin’s Geneva, freedom of expression was not always tolerated.

As a Traditional Baptist who believes in Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, I admit to being troubled by Calvin’s conflating of religion and government. As someone who believes that all people have the right to freedom of worship, I believe that no one should be coerced to worship. Freedom of conscience is important. Genuine faith cannot be forced. Genuine faith cannot be manipulated by law or government. Genuine faith comes from the heart. But in Calvin’s Geneva the population was compelled to adhere to what Calvin viewed as God’s sovereign will for the model Christian community. It is difficult to understand how someone like Calvin could reconcile his soteriological positions with his political positions. Let me explain.

Calvin taught that God was absolutely sovereign, good, and just while mankind was totally depraved and corrupt. God thus sent Christ into the world as redeemer. But according to Calvin, not all have an opportunity for redemption (or salvation). He said that Election is the reason why some respond to the gospel and some do not. God, he taught, chose to save SOME through the work of Christ while others were left as reprobates. In Calvin’s view, some hit the jackpot and some don’t. Some are chosen for salvation. Others are left in a state of hopeless reprobation in which they will eventually end up in hell forever.

And why, we might ask Mr. Calvin, did God elect some and not others? He would answer, “Because He wanted to!” Calvin taught that it pleased God to do so. And in Calvin’s view God has “determined what he would have to become of every individual of mankind.” [4] My conundrum is this: If God had determined that some would be elect (or redeemed) and others would not be elect (thus reprobate), then why would Calvin rule Geneva in a way that required all citizens to conform to his view of the “model Christian community?” How did he expect non-elect citizens to behave like elect citizens? If he truly believed that many were non-elect, how could he build a system of social control that was imposed on all citizens, many of whom were non-elect who didn’t believe in, nor have the desire to obey Calvin’s laws?

While I agree that there must be limits on behavior, Calvin imposed laws that were strict even in the 16th century. Calvin’s Geneva outlawed theatrical performances, coming late to church, laughter, dancing, playing  cards, fighting, and charging interest in excess of five percent. Also prohibited in Geneva were things such as fasting, religious idols or symbols, and many things associated with Catholicism. And behind it all was the man in the pulpit, John Calvin. [5]

Part Two coming soon!


[1]  Clyde L. Manschreck.  A History of Christianity in the World. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), 188.
[2] John Dillenberger and Claude Welch. Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through It’s Development. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1988), 23.
[3]  Manschreck, 190.
[4]  Ibid, 189.
[5]  Ibid, 190.