16. John Calvin and
the Reformed Tradition: II
How did Calvin's ideas on the Protestant Reformation compare with Luther's and Zwingli's?
- In most important regards they were quite like both Luther's and Zwingli's.
- Calvin stressed, along with Luther and Zwingli, the three major issues of the Reformation:
- sola gratia: we are saved from sin and destruction by the grace of God alone -- never by human works, no matter how good they might seem to be.
- sola fide: our major responsibility toward God is to live through total faith alone in God and his "providence" or good care.
- sola scriptura: All authoritative guidance for the Christian life comes from scripture alone -- not from human authority, no matter how important such human authority may seem to the life of the church.
- With respect to the very hot issue separating Luther and Zwingli, namely the status of Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper, Calvin took a position somewhere midway between Luther and Zwingli:
- Calvin agreed with Zwingli (in opposition to Luther) in claiming that it seemed absurd to suppose that the bread and wine actually changed into the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ through some kind of transforming process called "transubstantiation." Clearly the bread remained bread and the wine remained wine throughout the process.
- On the other hand Calvin agreed with Luther (in opposition to Zwingli) that Jesus' presence in these sacramental elements was more than just a symbolic presence. Jesus' presence in the elements was a truly "real" presence -- though how that exactly happened scientifically was a mystery known only to God. We were to accept the presence of Jesus in the sacramental elements of bread and wine on the basis of faith -- because Jesus told us concerning the bread and wine that "these are" his body and blood -- not proven fact. To try to give factual support to the mystery of God's graceful actions in the sacrament was to cheapen the sacrament by reducing it to only what human reason could grasp, which was something far less than what God intended for the sacrament.
- Calvin clearly viewed the celebration of the Holy Communion as being much more important than it had been to Zwingli. While Zwingli reduced the number of celebrations of Holy Communion to only a few times a year, Calvin wanted it celebrated at every worship service--very much like Luther. But the men who ran the government of Geneva, the members of the Genevan Consistory, had been strongly influenced by Zwingli and viewed Holy Communion as too Roman Catholic for their tastes. But they finally compromised with Calvin on the matter by allowing the celebration of Holy Communion in the Genevan churches once a month. But each Sunday Calvin preached not only at St. Pierre's in Geneva but at three other churches in the area as well. So Calvin saw to it that each of the four churches celebrated Holy Communion on different Sundays of the month--so that he personally could celebrate Communion every Sunday in at least one of his four churches.
John Calvin is always closely connected to the idea of predestination. What is predestination? Was this an idea that Calvin thought up?
- Predestination means that all things have been worked out in accordance with the will of God. All history of the world--even our own personal history--has been mapped out for us by God from before even the foundations of the world long, long ago. Thus all things are predestined by God to work out exactly as they do.
- Calvin did not start out as a defender of predestination. He didn't give the matter much thought until the question came up of how it is that we are saved. Calvin knew that it was by God's grace alone (sola gratia) that we are saved. We cannot cause our own salvation, for salvation is freely a gift of God. If we could work it out then it would no longer be a gift. It would simply be our rightful earnings for our labors. No--salvation was definitely a gift of God.
- This then raised the question does God save everyone? Well, obviously not. Some of us are headed for hell and damnation, not heaven.
- Then comes the next question: if it is God who does the saving, why are some chosen or "elected" by God for salvation and others not? A tough question.
- But it was not Calvin that first raised this question. It was the Apostle Paul back in the 1st century in his letter to the Romans.
- Read Romans 8:28-39 (taking careful note of verses 28-30) and also Romans 9:1-29 (taking careful note of verses 16-18). Paul is very sad over the question of why many of the Jews, God's once chosen people, have rejected Jesus. To Paul, this is a part of God's great mystery.
- So, Calvin did not invent predestination. He simply remained faithful to scripture. It was to Paul's explanation in Romans that Calvin went when pressed on the matter of the "who" and "how" of salvation.
Calvin is also closely connected to the idea of the Covenant. Why?
- Calvin knew from his extensive study of scripture that God worked through whole groups of people and not just individuals. In every age God worked through a "chosen" generation of people to put forward his will among the rest of humankind. This group of people was a special people, set apart from the rest of humankind because it had been brought into a special relationship with God--agreeing that God was to be their only God and that they would be his special people, living under God sole leadership. They would not live as others lived--according to the will of the world. They would live in the world according to God's will. They were a people related to God through a holy covenant or contract or binding agreement, which guaranteed this special relationship with God (much like a marriage).
How is this idea of Covenant closely related to Calvin's understanding of Baptism?
- Their agreement to live this way was marked by some visible sign. For the Jews it had been circumcision. For the Christian it was baptism. By being baptized, Christians were viewed as being "signed up" or enrolled as a full member of the Christian covenant community, the true church of the "saved."
- For Calvin, baptism was not importantly a personal matter, but importantly a community matter. Baptism was not importantly a sign of a person's individual salvation, but of a person's belonging to a larger, covenant community of the saved.
- Since salvation was a matter of God's predestination--that is, since a person could never save him/herself but only God could do the saving--to Calvin salvation was never a matter of a personal choice. To Calvin even "choice" seemed to sound terribly much like self-salvation. No, the choice was entirely God's. All we could do is through our own faith (sola fide) was to admit to the wonderful grace of God (sola gratia) by which we had been saved--by being entered (usually through birth) into a covenant community. We gladly celebrated baptism not as something that was happening because of a person's mature, adult "choice"--but because we recognized that we (and our children given to our care) were part of God's choice. We baptized in recognition of the fact that we were by God's own grace his "chosen people."
- Thus Calvin disliked intensely the idea of "private" baptisms. To him baptism was to take place only before the whole community as it gathered in worship and as it was able to speak on behalf of the special covenant they enjoyed by agreeing to receive the person (usually a baby) into its covenant company and to take over the care of that person in his or her own spiritual growth in accordance with that covenant agreement with God.
What was Calvin's impact on the Reformation?
- His impact was great--greater than even Luther's. People came from all around Europe to Geneva to hear him preach and teach--so that they could take this learning back to their home countries. Most of them were city folks, from relatively new but quite powerful cities.
- They came in the 1500s and 1600s from the very prosperous Dutch cities in the Northwest, such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp. From this connection with Calvin eventually emerged the Dutch Reformed Church.
- They also came from the cities along the Rhine River--and returned to Germany to create the German Reformed Church.
- They came from London and other cities to create the "purified" English church--from which they got the name "Puritans."
- They came from Scotland, and returned to that land to become the Presbyterians. From there Calvinist Presbyterianism was to spread to Northern Ireland and to the central colonies in America, especially New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and North and South Carolina--where Presbyterians in the 1600s and 1700s were the most numerous in the new colonies.
- Even the Congregationalists in American New England in the 1600s and 1700s were formed from this Calvinist tradition.
- And in France they came from the prosperous cities in the South and West of France--and became known as the Huguenots.
Continue on to the next section: John Knox and Presbyterian Polity (Mid-1500s)
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Miles H. Hodges