Calvin's ideas on the Protestant Reformation compare with Luther's and
In most important
regards they were quite like both Luther's and Zwingli's.
along with Luther and Zwingli, the three major issues of the Reformation:
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.
our major responsibility toward God is to live through total faith
alone in God and his "providence" or good care.
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
Communion or the Lord's Supper, Calvin took a position somewhere midway
between Luther and Zwingli:
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.
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
is always closely connected to the idea of predestination.
What is predestination? Was this an idea that Calvin thought up?
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.
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?
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
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.
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
And in France
they came from the prosperous cities in the South and West of France--and
became known as the Huguenots.