John Calvin Essay - Critical Essays

Calvin, John


John Calvin 1509–1564

French theologian and religious reformer.

Theologian, bible scholar, and reformer, Calvin towers as a central figure of the Protestant Reformation. Critics agree that this Frenchman, who has been described as a frail man of disciplined and aristocratic demeanor, permanently shaped the emerging Protestant worldview and culture. His method of biblical interpretation was "Sola Scriptura," the Bible alone, but filtered through a scholastic and humanist tradition. Calvin's chief work, Christianae Religiouis Institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536-59), which went through several editions, offered a systematic summary of the free grace doctrines of the Protestant reformers. Following St. Augustine's lead, Calvin emphasized human helplessness and depravity before a righteous God. Building on Martin Luther's justification by faith rather than deeds, he summarized the "doctrines of grace" and revived the controverted Pauline doctrine of Divine Sovereignty, the election and predestination of a chosen people. One of Calvin's most notorious tenets is the assertion that certain people, worthy or not, have been predestined for salvation; others, regardless of merit, will not be saved. Best known for the theological system which later came to bear his name, Calvin's theology can still be felt in our society (sometimes only in critical responses to Calvinism) in the areas of business, law, culture, the arts, and government. The churches associated worldwide with Calvin's theology are called Reformed and Presbyterian.

Biographical Information

Calvin (in French: Jean Cauvin, in Latin: Johannes Calvinus) was born in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509, to Gerard and Marie LeFranc Cauvin. His father, a cathedral attorney and secretary to the bishop, first directed his son, at the age of twelve, to Paris to study theology, and later, to Orleans and Bourges to study law, where Calvin earned a degree in 1531. Advancing in his studies of Greek and Hebrew, Calvin moved among the learned circles of Paris, where he became imbued with Renaissance ideas and Reformation principles. In 1532 Calvin published De clementia (On Clemency), a commentary on Seneca which displayed his skill with classical texts. In November, 1533, his friend Nicholas Cop delivered an address—possibly

ghost-written by Calvin—outlining Protestant and Lutheran ideas. Catholic reaction was highly critical and Calvin and Cop fled Paris. Calvin's conversion to the Protestant cause was followed some years later by the first edition and immediate success of his magnum opus, the Institutes. Later that year, while travelling through Geneva on his way to Basel, Switzerland, he was convinced by Guillaume Farel to settle immediately in Geneva and begin the reformation of that city's church and society. For four years Calvin and Cop struggled against an inconsistently reformed city council, and in 1539 they left Geneva and sought refuge with fellow reformer Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, Germany, where Calvin continued to study, write, and preach. In 1540, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow; their one child died in infancy; his wife died in 1549. In 1541, Calvin was asked to return to Geneva, where the Church was granted more independence from council control. He devoted the remainder of his life in Geneva to pastoral work, systematic preaching, and the writing of his biblical commentaries. Geneva became a reformed publishing center and a haven for the advancement of international Protestantism. One dark cloud in Calvin's life was the episode of Michael Servetus, an anti-Trinitarian, arrested, tried, and executed for the civil crime of blasphemy by the Genevan authorities; Calvin was instrumental in his prosecution. Calvin was a private, hard-working man, and we know little of his inner life except through his published writings and a subjective biography by his successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza. He died on May 27, 1564, and his grave remained, on Calvin's request, unmarked.

Major Works

The great Calvin scholar Emile Doumergue said, "To know Calvin truly and completely, his thought, character and personality, one must consult not one source but three: his Institutes, his sermons, and his letters." An exhaustive division would also include his exegetical commentaries as well as his tracts and treatises. The Institutes stand alone as the first and greatest summary of systematic Reformation theology. Published when Calvin was just twenty-six years old, the Institutes went through various Latin editions (1539, 1543, 1550, 1559); French texts were published in 1541 and 1560. The organization of the 1541 French edition followed a traditional theological structure: 1) The Ten Commandments, 2) Faith (as expressed in the Apostles' Creed), 3)Prayer, and 4) Sacraments. Sections added from the original version of 1536 included: 5) False Sacraments (an attack on Roman sacramentalism) and 6) Christian Liberty. Though the text of the Institutes went through expansion and re-organization, the basic theological framework remained the same. Calvin preached sermons twice each Sunday and three times more each week, not including catechism classes and theology lectures. Much of his sermon material was transcribed by others. Calvin's letters contain a wealth of historical material and include letters to Farel, Bullinger, Cramner, Bucer, John Knox, Melancthon, as well as the royalty of many lands. The greater part of Calvin's commentaries was produced in the latter portion of Calvin's career. His first biblical exposition, The Commentary on the Book of Romans (1539), was written while he was in Strasbourg. It treats the major doctrines of the Christian faith: sin, justification, sanctification, and predestination. Calvin also wrote commentaries on Genesis, the Pentateuch, Joshua, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekial, Daniel, and the minor prophets. His New Testament commentaries cover all but Revelation. His tracts included argumentative pieces like The Reply to Sadeleto (1539), Calvin's Protestant polemical response to Bishop Jacopo Sadeleto's appeal for Geneva to return to the Roman fold. The Antidote to the Council of Trent (1547) also contains inflamatory opposition to the papal claims. A Short Treastise on the Lord's Supper (1540) is believed by critics to provide a fine example of his sustained theological reasoning.

Critical Reception

Though of good classical scholarship, Calvin's competant commentary on Seneca brought him little critical success. His fateful link to the Protestant cause and to the reforming society of Geneva propelled him to the forefront of a growing Protestant religious movement. The first edition of the Institutes was a startling success in Reformation-oriented intellectual circles. Addressed to the King of France, the Institutes were generally not received well by the conservative aristocracy. Yet, among the business and trading classes, the well-thought-out Reformed Christianity, built on the Bible alone, devoid of superstitions, streamlined from ecclesiastical abuses, found growing reception. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, we mistake the influence of Calvinism if we see it in the light of our dour caricature of Calvin, for his was the progressive philosophy of his day. Calvin's writing had multinational appeal: versions of the Institutes appeared in Spanish (1540), Italian (1557), Dutch (1560), and English (1561). Just as Luther's Bible set the tone for standard German, Calvin's writing helped to fix with clarity the French literary style. His critical reception has generally tended to follow on religious and ideological lines: many of his followers have lauded him, some of his religious opponents—Catholics, Anabaptists, Arminians—have attacked him. Calvin's Reformed thought has acted as a recurring motif and counter-motif to Western intellectual history. In the sixteenth-century the Protestant Reformation sparked a Catholic Counter-Reformation. In the seventeenth-century, Calvinism's apparent fatalism galvanized the free-will reaction of Arminianism and, in turn, re-crystallized Reformed thinking at the Synod of Dort. Calvinistic Puritanism was the focal point for England's Cromwellian Protectorate and the anti-Puritan Restoration, and the Calvinist Pilgrims struggled to escape episcopacy by colonizing the New World. In the eighteenth-century, a Calvinistic worldview undergirded George Whitefield's preaching and Jonathan Edwards' philosophy. In the nineteenth-century there was somewhat of a revival of Calvin studies by traditional Calvinists with the printing of Calvin's collected works in English and Latin. It was not until the twentieth-century that objective scholarly commentary, devoid of either reverence or virulent Anti-Calvinism, has engaged critics' attention. Calvin and his works have continued to spark debate among contemporary scholars, but all agree that he is one of the most important theologians in the western European tradition.

Principal Works

De Clementia [On Clemency] (essay) 1532

De Psychopannychia [Sleep of the Soul] (essay) 1534

The Catechism of the Church of Geneva (catechism) 1536

Christianae Religionis Institutio [Institutes of the Christian Religion] (essay) 1536

The Sinfulness of Outward Conformity to Romish Rites (treatise) 1537

Commentary on Romans (commentary) 1539

Reply to Sadoleto (letter) 1539

A Short Treatise on the Lord's Supper (treatise) 1540

Articles concernant l'organisation de l'Eglise [Ecclesiastical Ordinances] (essay) 1541

A Defense of sound and orthodox doctrine (treatise) 1543

Humble Exhortation to Charles V (letter) 1543

A short treatise showing what faithful men should do (treatise) 1543

The Apology of John Calvin to the Nicodemite Gentlemen (essay) 1544

The Necessity of Reforming the Church (treatise) 1544

Remarks on the Letter of Pope Paul III (essay) 1544

Catechism of the church of Geneva (catechism) 1545

Antidote to the Council of Trent (essay) 1547

True Method of Reforming the Church and Healing her divisions (treatise) 1547

Commentary on all the Epistles of Paul (commentary) 1548

De vita hominis Christiani [On the Life of the Christian man] (essay) 1550

On Scandals (essay) 1550

Commentary on the Epistles of Hebrews, and the Epistles of Peter, John, Jude, and James (commentary) 1551

Commentary on Isaiah (commentary) 1551

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (commentary) 1552

Commentary on John (commentary) 1553

Commentary on Genesis (commentary) 1554

Harmony of the Gospels (essay) 1555

The Second Defense against Joachim Westphal (treatise) 1556

Commentary on Hosea (commentary) 1557

Commentary on the Psalms (commentary) 1557

Christianae Religionis Institutio (commentary) 1559

Commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets (commentary) 1559

Commentary on Daniel (commentary) 1561

Comentary on Ezekial (commentary) 1563

Commentary on Jeremiah (commentary) 1563

Commentary on Lamentations (commentary) 1563

Harmony of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (essay) 1563

Harmony of three Gospels and Commentary on St John (essay) 1563

Calvin's Selected Works. 7 vols. (treatises, commentaries, essays) 1844

Calvin's Commentaries. 22 vols. (commentaries) 1847

Letters of John Calvin. 4 vols. (correspondence) 1855

Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia. 59 vols. (commentaries, treatises, essays) 1863-1900

Johannis Calvini Opera Selecta. 5 vols. (commentaries, treatises, essays) 1926-52

New Testament Commentaries (commentaries) 1960-

Supplementa Calviniana: Sermons inedits (sermons) 1961-


B. A. Gerrish (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Pathfinder: Calvin's Image on Martin Luther," in The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation of Heritage, The University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 27-48.

[Below, Gerrish compares the two great Reformers, Luther and Calvin, asserting that, though Calvin never met Luther, Calvin's image of Luther can be fairly well ascertained through the Genevan's correspondence.]

Martin Luther and John Calvin were, by common consent, the two most eminent figures of the Protestant Reformation. There were other distinguished leaders in both Germany and Switzerland—Melanchthon and Zwingli, for instance—to say nothing of national heroes in other lands....

(The entire section is 13764 words.)

Heiko Augustinius Oberman (lecture date 1986)

SOURCE: "Calvin's Critique of Calvinism," in The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought, T. & T. Clark, Ltd, 1986, pp. 259-68.

[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as a lecture, Oberman treats Calvinism as a movement made up of various traditions and schools of thought that are not necessarily in agreement with their namesake. Oberman believes that a study of the Reformerespecially in the areas of his humanism, issues of renewal and unity, the eucharist, science, piety, and state theoryleads to "Calvin critiquing Calvinism."]

The theme of our conference as it was originally announced...

(The entire section is 4068 words.)

David C. Steinmetz (essay 1988)

SOURCE: "Calvin and the Absolute Power of God," in The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 65-79.

[Below, Steinmetz explores Calvin's ideas regarding God's absolute power to act versus His potential to act, noting that Calvin attacked the entire discussion as "speculative doctrine. " Disagreeing with the Scholastics on this matter, Calvin decided to accept the mysteries of Divine Sovereignty on a Biblical basis.]

(The entire section is 2756 words.)


Calvin's rejection of the distinction between the absolute and ordained power of God occurs in three contexts in his biblical commentaries.

1. Miracles

The first context is the question of the adequacy of the power of God to perform miracles. According to Genesis 18, when Sarah hears about the promise to Abraham of a son (or, more accurately, over hears the promise, since she is eavesdropping at the time), she "laughs within herself." It is not the laughter of joy, but of unbelief. Sarah is convinced that the natural obstacles—the advanced age of her husband and her own advanced age, compounded by her chronic infertility—are stronger than the Word of God. The...

(The entire section is 3348 words.)

John Hesselink (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Law and Gospel or Gospel and Law? Calvin's Understanding of the Relationship," in Calviniana: Ideas and Influence of Jean Calvin, edited by Robert V. Schnucker, Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, Inc., 1988, pp. 13-32.

[In the following essay, Hesselink proposes that though Calvin sees an antithesis between Law and Gospel, their relationship is complementary in that humanity is "driven by the law to seek God's grace. "]

The Subject Of Law And Gospel has been a special Lutheran interest. Check any book on Luther or a Lutheran dogmatics and there will usually be a section or chapter on law and gospel.1 This is not true of studies of Calvin or...

(The entire section is 8462 words.)

Heiko A. Oberman (lecture date 1990)

SOURCE: " 'Initia Calvini': The Matrix of Calvin's Reformation," in Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor: Calvin as Confessor of Holy Scripture, edited by Wilhelm H. Neuser, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994, pp. 113-54.

[Approaching Calvin from a psychological and literary direction, Oberman looks at the strange reticience of Calvin to open himself up in his theological writings. This lack of self-disclosure sets him apart from the sometimes obtrusive ego of Luther, but may have aided in making Calvin "the compelling spokesman for all [Reformed] Christians in the European diaspora. " This essay was first delivered as a lecture in 1990.]


(The entire section is 21075 words.)

Jonathan H. Rainbow (essay 1990)

SOURCE: "Christ and Election in Calvin's Theology," in The Will of God and the Cross: An Historical and Theological Study of John Calvin's Doctrine of Limited Redemption, Pickwick Publications, 1990, pp. 64-88.

[In the following excerpt, Rainbow treats Calvin's views on Predestination in contradistinction to Arminian theologians like the seventeenth-century Frenchman Moyse Amyraut. Rainbow shows that the doctrines of Divine Election, Limited Atonement, and Assurance of Salvation, are intricately knotted together in Reformed theology.]

There is no single place where Calvin addressed the extent of Christ's redemption in a systematic fashion. The absence of such a...

(The entire section is 8288 words.)

David L. Puckett (essay 1995)

SOURCE: "Calvin's Exegetical Via Media," in John Calvin's Exegesis of the Old Testament, Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, pp. 105-38.

[Puckett examines Calvin's judicious use of typology in interpreting the Old Testament through the eyes of the New, noting that Calvin is the first great developer of the Protestant Biblical hermeneutic of grammatical historical exegesis.]

Christian interpreters before Calvin generally believed that the New Testament served as a reliable exegetical guide to the Old Testament. But in answering the question "What kind of guidance does it provide?" they were far from being of one mind. Origen believed that the usage of the Old Testament...

(The entire section is 15531 words.)

Dawn DeVries (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Calvin on the Word as Sacrament," in Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, pp. 14-25.

[In the following excerpt, De Vries analyzes the importance of Calvin's notion of the Word of God as a "means of grace" and as a paradigm shift.]

Calvin, like Luther before him, borrowed from Augustine the notion that sacraments were "visible words."1 While this meant that the Reformers tended to verbalize the sacraments, it also led them to "sacramentalize" the Word.2 In order to understand the significance of Calvin's doctrine of the Word, however, we must first explore how preaching was...

(The entire section is 5182 words.)

Further Reading


Bihary, Michael. Bibliographia Calviniana. N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1992, 194 p.

Comprehensive bibliographic resource.

Gamble, Richard C. "Current Trends in Calvin Research." In Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor, pp. 91-112. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Eerdmans, 1990.

A bibliographic essay surveying historical, linguistic, and theological scholarship on Calvin.


Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, 310 p.


(The entire section is 1146 words.)