John Calvin Criticism

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B. A. Gerrish (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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. But they do not quite measure up to the stature of the two giants, who can justly be compared only with each other. One naturally expects, then, that the question will have been asked frequently, almost too frequently: What is the relationship between these two? How, in particular, did they think of each other? In actual fact, scholars in the English-speaking world seem to have been strangely uninterested in setting the two Continental Reformers side by side, even when confessional allegiance might have compensated for patriotic indifference. The theme "Luther and Calvin," with variations in approach and content, has been handled rather more regularly in German,1 occasionally also in French and Dutch.2 And, of course, the more general studies, such as the biographies of Calvin, always have something more or less weighty to say on the theme, even if only incidentally.3 But the literature in English is thin.4

One reason for the delinquency of British and American scholarship in this respect is perhaps the tendency to concentrate mainly on the Institutes and (rather less) on Calvin's commentaries. The casual reader of the Institutes, who is not skilled in identifying unacknowledged debts or anonymous opponents, could be pardoned for concluding that the author had never heard of Luther. Although the pages of Calvin's systematic work bristle with citations from biblical, patristic, scholastic, and classical authors, no explicit reference is made to the great German Reformer. In the commentaries, to be sure, the veil of anonymity is lifted from time to time, and Luther is openly mentioned, often, though by no means always, to illustrate a piece of faulty exegesis.5 But the most important sources for my theme are among the least read: namely, Calvin's correspondence6 and the so-called "minor theological treatises."7 For this reason, and also because some of the pertinent materials are not even available in English translations,8 I devote a good deal of space, in what follows, to direct quotation of Calvin's most important judgments on Martin Luther.


A glance at the dates of some of the articles devoted immediately to my theme (1883, 1896, 1959, 1964) reveals that the sacred festivals of Protestantism—the birthdays or deathdays of the Reformers and the appearance of the definitive edition of the Institutes—have been the chief stimulus to publication. Approaches to the theme have been various. The personalities of Luther and Calvin have been contrasted, with inevitable assistance from ethnology and sociology: the impetuous Teuton is set beside the precise Frenchman, the peasant's son beside the boy who grew up among the gentry.9 Likewise, the respective theologies of the two Reformers have been compared, and an attempt made to locate the points of difference.10 Finally, their actual personal relationships and opinions of each other have been reviewed and evaluated.11 I think it can be said, however, that a special underlying concern often binds essays together which seem, on the surface, quite different in approach. Indeed, all the essays which originate from the continent of Europe show traces, some more and some less, of this concern: to see what light the relationships between Luther and Calvin can shed on the division between the two communions that are descended from them. And here,...

(The entire section is 82,474 words.)