July 12, 2009

John Calvin's theology

July 10th was the 500th anniversary of the reformer John Calvin's birth. This is the third post in a series about his life, theology, and legacy. Today, I will summarize the key points of John Calvin's theology.

John Calvin was a prolific writer of theology. His most notable work was the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition of which was published in 1536, when he was 26 years old. Calvin revised the Institutes thoroughly several times. The first edition was a small, compact work of a single volume that could be carried in a pocket. However, the final edition, published in 1559, was a thorough systematic theology comprising four volumes.

Calvin's biblical commentaries cover most of the Bible. His Old Testament commentaries excluded the historical books after Judges and most of the wisdom literature (he did comment on the Psalms). His New Testament commentaries are complete except for 1 and 2 John, and Revelation.


Calvin said that there could be no knowledge of self without knowledge of God. All men have a natural awareness of divinity, which is both planted in their minds and made evident through creation. However, man has suppressed or corrupted this knowledge, and confused the creation with the Creator.

Paradoxically, without knowledge of God there can be no knowledge of self. It is only when men contemplate the greatness of God that they can come to realize their own inadequacy.

God is providentially in control of all things that come to pass, including evil things. However, this does not make him the author of sin or evil.


Man is created in the image of God. This image has been marred by the Fall, but not destroyed. Before the Fall, man's will was truly free; however, because of the Fall it is now corrupt and enslaved to sin.

Jesus Christ

The person of Christ provides the solution to this moral dilemma. Christ, being God made man, is the only possible bridge between God and men.

In the Incarnation, God and humanity were joined inseparably in one person, though not in such a way that the divine and human were confused. The relationship between Christ's human and divine natures is paradigmatic for Calvin’s theology whenever the divine touches upon the human.

Calvin was the first person to describe the work of Christ in terms of the threefold offices of prophet, priest, and king:

  • As prophet, Christ's teachings are proclaimed by the Apostles for the purpose of our salvation.
  • As priest, Christ’s sacrifice of himself, and his mediation before the Father, secures the salvation of men.
  • As king, Christ rules the Church spiritually in the hearts of its members.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit unites men to Christ when Christ is apprehended through faith in the promises of Scripture. The Spirit leads men to Christ; without him, saving faith is impossible.

Justification by faith

Justification by faith is called the material principle of the Reformation. It is based upon the mercy of God, not the merits of humanity. Although the doctrines of election and predestination are linked with Calvin's name, the doctrine of election actually plays a relatively minor part of Calvin’s theology. As a second-generation Reformer, his primary concern was organizing and governing the church, rather than theology. Nonetheless, Calvin believed in unconditional election and double predestination.

The sacraments

Calvin taught two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's supper. He differed from sacramentalists, such as Roman Catholics, who believe that the sacraments were a means of receiving justifying grace. Rather, he said, they are the badges, or marks, of Christian profession, testifying to God's grace.

Calvin was a paedobaptist, believing that infants were the proper objects of baptism. He differed from Catholic and Lutheran paedobaptists in arguing that baptism did not regenerate infants. Rather, just as circumcision symbolized entrance into the Old Covenant, baptism did into the New Covenant. His argument for infant baptism draws many parallels between the two signs.

Luther and the Roman Catholic church believed that Christ's body was literally present in the Eucharist, while Ulrich Zwingli taught that the Lord's Supper was a mere memorial. Calvin took a middle ground between the two positions. The elements were a symbol, and therefore could not be the thing they signified; the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation confused the symbol and the substance. On the other hand, Zwingli's memorialism divorced symbol and substance completely. Calvin taught that when one receives the bread and wine, which are literal food and drink, in a spiritual sense he receives the spiritual food and drink of the Christian. Christ is spiritually present when the Eucharist is received by faith.

Church polity

Calvin is the founder of the presbyterian system of church government.

At the local level, Calvin's system involved a council of pastors representing the local assembly, and responsible for teaching and shepherding the churches. The Consistory, a larger council comprising pastors and lay elders elected according to district, was responsible for maintaining church discipline and watching over the moral lives of church members. At the regional level was the presbytery, then above this were provincial and national synods.

This system, intended to function in a time of persecution, is an efficient and flexible one. The local church appointed its own officers and could continue to function with the loss of a minister. Alternatively, if the presbytery/synod failed to meet, the church could continue at the local level.

Church government is closely tied to church discipline. Discipline is the ordering of church life in obedience to Christ in response to the teaching of Scripture. It has a threefold aim: the glory of God, the purity of the Church, and the correction of the offender.

The power of the Church to punish offenders was limited to excommunication. Typically, this meant denying them the Lord’s Supper, baptism for them or their children, or marriage. While these punishments might sound rather trivial today, they would have been significant in a community that had only recently abandoned Roman Catholic sacramentalism, in which baptism and the Eucharist were seen as the means by which divine grace were conferred.

Calvin and Calvinism

Calvinism is the system of understanding soteriology that was codified at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19, in the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. Calvin himself was not the source of these articles. A later Protestant reformer, James Arminius, opposed his teaching on predestination. A number of his followers drew up a document in 1610, titled the Articles of Remonstrance, in which they outlined five points of disagreement with Calvin's soteriology. In response, the Reformed churches convened in Dort in 1610 to answer the Remonstrants with five points of their own, which are remembered by the acrostic TULIP:

  • Total depravity: Man's whole being is corrupted by sin, such that he is an enemy of God, unable and unwilling to come to God and be saved.
  • Unconditional election: God chooses men for salvation based on his own good pleasure, not because of any foreseen merit they possess.
  • Limited atonement (or particular redemption): Christ's death on the cross was specifically designed to secure the salvation of the elect, and has no salvific benefits for the reprobate.
  • Irresistible grace (or effectual calling): Those whom God calls to salvation and extends his saving grace, will certainly come to him and be saved.
  • Perseverance of the saints: Having secured the salvation of the elect, God keeps them in a state of grace such that they will never finally and irreversibly fall away from faith.

There is some debate whether Calvin himself affirmed all these five points. In his writings, he explicitly affirms total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. However, his affirmation of limited atonement is implicit at best. Some scholars, such as Norman Geisler, have denied that Calvin believed in limited atonement; others, such as Roger Nicole, say that he affirmed all five points. Personally, I am persuaded that he did believe in a limited atonement, based on excerpts such as the following, which comes from a treatise he wrote against a Lutheran theologian, Tilemann Heshusius, and his view of the Lord's supper:

I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins.

Tomorrow I will wrap up this series on John Calvin with a brief look at the legacy he left the church and the world to this day.