John Calvin


John CalvinBy John Lord


A. D. 1509-1364.


John Calvin was pre-eminently the theologian of the Reformation, and stamped his genius on the thinking of his age,–equally an authority with the Swiss, the Dutch, the Huguenots, and the Puritans. His vast influence extends to our own times. His fame as a benefactor of mind is immortal, although it cannot be said that he is as much admired and extolled now as he was fifty years ago. Nor was he ever a favorite with the English Church. He has been even grossly misrepresented by theological opponents; but no critic or historian has ever questioned his genius, his learning, or his piety. No one denies that he has exerted a great influence on Protestant countries. As a theologian he ranks with Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas,–maintaining essentially the same views as those held by these great lights, and being distinguished for the same logical power; reigning like them as an intellectual dictator in the schools, but not so interesting as they were as men. And he was more than a theologian; he was a reformer and legislator, laying down rules of government, organizing church discipline, and carrying on reforms in the worship of God,–second only to Luther. His labors were prodigious as theologian, commentator, and ecclesiastical legislator; and we are surprised that a man with so feeble a body could have done so much work.

Calvin was born in Picardy in 1509,–the year that Henry VIII. ascended the British throne, and the year that Luther began to preach at Wittenberg. He was not a peasant’s son, like Luther, but belonged to what the world calls a good family. Intellectually he was precocious, and received an excellent education at a college in Paris, being destined for the law by his father, who sent him to the University of Orleans and then to Bourges, where he studied under eminent jurists, and made the acquaintance of many distinguished men. His conversion took place about the year 1529, when he was twenty; and this gave a new direction to his studies and his life. He was a pale-faced young man, with sparkling eyes, sedate and earnest beyond his years. He was twenty-three when he published the books of Seneca on Clemency, with learned commentaries. At the age of twenty-three he was in communion with the reformers of Germany, and was acknowledged to be, even at that early age, the head of the reform party in France. In 1533 he went to Paris, then as always the centre of the national life, where the new ideas were creating great commotion in scholarly and ecclesiastical circles, and even in the court itself. Giving offence to the doctors of the Sorbonne for his evangelical views as to Justification, he was obliged to seek refuge with the Queen of Navarre, whose castle at Pau was the resort of persecuted reformers. After leading rather a fugitive life in different parts of France, he retreated to Switzerland, and at twenty-six published his celebrated “Institutes,” which he dedicated to Francis I., hoping to convert him to the Protestant faith. After a short residence in Italy, at the court of the Duchess of Ferrara, he took up his abode at Geneva, and his great career began.

Geneva, a city of the Allobroges in the time of Caesar, possessed at this time about twenty thousand inhabitants, and was a free state, having a constitution somewhat like that of Florence when it was under the control of Savonarola. It had rebelled against the Duke of Savoy, who seems to have been in the fifteenth century its patron ruler. The government of this little Savoyard state became substantially like that which existed among the Swiss cantons. The supreme power resided in the council of Two Hundred, which alone had the power to make or abolish laws. There was a lesser council of Sixty, for diplomatic objects only.

The first person who preached the reformed doctrines in Geneva was the missionary Farel, a French nobleman, spiritual, romantic, and zealous. He had great success, although he encountered much opposition and wrath. But the reformed doctrines were already established in Zurich, Berne, and Basle, chiefly through the preaching of Ulrich Zwingli, and Oecolampadius. The apostolic Farel welcomed with great cordiality the arrival of Calvin, then already known as an extraordinary man, though only twenty-eight years of age. He came to Geneva poor, and remained poor all his life. All his property at his death amounted to only two hundred dollars. As a minister in one of the churches, he soon began to exert a marvellous influence. He must have been eloquent, for he was received with enthusiasm. This was in 1536. But he soon met with obstacles. He was worried by the Anabaptists; and even his orthodoxy was impeached by one Coroli, who made much mischief, so that Calvin was obliged to publish his Genevan Catechism in Latin. He also offended many by his outspoken rebuke of sin, for he aimed at a complete reformation of morals, like Latimer in London and like Savonarola at Florence. He sought to reprove amusements which were demoralizing, or thought to be so in their influence. The passions of the people were excited, and the city was torn by parties; and such was the reluctance to submit to the discipline of the ministers that they refused to administer the sacraments. This created such a ferment that the syndics expelled Calvin and Farel from the city. They went at first to Berne, but the Bernese would not receive them. They then retired to Basle, wearied, wet, and hungry, and from Basle they went to Strasburg. It was in this city that Calvin dwelt three years, spending his time in lecturing on divinity, in making contributions to exegetical theology, in perfecting his “Institutes,” forming a close alliance with Melancthon and other leading reformers. So pre-occupied was he with his labors as a commentator of the Scriptures, that he even contemplated withdrawing from the public service of religion.

Calvin was a scholar as well as theologian, and quiet labors in his library were probably more congenial to his tastes than active parochial duties. His highest life was amid his books, in serene repose and lofty contemplation. At this time he had an extensive correspondence, his advice being much sought for its wisdom and moderation. His judgment was almost unerring, since he was never led away by extravagances or enthusiasm: a cold, calm man even among his friends and admirers. He had no passions; he was all intellect. It would seem that in his exile he gave lectures on divinity, being invited by the Council of Strasburg; and also interested himself in reference to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which he would withhold from the unworthy. He lived quietly in his retreat, and was much respected by the people of the city where he dwelt.

In 1539 a convention was held at Frankfort, at which Calvin was present as the envoy of the city of Strasburg. Here, for the first time, he met Melancthon; but there was no close intimacy between them until these two great men met in the following year at a Diet which was summoned at Worms by the Emperor Charles V., in order to produce concord between the Catholics and Protestants, and which was afterwards removed to Ratisbon. Melancthon represented one party, and Doctor Eck the other. Melancthon and Bucer were inclined to peace; and Cardinal Contarini freely offered his hand, agreeing with the reformers to adopt the idea of Justification as his starting point, allowing that it proceeds from faith, without any merit of our own; but, like Luther and Calvin, he opposed any attempt at union which might compromise the truth, and had no faith in the movement. Neither party, as it was to be expected, was satisfied. The main subject of the dispute was in reference to the Eucharist. Calvin denied the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament, regarding it as a symbol,–though one of special divine influence. But on this point the Catholics have ever been uncompromising from the times of Berengar. Nor was Luther fully emancipated from the Catholic doctrine, modifying without essentially changing it. Calvin maintained that “This is my body” meant that it signified “my body.” In regard to original sin and free-will, as represented by Augustine, there was no dispute; but much difficulty attended the interpretation of the doctrine of Justification. The greatest difficulty was in reference to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, which was rejected by the reformers because it had not the sanction of the Scriptures; and when it was found that this caused insuperable difficulties about the Lord’s Supper, it was thought useless to proceed to other matters, like confession, masses for the dead, and the withholding the cup from the laity. There was not so great a difference between the Catholic and Protestant theologians concerning the main body of dogmatic divinity as is generally supposed. The fundamental questions pertaining to God, the Trinity, the mission and divinity of Christ, original sin, free-will, grace, predestination, had been formulated by Thomas Aquinas with as much severity as by Calvin. The great subjects at issue, in a strictly theological view, were Justification and the Eucharist. Respecting free-will and predestination, the Catholic theologians have never been agreed among themselves,–some siding with Augustine, like Aquinas, Bernard, and Anselm; and some with Pelagius, like Abélard and Lainez the Jesuit at the Council of Trent (a council assembled by the Pope, with the concurrence of Charles V. of Germany and Francis I. of France), the decrees of which, against the authority of Augustine in this matter, seem to be now the established faith of the Roman Catholic Church.

After the Diet of Ratisbon, Calvin returned to Geneva, at the eager desire of the people. The great Council summoned him to return; every voice was raised for him. “Calvin, that learned and righteous man,” they said, “it is he whom we would have as the minister of the Lord.” Yet he did not willingly return; he preferred his quiet life at Strasburg, but obeyed the voice of conscience. On the 13th of September, 1541, he returned to his penitent congregation, and was received by the whole city with every demonstration of respect; and a cloth cloak was given him as a present, which he seemed to need.

The same year he was married to a widow, Idelette de Burie, who was a worthy, well-read, high-minded woman, with whom he lived happily for nine years, until her death. She was superior to Luther’s wife, Catherine Bora, in culture and dignity, and was a helpmate who never opposed her husband in the slightest matter, always considering his interests. Esteem and friendship seem to have been the basis of this union,–not passionate love, which Calvin did not think much of. When his wife died it seems he mourned for her with decent grief, but did not seek a second marriage, perhaps because he was unable to support a wife on his small stipend as she would wish and expect. He rather courted poverty, and refused reasonable gratuities. His body was attenuated by fasting and study, like that of Saint Bernard. When he was completing his “Institutes,” he passed days without eating and nights without sleeping. And as he practised poverty he had a right to inculcate it. He kept no servant, lived in a small tenement, and was always poorly clad. He derived no profit from any of his books, and the only present he ever consented to receive was a silver goblet from the Lord of Varennes. Luther’s stipend was four hundred and fifty florins; and he too refused a yearly gift from the booksellers of four hundred dollars, not wishing to receive a gratuity for his writings. Calvin’s salary was only fifty dollars a year, with a house, twelve measures of corn, and two pipes of wine; for tea and coffee were then unknown in Europe, and wine seems to have been the usual beverage, after water. He was pre-eminently a conscientious man, not allowing his feelings to sway his judgment. He was sedate and dignified and cheerful; though Bossuet accuses him of a surly disposition,–un genre triste, un esprit chagrin. Though formal and stern, women never shrank from familiar conversation with him on the subject of religion. Though intolerant of error, he cherished no personal animosities. Calvin was more refined than Luther, and never like him gave vent to coarse expressions. He had not Luther’s physical strength, nor his versatility of genius; nor as a reformer was he so violent. “Luther aroused; Calvin tranquillized,” The one stormed the great citadel of error, the other furnished the weapons for holding it after it was taken. The former was more popular; the latter appealed to a higher intelligence. The Saxon reformer was more eloquent; the Swiss reformer was more dialectical. The one advocated unity; the other theocracy. Luther was broader; Calvin engrafted on his reforms the Old Testament observances. The watchword of the one was Grace; that of the other was Predestination. Luther cut knots; Calvin made systems. Luther destroyed; Calvin legislated. His great principle of government was aristocratic. He wished to see both Church and State governed by a select few of able men. In all his writings we see no trace of popular sovereignty. He interested himself, like Savonarola, in political institutions, but would separate the functions of the magistracy from those of the clergy; and he clung to the notion of a theocratic government, like Jewish legislators and the popes themselves. The idea of a theocracy was the basis of Calvin’s system of legislation, as it was that of Leo I. He desired that the temporal power should rule in the name of God,–should be the arm by which spiritual principles should be enforced. He did not object to the spiritual domination of the popes, so far as it was in accordance with the word of God. He wished to realize the grand idea which the Middle Ages sought for, but sought for in vain,–that the Church must always remain the mother of spiritual principles; but he objected to the exercise of temporal power by churchmen, as well as to the interference of the temporal power in matters purely spiritual,–virtually the doctrine of Anselm and Becket. But, unlike Becket, Calvin would not screen clergymen accused of crime from temporal tribunals; he rather sought the humiliation of the clergy in temporal matters. He also would destroy inequalities of rank, and do away with church dignitaries, like bishops and deans and archdeacons; and he instituted twice as many laymen as clergymen in ecclesiastical assemblies. But he gave to the clergy the exclusive right to excommunicate, and to regulate the administration of the sacraments. He was himself a high-churchman in his spirit, both in reference to the divine institution of the presbyterian form of government and the ascendancy of the Church as a great power in the world.

Calvin exercised a great influence on the civil polity of Geneva, although it was established before he came to the city. He undertook to frame for the State a code of morals. He limited the freedom of the citizens, and turned the old democratic constitution into an oligarchy. The general assembly, which met twice a year, nominated syndics, or judges; but nothing was proposed in the general assembly which had not previously been considered in the council of the Two Hundred; and nothing in the latter which had not been brought before the council of Sixty; nor even in this, which had not been approved by the lesser council. The four syndics, with their council of sixteen, had power of life and death, and the whole public business of the state was in their hands. The supreme legislation was in the council of Two Hundred; which was much influenced by ecclesiastics, or the consistory. If a man not forbidden to take the Sacrament neglected to receive it, he was condemned to banishment for a year. One was condemned to do public penance if he omitted a Sunday service. The military garrison was summoned to prayers twice a day. The judges punished severely all profanity, as blasphemy. A mason was put in prison three days for simply saying, when falling from a building, that it must be the work of the Devil. A young girl who insulted her mother was publicly punished and kept on bread-and-water; and a peasant-boy who called his mother a devil was publicly whipped. A child who struck his mother was beheaded; adultery was punished with death; a woman was publicly scourged because she sang common songs to a psalm-tune; and another because she dressed herself, in a frolic, in man’s attire. Brides were not allowed to wear wreaths in their bonnets; gamblers were set in the pillory, and card-playing and nine-pins were denounced as gambling. Heresy was punished with death; and in sixty years one hundred and fifty people were burned to death, in Geneva, for witchcraft. Legislation extended to dress and private habits; many innocent amusements were altogether suppressed; also holidays and theatrical exhibitions. Excommunication was as much dreaded as in the Mediaeval church.

In regard to the worship of God, Calvin was opposed to splendid churches, and to all ritualism. He retained psalm-singing, but abolished the organ; he removed the altar, the crucifix, and muniments from the churches, and closed them during the week-days, unless the minister was present. He despised what we call art, especially artistic music; nor did he have much respect for artificial sermons, or the art of speaking. He himself preached ex tempore, nor is there evidence that he ever wrote a sermon.

Respecting the Eucharist, Calvin took a middle course between Luther and Zwingli,–believing neither in the actual presence of Christ in the consecrated bread, nor regarding it as a mere symbol, but a means by which divine grace is imparted; a mirror in which we may contemplate Christ. Baptism he considered only as an indication of divine grace, and not essential to salvation; thereby differing from Luther and the Catholic church. Yet he was as strenuous in maintaining these sacraments as a Catholic priest, and made excommunication as fearful a weapon as it was in the Middle Ages. For admission to the Lord’s Supper, and thus to the membership of the visible Church, it would seem that his requirements were not rigid, but rather very simple, like those of the primitive Christians,–namely, faith in God and faith in Christ, without any subtile and metaphysical creeds, such as one might expect from his inexorable theological deductions. But he would resort to excommunication as a discipline, as the only weapon which the Church could use to bind its members together, and which had been used from the beginning; yet he would temper severity with mildness and charity, since only God is able to judge the heart. And herein he departed from the customs of the Middle Ages, and did not regard the excommunicated as lost, but to be prayed for by the faithful. No one, he maintained, should be judged as deserving eternal death who was still in the hands of God. He made a broad distinction between excommunication and anathema; the latter, he maintained, should never, or very rarely, be pronounced, since it takes away the hope of forgiveness, and consigns one to the wrath of God and the power of Satan. He regarded the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a means to help manifold infirmities,–as a time of meditation for beholding Christ the crucified; as confirming reconciliation with God; as a visible sign of the body of Christ, recognizing his actual but spiritual presence. Luther recognized the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist, while he rejected transubstantiation and the idea of worshipping the consecrated wafer as the real God. This difference in the opinion of the reformers as to the Eucharist led to bitter quarrels and controversies, and divided the Protestants. Calvin pursued a middle and moderate course, and did much to harmonize the Protestant churches. He always sought peace and moderation; and his tranquillizing measures were not pleasant to the Catholics, who wished to see divisions among their enemies.

Calvin had a great dislike of ceremonies, festivals, holidays, and the like. For images he had an aversion amounting to horror. Christmas was the only festival he retained. He was even slanderously accused of wishing to abolish the Sabbath, the observance of which he inculcated with the strictness of the Puritans. He introduced congregational singing, but would not allow the ear or the eye to be distracted. The music was simple, dispensing with organs and instruments and all elaborate and artistic display. It is needless to say that this severe simplicity of worship has nearly passed away, but it cannot be doubted that the changes which the reformers made produced the deepest impression on the people in a fervent and religious age. The psalms and hymns of the reformers were composed in times of great religious excitement. Calvin was far behind Luther, who did not separate the art of music from religion; but Calvin made a divorce of art from public worship. Indeed, the Reformation was not favorable to art in any form except in sacred poetry; it declared those truths which save the soul, rather than sought those arts which adorn civilization. Hence its churches were barren of ornaments and symbols, and were cold and repulsive when the people were not excited by religious truths. Nor did they favor eloquence in the ordinary meaning of that word. Pulpit eloquence was simple, direct, and without rhetorical devices; seeking effect not in gestures and postures and modulated voice, but earnest appeals to the heart and conscience. The great Catholic preachers of the eighteenth century–like Bossuet and Bourdaloue and Massillon–surpassed the Protestants as rhetoricians.

The simplicity which marked the worship of God as established by Calvin was also a feature in his system of church government. He dispensed with bishops, archdeacons, deans, and the like. In his eyes every man who preached the word was a presbyter, or elder; and every presbyter was a bishop. A deacon was an officer to take care of the poor, not to preach. And it was necessary that a minister should have a double call,–both an inward call and an outward one,–or an election by the people in union with the clergy. Paul and Barnabas set forth elders, but the people indicated their approval by lifting up their hands. In the Presbyterianism which Calvin instituted he maintained that the Church is represented by the laity as well as by the clergy. He therefore gave the right of excommunication to the congregation in conjunction with the clergy. In the Lutheran Church, as in the Catholic, the right of excommunication was vested in the clergy alone. But Calvin gave to the clergy alone the right to administer the sacraments; nor would he give to the Church any other power of punishment than exclusion from the Lord’s Supper, and excommunication. His organization of the Church was aristocratic, placing the power in the hands of a few men of approved wisdom and piety. He had no sympathy with democracy, either civil or religious, and he formed a close union between Church and State,–giving to the council the right to choose elders and to confirm the election of ministers. As already stated, he did not attempt to shield the clergy from the civil tribunals. The consistory, which assembled once a week, was formed of elders and preachers, and a messenger of the civil court summoned before it the persons whose presence was required. No such power as this would be tolerated in these times. But the consistory could not itself inflict punishment; that was the province of the civil government. The elders and clergy inflicted no civil penalties, but simply determined what should be heard before the spiritual and what before the civil tribunal. A syndic presided in the spiritual assembly at first, but only as a church elder. The elders were chosen from the council, and the election was confirmed by the great council, the people, and preachers; so that the Church was really in the hands of the State, which appointed the clergy. It would thus seem that Church and State were very much mixed up together by Calvin, who legislated in view of the circumstances which surrounded him, and not for other times or nations. This subordination of the Church to the State, which was maintained by all the reformers, was established in opposition to the custom of the Catholic Church, which sought to make the State subservient to the Church. And the lay government of the Church, which entered into the system of Calvin, was owing to the fear that the clergy, when able to stand alone, might become proud and ambitious; a fear which was grounded on the whole history of the Church.

Although Calvin had an exalted idea of the spiritual dignity of the Church, he allowed a very dangerous interference of the State in ecclesiastical affairs, even while he would separate the functions of the clergy from those of the magistrates. He allowed the State to pronounce the final sentence on dogmatic questions, and hence the power of the synod failed in Geneva. Moreover, the payment of ministers by the State rather than by the people, as in this country, was against the old Jewish custom, which Calvin so often borrowed,–for the priests among the Jews were independent of the kings. But Calvin wished to destroy caste among the clergy, and consequently spiritual tyranny. In his legislation we see an intense hostility to the Roman Catholic Church,–one of the animating principles of the Reformers; and hence the Reformers, in their hostility to Rome, went from Sylla into Charybdis. Calvin, like all churchmen, exalted naturally the theocratic idea of the old Jewish and Mediaeval Church, and yet practically put the Church into the hands of laymen. In one sense he was a spiritual dictator, and like Luther a sort of Protestant pope; and yet he built up a system which was fatal to spiritual power such as had existed among the Catholic priesthood. For their sacerdotal spiritual power he would substitute a moral power, the result of personal bearing and sanctity. It is amusing to hear some people speak of Calvin as a ghostly spiritual father; but no man ever fought sacerdotalism more earnestly than he. The logical sequence of his ecclesiastical reforms was not the aristocratic and Erastian Church of Scotland, but the Puritans in New England, who were Independents and not Presbyterians.

Yet there is an inconsistency even in Calvin’s régime; for he had the zeal of the old Catholic Church in giving over to the civil power those he wished to punish, as in the case of Servetus. He even intruded into the circle of social life, and established a temporal rather than a spiritual theocracy; and while he overthrew the episcopal element, he made a distinction, not recognized in the primitive church, between clergy and laity. As for religious toleration, it did not exist in any country or in any church; there was no such thing as true evangelical freedom. All the Reformers attempted, as well as the Catholics, a compulsory unity of faith; and this is an impossibility. The Reformers adopted a catechism, or a theological system, which all communicants were required to learn and accept. This is substantially the acceptance of what the Church ordains. Creeds are perhaps a necessity in well-organized ecclesiastical bodies, and are not unreasonable; but it should not be forgotten that they are formulated doctrines made by men, on what is supposed to be the meaning of the Scriptures, and are not consistent with the right of private judgment when pushed out to its ultimate logical consequence. When we remember how few men are capable of interpreting Scripture for themselves, and how few are disposed to exercise this right, we can see why the formulated catechism proved useful in securing unity of belief; but when Protestant divines insisted on the acceptance of the articles of faith which they deduced from the Scriptures, they did not differ materially from the Catholic clergy in persisting on the acceptance of the authority of the Church as to matters of doctrine. Probably a church organization is impossible without a formulated creed. Such a creed has existed from the time of the Council of Nice, and is not likely ever to be abandoned by any Christian Church in any future age, although it may be modified and softened with the advance of knowledge. However, it is difficult to conceive of the unity of the Church as to faith, without a creed made obligatory on all the members of a communion to accept, and it always has been regarded as a useful and even necessary form of Christian instruction for the people. Calvin himself attached great importance to catechisms, and prepared one even for children.

He also put a great value on preaching, instead of the complicated and imposing ritual of the Catholic service; and in most Protestant churches from his day to ours preaching, or religious instruction, has occupied the most prominent part of the church service; and it must be conceded that while the Catholic service has often degenerated into mere rites and ceremonies to aid a devotional spirit, so the Protestant service has often become cold and rationalistic,–and it is not easy to say which extreme is the worse.

Thus far we have viewed Calvin in the light of a reformer and legislator, but his influence as a theologian is more remarkable. It is for his theology that he stands out as a prominent figure in the history of the Church. As such he showed greater genius; as such he is the most eminent of all the reformers; as such he impressed his mind on the thinking of his own age and of succeeding ages,–an original and immortal man. His system of divinity embodied in his “Institutes” is remarkable for the radiation of the general doctrines of the Church around one central principle, which he defended with marvellous logical power. He was not a fencer like Abélard, displaying wonderful dexterity in the use of sophistries, overwhelming adversaries by wit and sarcasm; arrogant and self-sufficient, and destroying rather than building up. He did not deify the reason, like Erigina, nor throw himself on authority like Bernard. He was not comprehensive like Augustine, nor mystical like Bonaventura. He had the spiritual insight of Anselm, and the dialectical acumen of Thomas Aquinas; acknowledging no master but Christ, and implicitly receiving whatever the Scriptures declared. He takes his original position neither from natural reason nor from the authority of the church, but from the word of God; and from declarations of Scripture, as he interprets them, he draws sequences and conclusions with irresistible logic. In an important sense he is one-sided, since he does not take cognizance of other truths equally important. He is perfectly fearless in pushing out to its most logical consequences whatever truth he seizes upon; and hence he appears to many gifted and learned critics to draw conclusions from accepted premises which apparently conflict with consciousness or natural reason; and hence there has ever been repugnance to many of his doctrines, because it is impossible, it is said, to believe them.

In general, Calvin does not essentially differ from the received doctrines of the Church as defended by its greatest lights in all ages. His peculiarity is not in making a digest of divinity,–although he treated all the great subjects which have been discussed from Athanasius to Aquinas. His “Institutes” may well be called an exhaustive system of theology. There is no great doctrine which he has not presented with singular clearness and logical force. Yet it is not for a general system of divinity that he is famous, but for making prominent a certain class of subjects, among which he threw the whole force of his genius. In fact all the great lights of the Church have been distinguished for the discussion of particular doctrines to meet the exigencies of their times. Thus Athanasius is identified with the Trinitarian controversy, although he was a minister of theological knowledge in general. Augustine directed his attention more particularly to the refutation of Pelagian heresies and human Depravity. Luther’s great doctrine was Justification by Faith, although he took the same ground as Augustine. It was the logical result of the doctrines of Grace which he defended which led to the overthrow, in half of Europe, of that extensive system of penance and self-expiation which marked the Roman Catholic Church, and on which so many glaring abuses were based. As Athanasius rendered a great service to the Church by establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, and Augustine a still greater service by the overthrow of Pelagianism, so Luther undermined the papal pile of superstition by showing eloquently,–what indeed had been shown before,–the true ground of justification. When we speak of Calvin, the great subject of Predestination arises before our minds, although on this subject he made no pretention to originality. Nor did he differ materially from Augustine, or Gottschalk, or Thomas Aquinas before him, or Pascal and Edwards after him. But no man ever presented this complicated and mysterious subject so ably as he.

It is not for me to discuss this great topic. I simply wish to present the subject historically,–to give Calvin’s own views, and the effect of his deductions on the theology of his age; and in giving Calvin’s views I must shelter myself under the wings of his best biographer, Doctor Henry of Berlin, and quote the substance of his exposition of the peculiar doctrines of the Swiss, or rather French, theologian.

According to Henry, Calvin maintained that God, in his sovereign will and for his own glory, elected one part of the human race to everlasting life, and abandoned the other part to everlasting death; that man, by the original transgression, lost the power of free-will, except to do evil; that it is only by Divine Grace that freedom to do good is recovered; but that this grace is bestowed only on the elect, and elect not in consequence of the foreknowledge of God, but by his absolute decree before the world was made.

This is the substance of those peculiar doctrines which are called Calvinism, and by many regarded as fundamental principles of theology, to be received with the same unhesitating faith as the declarations of Scripture from which those doctrines are deduced. Augustine and Aquinas accepted substantially the same doctrines, but they were not made so prominent in their systems, nor were they so elaborately worked out.

The opponents of Calvin, including some of the brightest lights which have shone in the English church,–such men as Jeremy Taylor, Archbishop Whately, and Professor Mosley,–affirm that these doctrines are not only opposed to free-will, but represent God as arbitrarily dooming a large part of the human race to future and endless punishment, withholding from them his grace, by which alone they can turn from their sins, creating them only to destroy them: not as the potter moulds the clay for vessels of honor and dishonor, but moulding the clay in order to destroy the vessels he has made, whether good or bad; which doctrine they affirm conflicts with the views usually held out in the Scriptures of God as a God of love, and also conflicts with all natural justice, and is therefore one-sided and narrow.

The premises from which this doctrine is deduced are those Scripture texts which have the authority of the Apostle Paul, such as these: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world;” “For whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate;” “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated;” “He hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth;” “Hath not the potter power over his clay?” No one denies that from these texts the Predestination of Calvin as well as Augustine–for they both had similar views–is logically drawn. It has been objected that both of these eminent theologians overlooked other truths which go in parallel lines, and which would modify the doctrine,–even as Scripture asserts in one place the great fact that the will is free, and in another place that the will is shackled. The Pelagian would push out the doctrine of free-will so as to ignore the necessity of grace; and the Augustinian would push out the doctrine of the servitude of the will into downright fatalism. But these great logicians apparently shrink from the conclusions to which their logic leads them. Both Augustine and Calvin protest against fatalism, and both assert that the will is so far free that the sinner acts without constraint; and consequently the blame of his sins rests upon himself, and not upon another. The doctrines of Calvin and Augustine logically pursued would lead to the damnation of infants; yet, as a matter of fact, neither maintained that to which their logic led. It is not in human nature to believe such a thing, even if it may be dogmatically asserted.

And then, in regard to sin: no one has ever disputed the fact that sin is rampant in this world, and is deserving of punishment. But theologians of the school of Augustine and Calvin, in view of the fact, have assumed the premise–which indeed cannot be disputed–that sin is against an infinite God. Hence, that sin against an infinite God is itself infinite; and hence that, as sin deserves punishment, an infinite sin deserves infinite punishment,–a conclusion from which consciousness recoils, and which is nowhere asserted in the Bible. It is a conclusion arrived at by metaphysical reasoning, which has very little to do with practical Christianity, and which, imposed as a dogma of belief, to be accepted like plain declarations of Scripture, is an insult to the human understanding. But this conclusion, involving the belief that inherited sin is infinite, and deserving of infinite punishment, appals the mind. For relief from this terrible logic, the theologian adduces the great fact that Christ made an atonement for sin,–another cardinal declaration of the Scripture,–and that believers in this atonement shall be saved. This Bible doctrine is exceedingly comforting, and accounts in a measure for the marvellous spread of Christianity. The wretched people of the old Roman world heard the glad tidings that Christ died for them, as an atonement for the sins of which they were conscious, and which had chained them to despair. But another class of theologians deduced from this premise, that, as Christ’s death was an infinite atonement for the sins of the world, so all men, and consequently all sinners, would be saved. This was the ground of the original Universalists, deduced from the doctrines which Augustine and Calvin had formulated. But they overlooked the Scripture declaration which Calvin never lost sight of, that salvation was only for those who believed. Now inasmuch as a vast majority of the human race, including infants, have not believed, it becomes a logical conclusion that all who have not believed are lost. Logic and consciousness then come into collision, and there is no relief but in consigning these discrepancies to the realm of mystery.

I allude to these theological difficulties simply to show the tyranny to which the mind and soul are subjected whenever theological deductions are invested with the same authority as belongs to original declarations of Scripture; and which, so far from being systematized, do not even always apparently harmonize. Almost any system of belief can be logically deduced from Scripture texts. It should be the work of theologians to harmonize them and show their general spirit and meaning, rather than to draw conclusions from any particular class of subjects. Any system of deductions from texts of Scripture which are offset by texts of equal authority but apparently different meaning, is necessarily one-sided and imperfect, and therefore narrow. That is exactly the difficulty under which Calvin labored. He seems, to a large class of Christians of great ability and conscientiousness, to be narrow and one-sided, and is therefore no authority to them; not, be it understood, in reference to the great fundamental doctrines of Christianity, but in his views of Predestination and the subjects interlinked with it. And it was the great error of attaching so much importance to mere metaphysical divinity that led to such a revulsion from his peculiar system in after times. It was the great wisdom of the English reformers, like Cranmer, to leave all those metaphysical questions open, as matters of comparatively little consequence, and fall back on unquestioned doctrines of primitive faith, that have given so great vitality to the English Church, and made it so broad and catholic. The Puritans as a body, more intellectual than the mass of the Episcopalians, were led away by the imposing and entangling dialectics of the scholastic Calvin, and came unfortunately to attach as much importance to such subjects as free-will and predestination–questions most complicated–as they did to “the weightier matters of the law;” and when pushed by the logic of opponents to the decretum horribile, have been compelled to fall back on the Catholic doctrine of mysteries, as something which could never be explained or comprehended, but which it is a Christian duty to accept as a mystery. The Scriptures certainly speak of mysteries, like regeneration; but it is one thing to marvel how a man can be born again by the Spirit of God,–a fact we see every day,–and quite another thing to make a mystery to be accepted as a matter of faith of that which the Bible has nowhere distinctly affirmed, and which is against all ideas of natural justice, and arrived at by a subtle process of dialectical reasoning.

But it was natural for so great an intellectual giant as Calvin to make his startling deductions from the great truths he meditated upon with so much seriousness and earnestness. Only a very lofty nature would have revelled as he did, and as Augustine did before him and Pascal after him, in those great subjects which pertain to God and his dispensations. All his meditations and formulated doctrines radiate from the great and sublime idea of the majesty of God and the comparative insignificance of man. And here he was not so far apart from the great sages of antiquity, before salvation was revealed by Christ. “Canst thou by searching find out God?” “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”

And here I would remark that theologians and philosophers have ever been divided into two great schools,–those who have had a tendency to exalt the dignity of man, and those who would absorb man in the greatness of the Deity. These two schools have advocated doctrines which, logically carried out to their ultimate sequences, would produce a Grecian humanitarianism on the one hand, and a sort of Bramanism on the other,–the one making man the arbiter of his own destiny, independently of divine agency, and the other making the Deity the only power of the universe. With one school, God as the only controlling agency is a fiction, and man himself is infinite in faculties; the other holds that God is everything and man is nothing. The distinction between these two schools, both of which have had great defenders, is fundamental,–such as that between Augustine and Pelagius, between Bernard and Abélard, and between Calvin and Lainez. Among those who have inclined to the doctrine of the majesty of God and the littleness of man were the primitive monks and the Indian theosophists, and the orthodox scholastics of the Middle Ages,–all of whom were comparatively indifferent to material pleasure and physical progress, and sought the salvation of the soul and the favor of God beyond all temporal blessings. Of the other class have been the Greek philosophers and the rationalizing schoolmen and the modern lights of science.

Now Calvin was imbued with the lofty spirit of the Fathers of the Church and the more religious and contemplative of the schoolmen and the saints of the Middle Ages, when he attached but little dignity to man unaided by divine grace, and was absorbed with the idea of the sovereignty of God, in whose hands man is like clay in the hands of the potter. This view of God pervaded the whole spirit of his theology, making it both lofty and yet one-sided. To him the chief end of man was to glorify God, not to develop his own intellectual faculties, and still less to seek the pleasures and excitements of the world. Man was a sinner before an infinite God, and he could rise above the polluting influence of sin only by the special favor of God and his divinely communicated grace. Man was so great a sinner that he deserved an eternal punishment, only to be rescued as a brand plucked from the fire, as one of the elect before the world was made. The vast majority of men were left to the uncovenanted mercies of Christ,–the redeemer, not of the race, but of those who believed.

To Calvin therefore, as to the Puritans, the belief in a personal God was everything; not a compulsory belief in the general existence of a deity who, united with Nature, reveals himself to our consciousness; not the God of the pantheist, visible in all the wonders of Nature; not the God of the rationalist, who retires from the universe which he has made, leaving it to the operation of certain unchanging and universal laws: but the God whom Abraham and Moses and the prophets saw and recognized, and who by his special providence rules the destinies of men. The most intellectual of the reformers abhorred the deification of the reason, and clung to that exalted supernaturalism which was the life and hope of blessed saints and martyrs in bygone ages, and which in “their contests with mail-clad infidelity was like the pebble which the shepherd of Israel hurled against the disdainful boaster who defied the power of Israel’s God.” And he was thus brought into close sympathy with the realism of the Fathers, who felt that all that is valuable in theology must radiate from the recognition of Almighty power in the renovation of society, and displayed, not according to our human notions of law and progress and free-will, but supernaturally and mysteriously, according to his sovereign will, which is above law, since God is the author of law. He simply erred in enforcing a certain class of truths which must follow from the majesty of the one great First Cause, lofty as these truths are, to the exclusion of another class of truths of great importance; which gives to his system incompleteness and one-sidedness. Thus he was led to undervalue the power of truth itself in its contest with error. He was led into a seeming recognition of two wills in God,–that which wills the salvation of all men, and that which wills the salvation of the elect alone. He is accused of a leaning to fatalism, which he heartily denied, but which seems to follow from his logical conclusions. He entered into an arena of metaphysical controversy which can never be settled. The doctrines of free-will and necessity can never be reconciled by mortal reason. Consciousness reveals the freedom of the will as well as the slavery to sin. Men are conscious of both; they waste their time in attempting to reconcile two apparently opposing facts,–like our pious fathers at their New England firesides, who were compelled to shelter themselves behind mystery.

The tendency of Calvin’s system, it is maintained by many, is to ascribe to God attributes which according to natural justice would be injustice and cruelty, such as no father would exercise on his own children, however guilty. Even good men will not accept in their hearts doctrines which tend to make God less compassionate than man. There are not two kinds of justice. The intellect is appalled when it is affirmed that one man justly suffers the penalty of another man’s sin,–although the world is full of instances of men suffering from the carelessness or wickedness of others, as in a wicked war or an unnecessary railway disaster. The Scripture law of retribution, as brought out in the Bible and sustained by consciousness, is the penalty a man pays for personal and voluntary transgression. Nor will consciousness accept the doctrine that the sin of a mortal–especially under strong temptation and with all the bias of a sinful nature–is infinite. Nothing which a created mortal can do is infinite; it is only finite: the infinite belongs to God alone. Hence an infinite penalty for a finite sin conflicts with consciousness and is nowhere asserted in the Bible, which is transcendently more merciful and comforting than many theological systems of belief, however powerfully sustained by dialectical reasoning and by the most excellent men. Human judgments or reasonings are fallible on moral questions which have two sides; and reasonings from texts which present different meanings when studied by the lights of learning and science are still more liable to be untrustworthy. It would seem to be the supremest necessity for theological schools to unravel the meaning of divine declarations, and present doctrines in their relation with apparently conflicting texts, rather than draw out a perfect and consistent system, philosophically considered, from any one class of texts. Of all things in this wicked and perplexing world the science of theology should be the most cheerful and inspiring, for it involves inquiries on the loftiest subjects which can interest a thoughtful mind.

But whatever defects the system of doctrines which Calvin elaborated with such transcendent ability may have, there is no question as to its vast influence on the thinking of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The schools of France and Holland and Scotland and England and America were animated by his genius and authority. He was a burning and a shining light, if not for all ages, at least for the unsettled times in which he lived. No theologian ever had a greater posthumous power than he for nearly three hundred years, and he is still one of the great authorities of the church universal. John Knox sought his counsel and was influenced by his advice in the great reform he made in Scotland. In France the words Calvinist and Huguenot are synonymous. Cranmer, too, listened to his counsels, and had great respect for his learning and sanctity. Among the Puritans he has reigned like an oracle. Oliver Cromwell embraced his doctrines, as also did Sir Matthew Hale. Ridicule or abuse of Calvin is as absurd as the ridicule or abuse with which Protestants so long assailed Hildebrand or Innocent III. No one abuses Pascal or Augustine, and yet the theological views of all these are substantially the same.

In one respect I think that Calvin has received more credit than he deserves. Some have maintained that he was a sort of father of republicanism and democratic liberty. In truth he had no popular sympathies, and leaned towards an aristocracy which was little short of an oligarchy. He had no hand in establishing the political system of Geneva; it was established before he went there. He was not even one of those thinkers who sympathized with true liberty of conscience. He persecuted heretics like a mediaeval Catholic divine. He would have burned a Galileo as he caused the death of Servetus, which need not have happened but for him. Calvin could have saved Servetus if he had pleased; but he complained of him to the magistrates, knowing that his condemnation and death would necessarily follow. He had neither the humanity of Luther nor the toleration of Saint Augustine. He was the impersonation of intellect,–like Newton, Leibnitz, Spinoza, and Kant,–which overbore the impulses of his heart. He had no passions except zeal for orthodoxy. So pre-eminently did intellect tower above the passions that he seemed to lack sympathy; and yet, such was his exalted character, he was capable of friendship. He was remarkable for every faculty of the mind except wit and imagination. His memory was almost incredible; he remembered everything he ever read or heard; he would, after long intervals, recognize persons whom he had never seen but once or twice. When employed in dictation, he would resume the thread of his discourse without being prompted, after the most vexatious interruptions. His judgment was as sound as his memory was retentive; it was almost infallible,–no one was ever known to have been misled by it. He had a remarkable analytical power, and also the power of generalization. He was a very learned man, and his Commentaries are among the most useful and valued of his writings, showing both learning and judgment; his exegetical works have scarcely been improved. He had no sceptical or rationalistic tendencies, and therefore his Commentaries may not be admired by men of “advanced thought,” but his annotations will live when those of Ewald shall be forgotten; they still hold their place in the libraries of biblical critics. For his age he was a transcendent critic; his various writings fill five folio volumes. He was not so voluminous a writer as Thomas Aquinas, but less diffuse; his style is lucid, like that of Voltaire.

Considering the weakness of his body Calvin’s labors were prodigious. There was never a more industrious man, finding time for everything,–for an amazing correspondence, for pastoral labors, for treatises and essays, for commentaries and official duties. No man ever accomplished more in the same space of time. He preached daily every alternate week; he attended meetings of the Consistory and of the Court of Morals; he interested himself in the great affairs of his age; he wrote letters to all parts of Christendom.

Reigning as a religious dictator, and with more influence than any man of his age, next to Luther, Calvin was content to remain poor, and was disdainful of money and all praises and rewards. This was not an affectation, not the desire to imitate the great saints of Christian antiquity to whom poverty was a cardinal virtue; but real indifference, looking upon money as impedimenta, as camp equipage is to successful generals. He was not conscious of being poor with his small salary of fifty dollars a year, feeling that he had inexhaustible riches within him; and hence he calmly and naturally took his seat among the great men of the world as their peer and equal, without envy of the accidents of fortune and birth. He was as indifferent to money and luxuries as Socrates when he walked barefooted among the Athenian aristocracy, or Basil when he retired to the wilderness; he rarely gave vent to extravagant grief or joy, seldom laughed, and cared little for hilarities; he knew no games or sports; he rarely played with children or gossiped with women; he loved without romance, and suffered bereavement without outward sorrow. He had no toleration for human infirmities, and was neither social nor genial; he sought a wife, not so much for communion of feeling as to ease him of his burdens,–not to share his confidence, but to take care of his house. Nor was he fond, like Luther, of music and poetry. He had no taste for the fine arts; he never had a poet or an artist for his friend or companion. He could not look out of his window without seeing the glaciers of the Alps, but seemed to be unmoved by their unspeakable grandeur; he did not revel in the glories of nature or art, but gave his mind to abstract ideas and stern practical duties. He was sparing of language, simple, direct, and precise, using neither sarcasm, nor ridicule, nor exaggeration. He was far from being eloquent according to popular notions of oratory, and despised the jingle of words and phrases and tricks of rhetoric; he appealed to reason rather than the passions, to the conscience rather than the imagination.

Though mild, Calvin was also intolerant. Castillo, once his friend, assailed his doctrine of Decrees, and was obliged to quit Geneva, and was so persecuted that he died of actual starvation; Perrin, captain-general of the republic, danced at a wedding, and was thrown into prison; Bolsec, an eminent physician, opposed the doctrine of Predestination, and was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment; Gruet spoke lightly of the ordinances of religion, and was beheaded; Servetus was a moral and learned and honest man, but could not escape the flames. Had he been willing to say, as the flames consumed his body, “Jesus, thou eternal Son of God, have mercy on me!” instead of, “Jesus, thou son of the eternal God!” he might have been spared. Calvin was as severe on those who refused to accept his logical deductions from acknowledged truths as he was on those who denied the fundamental truths themselves. But toleration was rare in his age, and he was not beyond it. He was not even beyond the ideas of the Middle Ages in some important points, such as those which pertained to divine justice,–the wrath rather than the love of God. He lived too near the Middle Ages to be emancipated from the ideas which enslaved such a man as Thomas Aquinas. He had very little patience with frivolous amusements or degrading pursuits. He attached great dignity to the ministerial office, and set a severe example of decorum and propriety in all his public ministrations. He was a type of the early evangelical divines, and was the father of the old Puritan strictness and narrowness and fidelity to trusts. His very faults grew out of virtues pushed to extremes. In our times such a man would not be selected as a travelling companion, or a man at whose house we would wish to keep the Christmas holidays. His unattractive austerity perhaps has been made too much of by his enemies, and grew out of his unimpulsive temperament,–call it cold if we must,–and also out of his stern theology, which marked the ascetics of the Middle Ages. Few would now approve of his severity of discipline any more than they would feel inclined to accept some of his theological deductions.

I question whether Calvin lived in the hearts of his countrymen, or they would have erected some monument to his memory. In our times a statue has been erected to Rousseau in Geneva; but Calvin was buried without ceremony and with exceeding simplicity. He was a warrior who cared nothing for glory or honor, absorbed in devotion to his Invisible King, not indifferent to the exercise of power, but only as he felt he was the delegated messenger of Divine Omnipotence scattering to the winds the dust of all mortal grandeur. With all his faults, which were on the surface, he was the accepted idol and oracle of a great party, and stamped his genius on his own and succeeding ages. Whatever the Presbyterians have done for civilization, he comes in for a share of the honor. Whatever foundations the Puritans laid for national greatness in this country, it must be confessed that they caught inspiration from his decrees. Such a great master of exegetical learning and theological inquiry and legislative wisdom will be forever held in reverence by lofty characters, although he may be no favorite with the mass of mankind. If many great men and good men have failed to comprehend either his character or his system, how can a pleasure-loving and material generation, seeking to combine the glories of this world with the promises of the next, see much in him to admire, except as a great intellectual dialectician and system-maker in an age with which it has no sympathy? How can it appreciate his deep spiritual life, his profound communion with God, his burning zeal for the defence of Christian doctrine, his sublime self-sacrifice, his holy resignation, his entire consecration to a great cause? Nobody can do justice to Calvin who does not know the history of his times, the circumstances which surrounded him, and the enemies he was required to fight. No one can comprehend his character or mission who does not feel it to be supremely necessary to have a definite, positive system of religious belief, based on the authority of the Scriptures as a divine inspiration, both as an anchor amid the storms and a star of promise and hope.

And, after all, what is the head and front of Calvin’s offending?–that he was cold, unsocial, and ungenial in character; and that, as a theologian, he fearlessly and inexorably pushed out his deductions to their remotest logical sequences. But he was no more austere than Chrysostom, no more ascetic than Basil, not even sterner in character than Michael Angelo, or more unsocial than Pascal or Cromwell or William the Silent. We lose sight of his defects in the greatness of his services and the exalted dignity of his character. If he was severe to adversaries, he was kind to friends; and when his feeble body was worn out by his protracted labors, at the age of fifty-three, and he felt that the hand of death was upon him, he called together his friends and fellow-laborers in reform,–the magistrates and ministers of Geneva,–imparted his last lessons, and expressed his last wishes, with the placidity of a Christian sage. Amid tears and sobs and stifled groans he discoursed calmly on his approaching departure, gave his affectionate benedictions, and commended them and his cause to Christ; lingering longer than was expected, but dying in the highest triumphs of Christian faith, May 27, 1564, in the arms of his faithful and admiring Beza, as the rays of the setting-sun gilded with their glory his humble chamber of toil and spiritual exaltation.

No man who knows anything will ever sneer at Calvin. He is not to be measured by common standards. He was universally regarded as the greatest light of the theological world. When we remember his transcendent abilities, his matchless labors, his unrivalled influence, his unblemished morality, his lofty piety, and soaring soul, all flippant criticism is contemptible and mean. He ranks with immortal benefactors, and needs least of all any apologies for his defects. A man who stamped his opinions on his own age and succeeding ages can be regarded only as a very extraordinary genius. A frivolous and pleasure-seeking generation may not be attracted by such an impersonation of cold intellect, and may rear no costly monument to his memory; but his work remains as the leader of the loftiest class of Christian enthusiasts that the modern world has known, and the founder of a theological system which still numbers, in spite of all the changes of human thought, some of the greatest thinkers and ablest expounders of Christian doctrine in both Europe and America. To have been the spiritual father of the Puritans for three hundred years is itself a great evidence of moral and intellectual excellence, and will link his name with some of the greatest movements that have marked our modern civilization. From Plymouth Rock to the shores of the Pacific Ocean we still see the traces of his marvellous genius, and his still more wonderful influence on the minds of men and on the schools of Christian theology; so that he will ever be regarded as the great doctor of the Protestant Church.


Henry’s Life of Calvin, translated by Stebbings; Dyer’s Life of Calvin; Beza’s Life of Calvin; Drelincourt’s Defence of Calvin; Bayle; Maimbourg’s Histoire du Calvinisine; Calvin’s Works; Ruchat; D’Aubigné’s History of the Reformation; Burnet’s Reformation; Mosheim; Biographie Universelle, article on Servetus; Schlosser’s Leben Bezas; McCrie’s Life of Knox; Original Letters (Parker Society).