John Calvin the Theologian The Leader of Theologians

IT WAS Luther’s great assistant in the Reformation, Philip Melanchthon, himself an able teacher and theologian, who called Calvin The Theologian. Another of Calvin’s contemporaries, the learned Joseph Scaliger (1520-1609), echoed Melanchthon’s sentiment when he said: “Calvin stands alone among the theologians.” Speaking of Calvin’s Institutes, a sixteenth century Hungarian reformer said that, apart from the Apostolic writings, “nothing in the world is equal to this book.”1

It was Calvin who gave the Evangelical movement (Protestantism) its theology, and this, I think, was his greatest contribution. One of the great successors of John Knox in Scotland, William Cunningham, presented a valid estimate when he stated:

“The Institutes of Calvin is the most important work in the history of theological science…and has exerted, directly or indirectly, the greatest and most beneficial influence upon the opinions of intelligent men on theological subjects.”2

At about the same time the Strasburg editors of the works of Calvin put it this way:

“…though Luther was supremely great as a man, and Zwingli was second to none as a Christian citizen, and Melanchthon well deserves the appellation of the most learned of teachers, Calvin may justly be called the leader and standard-bearer of theologians.”3
The Calvin celebrations of 1909 reiterated these tributes in many ways. We may expect that the interest in Calvin in 1959 will exceed that of 1909, for there is a new theological climate today. If our renewed interest in Calvin will involve a better understanding of Calvin’s theology, the profit will be great! Such benefit can only revive Calvin’s own singular purpose: Soli Deo Gloria!

A Theologian of the Word of God

What is a theologian? Some theologians have reveled in subtle distinctions and have tried to build great logical systems by means of deduction from their own minds. Such were many of the medieval Scholastics; but Calvin was not of their brand. Some theologians have shut themselves off from the world, and set forth radically new but lifeless theologies in thick books. Such were many nineteenth century Germans; but the Frenchman, John Calvin, was not of that type. Calvin was above all a theologian of the Word of God! The Bible was the source and norm of all Calvin’s thought. It was the Scripture from which his expository sermons were drawn. It was the Scripture which he carefully exegeted in order to produce his excellent commentaries. And it was the same truth of that Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, which Calvin, the theologian, organizes and systematizes.

Calvin’s theology is best set forth in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion which is relevant, vibrant, challenging, and inspiring still today—four hundred years after the definitive edition. Calvin, the theologian, demonstrates the intimacy between the biblical and the systematic theologian. These two may not be separated, as has been done so often in history with disastrous results, and as is so prevalent even in neoorthodoxy today. The theologian, according to Calvin, must follow a humble but honorable task as a disciple of Scripture, for

“it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture” (I, vi, 2).

Calvin’s Sudden Conversion

Calvin’s theological labors were performed in an unusual manner and during a relatively brief period. His home was Roman Catholic, and he was himself a nominal member of that Church. His education was significantly influenced by the humanism of that day. At first preparing for theology, Calvin became acquainted with the Sorbonne at Paris, famous for its defense of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Later the study of law was to add to the equipment for his life’s work as Reformer. It was probably when he was approaching his twenty-fifth birthday that Calvin underwent what he called a “sudden conversion” which led to his abandonment of his nominal Roman Catholicism. Although he had just become a Protestant, he was soon to be thrust into his life’s work by the remarkable providence of God, and the next three decades were to bring about a tumultuous change in Geneva with world-shaking consequences.

Theology Written Amid Strife and Suffering

Probably within a year after his conversion, Calvin wrote the first edition of his justly famous Institutes. Although these Institutes were written in comparative obscurity at Basel, the Reformer’s further theological labors were performed, not in the quiet and peace which the young scholar sought for all his life, but mainly in the seething caldron of Geneva where he had sought only a night’s lodging. While the labor of most theologians is performed in the relative quiet of study, classroom, and library, Calvin’s theological labors were performed on the battlefield of the Reformation. Add to that the frailty of body and frequent sickness, and one is astounded not only at the quantity of his production in letters, sermons, tracts, and Institutes, but at their quality and warmth and devotion as well.

How the Institutes Grew

The Institutes were not of immediate theological significance. Initially it was only a small work of six chapters, something like a catechetical manual or compendium. It was Calvin’s confession of faith. It was an astounding piece of work in view of the author’s youth and as well of the fact that he had only recently become a Protestant. It was significant also because it was dedicated to King Francis I in order to indicate the faith of the French Protestants, and to halt the horrible persecution which had broken loose upon them.
Throughout his life Calvin continued to enlarge and improve his Institutes. Yet none of the basic ideas of the first edition of 1536 was ever retracted or changed. This indicates one of the remarkable features of Calvin the theologian. As he himself grows in an enriched knowledge of the Word, the Institutes develop too, enlarged and enriched and rearranged, but never altered. As someone has aptly put it: “Few men have changed less; but few also have developed more.” It was with the second edition that the theological significance of the Institutes increased. Though at first it was only a catechetical manual for the ignorant and superstitious multitudes, Calvin now wished his Institutes “to prepare and train candidates in sound theology for the reading of the divine Word…” But he continued to work upon it until it took final shape in the definitive edition of 1559, which is the edition in which it has attained its best form and exerted so great and wholesome an influence in the world. The following statement is not only an apt description of Calvin’s Institutes, but also a true characterization of Calvin’s theology:

As we bring even elementary understanding to bear upon our reading of the Institutes, we shall immediately discover the profound sense of the majesty of God, veneration for the Word of God, and the jealous care for faithful exposition and systematization which were marked features of the author. And because of this we shall find the Institutes to be suffused with the warmth of godly fear. The Institutes is not only the classic of Christian theology; it is also a model of Christian devotion. For what Calvin sought to foster was that “pure and genuine religion” which consists in “faith united with serious fear of God, such fear as may embrace voluntary reverence and draw along with it legitimate worship such as is prescribed in the law” (I, ii, 2).4

Not a Speculative Theologian

Calvin’s theology is the result of a keen, penetrating analysis and systematising of the biblical revelation by one who seeks to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Calvin has been called a speculative theologian. It has been said that he had one basic idea and from it he derived his system by cold rigorous logic. Nothing could be further from the truth. All that is needed to refute this caricature is a simple reading of Calvin himself. Keenness and rigor of mind were Calvin’s indeed. His intellectual capacity was second to none. But his system of theology is marked by a coherence and unity which characterizes the truth of God’s revelation. It was Calvin’s gift simply to perceive it, and in his own way to reproduce it.

Complete Subservience to Scripture

Calvin was radically different from the speculative theologian in the ordinary sense of the term. He had deep respect for the majesty and sovereignty of God. This awe, this reverence was demonstrated in his utter willingness to be subject to the inspired revelation sovereignly given by God. Where the Scriptures spoke, Calvin did not dare remain silent; hence all the doctrines he taught, including God’s sovereignty and predestination. But where the Scriptures were silent, there Calvin dared not speak. This marks the striking difference between Calvin’s theology, which is scriptural, vibrant, living, and the theology of the medieval scholastics which is speculative, lifeless, and dead. Systematic, biblical theologian that he was, Calvin’s sharpest word of rebuke is for that theology which involves “frigid speculation” and sets forth ideas which merely flutter in the brain but have no sure root in the Word of God.

A God-Centered Theology

As one scans the horizon of Calvin’s theology, he notes that it is always theocentric, always directed to God. Calvin as a theologian listens to God in his revelation. He accepts that revelation where it is—the Scriptures. And his response, based upon his hearing the Word of God, is the response of faith returning its praise to God.

Therefore Calvin emphasizes the sovereignty of God for he is obedient to the divine revelation, which states that God “worketh all things after the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). To Calvin, history is meaningful and significant because it is the unfolding of God’s all-comprehensive and sovereign will. In spite of the keenness of his own mind, Calvin was unable to harmonize divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but he obediently maintained both. Maintaining the eternal decrees of God, Calvin also defends the doctrine of eternal predestination because the Scriptures teach this doctrine. (See Eph. 1:11, 4; Romans 8-9 etc.) And as this sovereign God executes his eternal decrees, he creates the world, providentially sustains and governs it, and graciously and justly executes his sovereign counsel.

This, very simply, was Calvin’s theology. He knew that objections would be raised against it. These objections are not new. Calvin heard them all raised against him at Geneva, and he has carefully considered and discussed them at various points in his writings. He knew that men accused him of making God the author of sin. He was aware of the charge that man was left without any real freedom. He knew only too well that sovereign predestination was a stumbling block to the minds of men. But to abandon any of these, Calvin knew, was to deny what God had himself revealed. This was Calvin’s fundamental idea— the absolute authority of the Word of God!

The opening chapters of the definitive edition of the Institutes display Calvin’s skill as a biblical theologian. There, as throughout the Institutes, he indicates that his thought, his theology, has been formed by the Word of God. He enlarges on the state of man’s perfection before the Fall, the state of man’s misery and guilt as a result of the Fall, and the character of the change wrought by God’s gracious redemption. As he discusses the knowledge of God, Calvin consistently distinguishes that which God has objectively revealed from that which man has come to know of God’s revelation. Calvin sees the necessity of distinguishing this knowledge and the abilities of man prior to the Fall from the loss of ability and suppression of knowledge after the Fall. In other words, Calvin has shown us how important it is to distinguish the sufficiency of God’s general revelation even after the fall—so that man is without excuse for not knowing God (Rom. 1:18 f.) —from man’s actual knowledge of that revelation. While he maintains the validity of God’s revelation, he emphatically denies the possibility of a natural theology to fallen man. Here one notes the pioneering work performed by Calvin as he breaks sharply with the prevailing theology of Roman Catholicism which was a synthesis, a fusion, of the philosophy of Aristotle and the revelation of Scripture. In Calvin we see a theologian who makes a conscious attempt to overcome all synthesis with pagan philosophy in order to build a theology based solely on God’s revelation.

Calvin on Predestination

There is no attempt in this brief article to survey the whole of Calvin’s theology—that is obviously too extensive a task. But it may be useful to at least single out the doctrine of predestination for a few additional remarks. On no doctrine has Calvin been so vigorously opposed nor so grossly caricatured. Even among those who call themselves Calvinists, this is often a stumbling block. Calvin’s doctrine of predestination occasions offense, I believe, only where there is not that wholehearted allegiance to the single source of theology, the Scripture, as there was in Calvin. He did not originate the doctrine. Augustine and the other Reformers held it before Calvin. And they had learned it from the inspired writings, especially those of Paul. Enough has been said above to indicate that it was not the fruit of Calvin’s speculative genius. The doctrine was indeed a link in a coherent chain of thoughts, but that link was given by God himself. (See Rom. 8:28-30 e.g.)

It is important to add, however, that in Calvin’s presentation of the doctrine, its theological context is similar to that of Paul in Romans 8 and 9. The Institutes of 1559 do not take up the doctrine of predestination in a substantial way until Book III. And there we find it in the midst of Calvin’s doctrine of soteriology— the application of the completed work of Jesus Christ through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit. It follows a section on prayer. And it is occasioned by the question, as in Romans 9, why all who hear the gospel do not believe. Calvin’s answer, like that of Paul, is that not all are elect. The context of the doctrine does not imply a minimizing of the importance of double predestination in Calvin’s thought. On the contrary, it is because Calvin finds the doctrine in Scripture, that he does not dare to be silent where the Scripture speaks. Predestination is a doctrine characteristic of Calvin, not because he initiated it, nor because he by rational deduction arrived at it, but because he obediently defended it and gave it its rightful place in theology. Calvin’s devotional and ever-present practical concern for the integration of doctrine and life is evident even when he speaks of predestination, as these words amply indicate:

We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast—that he does not adopt promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others. III, xxi, 1.

The Systematizer of Reformation Doctrine

The question naturally arises whether Calvin was only a systematizer and organizer? Was this his only theological significance? I think there can be little doubt that this was his greatest achievement, but anyone who knows only a little of the history of the Reformation will recognize the wise providence of God in providing a Reformer with such capacities at the strategic moment. Penetrating students of history have said that it is “the testimony of history, friendly and unfriendly to Calvinism,…that had it not been for the strong, unflinching systematic spirit and character of the theology of Calvin, the Reformation would have been lost to the world.”
Calvin did indeed build upon the theological labors of the earlier Reformers and the Church Fathers, and he benefited from all the labors of his predecessors. Warfield is right when he says that Calvin’s “greatest significance as a religious teacher is that by his exact and delicate sense of doctrinal value and relations and his genius for systematic construction he was able, as none other was, to cast this common doctrinal treasure of the Reformation into a well-compacted, logically unassailable, and religiously inspiring whole. In this sense it is as a systematizer that he makes his greatest demand on our admiration and gratitude. It was he who gave the Evangelical movement a theology.”5

His Own Contributions to Theology

Nevertheless, Calvin also made his own significant contributions to theology. These may not be readily discerned by the layman, but the theologically alert will recognize them. Calvin was a theologian whose great intellectual ability was exercised always in humble obedience to God’s Word. The result of such efforts has been admirably compressed into a single paragraph by B. B. Warfield. These words deserve our attention in the commemoration of 1959:

Calvin was a thoroughly independent student of Scripture and brought forth from that treasure-house things not only old but new; and if it was not given to him to recover for the world so revolutionizing’ a doctrine as that of Justification by Faith alone, the contributions of his fertile thought to doctrinal advance were neither few nor unimportant. He made an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity: by his insistence on “self-existence,” as a proper attribute of Son and Spirit as well as of the Father, he drove out the lingering elements of Subordinationism, and secured to the Church a deepened consciousness of the co-equality of the Divine Persons. He introduced the presentation of the work of Christ under the rubrics of the threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King. He created the whole discipline of Christian Ethics. But, above all, he gave to the Church the entire doctrine of the Work of the Holy Spirit, profoundly conceived and wrought out in its details, with its fruitful distinctions of common and efficacious grace, of noetic, aesthetic, and thelematic effects,—a gift, we venture to think, so great, so pregnant with benefit to the Church as fairly to give him a place…as the Theologian of the Holy Spirit.6

These are the characteristics of the man whom Melanchthon, so graciously but rightly, called The Theologian. Calvin’s theology was a gracious gift of God to the grand strategy of the Reformation—a priceless heritage to this day. If the 450th anniversary of Calvin’s birth will induce men to read and study the Institutes, they will better understand the Word of God and more adequately praise the sovereign God, who in that Word has revealed his grace in Jesus Christ. And such a commemoration in 1959 will inspire continued reformation, which will never be able to bypass Calvin, but will continue to build upon him in grateful obedience to the Word of God. Soli Deo Gloria!

1. Cf. B.B. Warfield. Calvin and Calvinism. Oxford Press, 1931, p. 375.
2. The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation. Edinburgh, 1866. Second Edition. p. 295.
3. Warfield. op. cit., p. 376.
4. John Murray, Introduction. Institutes of the Christian Religion (trs. H. Beveridge). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953.
5. Op. cit. p. 22.
6. Ibid., p. 21.

Dr. Fred H. Klooster taught systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary from 1956-1988. This article is reprinted from April 1959 issue of The Torch and Trumpet.