500 Years of Calvinism—What Has It Achieved?
JEAN CAUVIN (John Calvin) was born in Noyon, France, in 1509. He founded a religious movement that played a significant role in the life of many people in parts of Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and elsewhere. He is regarded as one of the major church Reformers in Western history.
Today, some 500 years after Calvin’s birth, Calvinism—the ideas and teachings of Calvin—in one form or another still flourishes in such Protestant denominations as Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, Puritan, and others. As of last September, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches reported having 75 million adherents in 107 countries.
At Odds With Catholicism
Calvin’s father was an attorney and a secretary for the Catholic church in Noyon. His work probably brought him face-to-face with much of the widespread misconduct of the clergy at the time. Whether this led to protest or irreverence, we cannot be sure, but in time John’s father and brother were both excommunicated by the church. When his father died, John had difficulty securing a Christian burial for him. That incident likely cemented John’s mistrust of Catholicism.
Most works on Calvin have little to say about him as a youth except to describe him as reserved and uncommunicative in character. Even as a student in Paris, Orléans, and Bourges, he seemed to have few friends. But Calvin was gifted with a quick mind and an astonishing memory. This, coupled with an awesome capacity for work—he studied daily from five o’clock in the morning until midnight—enabled him to become a doctor of law before he turned 23. He also learned Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in order to study the Bible. First and foremost, however, Calvin was known for his solemn, disciplined work ethic, a characteristic that many link to Calvinism even today.
Meanwhile, across the border in Germany, Martin Luther openly criticized the Catholic Church for its corruption and unbiblical teachings. It is popularly thought that in 1517 he nailed his 95 theses, or protests, to a church door in Wittenberg, urging church reform. Many agreed with Luther, and the Reformation quickly spread throughout Europe. Understandably, it stirred up strong opposition in many areas, and the protesters, or Protestants, expounded their views at their own peril. In 1533 in Paris, Calvin’s friend Nicholas Cop delivered a speech supporting Luther, and since Calvin helped write the speech, both he and Cop had to flee for their lives. Calvin never again returned to live in France.
In 1536, Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion, a veritable textbook on Protestant faith. He addressed it to King Francis I in defense of French Protestants, later known as Huguenots. Calvin attacked Catholic teachings and upheld the cornerstone of his own faith—God’s sovereignty. In addition to its impact on religious matters, Calvin’s Institutes is also noted for its influence on French language and literary style. Calvin was acclaimed as one of the foremost Reformers. He eventually settled in Geneva, Switzerland, and from 1541 onward, he made that city the focal point of his reforms.
Pursuing Reforms in Geneva
Calvin exerted a dramatic influence on Geneva. Driven by a strong sense of morality and righteousness, he changed Geneva from “a city of ill repute to one in which a strict moral code regulated the lives of all,” observes the Encyclopedia of Religion. Changes came about in other ways as well. Dr. Sabine Witt, curator of Berlin’s German Historical Museum, explains: “As a result of the religious wars in France, the population [of Geneva] doubled within a few years following the influx of thousands of Protestant refugees.” The Huguenots, possessed of a work ethic like that of Calvin, boosted the economy of the city, establishing Geneva as a center for printing and for the manufacture of timepieces.
Refugees from other lands also came to Geneva, including many from England, where Protestants were under threat from Queen Mary I. Made up mostly of exiled minorities, Calvinists thus developed what the religious journal Christ in der Gegenwart (Contemporary Christian) describes as “the theology of the persecuted.” In 1560 the refugees published the Geneva Bible, the first Bible in English to contain numbered verse divisions. Because of its compact size, this Bible facilitated personal study of God’s Word. This was probably the Bible translation taken by the Puritans when they emigrated to North America in 1620.
Geneva did not provide safe refuge for everyone, however. Michael Servetus, born in 1511 in Spain, studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and medicine and might have met Calvin when both were students in Paris. Servetus recognized from his study of the Bible that the doctrine of the Trinity was unscriptural. He tried to correspond with Calvin on the subject, but the latter viewed Servetus less as a friend than a foe. Persecuted by Catholics in France, Servetus fled to Calvin’s city, Geneva. Rather than being met with a welcome, he was arrested, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1553. “The execution of Servetus continues to be a stigma on the life and work of the otherwise great Reformer [Calvin],” says historian Friedrich Oehninger.
Calvin turned out a prodigious amount of work while pursuing the goal of reform. He is said to have written more than 100 reference works and 1,000 letters as well as to have delivered some 4,000 sermons in Geneva. Through it all, Calvin not only propounded his view of what Christianity should be but also endeavored to enforce the way he thought Christians ought to live, especially in Geneva, which he envisioned as something of a city of God.*
What have Calvin’s tireless reform efforts in Geneva produced? According to the Swiss Federal Statistics Office, in the year 2000, just 16 percent of the inhabitants of Geneva belonged to the Reformed (Calvinist) Church, and there are more Catholics than Calvinists in that city.
Religious Disunity Proliferates
In the wake of the Reformation, individual cities and states declared their allegiance to Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism, making Europe a hotbed of religious disunity. Although the Reformers were united in their criticism of the Catholic Church, they were at odds with one another. Dr. Witt, quoted earlier, notes: “Theological disagreements developed even within the Protestant camp.” Although all acknowledged that the Bible should be the basis of Christian faith, there was considerable disagreement in their teachings. The immediate issue was the meaning of the Last Supper and of Christ’s presence. In time, Calvinism developed one of its most controversial doctrines: predestination.
There was much debate on the definition of predestination. One group of Calvinists claimed that before humans sinned, God had decided that a chosen few were to be led to salvation through Christ, whereas all others were to be abandoned to their fate. This group, therefore, believed that salvation was the decree of God and that men were not all equal. Other Calvinists thought that salvation was open to all humankind, and it was a matter of individual choice whether to accept it or not. This meant that salvation depended upon man’s free will. Until long after Calvin’s death, Calvinism struggled with such topics as God’s decree, man’s free will, and the equality of opportunity among humankind.
Calvinism’s Blemished Legacy
In the 20th century, the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church presented predestination as a basis for racial discrimination in South Africa. Regarding the government’s policy of white supremacy, Nelson Mandela, who became the first black president of South Africa, asserted: “The policy was supported by the Dutch Reformed Church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings by suggesting that Afrikaners were God’s chosen people and that blacks were a subservient species. In the Afrikaner’s world view, apartheid and the church went hand in hand.”
In the 1990’s, the Dutch Reformed Church apologized publicly for its support of apartheid. In a formal statement called the Rustenburg Declaration, church leaders acknowledged: “Some of us actively misused the Bible to justify apartheid, leading many to believe that it had the sanction of God.” Over the years, the church’s stand on apartheid not only contributed to the suffering that resulted from racial prejudice but even suggested that God was to blame!
John Calvin died in Geneva in 1564. At the end, he reportedly thanked his fellow churchmen “for having conferred so many honours on one who plainly deserved nothing of the kind” and begged forgiveness for his enduring weaknesses of impatience and anger. Be that as it may, there is no denying that the Protestant work ethic—characterized by industriousness, self-discipline, and dedication to duty—bears close resemblance to the person and values of John Calvin.
For more information, see the book Mankind’s Search for God, pages 321-325, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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In the wake of the Reformation, individual cities and states declared their allegiance to Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism, making Europe a hotbed of religious disunity
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Calvin’s “Institutes” (1536) provided the basis for the Protestant faith
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The execution of Servetus remains a stigma on Calvin’s life and work
© Mary Evans Picture Library
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The “Geneva Bible” (1560) is the first English Bible to have numbered verses
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French town: © Mary Evans Picture Library