Church Education Trust



JOHN CALVIN (1509 - 1564).

John Calvin was born at Noyon in Picardy, France, the son of a lawyer of high social standing. He was educated in theology in Paris and in law at Orleans and Bourges, proving himself a brilliant student. After his father's death in 1531 he returned to Paris and studied Greek and Hebrew. He now became a Protestant and was truly converted in 1533 or 1534.

Then, as a result of writing a defence of evangelical theology to be read by his friend, Nicolas Cop, he had to flee from Paris and took refuge in Basel in 1535. It was there that he published, at the early age of 26, the first edition of his book "The Institutes of the Christian Religion".

The twofold purpose of the book was to enable men to read and understand the Scriptures and to vindicate Reformation theology. Of this it was the first really systematic exposition. On returning from a visit to Italy, Calvin stopped for a night in Geneva. He was implored by Farel, the champion of the Reformation movement in Geneva, to stay and help him. Feeling it was a call of God, he stayed one to become the leader of the Reformation movement there.

Calvin came to Geneva in 1536. He immediately prepared a programme of reform for the Church covering Holy Communion, public worship, the religious instruction of children and marriage. He sought to restore the life and discipline of the early centuries in the Church. But the Council of Geneva expelled both Calvin and Farel from the city in 1538.

Calvin spent the next three years, 1538 - 1541 in Strasbourg. Here he was the pastor of the French Reformed congregation. During this period he formed a deep friendship with Melancthon and also made the acquaintance of Luther. Meanwhile, in Geneva, they had begun to feel the need of Calvin's presence again and appeals were made for his return.

In 1541 Calvin was persuaded to return to Geneva and remained there for the rest of his life. His task was to build up a true Church on the basis of reformed theology. Calvin believed strongly in a disciplined Church and felt that the Church should have the power to exercise discipline by means of excommunication, when necessary.

On this he came into conflict with the civil power and a compromise was made, but eventually, after fourteen years, he won his point. He recognised four ministries as being necessary for the well-being of the Church; pastors, doctors (or teachers), elders and deacons. Pastors were subjected to rigorous tests of doctrinal and moral integrity.

His reforms went through smoothly and he gathered round him a team of workers who were deeply devoted to him. He exercised strict discipline in his church and met with criticism and opposition on occasion for his strictness. Calvin was very anxious to bring about the unity of Protestants, Lutherans, Zwinglians and Anglicans, but in this he was unsuccessful.

Calvin's Theology.

The starting-point of Calvin's theology is the absolute transcendence and sovereignty of God. Man can only know God in so far as He has revealed Himself to man. This revelation He has given in the Scriptures: but to understand the Scriptures a man must have had a change of heart and mind.

Only to the converted man does the Holy Spirit reveal the truths concerning God, There is a knowledge of God to be derived from nature: but from this the natural man evolves his own ideas of God; fallen man cannot know God by the guidance of nature alone. The centre of divine revelation in the Scriptures is Christ; Calvin's theology is centred on Christ.

From the sovereignty of God stems Calvin's doctrine of Providence. Nothing can happen to the believer except what a loving Father has sent, and no event or verson can harn him by alienating him from God. The devil and the wicked operate only by divine permissons,

Calvin taught that after the fall perversity, disobedience and faithlessness poisoned the whole of men's being, thought, feeling and will. He cannot will to do good except by God's grace. He recognised the virtues of pagans, but regarded them as derived from God through His mercy; hence no man could take credit for them; and he did not think they were of any avail in the matter of justifying a man before God.

He saw man`s sin as having two effects; making him an object of horror to God and filling him with a horror of God owing to fear of His righteousness. Only Christ can mediate in this dilemma. The benefits of the redemptive work of Christ can only be obtained through a personal union with Christ, a union created by the Holy Spirit1s Sanctification, he said, consists of Christ's taking hold of our whole being.

There are two aspects of it: mortification of the old man and participation in the new life, which arise from the believer's sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ. Both of these are life-long processes. Calvin, like Luther, regarded the doctrine of justification by faith as being central to Christianity.

He taught that justification is perfect from the moment it is given, but sanctification is a process incomplete at death. Calvin made a careful distinction between predestination and foreknowledge. Foreknowledge to Calvin meant simply that no event is either future or past to God; He knows everything at any one moment.

But predestination was the eternal decree of God by which He decided what He would do with each man: "some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation." God's will cannot be defeated, grace is irresistible. Here Calvin follows Augustine. The elect soul cannot resist God. He diverges from Augustine in regard to the lost; Augustine believed that the elect alone are the subject of a special decision which withdraws them from the "mass of perdition".

But Calvin still argues that God created everything that was good and that man sins of his own volition: God predestinated, but the cause and matter of it is man himself. "Though by the eternal providence of God, man was formed for the calamity under which he lies, he took the matter of it from himself, not from God, since the only cause of his destruction was his degenerating from the purity of his creation into a state of vice and corruption."

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