The act of reforming signifies a change in established ways that leads to the improvement of said ways for the greater public. The Reformation of the 16th century was a tumultuous period for the Christian Church and all of those who adhered to the laws of faith, but the outcomes of the disorder were monumental. After the initial acts of Martin Luther, most notably his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, the power and control of Catholic Church was put to the test, and suddenly new beliefs and voices were rising to the forefront of Christianity. The voices that rose against the corrupted structure of the Catholic Church are known of as Protestants coming from the fitting word, “protest”. However the Reformation did not produce a one united front against the Catholic Church, but instead the many Protestant leaders who emerged formed new ideas and movements of their own.
A prominent figure of the Reformation, who took the period of religious unrest as a time to disseminate the values he held true was Protestant reformer, John Calvin. His name is often used in the context of the Reformation, listed among other Reformers, but John Calvin had a unique theology, and singular influence on the Protestant Church that survives through the extensive collections of his writing that are still in existence today. John Calvin had much to say on his conception of the principles of Christianity, and his own opinion on the how religion should be practiced. How did John Calvin seize the period of the Reformation to perpetuate his views, and how did his beliefs tie into the greater purpose of the Reformation as a whole? Looking deeper into one of Calvin’s primary texts gives a glimpse of insight to the aims of this famous Protestant figure, and how he went about communicating his theology to the world.
One of the many endeavors John Calvin accomplished in his time was the publication of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. According to Modern World History Online, Calvin’s Institutes “presented what Calvin believed were the universal tenets of the Christian religion, applicable within any Christian land where people desired to reform the practices of Roman Christianity,” (Reill and Wilson, 2004). The Institutes was Calvin’s first significant opus, the first edition of which was published in 1536. Thereafter Calvin continued to spread his theology via many published works including confessional documents, pastoral and polemical works, which resulted in his strong influence on Protestantism. Not only did Calvin’s Institutes give insight to his general views on the Christian religion, but was furthermore “a complete handbook of the reformed religion: a systematic theology based on the Bible, a manual of ethics, a guidebook to the Protestant creed, and a comprehensive survey of Reformation theological controversy” (Speake and Bergin, 2004).
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was a complete work outlining his beliefs, but the actual creation of the piece was not solely for the expression of Calvin’s theology. In the years previous to the publication of Calvin’s work, the French King made the effort to resist the influences of Protestantism, and Calvin being a prominent Protestant and born a Frenchman was forced to flee to a town that accepted his reformed religion. It was after this event that “Calvin felt compelled to make a defense for his beliefs to the French king. The result was the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion”, (Bruce, 2008). Moreover Calvin’s Institutes was more than a composition of beliefs, it was a published statement in favor of the reformed religion.
John Calvin’s first edition of the Institutes was composed in six lengthy parts, but was even expanded on in the later editions. An addition to the work, added in 1545, was a section of the introduction titled “Subject of the Present Work”. Even this brief introductory excerpt to the Institutes gives a taste of the views and opinions Calvin conveyed through this piece, through which inferences can be made about his general ideas of Protestantism.
The very beginning of this section enlightens the reader to what Calvin’s aims are for the following text. Calvin points out that although he realizes the all-encompassing wisdom of the Holy Scriptures, every person “stands in need of some guidance and direction, as to what he ought to look for in them”. The purpose of Calvin’s work is to be a guide, because as he states, there is no one who can fully comprehend the Scriptures on their own accord. Calvin goes on to point out that in fact “it is the duty of those who have received from God more light than others to assist the simple in this matter, and, as it were, lend them their hand to guide and assist them in finding the sum of what God has been pleased to teach us in his word”. Calvin’s reference to those who have “received from God more light than others” is an example of the aspect of belief in Calvinism, which places emphasis on the “elect” or those literally chosen by God to be saved. Calvin writes, “I have endeavored, according to the ability which God has given me, to employ myself in so doing, and with this view have composed the present book”, describing that in his belief he is indeed one chosen in the favor of God and feels therefore it is within his responsibility to share his beliefs. Already, Calvin alludes to some of his personal beliefs of reformed Christianity, and continues to do so as he enlightens the reader further into his purposes for the text.
Now, this cannot be better done in writing than by treating in succession of the principal matters which are comprised in Christian philosophy. For he who understands these will be prepared to make more progress in the school of God in one day than any other person in three months…Seeing, then, how necessary it was in this manner to aid those who desire to be instructed in the doctrine of salvation, I have endeavored, according to the ability which God has given me, to employ myself in so doing, and with this view have composed the present book.
Calvin explains importance of the text he is sharing, as well as confirming his eligibility, in his eyes, to do so.
Within this preface, which came almost a decade after the original edition of Calvin’s book, there is alluding to the translation the text went through which holds significance regarding Calvin’s ideas. Calvin writes that the first edition he, “wrote it in Latin, that it might be serviceable to all studious persons, of what nation so ever they might be” but went on to translate the work to French, “desiring to communicate any fruit which might be in it to my French countrymen”. The fact that Calvin translated his text to the language of the common people is an example of a theme that the Reformation brought into the minds of the public. For a long time religion meant obeying the word of authority, and not looking deeper than what was taught. Now, as Calvin gives an example in his work, religion could be approached, and discovered by an individual.
In conclusion to Calvin’s note to his readers regarding the context of his work, he leaves one last word about this intentions, which moreover reflect his views about the spreading of his theology.
My opinion of the work then is this: I exhort all who reverence the word of the Lord, to read it, and diligently imprint it on their memory, if they would, in the first place, have a summary of Christian doctrine, and, in the second place, an introduction to the profitable reading both of the Old and New Testament. When they shall have done so, they will know by experience that I have not wished to impose upon them with words.
Calvin does not have to intention to force ideologies upon his followers, but instead be the teacher to broadcast his views to the consciousness of those who hold interest. The last point Calvin makes, is regarding the larger importance of his message. Although Calvin has strong beliefs of the working of God, and interpretations of “God’s messages” there is an overarching idea that holds the most value because as Calvin writes,“Above all things, I would recommend that recourse be had to Scripture in considering the proofs, which I adduce from it.” Calvin’s closing line suggests that it is one’s own interpretation of the Scriptures that should be the base of faith, and the source of answers for all.
Calvin’s emphasis on the actual text of the Scriptures demonstrates the Calvinistic ideal of having knowledge in the essences of God. According to Davis, “The real value of the Bible for Calvin lay in the way in which the Holy Spirit—the Spirit that Christians traditionally believe flows from God and Christ—could breathe life into the Scripture and make of it a living thing that could unite the Christian to Christ and make Christ present and real.” suggesting that the Scripture in of itself was spiritually more than a text but a connection to the power of God (Davis, 2004). Calvin’s putting great importance on the reading and comprehension of the Scripture, represented in his short excerpt of his pinnacle work, is a concept that had come out of the larger Reformation. As said previously, the upset of the Reformation was an opportunity for ideas to be rethought and put into practice in new ways. Calvin saw the Reforming of religion to be the chance to put into motion his views of connecting to God on a new level, which was not possible in the hierarchical and corrupted Catholic Church that had been dominating Christian practices beforehand.
Calvinism, and the messages spread through the works of John Calvin are just examples of the new kinds of ideologies that were born out of the period that changed religion and history: the Reformation.
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2) John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846). 2 volumes in 1.
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8) Davis, Thomas J. “‘Calvin and the Word of God’.” John Calvin, Spiritual Leaders and Thinkers. Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishing, 2004. Modern World History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
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See John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion at: