Understanding John Calvin

Posted on November 18, 2011 by


The Reformation in the sixteenth century was a time of great change in the Christian church in Europe. This series of events shifted power away from the church, and helped to create a divide between church and government. At that time period religion and worship of God was a part of everyday life, and thusly the Pope and other church officials held huge authority over the people living in the towns and villages in Europe. The Reformation took place almost entirely because of the deep corruption rooted within these dominating figures. These men even went as far as taking indulgences, or small sums of money, from people in order to secure their grace with God. With knowledge of that time, I could set the stage for my Reformation research project. What interested me was that no one man was solely responsible for the great changes power, but that historians attribute most of the transformation to a man named Martin Luther. This man was responsible for splintering the main power of the Christian church into smaller, slightly different faiths and giving kings power over Popes. The man who piqued my interest, however, was mentioned closely afterwards. His name was John Calvin. This second man was accountable for one of the most prominent theological systems at that time in Europe, aptly named Calvinism after him. Though pure Calvinism has only recently undergone a minor resurgence and is unpopular in modern times, it was still one of the most influential religions at that time, and also helped to denounce the corruption of the church.

After understanding what the Reformation was, I needed to find out more about the life and background of John Calvin. To try to get a basic idea, I originally tried looking at a page on Calvin from Wikipedia. That page, however, proved to provide more detailed information than what I was looking for and I found it difficult to sift through it to find what essential information I needed. To help me narrow down his biography into only the important events, I looked at several, more condensed websites and compared their information to information provided by the Wikipedia page. By combining and sorting through information, I came up with his life history. John Calvin was born in 1509 to a widower and was one of three brothers. Through his father’s connection to the church, Calvin was originally to become a priest along with his brothers. Later in life, however, he claimed that he had had a conversation with God- and it was this conversation that changed Calvin’s views on religion and he began to examine God’s grace it with more enthusiasm than ever before. Biographies about him suggest that this conversation was focal point of his decision to pursue a religious path considered controversial at the time.

One of the key moments in the controversial religious path is in 1536 when he wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion. This extensive book expressed his view on religion and Christianity, and also denounced the corruption of the church. I chose this document as my primary source, but I found it very difficult to get any specific information from. I had trouble mostly because the book, totaling in four volumes, was very long and detailed, so much so that it would be nearly impossible to read the whole document. Because of this I had to research the document and find specific sections that were interesting or pertained to his beliefs of Christianity and the Calvinist movement. After researching the document, I found a section that was particularly interesting describing his opinion on human nature. In the first section of his second book, John Calvin writes about one of his most striking ideas involving God.

We thus see that the impurity of parents is transmitted to their children, so that all, without exception, are originally depraved. The commencement of this depravity will not be found until we ascend to the first parent of all as the fountain head. We must, therefore, hold it for certain that, in regard to human nature, Adam was not merely a progenitor, but, as it were, a root, and that accordingly, by his corruption, the whole human race was deservedly vitiated. (Calvin, Book II Part 1) His idea of “Original Sin”, or that all humans are naturally evil, is one of the most intriguing ideas that comes from his book. He later states that the only way to be relieved of one’s sin is to come under the grace of God, and to do this one must attend church and learn about God.

For as God at first formed us in his own image, that he might elevate our minds to the pursuit of virtue, and the contemplation of eternal life, so to prevent us from heartlessly burying those noble qualities which distinguish us from the lower animals, it is of importance to know that we were endued with reason and intelligence, in order that we might cultivate a holy and honourable life, and regard a blessed immortality as our destined aim.

This strict requirement in order to ovoid sin suggests that Calvin may have used this to help attract people into learning about God- without this education, they would burn. He also says that followers need to inwardly reflect and look within themselves in order to come under God’s grace:

In examining ourselves, the search which divine truth enjoins, and the knowledge which it demands, are such as may indispose us to everything like confidence in our own powers, leave us devoid of all means of boasting, and so incline us to submission. This is the course which we must follow, if we would attain to the true goal, both in speculation and practice.

I also thought it was interesting that he would make such a bold declaration in his first written book- showing signs of his confidence and power as player in the Reformation.

Though it was started by John Calvin and the ideas involved were primarily fueled by him, Calvinism had several other leaders, such as Huldrych Zwlingi, that helped it to grow and to spread to places all over Europe including France, England, and Hungary. It also had a clear set of beliefs, called the Five Points of Calvinism. These five points outlined and defined five different ideas that were key to the religion. Institutes of the Christian Religion also mentions these ideas heavily and elaborates on them. The first point is Original Sin, which is described in the section that I chose as my primary document, and it says that all men are born sinners and without God to help them regenerate their soul they will remain sinners. The second point is called Effectual Calling. This point states that a faithful follower of God is truly changed on both the inside and the outside to enjoy and appreciate their suffering for God. A modern example would be for a student not to just complete their homework, but to enjoy doing it and working beyond it. God’s Election, the third point, states that there are select few people who are born into God’s grace, and they will remain in it for their entire lives, no matter their actions. Calvinism says that though it is impossible to know if one is one of these elite, if one acts kind and courteous as the chosen are supposed to act, then there is a larger chance that one is chosen. The fourth point is called Particular Redemption, and questions whether or not Christ died for the sins of all, or just the sins of the elite. The last section is called Perseverance by the Saints, and it talks about how those who truly love God shall never fall out of his faith. These last three points interested me because the though God’s Election could be a deterrent to some from following Calvinism, the fifth point could help people to be more accepting of these ideas because of the higher likelihood of being in God’s Grace.

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the introduction of Calvinism was a hugely important change in the Christian religion. In a place where the church had enormous power and religion had changed little in recent times, Calvinism and it’s bold opinions, ideas, and leaders were a drastic change from the norm. John Calvin himself helped to promote literacy by writing several books about his views on Christianity, and he also made it one of his goals to educate the people about the Lord. Similar to Martin Luther, he used the printing press to his advantage and text helped to spread the word about Calvinism. Even though his ideas were different, he helped to change grace from God from something that could be bought and sold to something that helped to promote learning and literacy. By understanding the mind behind Calvinism, it helped me to learn more about just how much the world was changing in the sixteenth century, and how it shaped society today.

Works Cited:

“John Calvin.” Online Library of Liberty. The Online Library of Liberty. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&gt;.

“John Calvin.” Wikipedia, the Fre

e Encyclopedia. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_calvin&gt;.

Perrine, Tim. “Institutes of the Christian Religion | Christian Classics Ethereal Library.”Welcome to the CCEL | Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/&gt;.
Dabney, R. L. “The Five Points of Calvinism.” The Spurgeon Archive. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/dabney/5points.htm&gt;.

McMahon, Dr. Matthew. “A Puritan’s Mind » A Short Summary of Calvin’s Institutes – by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon.” A Puritan’s Mind. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <http://www.apuritansmind.com/the-reformation/a-short-summary-of-calvins-institutes-by-dr-c-matthew-mcmahon/&gt;.

Calvin, John, and Henry Beveridge. “PREFATORY ADDRESS TO HIS MOST CHRISTIAN MAJESTY, THE MOST MIGHTY AND ILLUSTRIOUS MONARCH, FRANCIS, KING OF THE FRENCH, HIS SOVEREIGN; 1 JOHN CALVIN PRAYS PEACE AND SALVATION IN CHRIST. 2 – John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Online Library of Liberty. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&gt;.

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