John Calvin and Martin Luther – some differences

Martin Luther (left) and John Calvin

John Calvin – a Second Generation Reformer!
Calvin was 26 years younger than Luther and so represented the next generation of Reformers. Luther was German and Calvin was French and their combined influence on Europe was colossal. While being hugely influenced by Luther, and certainly building on his insights, Calvin didn’t agree with everything the older reformer had written.

Luther had rediscovered Justification by faith in Christ alone as the key to salvation. He had hammered that point home – and needed to! Calvin, in addition to a clear commitment to Justification by faith, also emphasised sanctification (obedience to God and holiness) in the life of the new believer. It was not enough to throw off the shackles of dead religion and come to Christ in a moment of decision – the new converts’ life should now be lived in a God-honouring way, according to the teaching of Scripture. It’s not that Luther rejected this, but merely that Calvin emphasised the importance of a comprehensive holiness in life.

The Local Church
Because of this commitment to sanctification, Calvin also emphasised the role of the local church in regulating and training believers to live godly lives. This immediately raised issues of discipline within the context of the church, and also the extent and nature of the authority of local church leadership. Calvinists have never really managed to break free from the perception that they are ‘disciplinarians’.

Unity of the Bible
Calvin was careful not to set the New Testament against the Old and stressed the continuity of the revelation of God throughout the Bible as a whole. His teaching style was far more progressive than Luther’s who still indulged in fanciful allegory. While Luther brought the Bible out of the darkness, Calvin laid the foundations and set the standard for Biblical study and exposition. Geneva became a respected centre of Biblical exposition.

The Lord’s Supper
Calvin also disagreed with Luther about the nature of the Lord’s Supper. He didn’t believe that Christ was literally in the bread (Christ was, after all, literally, physically at the right hand of the Father). He also disagreed with some of Luther’s opponents, that the bread and wine were purely symbolic and nothing more.

Calvin argued that, in the taking of the bread and wine, Christ’s presence comes to us. Jesus visits us as we partake of it. Calvin used the analogy of the Spirit coming in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism.

He wrote, ‘Our Lord, wishing to give a visible appearance to his Spirit at the baptism of Christ, presented him under the form of a dove. St. John the Baptist, narrating the fact, says, that he saw the Spirit of God descending. If we look more closely, we shall find that he saw nothing but the dove, in respect that the Holy Spirit is in his essence invisible.’ (John Calvin, Short treatise on the Lord’s Supper – 1540)

In the same way, while the bread and wine are symbols, nevertheless, Christ really does come to us, and is in truly present, by faith.

The Doctrine of Election
Also, while Luther and other reformers were very clear about the sovereignty of God, and the doctrine of election, and on the nature of the freedom/bondage of the will, it was Calvin who was drawn into a defence of those doctrines of grace, more so than others.

Because the focus of debate on issues of God’s sovereignty in salvation was on John Calvin, his defense on those particular points have come to be popularly known as ‘Calvinism’.

Source: Andrew Johnston, The Protestant Reformation in Europe (Harlow: Longman 1991).

We’ll look at Election in more detail here

For more on Luther begin here

For more on Calvin begin here

© 2009 Lex Loizides


13 thoughts on “John Calvin and Martin Luther – some differences

  1. Al Shaw January 25, 2009 / 11:53 am

    One view they both shared, of course, was that in order to maintain public order, a city or nation-state needed one official religion (ideally the Reformed one) that embraced all members of the society.

    This view (which Catholicism had also long held) was perhaps the most significant defect in their respective theologies, resulting in a continuation the the union of church and state which had existed in Europe since Constantine. In this regard, their Reformation was inherently defective.

    The vision of the church as a body of believers distinct from the population at large was expressed and maintained by those at the radical end of the Reformation, many of whom were heavily persecuted by Catholic and Reformed magistrates alike, including Mr Calvin on occasion.

  2. Lara November 1, 2011 / 12:05 pm

    Wow, this is great – thanks so much!

  3. Grandpa Louie March 16, 2012 / 10:09 pm

    How TRUE are you to Jesus the Savior?

    Lets me and you assume there are two Churches. One Catholic and One Lurheran.

    This coming Sunday Jesus is offering Mass in one of them.

    Martin Luther is offering service in the other.

    Which one WOULD you attend?

  4. Lelo March 24, 2012 / 7:27 pm

    Nice read.. Thanks for the free study of Church history!

  5. Plurium Interrogationum April 9, 2012 / 4:44 am

    You should check out
    According to this author, Luther, too, held as fundamental the ultimate unity of the old and new testaments…
    I’d like to hear more about their differences on the matter. Is it that they, as is implied here, taught this unity differently, or conceptualized it differently, or what, precisely?

  6. Sowah Ablorh November 9, 2012 / 1:00 am

    I am a theological student writing a paper on Martin Luther and John Calvin, I am looking at their significaance, similarities and differences. I would be grateful if you could give me the sources or bibligraphy to this helpful information. Regards

  7. Kevyn Lee January 31, 2013 / 1:09 am

    Couldn’t you argue that Calvin and Luther had different views because of their age difference, that each was brought up with a different belief system than the other? Didn’t they both interpret the scriptures differently as well? Were not their views different because the church had different ideas during their times when? Both Luther and Calvin had different experiences which led them to believe in Christianity, so, didn’t thier experiences also shape what they believed? Since everyone has a different way of interpreting what they read, were not they both just trying to reform the church in how they believed was a right way in the traditions of the church? As two different scholars, would they both have similar views? Were John Calvin and Martin Luther really that different in their doctrine? On a different note, great overall short summary of some of the differences of Luther and Calvin.

  8. Errick Lee January 31, 2013 / 1:54 am

    John Calvin and Marin Luther’s views were shaped by the time they lived in. Luther was a teacher and Calvin a lawyer from different backgrounds. Their foundations in Christianinty were fundamentally the same but their implementation was different. Luther was up against the Church that was not ready for reform and Calvin worked with the reform that had already begun. Calvin took Luther’s ideas and became more progressive in his thinking. The biggest difference is in the fact that Luther believed faith manifested in Christ alone and Calvin believed in justification of faith but believed in santification which put the path towards faith on the new believer. This put more emphasis on the individual (on earth) and their quest for a faithful life. Luther also viewed the state as supreme and Calvin refused to believe that anyone had absolute power. These views ar directly opposite in nature. A book to use for more information would be Church History in Plain language by Bruce L. Shelley.

  9. Christian Ortiz April 15, 2013 / 12:38 am

    It would seem almost at though John Calvin was the next progressive step after Luther’s views had spread. They both had similar teachings of justification by faith and moved away from the teachings that indulgences and such gave one a free pass to sin. It seems that Calvin was influenced by Luther’s ideas and used them to develop his own more new age Doctrines. It only makes sense that their ideas would differ for they were 26 years apart. For that reason they most certainly would have had very different experiences when growing up and thereby very different interpretations of the scripture. None-the-less, it is also expected that their ideas should be similar for our interpretation of scripture cannot solely be biased on our experiences, but be more focused on how we can further God’s kingdom. This was a great read. It was a bit overly brief and could’ve used some more explanation of what brought them to their beliefs but overall, this is a great short summary of some of the differences of Luther and Calvin. Thank you.

  10. Josh Yeh May 2, 2013 / 2:11 am

    Didn’t they both interpret the scriptures differently as well? For the most part, both Calvin and Luther had the same general views and interpretations. Granted they both had different styles and perspectives from which they preached. The 26 year difference between the two play a huge part in noticing specific differences. I find their two different views of The Lord’s Supper interesting and how Calvin envisioned Christ’s presence being physically present during communion. Both their views overlap in someways. They can both agree that the Lord makes a spiritual connection during communion and that the act of communion is to show reverence and respect to the message Jesus illustrated in the Last Supper. Great article, really helped get a better understanding between Calvin and Luther’s view. Thanks.

  11. Elizabeth July 14, 2013 / 11:25 pm

    Why does my Lutheran church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) believe as Calvin did regarding communion? Are we Calvinists or Lutherans? Was there some sort of concession on this issue? I grew up Catholic and would love to hear what happened between Calvin and now that makes ELCA policy reflect Calvin’s teachings on communion, and not Luther’s.

  12. Elizabeth July 24, 2013 / 1:09 am

    My mistake. A pastor told me the wrong thing. A couple of others set me straight. The ELCA believes as Luther did.

  13. TigerLily Zikaaron September 26, 2013 / 4:39 pm

    What re Luther’s and Calvin’s thoughts on Predestination? Was it Luther or Calvin who embraced this? I’ve been reading on this and it seems this matter is controverial.:/

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