CS Lewis, John Calvin and Michael Servetus

Collage of Calvin and Servetus
Collage of Calvin and Servetus

While the debate about Calvin’s culpability in connection with the death of the 16th century heretic Servetus continues to stir emotions, everyone is agreed that, heretic or not, he didn’t deserve to die.

Inevitably, those who affirm Calvin’s theological views express sympathy with his unenviable position, while those who dislike his doctrines seem almost eager to retell the story as compelling evidence to reject his teachings once and for all.

CS Lewis was not at all comfortable with what he called Calvin’s ‘dark answers’ in connection with predestination but he was at least an objective historian.

As he outlines some of the changes in belief that influenced the literature, he also discusses some of the consequences for departing from the accepted views – often persecution, even execution. The modern reader is appalled, but Lewis helps us understand the context of such brutality.

‘We must…take care not to assume that a sixteenth-century man who lived through these changes had necessarily felt himself, at any stage, confronted with the clear issue which would face a modern in the same circumstances.

A modern, ordered to profess or recant a religious belief under pain of death, knows that he is being tempted and that the government which so tempts him is a government of villains. But this background was lacking when the period of religious revolution began. No man claimed for himself or allowed to another the right of believing as he chose. All parties inherited from the Middle Ages the assumption that Christian man could live only in a theocratic polity which had both the right and the duty of enforcing true religion by persecution.

Those who resisted its authority did so not because they thought it had no right to impose doctrines but because they thought it was imposing the wrong ones. Those who were burned as heretics were often (and, on their premises, logically) eager to burn others on the same charge. When Calvin led the attack on Servetus which ended in his being burnt at Geneva, he was acting on accepted medieval principles.’[i]

For the first post in this series on CS Lewis and his observations of 16th Century Christianity click here
For a review of AN Wilson’s controversial biography of CS Lewis click here

©2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

[i] CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1954), p.39


C.S. Lewis, John Calvin and Christian Joy

C.S. Lewis, John Calvin and Christian Joy

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

We’ve been dipping into CS Lewis’s wonderful work, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (excluding drama) and have discovered some fascinating insights on the Protestant believers of the 16th Century and the Puritans that followed them in the 17th.

Lewis was never one to hold back his opinion and therefore readers of a variety of theological persuasion will find his views both illuminating and challenging. He has argued that our view of the early Protestant believers and our understanding of the Puritans needs some revision if we’re to understand what really drove their thinking forward:

C.S. Lewis on Protestant Joy: Too glad to be true!
‘It follows that nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; not did their enemies bring any such charge against them. On the contrary, Harpsfield (in his Life of More) describes their doctrines as ‘easie, short, pleasant lessons’ which lulled the unwary victim in ‘so sweete a sleepe as he was euer after loth to wake from it’. For More, a Protestant was one ‘dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte’ (Dialogue, III.ii)…Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad to be true.’[i]

Calvin’s freedom to enjoy God’s creation
‘Even when we pass on from the first Protestants to Calvin himself we shall find an explicit rejection of ‘that vnciuile [uncivil] and forward philosophy’ which ‘alloweth vs in no vse of the creatures saue that which is needful, and going about (as it were in enuie [envy]) to take from vs the lawful enjoyment of God’s blessings, yet can neuer speede vnless it should stoppe vp all a man’s senses and make him a verie block’.’[ii]

Lewis commends Calvin
‘When God created food, ‘He intended not only the supplying of our necessities but delight and merriment (hilaritas)’.

Clothes serve not only for need but also for ‘comelinesse and honesty’; herbs, trees, and fruits, ‘beside their manifold commodity’, for ‘goodlinesse, brauery, and sweete smelling sauour’.

The right mistake: Protestantism too earth-bound, enjoyable, ‘sensual’
A comparison of the whole passage (Institutio, III.x.2) with, say, the sermons of Fisher, will correct many misapprehensions. When Newman in his Letter to X Y professed an ‘abstract belief in the latent sensuality of Protestantism’, he was, in my opinion, dreadfully mistaken; but at least, like More and Harpsfield, he was making the right mistake, the mistake that is worth discussing. The popular modern view of the matter does not reach that level.’[iii]

CS Lewis on the freedom of the Protestants
‘To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called ‘puritanical’; they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is Puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together. So far as there was any difference about sexual morality, the Old Religion was the more austere. The exaltation of virginity is a Roman, that of marriage, a Protestant, trait.’[iv]

To read the next post in this series (CSL on 16th Century persecution, including the Calvin and Servetus controversy) click here

To read the first post in this series on CS Lewis click here
To read a review of AN Wilson’s controversial biography of CS Lewis click here

©2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

[i] CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1954), p.34

[ii] ibid p.35

[iii] ibid p.35

[iv] ibid p.35

John Calvin’s Deathbed Confession

John Calvin on his Deathbed – pure gospel to the very end!

Before we leave John Calvin, I couldn’t resist adding this wonderful statement from his last will and testament. Here he is, in Geneva, dying. And so he calls for a scribe and begins to dictate his will.

At the beginning of the document he firstly, gives thanks to God for the gospel. And he does so in such a beautiful manner that a careful reading of the following section from the Will would cause any true child of God to both identify with the sentiments and truths expressed and to worship the triune God for His amazing grace.

From his Will, 1564
‘I render thanks to God, not only because he has had compassion on me,
his poor creature, to draw me out of the abyss of idolatry in which I was plunged,
in order to bring me to the light of his gospel and make me a partaker of the doctrine of salvation, of which I was altogether unworthy,
and continuing his mercy he has supported me amid so many sins and shortcomings, which were such that I well deserved to be rejected by him a hundred thousand times
– but what is more, he has so far extended his mercy towards me as to make use of me and of my labour, to convey and announce the truth of his gospel;
protesting that it is my wish to live and die in this faith which he has bestowed on me, having no other hope nor refuge except in his gratuitous adoption, upon which all my salvation is founded;
embracing the grace which he has given me in our Lord Jesus Christ, and accepting the merits of his death and passion,
in order that by this means all my sins may be buried;
and praying him so to wash and cleanse me by the blood of this great Redeemer, which has been shed for us poor sinners,
that I may appear before his face, bearing as it were, his image.’ (Letters p. 249-250)

Quoted in Letters of John Calvin’ Banner of Truth (1980 edition)

Read about the birth of the Reformation in England: It all started with a testimony!

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Private Correspondence between Calvin and other Reformers

Fascinating remarks by the Reformer to Cranmer, Knox and Luther himself.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, England
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, England

Like many other influential servants of God, John Calvin was a true man of letters. He was constantly preaching, teaching, writing pamphlets, treatises and debating.

But he also spent time writing to other influential Christian leaders and heads of state during the 16th Century.

He was a keen encourager of those who were seeking to restore the church to a more Biblical pattern.

A selection of these letters have been published and include some absolutely fascinating private correspondence between Calvin and some of the great Reformers.

On the procrastination that softened the impact of the Reformation in England: a piercing critique written in season – To Thomas Cranmer, 1552
‘I, for my part, acknowledge that our cause has made no little progress during the short period the Gospel has flourished in England.

But if you reflect on what yet remains to be done, and how very remiss you have been in many matters, you will discover that you have no reason to advance towards the goal with less rapidity…lest after you have escaped danger, you should become self-indulgent.

But to speak freely, I greatly fear, and this fear is abiding, that so many autumns will be spent in procrastinating, that by and by the cold of a perpetual winter will set in…for external religious abuses have been corrected in such a way as to leave remaining innumerable young shoots, which are constantly sprouting forth.

In fact, I am informed that such a mass of Papal corruptions remain, as not only to hide, but almost to extinguish the pure worship of God.’ (Letters p.141)

A criticism of the use of crucifixes in Church services – to John Knox, 1555
‘Certainly no one, I think, who is possessed of a sound judgement, will deny that lighted tapers, and crucifixes, and other trumpery of the same description, flow from superstition.

Whence, I lay it down for certain, that those who from free choice retain these things, are but too eager to drink from polluted dregs.

Nor do I see what reason a church should be burdened with these frivolous and useless, not to call them by their real name, pernicious ceremonies, when a pure and simple order of worship is in our power. But I check myself, lest I should seem to stir up a new strife…’ (Letters p. 174)

To Martin Luther
Writing to Luther in January of 1545, he says:
‘Would that I could fly to you, that I might even for a few hours enjoy the happiness of your society; for I would prefer, and it would be far better, not only upon this question, but also about others, to converse personally with yourself; but seeing that it is not granted to us on earth, I hope that shortly it will come to pass in the kingdom of God.

Adieu, most renowned sir, most distinguished minister of Christ, and my ever honoured father. The Lord Himself rule and direct you by his own Spirit, that you may persevere even unto the end, for the common benefit and good of his own church.’ (Letters p.73)

On the need identify ourselves as followers of Christ – to Martin Luther, 1545
‘How, indeed, can this faith, which lies buried in the heart within, do otherwise than break forth in the confession of the faith?’ (Letters p.71)

Read John Calvin’s Deathbed Confession

All quotes from ‘Letters of John Calvin’, Banner of Truth (1980 edition)

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Calvin and Servetus


The Controversial Calvin
Calvin’s main contribution to the Reformation and to succeeding generations is his incredible ability to honestly and simply interpret Scripture. His works continue to inspire and instruct teachers and preachers even today.

The question of Calvin’s role in the death of Servetus is hotly debated by those who oppose his theology. Because Calvin is singled out, it is a question we should consider.

Michael Servetus

In 1553 a Spanish teacher and unorthodox theologian, called Michael Servetus was arrested, interrogated and found guilty of heresy by the French Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, Southern France. He had been teaching, writing and troubling the churches, both Catholic and Reformed, with heresy for many years. His objections centred on the deity of Christ and the reality of the Trinity.

Servetus had been writing to Calvin about his ideas and had become increasingly hostile to Calvin’s replies. Some of Calvin’s responses to Servetus’ heresies were actually used as evidence against him. He escaped from his imprisonment in Vienne, Southern France, and in his absence a sentence of death by burning was pronounced by the Court.

Although he was first condemned to death by the French magistrates, Calvin is sometimes seen as the man who orchestrated the judgement. Although not responsible for the courts’ decision, it appears from a private letter that he agreed with the sentence.

When Servetus was identified and re-arrested in Geneva, a further examination by the Genevan Courts took place. Calvin was aware of the gravity of the situation. After the original sentence was upheld, Calvin asked for leniency in the manner of the execution.

It’s an easy thing from our 21st Century standpoint to accuse Calvin, and indeed, to go from theological debate to being burned at the stake was exactly the kind of scenario that the Reformers were struggling against! Servetus’ horrible death was a fate that surely too many friends of the Reformation had suffered.

THL Parker, Calvin’s biographer, writing of the pastoral council in Geneva, of which Calvin was a part, says ‘there can be no doubt at all that Servetus’ books were…grossly heretical. Their difficulty was that the Romanists had already condemned Servetus to death and their own conduct was being observed.’ (THL Parker, John Calvin, Lion p.144)

Andrew Johnston adds, ‘The [Genevan] Consistory had no civil jurisdiction and could not impose criminal sentences…The notorious anti-trinitarian Michael Servetus, condemned to death for heresy and blasphemy in 1554, was convicted and sentenced by the magistrates, not by the Consistory.’ (Andrew Johnston, The Protestant Reformation in Europe. Longman. P.64)

By now, the judgement of the court was beyond Calvin’s influence and Servetus was sentenced to death by burning just outside Geneva. Could Calvin have intervened? Should he have done more than merely ask for lenience? Would his intervention have made any difference on the rulings of the courts? We do know that Calvin visited him in jail and prayed with him in the days leading up to his execution.

While we cannot lay blame for Servetus’ death at Calvin’s feet, while he was not behaving out of step with his generation, it is precisely because he is so right in so many areas of understanding, and speaks to us with such clarity, that even his acquiescence in this sad incident is difficult to stomach.

Some Additional Comments on Calvin and Servetus, by Andy Johnston

I don’t think we should be too hard on Calvin on the Servetus question. Execution for heresy was par for the course in the 16th C – eg The Mass executions in Germmany after the Peasants’ War, Executions in Marian & Elizabethan England (Catholic & Protestant alike). In France – after the Edict of Chateaubriand (1551) it was no longer necessary for parlement to try heresy cases & they could be tried by lower courts making the death sentence much more likely

Calvin was not the driving force behind the execution – why then should he be singled out for particular criticism? The execution occured in 1553 when Calvin’s political opponents controlled the council & they were the driving force behind Servetus’s execution. The Council deliberately by-passed the Consistory as an attempt to marginalize Caslvin’s role in the affair. However, because of Calvin’s status he became an expert theological witness.

Servetus had the opportunity to return and face charges in Vienne but chose to stay in Geneva.
The city of Geneva had only 2 options (it had no prison) – execution or banishment. The magistrates consulted the authorities of Berne, Zurcih, Schaffhausen & Basle & they all recommended execution.
Calvin argued for the sword rather than burning but he was ignored. People have argued that even the burning was deliberately intended to make Servetus suffer but, even here, this is not the case. Geneva had no executioner.

Andy Johnston leads Christ Church Hailsham, England

He is also leading a seminar, titled ‘Our Great Debt to Calvin’ at the Newfrontiers International Leadership Conference later this year.

© 2009 Lex Loizides

John Calvin and Church Planting


We have seen how John Calvin was not passive about the Great Commission.

Calvin  commissioned four church planters to go and preach the gospel to the Indians in Brazil (Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, p. 67). Yep, that’s right! John Calvin!

As Luther and other Reformers were struggling to establish the rediscovered truths of Scripture in heir own nations, Calvin was propelled into mission.

From exile in Geneva, he sent over 100 church planters to France. In fact, on the basis of his outreach to France, one could argue for Calvin as a genuinely apostolic church planter. In 1555 he planted his first Church in Poitiers.

Over the next 7 years there were 1,750 ‘Calvinist’ Churches planted in France. Not only were Calvin’s hundred there, but others were raised up to lead this new church movement.

The Protestant population increased rapidly! Loraine Boettner, in an article called ‘Calvinism in History: Calvinism in France’, writes:

‘So rapidly did Calvinism spread throughout France that Fisher in his History of the Reformation tells us that in 1561 the Calvinists numbered one-fourth of the entire population. McFetridge places the number even higher. ‘In less than half a century,’ says he, ‘this so-called harsh system of belief had penetrated every part of the land, and had gained to its standards almost one-half of the population and almost every great mind in the nation. So numerous and powerful had its adherents become that for a time it appeared as if the entire nation would be swept over to their views.’ [Nathanial McFetridge, Calvinism in History, p. 144]

Smiles, in his ‘Huguenots in France,’ writes: ‘It is curious to speculate on the influence which the religion of Calvin, himself a Frenchman, might have exercised on the history of France, as well as on the individual character of the Frenchman, had the balance of forces carried the nation bodily over to Protestantism, as was very nearly the case, toward the end of the sixteenth century,’ (Samuel Smiles, Huguenots in France, p. 100).

Not only Calvin, but many others spurred on to mission

A very large number of the 18th and 19th Century pioneering missionaries considered themselves to be ‘Calvinists’.  As we read their biographies we find that it was often their belief that God was Sovereign and had already planned to save many that enabled them to press through the most disheartening circumstances and discouragements.

These missionary heroes did not give up until the Christian faith was securely planted in other lands.
For example, William Carey (to India), David Brainerd (to the native Americans), John Elliot, Henry Martyn, Alexander Duff, Robert and Mary Moffat (to South Africa), J. Hudson Taylor (to China). The list goes on.

John Calvin, speaking of the gospel, said in 1536:

“Our doctrine must stand sublime above all the glory of the world, and invincible by all its power, because it is not ours, but that of the Living God and His Anointed, whom the Father has appointed king that He may rule from sea to shining sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth.”

Read John Calvin’s Private Correspondence to other Reformers

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Calvin and the Great Commission

John Calvin was far more committed to world mission than most people realise.

As we look across church history since the Reformation it’s possible to detect apathy for mission by those who have sometimes called themselves Calvinists.

An emphasis on the sovereignty of God, on the doctrine of Election and on total depravity has sometimes been blamed for a lack of zeal in evangelism. Calvinists have been accused of holding a position which says, ‘If God has chosen upon whom He will have mercy, and if they are awakened only by His effectual call, and repent as a result of His working, then what is the point of evangelising? After all, unless He calls no-one can respond.’

But have you ever heard anyone actually argue this way? Even if we found someone foolish enough to argue in this manner I would be inclined to think that they were merely using good doctrine as a bad excuse for not reaching out to serve others by sharing the gospel with them.

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that William Carey experienced something of this. Charles Finney was certainly keen to tell us that it was Calvinistic thinking that led to apathy for revival and evangelism.

So let’s look at Calvin. Was he laid-back about mission to other nations? Was he fatalistic? Did he even consider the importance of church planting or was he merely busying himself with trying to fathom the mysteries of God’s eternal decrees?

The simple fact is, that of all the well known Reformers, Calvin was by far the most focussed on missions and church planting. He eagerly sent church-planting pastors and evangelists to other nations.

Most of the reformers were contending for the faith in their own nations. Luther certainly was. This is, of course, perfectly understandable given the nature of the battle in which they were engaged.

But Calvin also believed the gospel would triumph across the world, and he acted on that belief.  He was, in a sense, forced into the nations, being exiled from France. He was therefore eager to send preachers and pastors from Geneva to reach his own nation.

And he sent wave after wave of church planters to France. In fact, THL Parker points out that ‘between 1555 and 1562 over one hundred ministers were sent into France.’ (THL Parker, John Calvin, Lion 1975, p.174)

There’s a story to tell: Read about John Calvin and Church Planting

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Calvin on Preaching, Grieving and Singleness


While we don’t quite have a version of Luther’s famous ‘Table Talk’ for John Calvin, here are four quotes on different subjects. The first two deal with public ministry but the second two are highly personal and give us a glimpse of his own struggles and challenges.

On the act of preaching
A preacher ‘preaches so that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.’ (p.107)

On the importance of sermon preparation
‘If I should enter the pulpit without deigning to glance at a book, and should frivolously think to myself, ‘Oh well, when I preach, God will give me enough to say’, and come here without troubling to read or thinking what I ought to declare, and do not carefully consider how I must apply Holy Scripture to the edification of the people, then I should be an arrogant upstart.’ (p.110)

On the death of his beloved, formerly Anabaptist, wife
‘Truly mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one who, if it had been so ordained, would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.’ (p.121)

On singleness
(Calvin didn’t remarry after the death of his wife)
‘As for me, I do not want anyone to think me very virtuous because I am not married. It would rather be a fault in me if I could serve God better in marriage than remaining as I am…But I know my infirmity, that perhaps a woman might not be happy with me. However that may be, I abstain from marriage in order that I may be more free to serve God. But this is not because I think that I am more virtuous than my brethren. Fie to me if I had that false opinion.’ (p. 121)

Read about John Calvin and the Great Commission here

Above quotes are from THL Parker, John Calvin, Lion 1975

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Calvin and the Doctrine of Election

Because of the reaction it caused, Calvin found himself rigourously defending the Doctrine of Election. He had to expand the section on Election in his Institutes. He was not unwilling to defend his understanding of this teaching because he felt he was defending a pastorally beneficial truth revealed by God.

His understanding was as follows: The Holy Spirit revealed that before the creation of the world, God the Father chose who would be saved through Jesus Christ His Son.

This choice was not generated by any future factors in the person who would receive this mercy, but was purely a result of God’s undeserved love.  He chose us.

Salvation is, therefore, a result of His grace and not the result of any desire for salvation or any work towards salvation on our part.

The recipient of this electing mercy, the sinner, must repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead in order to be saved.

The common experience of believers could be described like this: Having considered the claims of Christ, and having believed and been forgiven, we discover in Scripture that our salvation was God’s pre-ordained plan and not the result of our own choice or decision.This increases our appreciation of God’s particular love towards us and results in an increased desire to worship Him, live for Him and serve His purposes unselfishly.

Jesus Himself said, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit.’ (John 15:16 NIV)

Spurgeon on Election
CH Spurgeon, the 19th century British preacher, described his own delight in the Doctrine of Election this way: ‘I am sure He chose me before I was born, or else He never would have chosen me afterwards; and He must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why He should have looked upon me with special love. So I am forced to accept that great Biblical doctrine.’ (From the sermon, A Defence of Calvinism http://www.spurgeon.org/calvinis.htm)

A pastoral doctrine
The doctrine of election was not the headline teaching in Calvin’s Institutes.

Andrew Johnston writes, ‘It’s position in the Institutes is significant. It was treated in the third book dealing with the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and not, as one might expect, in Book One which dealt with the doctrine of God.

For Calvin, predestination was essentially a pastorally-orientated doctrine. It was a source of assurance to the believer and a means of humbling the proud…Calvin was always careful not to go beyond what the scriptures explicitly stated.

Rather than predestination, the central doctrines of the Institutes were the glory of God and the divinity of Christ.’ (Andrew Johnston, The Protestant Reformation in Europe. Longman. P.58)

This astonishing, unfathomable, controversial doctrine is stated in numerous places in Scripture. But this teaching did not originate with Calvin and any serious student of the Bible will need to grapple with it. There are many other references to this in Scripture, but we must keep on track with the historical story we are following.

2 Thess 2:13 ‘But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.’ (NIV)

Eph 1:3-6 ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.’ (ESV)

Next time we’ll take a look at Calvin’s views on a number of different issues. There was no Calvin’s ‘Table Talk’, as there was with Luther, but we can still gain insight into his personal life and thought from various sources.

Read Calvin’s views on Preaching, Grieving and Being Single

Andrew Johnston leads Christ Church, Hailsham, Sussex, UK. Please visit http://www.christchurchhailsham.org/index.html for more details.

© 2009 Lex Loizides

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

Introducing John Calvin: Understanding the Bible


The Frenchman John Calvin (1509-1564) was undoubtedly the greatest expositor and commentator on the Scriptures that the Reformation period produced.  In fact, his brilliant set of commentaries on most books of the Bible still sells well even today.

Although a multitude of reasons (both good and bad) have been suggested to explain his continued influence on Christian leaders, his skill in explaining the meaning of the Scriptures is his primary legacy.

In fact, those who have benefited from his writing will argue that it is not John Calvin, or ‘Calvinism’ in that sense, but the truth of Scripture that has had such lasting impact on the lives of Christians, missionaries and leaders.

Many preachers will have experienced the challenge of not finding help from modern commentators, only to discover that Calvin has both understood and explained the verses of Scripture they were studying.

His ability to explain difficulties, remove obstacles and apply the meaning of the text is precise, appropriate and full of spiritual life. In my opinion, every preacher, Teacher or Evangelist, should purchase a copy of his commentaries.

He describes his conversion as ‘sudden and unexpected’ and his immense intellectual powers were redirected from the study of law to the Bible.  When he was only 26 he published what has become one of Christianity’s greatest classics ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion’.

The Institutes, written and later enlarged while Calvin was in Switzerland in exile from France. It was dedicated to the King of France, and was written to prove that the teachings of the Reformers and their followers was not a new departure but the orthodox, apostolic Christian Faith.

Calvin’s hope was that the King of France would read it, be convinced by it, and call an end to the terrible persecutions that were taking place.

No! That didn’t happen. Rather, Calvin himself was once again declared to be a heretic.

More next time…

© 2009 Lex Loizides