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On John Calvin

Students at UH often ask about Calvinism, but understanding Calvin’s earliest emphases in reform is crucial to appreciating his work. Calvin, a second generation reformer, once appeared much more balanced in his concerns than either neo-Calvinists or their adversaries today often tend to credit him. In doing so, they miss much of the brilliance of a Reformer who was one of the first to use scripture against the church—and so effectively! The Reformers held that scripture is above the church. The following thus summarizes his concerns in about knowledge of God, the function of scripture, and pure worship (with emphasis toward removing idolatry and superstition). In the beginning of Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin sensibly begins by asking how one knows God and how one knows oneself.

Knowledge of God

For Calvin, one begins seeking God after realizing one’s own “ills,” and thus, “we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves” (Institutes 37). Calvin posits:

“…each…must…be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God. Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity…depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone” (Institutes 36).”

This unhappiness must come from a person realizing his or her own fallen state, according to Calvin. Without this, there can be no turning to God. Interestingly, knowing God helps one know one’s state, as well.

Only by comparing one’s self to God can a clearer picture of one’s self develop. Since only God is pure, comparing one’s self to earthly objects and people only misguides the viewer’s judgments. Calvin analogizes: if the eye only sees black objects all the time, then of course it will be impressed at the brightness of even a sullied white version. Likewise, our vision is clear if we look at the ground beneath our feet, but just a glance up to the sun and our sight “is at once blunted and confused by a great brilliance, and thus we are compelled to admit that our keenness in looking upon things earthly is sheer dullness when it comes to the sun” (38). We look at God and only then begin to realize how dull are our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue in comparison. God’s fullness is “the straightedge to which we must be shaped” (Institutes 38). Knowing Him is the means by which humans know how they ought themselves to be.[1] This knowledge—if not nourished and defined by the contours of scripture—can lead people into idolatry and superstition.

Vision of Scripture

Nature, says Calvin, points to God but cannot teach to humanity a complete understanding of God; the scriptures are where humanity further learns of God. The Sacred Word is the “school” in which God’s children learn (Institutes 73). He suggests two sorts of knowledge of God in scripture: First, God as Creator (Author and Ruler) and second, God as Redeemer (and Mediator) (Institutes 70-71). Scripture illuminates the true God, separating him from all false Gods by “adorn[ing him] with unmistakable marks and tokens” (Institutes 72). While one could argue for additional types of knowledge of God to Calvin’s—his overall distinction is helpful for clarifying the role of scripture. We not only learn of creation there, but we also (and perhaps more so) learn of God’s fatherly character.

Calvin argues that scripture’s authority comes from God rather than from the church (Institutes 74). Thus, he sees scripture as a negative warrant, that is, if the scriptures make no mention of a doctrine, rite, or ceremony, for example, it is not permissible). For him, it is also dangerous for the church to weigh certain books of the bible against others; such tampering teaches the wrong notion and leads believers astray. That is, if the church dismisses certain scriptures, lay people (if not everyone) will lose assurance of God’s promises (Institutes 75). That is because “only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (Institutes 95). Faith is on equal or stronger footing than knowledge, for Calvin.

The Spirit with the Scriptures

Calvin thus places the Spirit far above reason: “We ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit” (Institutes 78). Considering Calvinism’s later (heavier) emphasis on predestination, perhaps this line does not surprise some readers. However, the fact that Calvin studied law with proper humanists, who would typically highlight human agency, renders this a bold statement. He suggests that one who sets out to debate and to persuade via typical human reasoning will eventually admit “that they see manifest signs of God speaking in Scripture,” implying not that the reader’s reason took them to faith, but God’s appeared to them in the text—which may or may not appear rational (Institutes 78).[2]

Such a basis does not bode well for those who would resist or neglect the Spirit’s agency (particularly before baptism). For Calvin, the heart with which people read scriptures determines how they interpret it. If people “turn pure eyes and upright senses toward [the scriptures], the majesty of God will immediately come to view, subdue [their] bold rejection, and compel [them] to obey” (Institutes 79). Undoubtedly for Calvin there is power in the Word with the Holy Spirit’s accompaniment; they two maintain a circular relationship in which interpreting one rightly depends on listening to the other. In this way, even for a law student like Calvin, the Spirit’s testimony trumps reason and is the ultimate authenticator of scripture (Institutes 79).[3]

Pure Worship

Pure and real religion, says Calvin, is this: “faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as prescribed in the law” (Institutes 43). Each individual has “vague general veneration for God, but very few really reverence him; and wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed” (Institutes 43). Faith and reverent fear would accompany worshiping God in accord with scriptures’ prescriptions; Calvin views this as simple worship with wonderfully plain ceremony (Institutes 43).

The main mark of Calvin’s notion of pure worship is that it is Spiritual and internal (“Necessity” 187, 191). Thus he aligns himself (and other reformers) with the prophets and summarizes their message within that role: “God neither cares for nor values ceremonies considered only in themselves…he looks to the faith and truth of the heart” (“Necessity” 191). External show is easily feigned, yet genuine external “duties and works of charity” indeed must follow true repentance” (“Necessity” 188). These are the “sure and unerring form of divine worship” God prescribes in scripture and are thus the “only sacrifices of the Christian church which have attestation from [God]” (“Necessity” 188). This contrasts with Calvin’s adversaries’ view of the Eucharist as sacrifice, namely (“Necessity” 204).

Calvin divides that letter into three headings: doctrine, sacraments, and government. The first two are of most interest here. On Doctrine, Calvin’s two concerns are legitimate worship (“Necessity” 187-197) and salvation (“Necessity” 197-202), the former being pure, simple, Spiritual worship without idols or pompous ceremony. He also insists on correcting three errant practices of prayer: 1) intersession of saints, 2) intercession of the dead, and 3) praying in unknown tongues (“Necessity” 194-196).

Concerning salvation, he accuses his opponents of underestimating the depth of human depravity and “how deep the wound is which was inflicted on our nature by the fall of our first parents,” which was such that we possess “no ability whatever to act aright” (“Necessity” 198). While the depth of humanity’s depravity is indeed deep, Calvin takes an extreme position here, which non-Reformed today find unacceptable; to many of them, humanity needs some degree of “free-will” to repent, or else God is a puppeteering monster. As Calvin sees it, though, the position he purports is the best way to display that only the “gratuitous mercy” of God justifies us, by imputing Christ’s righteousness to us (“Necessity” 199).

As regards the sacraments of proper worship, Calvin discards five out of the seven used at the time, retaining baptism and the Eucharist. He gives most attention here to the Lord’s Supper, first negating it as oblation or sacrifice for sin (“Necessity” 204). The elements should be distributed—not reserved for the priest aloneand more than once per year (as was the habit of Calvin’s adversaries) (“Necessity” 204). He separates himself from both Luther and Zwingli on this issue and comes to represent something of a middle position. Whereas Luther was pleased to let Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” affirm sacramental union, Zwingli primarily viewed the elements as symbols. Calvin, though, argues that the elements are “conjoined” with “the truth they represent” (“Necessity” 206). The Spirit works mysteriously to bring this about, helping us somehow ascend to Christ (spiritually) rather than Christ descending to us. (“Necessity” 205-206).

Idolatry and Superstition

The severity of misuse of sacraments had grown such that Calvin, as previously mentioned, saw need for prophet-esque rebuke. However, he notes a grave difference between the audiences of his group and that of the prophets: at least Israel—when the prophets rebuked them— was performing ceremonies instituted by God (“Necessity” 191). Calvin’s adversaries, however, allegedly perform ceremonies “of man’s devising” (“Necessity” 191). Much of the ceremony Israel was instructed to perform, on the other hand, was “appropriate to an age of tutelage” (“Necessity” 191). Christ has done away with those ceremonies, which “are now not only superfluous but absurd and wicked” (“Necessity” 192).

People are born containing a seed of knowledge of the divine; it is “engraved on their hearts,” yet their own stubbornness can lead them to intentional ignorance of God (Institutes 51). Then, they may fall into idolatry (defined by Calvin as worship of images) and superstition as a means to externally appear pious via “a few paltry sacrifices…and worthless little observances,” but they “lie in their own filth…by ridiculous acts of expiation” (Institutes 51). Calvin saw most of his adversaries’ liturgy as superstitious abominations when “God is worshipped in images…supplication is made to the images of saints, and divine honors [are] paid to dead men’s bones” (“Necessity” 188). All of this, he says, comes about because people would rather give a great amount externally than any small amount internally (“Necessity” 193). In compensation, as it were, for their lack of internal, pure worship, they offer external rituals to ease their consciences.


Calvin’s writing is full of passion and conviction. Most potent to contemporary ears are his reverence for God, arguments for scriptures as God’s revelation of himself, and the agency of the Spirit whose “testimony…is more excellent than all reason” (Institutes 79). His condemnation of idolatry and superstition that had crept into the church is equally striking. On all of these topics, Calvin’s words ring out like a dynamite blast from a mountaintop. God is not merely to be figured out; rather, he is to be adored through contemplation of his works and his nature. There is much heart in that view–a lot of “Trust and Obey” simplicity that stirs the original audience (as well as today’s!) to hope in God and especially in a future life with God.

Overall, Calvin is helpful in these two works; there is more to agree with than disagree. The church of Christ seems like one who would appreciate Calvin’s negative warrant perspective of scripture. Although Calvin perhaps over-estimated the role of the Spirit in conversion (leaving nothing to human agency), perhaps Restoration churches of Christ are guilty of the opposite error: leaving all agency to people and nothing to the Spirit. Through his strengths as well as his faults, Calvin reminds the church to trust in God together (in the church!) and obey Him according to His Word—externally in good works and especially internally with the Spirit and the heart.



[1] Calvin also argues for nature’s evidence of God and also that of the human body; their beauty and function are such that they point to the Artificer (52-54). Calvin would not disagree with Aristotle that humans are microcosms of God; we can see God’s traits in each other and in ourselves (54).

[2] Scripture self-authenticates by the Spirit rather than its symmetry or scientific soundness (not by balancing the books, so to speak). God speaks through the Word and wakes up the reader spiritually.

[3] Such a view is problematic. What happens to a person who earnestly seeks God (including via scripture) and still does not believe? There are those who say they wish they could believer in God—that they want to—but cannot seem to find faith. Calvin would suggest, probably, that they are not searching with humble hearts and proper reverence but does not use the exact language of election. He suggests the Holy Spirit and the God’s Word are interconnected; people cannot correctly interpret one without the other. If the Spirit is telling us something contrary to God’s revelation in scripture, then it must not be from the Holy Spirit (93-94). Citing both letters to Timothy, Calvin concludes the scriptures should have authority over the church—not the church over the scriptures (Institutes 93).