Calvin and the Reformation

by B. B. Warfield

 John Calvin did not belong to the first generation of Reformers. When Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, he was a child of eight years old. When he entered upon his work as Reformer, the first great battle of the Reformation had been fought out. Zwingli was already some five years dead. Luther, although only fifty-two, was already an old man, broken in health and depressed in spirits. Melanchthon was already showing ominous signs of wavering on the first principles of the Reformation. Bucer, at the height of his powers, was laboring fruitfully at Strasburg, striving against overwhelming odds to unite the forces of the Reformation into one common movement for the gospel.

    Calvin held Luther in the deepest reverence, and gladly called himself his disciple. He called him "that illustrious apostle of Christ, through whose labors the purity of the gospel has been restored to this age." There had been mutterings of reform before the Reformation in France as elsewhere. But it was not from the timid Biblicism of LeFevre D'Etaples that Calvin received the gospel. Through whatever channels it reached him, the source of his inspiration lay in Luther. The more specific influences that made him precisely the Reformer he was, he received, so far as he received them through a human hand, not from Luther, but from Bucer. Bucer did not make him a Reformer. He had entered fully upon his Reformatory work, and that, in acts of epoch-making character, before he came into contact with Bucer. Nor did Bucer give him the particular bent which characterized his work as Reformer. This bent was fully in evidence from the very beginning of his Reformatory work. We have to reckon in Calvin with an individual genius of the first order, which saw both more widely and more deeply than Bucer himself ever saw. He had already found his chief lines of work and had suffered in their behalf before he came into close association with Bucer. But he found in Bucer a congenial spirit, with many of whose points of view he fell in, and from whom he derived much that was valuable.

    He took over from Bucer, for example, his mode of stating the great doctrine of predestination. All the great Reformers were predestinarians. The Reformation was, from the theological point of view, an Augustinian revival. Its very heart was a revolt from the conception of salvation which had dominated and cursed the Middle Ages, a conception which threw man back at the decisive point in his salvation on himself. As a current maxim put it: Do the best you can, and God will see you through. What you had to do was, no doubt, reduced to as little as possible, in the interests of troubled consciences which knew they could do nothing to the purpose. It came to amount to about this: You push the button and God will do the rest. But always you had to push the button. And this was a button sinners could not push! Therefore, the Middle Ages [Catholic Church] minimized sin. Man was a sinner, no doubt, they taught; but he was not very much of a sinner. He was not so much of a sinner that he could not actively cooperate with every help God would give him; that he could not earn salvation for himself, if God would only give him a little timely aid.

     It was against all this fatal doctrine of human ability and human merit that the Reformation threw itself with passion. It launched its dart, as Robert Browning phrases it, point-blank at the head of this lie -- taught original sin, the corruption of man's heart. It taught -- and this is the core of the whole matter -- salvation by free grace alone; free grace, that is, the absolutely gratuitous mercy of God, given not to those who have earned it, but to the undeserving. Thus all the glory of sinful man's salvation belongs to God, and man has nothing of which he can boast except the saving God himself. And when you teach free grace, absolutely free grace, and mean it, you are a predestinarian. A grace that is given freely, absolutely freely, apart from all merit, of whatever kind, hangs, of course, wholly on the will of the giver. Accordingly, all the Reformers were flaming predestinarians: Luther and Zwingli and even Melanchthon, before he began to fall away from the purity of the gospel which at first he had taught with such vigor. Calvin thought that Luther's and Zwingli's way of teaching predestination was a little too -- not decided or assertory, it could not be that -- but too speculative in form and perhaps inconsiderate in expression. He liked Bucer's way of putting it better; a way of putting it which says it all, and says it all with clearness and force (for is it not the saving truth of God?), but keeps the mind and heart fixed all the time on the glorious fact that what is being talked about is the pure will of the All-merciful Father, who by his free grace saves sinners. So, like Bucer, Calvin preached the common Augustinianism of the Reformation in a superlatively practical way.

    And here we touch one of his chief characteristics as a Reformer. He was by way of eminence the practical Reformer. He was the greatest exegete of the Reformation age: he was the Reformation's greatest theologian. And he was the practical genius of the Reformation. We do not say he was the practical genius of the Reformation in spite of his learned commentaries and his profound and profoundly reasoned theology. We would better say it was in large part because of them. Calvin probably never did a more practical thing than expound the Scriptures day by day with the penetrating insight and the clear, searching honesty of comment in which he is unsurpassed. And he certainly never did a more practical thing than write the Institutes of the Christian Religion. The publication of that book was like the setting up of the King's Standard in Medieval Europe -- that the lieges might gather to it. It was raising the banner on high that all men might see it and rally around it. It provided at last a platform for the hard-bested Protestants, everywhere spoken against, and far too easily confounded with the radicals of the day -- radicals who scouted the very foundations of the Christian faith, overturned the whole fabric of the social order, outraged the commonest dictates of ordinary decency. Its publication met a crisis and created an epoch. It gave a new stability to Protestantism, and set it before the world as a coherent system of reasoned truth by which men might live and for which they might gladly die.

    It was not merely in such performances as these, however, that Calvin's practical genius showed itself. It conditioned all his work as Reformer, and gave it its specific quality. What from the very first he set himself to do was to organize Protestantism and to discipline it. Organization, discipline -- these are the things that distinguish an army from a mob. In point of fact, Calvin found Protestantism a mob and transformed it into an army. That was his great achievement, the specific task that fell to him among the Reformers. Luther did not even attempt, or wish, to organize the Protestants. Preach the gospel, he said: that is enough, and everything else will take care of itself. It was not enough: and everything else did not take care of itself. Calvin, coming into the Reformation movement at a later date, when the confusion had become confounded, saw that it was not enough. It may have been in his French blood; it may have come from his legal training; it may have belonged to his individual genius. But when he came to Geneva, a youth of twenty-seven, he came with his program of organization and discipline already in his hand, and with an indomitable will to put it in practice. The Genevans would not have it. They drove him out. He lived and worked three golden years in Strasburg. Then the Genevans brought him back. And he came back with the same program of organization and discipline in his hand, and with the same inflexible will to put it in practice. It took him fourteen years to accomplish it. But he accomplished it. And the result was that Geneva became not only the wonder of the world, but happily the model of the Reformed world; and because of its model, also in a true sense its savior, and, with it, the savior, as Mark Pattison says, of Europe. We should keep well in mind that the organization and discipline which Calvin introduced into Geneva was the organization and discipline of the Church, not of the town. The so- called "Blue Laws" of which we hear so much, Calvin did not introduce into Geneva. He found them there. They were an inheritance from the Middle Ages and were common to Geneva and all similar towns. They were civil ordinances, and Calvin, as Reformer, had nothing to do with them, except as good citizen to do his citizen's part toward reducing them to rational and ethical consistency. What he introduced into Geneva was distinctively church organization and discipline. It was the prevalent view among Protestants that it was the business of the Church to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments, leaving it altogether to the civil authorities to deal with offences. Calvin could not take that view. The Church must not only preach the gospel, he said, but among its own constituency see that it is lived. The sole instrument by which this duty can be performed is discipline. Spiritual discipline, of course; for the Church is a spiritual body. Only spiritual penalties could be inflicted, culminating in exclusion from the ordinances of the Church, or excommunication. The actual conflict in Geneva turned accordingly on the protection of the Lord's Supper from unworthy participants. In establishing this church-discipline in Geneva, Calvin drove in a wedge between the Church and State, the ultimate effect of which was to make him the father of the principle of a free Church in a free State.

    The purification of the Church, of course, had its effect on the State. Leaven will leaven the lump in which it is placed. A holy Church tends to make a moral community, and Calvin was not slack in preaching among Christian duties the duty of good citizenship. And so, as a by-product of Calvin's labors, Geneva became a notably moral community: its sumptuary laws became, unlike those of many of its neighbors, wholesome and sane, and their execution became straightforward and honest. John Knox bears his testimony to the result: "In other places I confess Christ to be preached; but manners and religion to be so sincerely reformed I have not seen in any other place beside." And from Geneva the leaven spread, and in so spreading put moral health and vigor into the blood of the Reformed world. It is no accident that Lutheranism did not spread beyond the borders of Germany except into the Scandinavian north. The vigor of Protestantism that knew how to live itself out, to strive for its ideals to death itself, found its expression in the Reformed Churches. It was they that bore the brunt of the battle: and so it comes about that, as you look at the map, you see the Reformed Churches ringing the Lutheran Churches around with a protecting bulwark. "Just ask yourselves," says Dr. A. Kuyper, "what would have become of Europe and America, if in the sixteenth century the star of Calvinism had not suddenly arisen on the horizon of Western Europe. . . . The free development of the nations, as seen in Europe and America, would simply have been prevented. . . . It ever remains a question whether the spirit of the Leipzig Interim would not have succeeded, by way of a Romanized Protestantism, in reducing northern Europe again to the sway of the old hierarchy. . . Professor Fruin rightly remarks that, 'In Switzerland, in France, in the Netherlands, in Scotland and in England, and wherever Protestantism has had to secure itself at the point of the sword, it was Calvinism that won the victory for it.'"

Luther led the assault on the trenches; Calvin consolidated the gains. So far as we can see (we speak as a man), lacking either, there would be no Protestantism today.


From Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield


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