via History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation | Christian Classics Ethereal Library

by Philip Schaff

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§ 66. Calvin’s Place in History, page 152 et suiv.

1. Calvin was, first of all, a theologian. He easily takes the lead among the systematic expounders of the Reformed system of Christian doctrine. He is scarcely inferior to Augustin among the fathers, or Thomas Aquinas among the schoolmen, and more methodical and symmetrical than either. Melanchthon, himself the prince of Lutheran divines and « the Preceptor of Germany, » called him emphatically « the Theologian. »

Calvin’s theology is based upon a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He was the ablest exegete among the Reformers, and his commentaries rank among the very best of ancient and modern times. His theology, therefore, is biblical rather than scholastic, and has all the freshness of enthusiastic devotion to the truths of God’s Word. At the same time he was a consummate logician and dialectician. He had a rare power of clear, strong, convincing statement. He built up a body of doctrines which is called after him, and which obtained symbolical authority through some of the leading Reformed Confessions of Faith.

Calvinism is one of the great dogmatic systems of the Church. It is more logical than Lutheranism and Arminianism, and as logical as Romanism. And yet neither Calvinism nor Romanism is absolutely logical. Both are happily illogical or inconsistent, at least in one crucial point: the former by denying that God is the author of sin—which limits Divine sovereignty; the latter by conceding that baptismal (i.e. regenerating or saving) grace is found outside of the Roman Church—which breaks the claim of exclusiveness.

The Calvinistic system is popularly (though not quite correctly) identified with the Augustinian system, and shares its merit as a profound exposition of the Pauline doctrines of sin and grace, but also its fundamental defect of confining the saving grace of God and the atoning work of Christ to a small circle of the elect, and ignoring the general love of God to all mankind. It is a theology of Divine sovereignty rather than of Divine love; and yet the love of God in Christ is the true key to his character and works, and offers the only satisfactory solution of the dark mystery of sin. Arminianism is a reaction against scholastic Calvinism, as Rationalism is a more radical reaction against scholastic Lutheranism.

Calvin did not grow before the public, like Luther and Melanchthon, who passed through many doctrinal changes and contradictions. He adhered to the religious views of his youth unto the end of his life. His Institutes came like Minerva in full panoply out of the head of Jupiter. The book was greatly enlarged and improved in form, but remained the same in substance through the several editions (the last revision is that of 1559). It threw into the shade the earlier Protestant theologies,—as Melanchthon’s Loci, and Zwingli’s Commentary on the True and False Religion,—and it has hardly been surpassed since. As a classical production of theological genius it stands on a level with Origen’s De Principiis, Augustin’s De Civitate Dei, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, and Schleiermacher’s Der Christliche Glaube.

2. Calvin is, in the next place, a legislator and disciplinarian. He is the founder of a new order of Church polity, which consolidated the dissipating forces of Protestantism, and fortified it against the powerful organization of Romanism on the one hand, and the destructive tendencies of sectarianism and infidelity on the other.

In this respect we may compare him to Pope Hildebrand, but with this great difference, that Hildebrand, the man of iron, reformed the papacy of his day on ascetic principles, and developed the mediaeval theocracy on the hierarchical basis of an exclusive and unmarried priesthood; while Calvin reformed the Church on social principles, and founded a theocracy on the democratic basis of the general priesthood of believers. The former asserted the supremacy of the Church over the State; the latter, the supremacy of Christ over both Church and State. Calvin united the spiritual and secular powers as the two arms of God, on the assumption of the obedience of the State to the law of Christ. The last form of this kind of theocracy or Christocracy was established by the Puritans in New England in 1620, and continued for several generations. In the nineteenth century, when the State has assumed a mixed religious and non-religious character, and is emancipating itself more and more from the rule of any church organization or creed, Calvin would, like his modern adherents in French Switzerland, Scotland, and America, undoubtedly be a champion of the freedom and independence of the Church and its separation from the State.

Calvin found the commonwealth of Geneva in a condition of license bordering on anarchy: he left it a well-regulated community, which John Knox, the Reformer of Scotland, from personal observation, declared to be « the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles, » and which Valentin Andreae, a shining light of the Lutheran Church, likewise from personal observation, half a century after Calvin’s death, held up to the churches of Germany as a model for imitation.

The moral discipline which Calvin introduced reflects the severity of his theology, and savors more of the spirit of the Old Testament than the spirit of the New. As a system, it has long since disappeared, but its best results remain in the pure, vigorous, and high-toned morality which distinguishes Calvinistic and Presbyterian communities.

It is by the combination of a severe creed with severe self-discipline that Calvin became the father of the heroic races of French Huguenots, Dutch Burghers, English Puritans, Scotch Covenanters, and New England Pilgrims, who sacrificed the world for the liberty of conscience. « A little bit of the worlds history, » says the German historian Häusser, « was enacted in Geneva, which forms the proudest portion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A number of the most distinguished men in France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain professed her creed; they were sturdy, gloomy souls, iron characters cast in one mould, in which there was an interfusion of Romanic, Germanic, mediaeval, and modern elements; and the national and political consequences of the new faith were carried out by them with the utmost rigor and consistency. » A distinguished Scotch divine (Principal Tulloch) echoes this judgment when he says: « It was the spirit bred by Calvin’s discipline which, spreading into France and Holland and Scotland, maintained by its single strength the cause of a free Protestantism in all these lands. It was the same spirit which inspired the early and lived on in the later Puritans; which animated such men as Milton and Owen and Baxter; which armed the Parliament of England with strength against Charles I., and stirred the great soul of Cromwell in its proudest triumphs; and which, while it thus fed every source of political liberty in the Old World, burned undimned in the gallant crew of the ’Mayflower,’ the Pilgrim Fathers,—who first planted the seeds of civilization in the great continent of the West. »

Calvin was intolerant of any dissent, either papal or heretical, and his early followers in Europe and America abhorred religious toleration (in the sense of indifference) as a pestiferous error; nevertheless, in their conflict with reactionary Romanism and political despotism, they became the chief promoters of civil and religious liberty based upon respect for God’s law and authority. The solution of the apparent inconsistency lies in the fact that Calvinists fear God and nothing else. In their eyes, God alone is great, man is but a shadow. The fear of God makes them fearless of earthly despots. It humbles man before God, it exalts him before his fellow-men. The fear of God is the basis of moral self-government, and self-government is the basis of true freedom.

3. Calvin’s influence is not confined to the religious and moral sphere; it extends to the intellectual and literary development of France. He occupies a prominent position in the history of the French language, as Luther, to a still higher degree, figures in the history of the German language. Luther gave to the Germans, in their own vernacular, a version of the Bible, a catechism, and a hymn-book. Calvin did not translate the Scriptures (although from his commentaries a tolerably complete version might be constructed), and his catechism and a few versified psalms never became popular; but he wrote classical French as well as classical Latin, and excelled his contemporaries in both. He was schooled in the Renaissance, but, instead of running into the pedantic Ciceronianism of Bembo, he made the old Roman tongue subservient to Christian thought, and raised the French language to the dignity of one of the chief organs of modern civilization, distinguished for directness, clearness, precision, vivacity, and elegance.

The modern French language and literature date from Calvin and his contemporary, François Rabelais (1483–1553). These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny, the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style,—a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

Calvin sharpened the weapons with which Bossuet and the great Roman Catholic divines of the seventeenth century attacked Protestantism, with which Rousseau and the philosophers of the eighteenth century attacked Christianity, and with which Adolf Monod and Eugène Bersier of the nineteenth century preached the simple gospel of the New Testament.

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