Who John Calvin Was Not

Who John Calvin Was Not

John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the most well-known Christian theologians. He was an important figure who helped continue the protestant reformation after the death of Martin Luther in 1546 and his writings continue to be influential in Reformed denominations to this day. Even if you are not a member of a Reformed church, you have likely heard of him and may have misconceptions about who he was and what he taught.

He was not the creator of Calvinism

What is labeled as Calvinism is not a theology that John Calvin created in the 1500s. His theology was almost entirely in line with Martin Luther’s theology, and Luther’s theology was not new either. God used both men to point Christians to revelation in scripture alone, salvation by Christ alone, through grace alone, by faith alone, for God’s glory alone that has always been clear in the Bible.

Calvin was not interested in a new theology or the creation of Calvinists. While he was methodical in writing a systematic theology, his goal was to help others understand their faith better. He was more interested in teaching Christians the truth of the Bible which “might allow those who were touched with a sincere feeling to God to learn true piety.” [1]

He was not the creator of the TULIP

TULIP – the acrostic for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints that makes up the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” – was not created by John Calvin.

The origin of the five points began with followers of Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius almost fifty years after Calvin’s death. Arminius’ followers documented five broad topics of disagreement with Calvin’s theology, primarily around the nature of grace. In response, the Dutch Reformed church created a ruling known as the Canons of Dort that defended Calvin’s teaching biblically around those five broad headings. It was centuries after the Canons of Dort that the TULIP acronym was created.

While Calvin did teach what Arminius’ followers disputed and the content of what the TULIP acronym summarizes, these were not doctrines that Calvin invented, nor were they the primary pieces of what he taught and preached.

He was not a theologian disconnected from the world

Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is a systematic theology that was initially published in 1536. He appended it several times before the final edition of 1559, and it is still considered a classic and standard text among evangelical protestant Christians. The most widely used English translation is two volumes and over 1,800 pages long. In addition to the Institutes, Calvin wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible along with other theological writings and treatises. This has led many to assume that Calvin was an academic theologian only interested in writing about God in an abstract way.

But Calvin was foremost a pastor. He preached for decades and was intimately involved with and concerned about his local congregation. In addition to his theological writings, there are more than 1,300 surviving letters which he wrote to his congregation and others. What is clear about these writings is that Calvin cared deeply about the people God had entrusted to him. His belief in the sufficiency of Christ, the assurance of salvation and trustworthiness of the Bible was very practical to him as encouragement to those he ministered to.

He did not think we are robots

If there is one of the five points that is most associated to Calvin, it is the U – Unconditional Election – which speaks to God’s sovereignty in election. In other words, God’s election is not based on anything that He sees in His elect. For example, in reference to 2 Timothy 1:9 Calvin says:

So, we may safely argue this way: since he chose us that we might be holy, it was not because he foresaw that that was what we would be. These two things are quite irreconcilable: that believers derive their holiness from God’s election, and that they are elect because of this holiness. [2]

The Bible’s teaching about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is one of the most disagreed on doctrines among Christians and is a great mystery that can be affirmed but not fully understood.

Calvin did teach plainly on God’s sovereignty in election, but it was not the only thing he taught, nor was it even his primary focus. However, it has become the point most associated with him and as a result, those that misunderstand his ministry assume he believed people are robots with no true will or responsibility.

But his writings show this was not the case. He acknowledged reconciling God’s sovereignty with human’s will could be difficult, but he pointed to verses such as Proverbs 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” He also spends more time in the Institutes discussing prayer including the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Discussing the importance of asking for God’s provision shows that Calvin did not believe we were to sit idle.

He was not perfect

This should go without saying, but while Calvin did display an admirable desire to serve God’s people and committed his life to explaining to others, he was a fallen human and was not perfect in all areas of his life and his teachings. Everything he wrote and preached should always be held against the truth of scripture.

Let us be thankful for theologians such as John Calvin who God used to reveal His word in a straightforward, faithful manner and the countless followers of Christ who have benefitted from his teachings.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Robert White; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), xvii. ↩︎

  2. Calvin, institutes of the Christian Religion, 469. ↩︎