3rd June 2024

The Life and Legacy of John Calvin

2nd June 2024

The Life and Legacy of John Calvin

A Sermon by Kenneth Padley 


460 years ago last Monday, a man died in Geneva and was buried in an unmarked grave. He was a refugee, exiled from his place of birth, and despised by many. He claimed to be a clergyman, but had never been ordained. He was a man of sorrow, survived by neither his wife nor their children. He was highly self-effacing, leaving us virtually nothing of his character and inner life. Yet despite this inauspicity, nobody who has lived in the last 500 years – arguably the last millennium – has had a greater impact on global religion. So I invite us tonight to reflect on the life and legacy of John Calvin.


Calvin was born in northeastern France in 1509, son of an unremarkable provincial lawyer. Studies in Paris and Orleans turned him into a convinced humanist. ‘Humanists’ back then were not evangelists for secularism but scholars with a distinctive approach to ancient texts. They wanted to get back to the original documents and yearned for the days of classical Greece and Rome. So they invented the idea of the ‘Middle Ages’, a gap of a thousand years over which they intellectually leapt in order to revivify the ancient world.


When humanists applied their textual principles to religious documents they sometimes became Protestant reformers. They found themselves wanting to leapfrog over the medieval Church and back to what they perceived to be the primitive Christian ideal.


John Calvin was just such a Protestant humanist. He longed for a Golden Age of the Church. He dated this to the fourth and fifth centuries, after Christianity had become the religion of the Roman Empire but before when he thought the rot set in.


Inevitably, Calvin’s views embroiled him in controversy. He had to flee France and, after a couple of years moving around, bowled up in Geneva. Geneva at this time was a weak, divided town on a trade route between France and Italy. Back then Geneva was deeply unfashionable. You only went to Geneva if you were actually heading somewhere else. However, apart from a brief expulsion in the late 1530s, Calvin remained in Geneva for the rest of his life, inadvertently transforming the city into an international hub.


By the 1550s, Protestants were streaming to Geneva from all over Europe. Among the English refugees were dynamic reformers who had fled the reign of Mary I. They produced the Geneva Bible which became the most popular English Scriptures for three generations. And William Kethe’s ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ remains the oldest English hymn still in regular use. These religious exiles eventually returned to England, fired up with ideas and energy that shaped the Church of England under Elizabeth I.


Calvin had equipped such leaders though his sermons and teaching. But he was also a writer with a readership across the whole continent. He produced commentaries on most of the New Testament and a systematic theology called the Institutes of the Christian Religion.


At the heart of Calvin’s ideas in the Institutes is the amazing majesty of God. Calvin was impelled by a strong sense of divine greatness and of the comparative weakness of humanity. From this, he accepted the Protestant maxim that we are too flawed to contribute to our own salvation. We desperately need the love of God in Christ. Thus Calvin developed the idea of substitutionary atonement, the concept that Jesus in his death takes onto himself the punishment that would otherwise fall on each of us for our sins. He followed other Protestants in saying that we latch onto the righteousness won by Christ by placing our faith in him. All those who have saving faith, Calvin asserted, are saints. Together they form the Church, a body of believers invisible to the eye but united with one another around the world and across the barrier of death.


By the 1550s Calvin was figurehead for the Reformed strand of Protestantism, a network of thought which came to dominate religion in Great Britain and the Netherlands by 1600 before achieving worldwide influence through their overseas empires by 1900. And it is this pervading influence which I would particularly note today. For many in England, Calvin is a bogeyman, a figure of suspicion or hate. But this ignores his historic and enduring importance. Calvin was the most read and the most translated writer in England in the later sixteenth century. We downplay his impact because the Church of England retained bishops at the Reformation which the Genevan church did not. But Calvin was not so dogmatic as to say that bishops were wrong for everyone. He was prepared to negotiate with the kings of England and Poland on the basis that they would retain bishops in their realms. He believed in a universal Church with national structures. He considered himself a Catholic Christian.


Calvin is demonised for his views on predestination, both in his lifetime and since. He believed in absolute double predestination, the idea that God irrevocably forewills all people’s ultimate destiny, whether to heaven or hell. It is a stark doctrine when starkly presently, but we should at least appreciate that it was not the hub of Calvin’s thought, as it became for some of his followers. Rather, predestination was an outworking of the real core of Calvin’s system, the greatness of God. A sense of wonder at the divine majesty is a much more appropriate and constructive starting point for engagement with his theology.


Calvin is also criticised for vindictive severity. This was most notable in his complicity in the execution by the Genevan authorities of a man named Michael Servetus. Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 for denying that God is Trinity, three persons in one being. Nobody today could condone such a horrific act. Tragically, such atrocities were meted out by all sides in the sixteenth-century confessional conflicts.


Thirdly, it is alleged that Calvin downplayed the significance of the Eucharist. This contention is simply spurious. It is true that he denied that Christ could be physically present in the bread and wine. For Calvin, Jesus becomes spiritually present to the believer through participation in the ritual. But that is a long way from saying that Calvin isn’t interested in Communion. For Calvin, Communion is a fathomless mystery in which he wants the faithful to share as regularly as possible. For him Communion is the point where earth is lifted to heaven. When the officiant says sursum corda – lift up your hearts – Calvin is right there with him. Communion for Calvin is God’s means of grace not for returning Jesus to earth but for raising believers upwards, joining with the worship of saints and angels around God’s throne.


I come not to praise Calvin – nor to bury him, but the anniversary of his death invites an honest appreciation of his world if we are to get a handle on our own. We cannot understand contemporary Britain nor global Anglicanism if we airbrush Calvin out. His motto was ‘Lord, I offer my heart, promptly and sincerely’, a prayer with which we can hopefully all agree. Amen.