John Calvin’s Influence in the Church and the World

In selecting the Reformation period as the focus of my effort, I am attracted by such summaries as this overview of what John Calvin and his associates were able to accomplish in the city of Geneva during the mid 1550’s. Remember that this was the time during which the Roman Catholic Church was instituting a period of great repression.

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The following is taken from Robert Reymond’s “John Calvin: His Life and Influence” ©2004 Robert Reymond, Christian Focus Publications, Ross-Shire, England, pgs 74 ff.

Calvin’s “second Geneva period” (1541-1564) has been generally divided by his biographers and church historians into two distinct periods: his years of struggle (1541-1555), about which we will say something, in which he was often at odds with the Little Council and with his religious enemies, and his years of triumph (1555-1564). Here again, we witness the Genevan motto, Post Tenebras Lux, being exhibited. Much could be said about Calvin’s ministry during the last nine years of his life when he was finally able to see his concern for a free church in Geneva approved by the Little Council[i] and his energies directed to his writings and to the evangelization of France. But we may summarize his accomplishments during this “Second Geneva Period” by highlighting the following eight categories of activity that he accomplished with eh aid and cooperation of a close band of like-minded ministerial colleagues (“the Venerable Company”), all of whom like himself were exiles from France, and the Consistory a new institution made up of an equal number of ministers and magistrates sitting as elders, that met on a regular basis to supervise the morals and religious life of the community:
As a result of the struggles and labors of Calvin and the other Geneva ministers the city’s moral and social bearing gradually improved, which influenced many other cities in Europe and saw Geneva as attempting to live out the principles of religious reform. For these cities, Geneva, emerging as the major powerhouse of religious and cultural reform, became a beacon of hope in an unruly world, so much so that John Knox who studied under Calvin there would later characterize it as “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles.” Because of Geneva’s reforming efforts, “the moralizing of social life, the work ethic, the prohibition of begging, aid to the poor—these [became] some distinguishing traits of the Calvinistic city.

Calvin finally saw founded in Geneva, not a new state, but a new church[ii]—the Protestant church. I will explain what I mean here. Abraham Kuyper observes:
…when the question is put, Who had the clearest insight into the reformatory principle, worked it out most fully, and applied it most broadly, history points to the Thinker of Geneva and not to the Hero of Wittenberg. …in all Lutheran countries [following the principle of Luther and the Lutheran jurists: Cuius region eius religio (“Whose the region, his the religion”)] the Reformation originated from the princes rather than from the people, and thereby passed under the power of the magistrate, who took his stand in the Church officially as her highest Bishop, and therefore was unable to change either the social or the political life in accordance with its principles.

Calvin’s “ideal of a Church, not independent of the State, but autonomous and free to act in its own sphere, came into conflict at every instant with the strict dependency to which the German Churches were subjected by the political power.” Consequently, the churches following Calvin’s lead in Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Colonial America—fearing with Calvin the “annexation of the church by the state, a secularization of [its] theology for the benefit of political ideology, [and] the dilution, finally, of the ecclesiastical dignity within the civil hierarchy”—insisted upon freedom from the powers of the magistrate insisted upon freedom from the powers of the magistrate in order to govern themselves, thereby creating the Protestant Church. And these Calvinistic churches:
Have always struggled…for the liberty, that is to say, for the sovereignty of the Church, within her own sphere, in distinction from the Lutheran theologians. In Christ, they contended, the Church has her own King. Her position in the State is not assigned her by the permission of the Government, but jure divino. She has her own organization. She possesses her own office-bearers. And in a similar way she has her own gifts to distinguish truth from the lie. It is therefore her privilege, and not that of the State, to determine her own characteristics as the true Church, and to proclaim her own confession as the confession of the truth.
With all this Benjamin B. Warfield concurs. Accordingly, he concludes:
…every Church in Protestant Christendom which enjoys today any liberty whatever, in performing its functions as a Church of Jesus Christ, owes it all to John Calvin. It was he who first asserted this liberty in his early manhood…; it was he who taught his followers to value it above life itself, and to secure it to their successors with the outpouring of their blood. And thus Calvin’s great figure rises before us as not only in a true sense the creator of the Protestant Church, but the author of all the freedom it exercises in its spiritual sphere.

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In all, Reymond noted that there were eight accomplishments, and I have noted the first two of those here. It’s true that these were largely political accomplishments. But given the atmosphere at the time, and how both the papacy and secular kings sought each to dominate the other, and to meddle in the affairs of others, this “separation” by Calvin at Geneva was a remarkable concept in the history of the church.

This “separation” of the church from under the influence of the government, while enabling Christians to influence the governments of the time, also enabled the church truly to be the church in the world.

Other accomplishments included:

* The Geneva Bible in its (original) French translation
* Missionaries to France, and the growth of the French Protestant Churches to a membership of more than two million people
* The Geneva Academy, which became the first Protestant “university”
* More than 4,000 sermons
* Commentaries on most of the Bible, plus three catechisms, several confessions of faith, and many theological treatises
* The Institutes of the Christian Religion

All of these accomplishments helped to generate the “mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization” that Philip Schaff wrote about in his History of the Christian Church.

It is not my contention that “we need another Reformation”. It is my contention that by remembering the original Reformation, that Protestant Christians can:

* Find a point of unity in seeing a common heritage in the theological abuses that the original Reformers sought to reform
* Open a discussion about what the church truly can be in the world, and the great things that Christ has accomplished through a faithful church
* Gain a better understanding of their place in history today
* Give an impulse to the forward movements of our day

No doubt, some will point to the corruptions that have happened among the Protestant churches in light of things like the development of Arminianism, American revivalism, theological liberalism, and other ills. None of these developments, though, should take away the absolute courage and devotion to Christ and the overall success that Calvin and his associates exhibited, which mightily changed the course of history.


[i] “A brief word about Geneva’s government structure at this juncture may be helpful. At the head of the city’s government was the twenty-five-man Little Council, composed of four powerful magistrates or mayors known as the Syndics, the city treasurer, and twenty others. The Council of the Two Hundred, established in 1527, and elected by the Little Council, somewhat strangely elected in turn those sitting on the Little Council. Between these two Councils was the rather useless Council of the Sixty … whose function was mainly diplomatic … Any business went first to the Little Council, then to the Council of the Two Hundred. A fourth council—the General Council composed of all the heads of households in Geneva—played a more tenuous role; in Calvin’s time it met twice annually: in February to elect the four Syndics and in November to set corn and wine prices. This little arrangement appears to be somewhat cumbersome, but the Little Council members, sitting three times a week, actually wielded the greatest power and in fact ran the city government. So, in sum, that was the magisterial system with which Calvin worked throughout his years at Geneva.” Reymond, pgs 58-59.

[ii] “The central issue that brought this about, as we have suggested, was Calvin’s years-long concern to achieve for the church freedom from the state in ecclesiastical disciplinary matters.” Reymond, pg 75. Again, keep in mind that Rome’s Inquisition was still very much in effect at this time.

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