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The Importance of John Calvin on Modern Society

Updated on April 11, 2012
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The span and effect of Calvinist theology in some sense cannot be measured. John Calvin is a Picardian elite who has a set path and lifestyle led by “Picardian” characteristics of intelligence, sensibility, diligence, self-confidence, and unfortunately irritability.[1] Growing up in the early fifteen hundreds allows Calvin to mature around an ever expanding awareness and openness to humanist ideas. There are five key studies of Renaissance Humanism; which are grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral. We can see Calvin carry on these studies throughout his life and work as a born and bred Renaissance Humanist. There are four phases of humanism; the age of inspiration (1330-1400), civic humanism or applied humanism (1400-1450), age of academies (1450-1500), and the age of aggrandizement (1500-1550)[2]. As a member of Picardian society, Calvin definitely lives out the age of aggrandizement but sticks also to the past age of academies that focuses heavily on education. He does not simply accept all truths that are being presented at this time; which cannot only be credited to his Picardian logic and sensibility, but also to his close ties to the church. His father works for the Cathedral Chapter of Noyon and acts as Calvin’s sole parent due to his mother’s death in his early life. Calvin’s father wants nothing more than Calvin to enter into priesthood [3]and he is blessed with a social class that allows for almost endless opportunities. Due to the humanist ideals engrained in him along with his religious ties and open opportunities, Calvin is led to spread his theology and thoughts in a lasting and concrete way. What made his theology spread? This is one question that this paper will aim to answer. Donald K. McKim stated on the 494th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, “The reach of Calvin’s thought has been extensive, pervading not only Christian theology, but also such arenas as biblical interpretation, Christian spirituality, and social ethics. Historically and intellectually, Calvin’s labors have had a lasting significance.[4]” Let us delve into the depths of that statement. Also, who did he affect and why is Calvin a necessary alternative to the acclaimed Martin Luther?

Calvin takes many ideas that Luther has previously established and not only elaborates on them, but also stresses their importance.[5] One arena that Calvin pervades his theology into is law. This is an area that Luther and Calvin’s views differ.[6] Those who are not directly affected by it often dismiss Church law’s importance. However, it is an area that needs to be discussed and decided before one can progress in their study of theology. This idea can be applied to many different areas of study. Everyone must figure out their framework and foundation before they can start to build upon it. John Calvin can see the importance of building strong framework so that details and nuances that he implements can have a strong backbone to lean on. This approach makes his ideas more credible to the public. This sense of being orderly can be credited to his Picardian upbringing. Martin Luther on the other hand views church law as relating to sin and evil. All denominations have some sort of government structure, but some hold tighter to it than others. In modern society, some churches have been influenced by Calvin’s thoughts that individuals should follow God’s law not out of fearful obedience but out of joyful submission. Calvin’s view on this has spilled into the arena of overall servitude and how a servant’s heart should view its acts of kindness.

Calvin has many views on social and ethical issues which show that Calvin does not only affect the world of theology but also modern society. These issues include schools, the Consistory, social wel-fare, work ethic, and lending money with interest.[7] All of these are based on the “Ecclesiastical Ordnances” which are a compilation of Calvin’s lectures. In the area of schools, we have the example of the Geneva Academy. Although this is an institution that trains pastors and encourages theological study, it is still an institution of higher learning that promotes existing humanist ideas. The Geneva Academy is split into two sections. One department heavily weighs on theological education of young adults whereas the other department focuses on the general education of male youth in the region.[8] This primary education either prepares youth for ministry or government service careers. This college has had a lasting impact because it is still in operation and is now called the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Calvin impacts his society then and continues to do so through his establishments that remain to function in modern society.

Calvin speaks on the Consistory quite consistently throughout his entire career. A Consistory is a gathering of pastors and church elders.[9] This relates back to his view on church government laws. The Consistory tended to act in a very “tough love” manner. The Catholic Church’s stance on sin restitution is that humans do not have the power invested in them to judge what other individual can and cannot do and that sin should be made right through confession. Calvin feels it his personal mission to help correct sin within his church member’s lives. The Catholic view is in conflict with the framework of Calvin’s church government. Jeannine E. Olson explains the Consistory’s tactic best, “In a sense, the Consistory replaced the confessional, for Calvin and other Reformed Christians objected to confession of one’s sins to a pastor or to a priest. One should confess to God! The Consistory admonished people, and if they persisted in refusing to admit wrongdoing, required to abstain from the Lord’s Supper until they repented and changed their lives.[10]” Although this seems to be harsh administration, Calvin is apparently good at it and actually runs this program quite effectively and it helps many people turn their lives around.

Calvin’s Marriage Ordnances have had a lasting effect on marriage laws in modern society. He pushes for consensual engagements in order to abolish arranged marriages. The Ordnances also look down upon premarital sex and cohabitation; which are punishable by prison time. Although his idealistic views are admirable they sometimes become impractical. Instances such as encouraged marriages between rape victims and their assailants, and bickering spouses could be locked in a tower with only bread and water until their differences were settled in order to avoid divorce are rather hard to regulate.[11] Although his view on divorce started as a biblical stance to preserve the sanctity of marriage; in some ways they conflicted with true biblical views. The Bible does indeed state that sexual immorality is a means for divorce. In some senses, Calvin could be thought of as an extremist but “passionate” may be a better term. He truly felt the Lord calling him to do all of the disciplinary actions he did even if he became a bit too excited to do them at times. Calvin comes under fire often for the amount of rules he has. This is the different side of the spectrum from that of Luther. Luther’s views are broader. They are broader in the sense that they are not nearly as detailed as Calvin’s views tend to be. One of the necessary shifts from Luther to Calvin is due to just this. During the age of humanism, many people have a deep-seated desire to delve deeper into topics and do not want a traditional overview or synopsis of ideas, but they are more interested in Calvin’s approach of meticulous detailing.

The next social issue is that of social welfare. Calvin has interesting framework that always seems to have two distinct purposes: one to serve the community and one to serve the church. A new hospital is established to help with this issue of social well-fare. After the hospital reached the point that it cannot fully serve the whole lower class community, there are many refugees fleeing to Geneva so foreign residents collect and compile funds in order to aid their different ethnic groups. The group or fund that is closest to Calvin’s heart was quite obviously the French Refugee Fund. These funds impact the social well-being of Geneva exponentially. These funds also embrace Calvin’s usual framework that served the community and the church. The money from these funds mostly go to the refugees but a portion of it is spent on books and pastors for the French community; there is even a small portion that goes to pay the salary of a man that transcribed Calvin’s sermons.[12] However, even this is not done selfishly. For Calvin wants his sermons transcribed so that they can be sold with all profits being returned to the refugee fund.

Within the third area of social and ethical views, there is Calvin’s concern with work ethic. His ideas are revolutionary compared to that of Martin Luther. Martin Luther’s views are not wrong, but they merely focus on what a man can do to serve the Lord and lessen himself. He views careers within commerce as a place that could lead to no good and that man should only make enough wages to provide for basic necessities and that any excess is sinful. John Calvin agrees and disagrees with this view.[13] However, in normal Calvin fashion, his view on commerce served two purposed. He constructs everything not only to serve the Lord but also to serve the community. He does not think that men should live lavishly but they should not just scrape by either. He thinks that all men should work hard for the Lord, not for salvation but for the joy of giving back as a form of thanksgiving. Excess money should be made but it should be given to those less fortunate after providing for oneself. Working for “commerce” jobs is not seen as evil by Calvin if one handles their assets in a proper manner, and does not plunder their spoils. Calvin sees it as human’s duty to God to earn the greatest amount of profit they can; however it must be shared with those less fortunate. Luther and Calvin have a lasting impact on today’s society with their view on commerce. We now tend to view careers somewhere in the middle of their extreme views. Christians are now encouraged to take up jobs in their desired field of interest, but they should make sure that the money that they are making is earned as honest dollars and all things work related should glorify God. All money should go towards furthering God’s Kingdom whether you are financing your own missions or financing someone else’s; make sure that your hard work aids the Lord’s work in some way.

In the same area as work ethic, there is Calvin’s view on lending money. Traditionally, in the time before Calvin and Luther, money that had been lent and had interest tacked onto it was seen as “usury and unchristian[14]” Calvin is by no means the mastermind behind this idea, but he is a proponent for the church popularizing its allowance within the Christian society. Calvin permits pastors within Geneva to begin participating in this practice but under the pre-text that interest should never go above five percent. Unfortunately, many pastors are corrupt and charge higher interest rates for personal gain. Calvin does his best to control the corruption, but the problem continues even after his death. Calvin has a short fuse and a tendency for quick restitution as we already know but this is obviously only efficient during his lifetime. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances does not allow for much corruption either and is a way for Calvin’s ideals to carry on. After Calvin passes away, his influence still presides over many city counselors. These counselors continue to clean out corruptions after Calvin’s death under the influence of the Ecclesiastical Ordnances. “Both Max Weber and R.H. Tawney give a special prominence to Calvinism in the development of modern capitalism.[15]” Many attempt to deny Calvin’s theology and doctrines as biblical truth but apparent impact such as this example of capitalism cannot go unnoticed. Calvin’s reform is not only necessary church reform but also necessary social reform.

Calvin’s shift from interest of pure theology to theology and law seemed like a sudden irrelevant shift, but Calvin’s meticulous legal studies helps him understand and interpret the Scriptures in a new revolutionary way.[16] In a world of growing humanist intellect, a fresh perspective of the Scriptures is necessary. This plays into the original question of Calvin’s importance as an addition to Martin Luther. Humanism is about exploring new ideas and being open-minded which is hard to accomplish with only one option. Having the option of John Calvin and Martin Luther allows for humanism to function properly. One aspect that make Calvin a relatable and noteworthy historical figure is that he has an unwavering self confidence even through times of miscalculations. In the words of Bruce Gordon, “This is what made him human.[17]

Though this work argues that Calvin was a necessary alternative to Luther, it does not mean to dismiss the energy, effort, time, and knowledge that Luther contributes to the Reformation. In fact, if it is not for Luther there may have never been a Reformation at all! If it is not for Luther and his bravery to nail the ninety-five theses to the church door we may have missed out on a detrimental part of history. As the author T.H.L. Parker stated, “Luther’s reception by the world would not have been hard to foretell. It was to be expected that he would quickly attract a large number of disciples. His theology was Augustian and a form of Augustinianism was the official faith of the Western Church…It was to be expected also that the Christian humanists would hail him as a fellow-traveler and that he and his disciples would make use of their linguistic and textual tools for the better understanding of the Bible and the fathers.[18]” Calvin should never be argued to be the only necessary component of this time. Luther starts something that Calvin simply carries on and intensifies. Calvin drew his original ideas from sermons of Luther’s as he studied as a young man and pursued a life of theological study. Luther in a sense warmed up the crowd for Calvin’s entrance. This is meant in no way to demean Luther, because as previously stated, Luther is detrimental to the Reformation. However as also previously mentioned, Calvin takes Luther’s broad ideas and simply narrows them down, much like a headlining act would do for the opening act.

In the beginning of this piece, a few questions were posed. What made Calvin’s theology spread? Who did he affect? Why was he a necessary alternative to Luther? We have seen that Calvin’s theology spread due to his extreme laws and administration. His tactics are revolutionary and appeals to the humanist mindset of the time, and continues to do so due to the humanist era never really coming to an end. Calvin may have been successful in many other time periods but the humanist era is almost tailor-made for Calvin’s entrance. He brought a new respect to his trade and he affects the members of his church in a way they had never been before. His influence reached farther than his local ministry. Modern society is living in the wake of his work and influence with the examples of schools, Consistories, work ethic, money lending, church law, and social well-fare which has reached individuals all over the world. The question of Calvin’s presence in comparison to Luther is pretty well covered in this piece. Calvin is in no way superior to Luther but a necessary transition into the era.

[1] Alexandre Ganoczy et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin, trans. David L. Foxgrover and James Schmitt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3.

[2] Barone, Robert, “Renaissance Humanism” History 481, The University of Montevallo, Jeter Hall, February 2 2012

[3] Alexandre Ganoczy et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin, trans. David L. Foxgrover and James Schmitt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3.

[4] Donald K. McKim et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), xi.

[5] Joel R. Beeke et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 129.

[6] Joel R. Beeke et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 133.

[7] Jeannine E. Olson et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 153-169.

[8] Jeannine E. Olson et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 158.

[9] Jeannine E. Olson et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 160.

[10] Jeannine E. Olson et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 160.

[11] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 296.

[12] Jeannine E. Olson et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 163.

[13]Roger B. Hill Ph.D., eds., History of Work Ethic (Georgia: University of Georgia, 1996), accessed April 9, 2012, http://www.coe.uga.edu/workethic/hpro.html

[14] Jeannine E. Olson et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 168.

[15] Jeannine E. Olson et al., The Cambridge Companion To: John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 169.

[16] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 22.

[17] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), xi.

[18] T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1975), xii.

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      COW MAN 4 years ago

      THANKS SSS

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      Civil War Bob 5 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Good hub, Sarah...voted up, useful, interesting. Only thing is, when you mentioned Picard, I first thought you meant Jean-Luc and you were going to "go where no man has gone before" in a Star Trekian way! ;) But, hey, I'm not right, according to my plumber.

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      Jobs Etc 5 years ago

      I enjoyed reading your article on John Calvin.