Jean Calvin (1509-1564) was a lawyer and a scholar from Paris who— in Geneva, Switzerland—founded the most influential branch of Protestantism. He was more radical than Martin Luther. Calvin taught and preached in Geneva for 30 years. Despite ill health, he preached five sermons a week. He also founded a college that soon made Geneva a great center of learning.
Capitalism owes its birth and success to the moral teachings of the Reformers, especially John Calvin. The Protestant work ethic—to be sober, honest, earnest, and hardworking—created the modern entrepreneur. Catholics, by comparison, were rather easygoing. Calvin taught his followers to live modestly so that they would have plenty of assets left over to give to charity. Calvin led by example, as he lived modestly, never owned a home, had few possessions, and refused repeated offers to increase his salary.
John Calvin Becomes a Reformed Protestant
Jean Calvin was a thoughtful, quiet, Catholic youth in Paris. He possessed a powerful and penetrating mind; and exhibited intellectual ardor and religious devotion. His cousin, Olivetan, had joined the Reformers, but Calvin refused at first, saying, "I will have none of your new doctrines. Think you that I have lived in error all of my days?"
Olivetan replied, "There are but two religions in the world. The one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is that one religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God."
Calvin could not stop thinking about these words. One day he happened upon a burning of a Protestant in a public square. He was moved by the look of joy on the martyr's face as the flames climbed higher, engulfing the man who looked happy to be there. He began to study the Bible and he found Christ. Calvin then broke from the Catholic Church and joined the Protestant Reformers.
At the behest of the Catholic Church, Francis I issued an order for Calvin's arrest. Calvin narrowly escaped out a window while the cops were at the front door seeking to apprehend him. He then traveled to Poitiers wearing a disguise. There he held secret meetings in a cave where he read the Bible aloud and answered questions about its meanings.
John Calvin believed that Martin Luther's ideas were loosely arranged in a piecemeal fashion, and he sought to put them in order. Calvin was pure, strict, and systematic. To discourage crackpots, he wrote the textbook for Protestants, entitled Institutes.
Calvin was an original thinker, especially on matters of private morality. No detail was too trivial to escape his attention. Calvin loved astronomy but condemned astrology. A good Calvinist family was to avoid frivolous pleasures such as drinking, singing, dancing, gambling, and flirting. Calvin was opposed to bringing attention to oneself by wearing flashy clothes, talking loudly, or gesturing wildly. He preached the joy found in reading the Bible every day for guidance; and in living a life marked by hard work, thrift, self reliance, sobriety, and godliness.
He taught that when a brother or sister doesn't come to church—or far worse commits adultery or blasphemy—an elder in the church should visit the straying one and gently admonish him and plead with him—not to scold. Blasphemy means to cast aspersions on God.
Calvin wrote, "If the Gospel was the rule of life it must also be true that living right was totally dependent on the will of God. Only then is the life of a Christian a composed one when it has the will of God as its aim. All doctrine must be derived from the Divine Scriptures, without anything being added or subtracted."
True faith did not base itself on anything human, not even on the church and its traditions, but only on the clear Word of God. The fathers of the church had citied the authority of Scripture and did not want their own writings to be equated.
Calvin in Geneva
Calvin was now a fugitive from his native France, and fled to Geneva. The church there persuaded him to take control of it. He refused twice, as he did not want power. He was timid and sickly. He felt he could make his greatest mark in quiet study alone with his pen. Besides, how could the little city of Geneva resist the power of the Catholic nations of Europe?
Calvin was booted out of Geneva in 1538, but two years later he was begged to return, which he did. Calvin reorganized the church. His church would have no bishops or archbishops. Pastors would care for the congregation; elders were in charge of discipline; deacons handled charity; and teachers taught. Services were simplified. Geneva closed its alehouses, theaters, and dance halls. Calvin instituted a monthly communion (rather than yearly).
John Calvin's doctrine of predestination, in which he saw humanity divided into the Elect and the Damned, shocked Europe. Christ has not reconciled the world, but only the Elect, Calvin taught. The Elect would be obvious by their appearance, conduct, church attendance; but also by their worldly success, since God would bless them with prosperity.
Calvin also insisted on strict separation of church and state, a revolutionary idea at the time. His followers in England became known as Puritans and in Scotland as Presbyterians. Calvin said, "We should not pry into what God has left hidden in secret, nor should we keep silent about what he has brought into the open. We should pay attention to the Word of God with awe and wonder."
He wrote that our paths are set for us by the will of God and that free will is but an illusion. Modern Social Liberals espouse the same thing—though they substitute genes and fate for the will of God—when they say nothing happens by accident, people are born gay, addicts can't help themselves, criminals are born that way or become the way they are by the fault of society not by their own moral failings (free will). To the Godless, all defective people need therapy or rehabilitation from an expert. To the Godly, they need Grace.
Calvin wrote, "If one person is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree, if another wandering through the desert paths is kept safe, the unspiritual will attribute these things to luck. But those who have learned from the mouth of Christ that every hair on their head is numbered will believe that every single event is governed by the secret direction of God."
He explicitly taught double predestination, which means that before people are born it has already been decided by God whether they are going to heaven or to hell, and that it is set in stone—there is nothing the Damned or the Elect can do to change God's mind about their fate.
Many theologians from Augustine to Luther had believed that some people are predestined to go to heaven. Calvin simply pointed out the obvious: if that is true, then those not predestined to go to heaven must be predestined to go to hell. Luther had said we should simply not discuss this aspect of predestination doctrine because it would cause despair in some and presumption in others.
Calvin said that the ultimate destiny of all people has been decided by God. This makes it God's will that billions of people are born Damned. The absence of Election must mean Damnation, meaning that God wills to exclude some from the inheritance he predestines for his own children. Any other view was a compromise and dilution of Scripture. If our behavior did not factor in to our salvation, then neither was it a component of damnation. God has simply chosen some and condemned others. Some people are therefore sentenced to eternal damnation before they are born, before they have even had a chance to sin.
A close read of the Bible does make it appear that God selects his people, rather than vice versa. God surely selected Abraham, Noah, and David. Jesus selected His disciples. God elected the Apostle Paul.
Many previous theologians had explained this away with the concept of foreknowledge, meaning that though people have free will, God already knows what they will do, because He exists outside of time.
Double Predestination means that not only does God have foreknowledge but that everything that happens on Earth is His will. Calvin quoted Augustine, "The reason God did not save the damned was that He did not want to, and why He did not want to is His business."