John Calvin


A French Christian Humanist who became the leader of the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland.  Indisputably the most influential systematic theologian of the Reformation era, Calvin's reputation is based on his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In Geneva, Calvin worked to create a theocracy, Christian commonwealth, or "holy city" in which all conformed to the will of God.   Conformity was secured by force of law.  Trained as a lawyer, it was perfectly clear to Calvin that a common religion was necessary to unify society and that the power of the state was necessary to enforce and maintain doctrinal purity.

Michael Servetus

Calvin's attitude toward dissent is evident in his treatment of Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a Spanish physician and free-thinker who discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood.  He questioned the formulation of the trinity in the Nicene Creed and corresponded with Calvin about his beliefs.  Calvin sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes.  Servetus returned the book with his criticisms written in the margins.  Thereafter, Calvin vowed that if Servetus ever came to Geneva, "I will never let him depart alive, if I have any authority."  Unfortunately for Servetus, in 1553, on a trip to Italy, he stopped in Geneva to hear Calvin preach.  Calvin had him arrested and tried for heresy.  On October 27, 1553 Servetus was burned at the stake.

The Institutes

The sovereignty of God is the central theological principle in Calvin's thought.  The Triune God, one God in three persons, is totally independent of all else and absolutely self-sufficient.  God is completely and totally absolute.  The sovereignty of God is the ultimate reference point for all thought and understanding.

God created the universe and all that is in it.  The universe and all that is in it continues to exist by God's providence.  Even the free actions of men and women are sustained and determined from moment to moment by the all-powerful providence of God.

The reason why the preaching of the gospel meets with unequal reception is in God's will.  Predestination is "God's eternal decree, by which he determined with himself what he willed to become of each man.  For we are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others." (Institutes iii.21.5)


Calvin's influence grew when Geneva opened its gates to refugees fleeing persecution in other lands.  Protestants refugees from France, Holland, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Poland and practically every other European country poured into Geneva in the middle of the sixteenth century.  These people often returned to their homeland and spread the gospel of Calvinism that they learned in Geneva.

Calvin's influence on England was greatly extended when dissenters in exile in Geneva during the reign of Mary Tudor published a new translation of the Bible with expository notes at the head of each book and in the margins.  Through the notes and introductions of the Geneva Bible (1560) English people learned to read the Scriptures through the spectacles of Calvinistic theology.   Thus contributing to the rapid growth and development of the Calvinistic Puritan Reform movement in England.

Calvin's influence was also extended by the five point summary some of his followers codified at the Syndod of Dort in 1618-19 and popularized through the memorable acronym TULIP.

T = Total Depravity.  People are dead in their sins.  Therefore, when they hear the gospel they are not able to repent and put their faith in Christ.  In order to repent and believe, people must be born again.  God in his sovereignty chooses who will be born again and who will not.  Those whom he chooses (Elects) are born again and made able to repent and have faith.

U = Unconditional Election.  God in his sovereignty predestines some to be saved (Election) and some to be damned (Reprobation).  God did not condition election upon forseen faith nor did he condition reprobation upon forseen unbelief.  Election is based entirely upon the choice of God.

L = Limited Atonement.  While Christ's sacrifice could save the whole world, it is God's will and purpose that only the elect should benefit from the sacrifice that Christ provided.

I = Irresistible Grace.  The grace by which God leads the elect to new birth is irresistible.  The elect do not choose to follow Christ, God chooses them and they are compelled to obey.

P = Perseverance of the Elect.  God preserves the elect so that they can never fall away from faith.



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