For the last three days, this blog has been celebrating the 500th birthday of one of history’s most influential Christians, the Reformer John Calvin. Today I wrap up the series with the fourth and final installment: some of the influences that John Calvin’s life and theology has had on our time.
Separation of church and state
Calvin believed that the church was not subject to the state; nor was the state subject to the church. Both church and state are subject to God’s law, and both have their own God-ordained spheres of influence. For example, the church does not have the authority to impose penalties for civil offenses, although it can call on the civil authorities to punish them. Conversely, the state may not intrude on the operations of the church. However, it has a duty to protect the church and its ability to function as the church.
Calvin was a magisterial reformer. He thought of the state as a Christian nation, rather than a secular one. He did not advocate religious freedom in the same sense as the Baptists, for example, later would: this is why he did not oppose the death penalty for heresy for Miguel Servetus. However, his ecclesiology sowed the seeds of the modern secular democracy.
It is often assumed that vigorous evangelism or missionary activity is contradictory to Calvinism. If so, someone forgot to tell John Calvin.
Geneva became a safe haven for Protestant refugees: from Calvin’s homeland of France, but also from over Europe. Calvin founded a school to train men in Reformed theology, and then to preach the Gospel and plant churches at home. The city became the nucleus of missionary activity in Europe. In 1561, for example, 140 missionaries are recorded as having left Geneva.
Calvin’s evangelistic concern was mainly for France, but Geneva’s missionary influence extended all over Europe: to Scotland, home of the Presbyterian Church (whose founder John Knox had been an expatriate in Geneva), England, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and even Poland. Calvin also commissioned the first two overseas missionaries in the history of Protestantism: an expedition to Bazil in 1556.
Bible translation is closely linked with missions and evangelism: a Bible in the common language, that can be read and understood by all, is a major aid to bringing knowledge of God to a culture. Not surprisingly, John Calvin had his hand in creating vernacular Bibles.
Calvin assisted his cousin, Pierre Oliver, to translate the Scriptures into French; the result was the Olivétan Bible, which had the same influence on French Protestantism as Luther’s Bible had had in Germany. Calvin himself wrote the preface.
In England, the accession of Mary I to the throne resulted in the restoration of Roman Catholicism as the official state religion, and the persecution or execution of hundreds of Protestant dissenters. Many English Puritans fled to Geneva to escape “Bloody Mary” and the flames. While there, they produced an English translation under Calvin’s supervision: the so-called Geneva Bible was first published in 1560. Until legislation made its publication illegal, in its day the Geneva Bible was more popular than the later, officially sanctioned Authorized Version. This was partly because of the Calvinistic explanatory notes in the margins. When the Pilgrims sailed to the New World on the ”Mayflower” in 1620, they took the Geneva Bible with them.
The Protestant work ethic
Calvin repudiated the distinction between “sacred” and “secular” duty, and the conventional wisdom that work was a necessary evil. Instead, he taught that all work is a calling from God. Therefore, it glorifies God to work diligently and joyfully. One of the rewards of hard work is wealth. Calvin did not invent capitalism, but his philosophy of work allowed capitalism to flourish where it was practiced.
That wraps it up for this all-too-brief look at the life and work of one of history’s most significant figures. This material was originally presented as a Sunday school lesson at my church on July 4, 2004 (almost exactly 1/100th of the time since Calvin’s birth). If you are interested in exploring this subject further, my sources were:
- Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8. Readable online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
- James White’s Church history Sunday school lessons, given at Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church, which I had been enjoying at the time.
Until next time, thanks.