Essential elements of ‘Calvinism’

John Calvin published his first edition of ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ in 1536 as he arrived in Geneva, having being expelled from his native France. Two years later, Calvin left Geneva due mainly to opposition from the council, which was increasingly dominated by Articulants who were strongly opposed Calvin and all that he stood for. From Geneva, Calvin travelled to Strasbourg where he learnt much from Strasbourg’s reformer, Martin Bucer. During his time in Strasbourg Calvin worked on his institutes that expressed Calvin’s key beliefs and was an important element to Calvinism.

Calvin’s theology also gave an all important representation of the reformers plans and ideas, and gave the people a clear portrayal of what was seen to be right and wrong, undoubtedly an important essence to Calvinism. The Ecclesiastical ordinances organised the reformation and were a great success to the movement. The consistory was also a key element in the success of Calvinism in the years of 1536-1564 with a strong ability to keep the population in order. Lastly, the use of French missionaries was a major element in Calvinism especially the spread of the movement across Europe.

According to John Lotherington, “the Institutes was the single most important book written by any of the Protestant reformers”. The Institutes experienced prolific development from just six chapters in 1536 to a restructured published edition in 1539 of nearly three times the length; this continued to flourish and reached eighty chapters by 1559. The fact that they developed so extensively in length shows that Calvin’s views, and therefore the key ideas in his theology developed over time, according to Keith Randell; “his ideas changed and developed in the light of his experiences and further study”.

Calvin possessed great intelligence and was very familiar with the Bible and writings of the early Church Fathers so was able to effectively express his ideas in a way which would make his ideas inarguable. Calvin had the advantage of being a second generation reformer and this is clearly revealed in his Institutes and many of the ideas expressed are in line with those of Luther but not Zwingli whom Calvin “clearly regarded as being second rate”, (Randell).

Sola fide, (Faith Alone), was taken as the key principle, only faith was able to compensate for mankind’s weakness when it came to obeying the law of God, the priesthood of all believers was accepted as a logical consequence of that. Sola scriptura, stated that the Bible alone should be the source of authority for Christians rather than the traditions of the Church or the Pope’s statements. Calvin was also in agreement with Zwingli and Luther in the view that there were only two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist.

However, the Institutes provided a logical statement of Protestant ideas and teachings and were far superior and important to Luther’s, as Luther merely wrote pamphlets. The Institutes enabled Calvin to develop the traditional doctrine of predestination into a doctrine came to be known as double predestination, according to Randell it is “the most widely known aspect of Calvin’s religious thinking”. The original theology of predestination from St Augustine stated that God had predestined those who will go to heaven while the rest will have their fate determined by their sin, this was an idea supported by Luther.

However Calvin’s double predestination stated that God had already decided who would go to heaven and who would go to hell, but a person’s outcome could only be known after death. This could be interpreted by people as meaning that whatever they did in life did not matter, so sinning would have no effect to whether they go to heaven or hell. However, Calvin “was quick to suggest that those who considered themselves damned (to hell) should not use this as an excuse to continue their evil ways”, (Randell).

Don’t know what to do with this or if do include it at all. The Institutes of the Christian Religion outlined Calvin’s protestant reformation ideas and therefore were key elements in Calvinism. They played a major role in defining Calvin’s plans for Geneva and the spread of his ideas across the state. Calvin disregarded Zwingli’s early teachings which ostensibly reduced the Eucharist to a mere tribute and symbolisation of the Last supper, Calvin stressed that the believer is “fed with the substance of Christ”.

However, this statement is not to say that Calvin was in agreement with Luther who regarded the believer was fed with the physical substance of Christ – transubstantiation, Calvin saw the bread and wine as a “real but spiritual substance” (Lotherington), that the believer consumed at the Eucharist. According to Woodward, Calvin “attached less significance to the Eucharist than either Luther or Zwingli, perhaps he was well aware of the theological disputes generated by this subject”, showing that perhaps Calvin wished to keep people on his side.

As well as disagreeing with transubstantiation, Calvin also denounced indulgences, celibacy and pilgrimages and the most important doctrine to him was the justification by faith. Calvin’s theology was outlined in the Institutes of the Christian Religion and in four books that explained and expanded on Calvin’s religious beliefs, and was an invaluable aspect in developing the essential elements of Calvinism. According to Imperato the theology of Calvin was “more daring than Luther’s moderate beliefs” and says that “it offers a major alternative to the Lutheran vision of Protestantism”.

The four books were The Knowledge of God and the Creator, The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, on the manner of receiving the grace of Christ and on the outward means by which god invites us into the fellowship of Christ. In his first book Calvin outlined his ideas about God, such as the ideas that God is omnipotent and omniscient. In his second Calvin explored sin, an important factor as Calvin perceived much of the Genevan population as “particularly unspiritual”, (Randall). This book also gave the Genevan’s security as made clear that if they knew the ‘real truth’ (Calvinism) they would go to heaven.

This book therefore gave to the Genevan’s in Calvinism and in turn support to Calvin. The third book outlined Calvin’s ideas about the holy spirit belonging only to believers hearts and that God chooses who will have eternal life and who will be condemned, these ideas would have an important role in keeping control over the people and affecting their actions. The book would encourage citizens to behave if it makes clear that god has a decision over who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, it would also encourage people to embrace Calvinism if they wished to possess the Holy Spirit.

The Fourth and final book described the organisation of the Church which was expanded on in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances and was a critical element of Calvinism and the imminent success of it. Calvin’s theology expressed the importance of congregational singing, which would have brought the church and the citizens together more, helping the population feel more at one with the church. Calvin’s theology gave a clear portrayal of the ideas behind the movement and played a major part in helping the population understand what they were meant to do and how they were meant to act.

During his time in Strasbourg Calvin learned a lot from the city’s leading reformer, Martin Bucer, and on his arrival back in Geneva in 1541 Calvin presented his plans for the reorganisation of the Church to the council, this was known as his Ecclesiastical Ordinances. He made it clear on his return that he would only remain in the city if these Ordinances were ratified with the Council and Calvin based his whole institutional Church reform around these ordinances so they were undoubtedly an essential element of Calvinism. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances created a civil and religious structure around which Calvin could foster and guide a community of believers” (Armstrong). The Ordinances were partly set up in union with the Little Council which implicated that the Church and State had their own independence but also needed to work together, which ensured that Calvin could work within the system. Calvin proposed four types of church officer, which he had the likes of in Strasbourg, Pastors, Doctors, Deacons and Elders.

Pastors would preach, teach, administer the sacraments and generally guide citizens in a Christian way of life by “proclaiming the word of God” (Woodward) They would meet weekly to discuss the Bible, they formed the Company of Pastors. The Doctors were “to instruct the faithful in sound doctrine” (Woodward), they took some of the load off the pastors in explaining the scriptures and teaching the community the true doctrine. The Deacons task was to “look after the sick and needy” (Lotherington) An aim was to keep vagrants off the street through offering support and by acting as “an early version of the welfare state” (Lotherington).

This was particularly necessary in Geneva at the time given the fact that Calvinism meant an end to Catholicism and therefore an end to Catholic alms giving. Elders were appointed by the Government and met once a week to oversee the consistory; they were to supervise every person’s conduct and so were spread out throughout the city to keep an eye on all of it. “Calvin was not setting up a Church in rivalry to the authorities of the state; he was incorporating those authorities into the Church” (Lotherington).

This shows that the Ecclesiastical Ordinances gave a great sense of structure and organisation to the reformation and Calvinism itself. The fact that the Church and the authorities were working in conjunction with each other was an essential element to the overall success of Calvinism. Calvin made extensive use of French missionaries and without them Calvin’s word would never have spread as far as it did. The use of French missionaries is significant as it shows that Calvin only really trusted his fellow countrymen, and there was a regular influx of French immigrants to the city particularly in the 1550’s.

Some of the immigrants had come to the city to train as missionaries “but Calvin was aware that training was inadequate”, (Lotherington). Lotherington says this because the training was given by the Company of Pastors, but they were very hard pressed as it was. In 1559, the Genevan academy opened “to train clergymen in the ideas of Calvinism and encourage missionary activities abroad” (Imperato). The missionaries were not only used to spread the word but also to train other missionaries, this ensured that the cycle would continue and that many more people, not just in Geneva, but throughout Europe would hear Calvin’s ideas.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion clarified the key elements of the Calvinist Reformation clear. Without the Institutes Calvin’s ideas and plans may not have been so evident and therefore the spread of Calvinism would not have been so wide. The Institutes outlined the theology of Calvinism which gave a clear insight into Protestantism and the ideas behind it. Calvin’s theology enabled the Genevan people to understand what they should believe in terms of religion and morality, i. e. what is right and what is wrong.

The fact that Genevan’s were clear on what they should believe in terms of religion, i. e. the Eucharist meant that the ideas could successfully spread. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances helped to give a strong sense of structure and organisation to the reformation and Calvinism itself. They also led the way for the Church and authorities to work together which would prove to be a crucial element in the success of Calvinism. The Consistory was also an essential element in Calvinism as it imposed strict moral and social regulation s on the Genevan population to keep order and maximise control.

The Consistory also ensured that the citizens kept to the religion as they should, the people of Geneva could do little to resist the Consistory and could in turn do little to resist the spread of Calvinism. Finally the use of French missionaries was a strong element in the dispersal of Calvin’s ideas across Geneva as well as the rest of Europe, without the missionaries spreading Calvin’s words it is very doubtful that Calvinism would have grown as successfully as it did.