Theologian in the Service of Piety: A New Portrait of Calvin

by Randall C. Zachman

Randall C. Zachman is assistant professor of Reformation studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Assurance of Faith.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 23-30, 1997, pp. 413-418. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Zachman suggests that the Calvin of recent scholarship emerges as a more intriguing figure than the conventional view that he was a cold, rigidly systematic thinker whose most important book, Institutes of the Christian Religion of 1559, emphasized God’s judgment and the doctrine of predestination. Zachman puts Calvin’s life and work in context, emphasizing the pastoral concern expressed in his biblical commentaries.

When I was a student at Yale Divinity School a friend of mine gave me a pamphlet much like those handed out by street evangelists. This one was a parody of the five articles of the Synod of Dort, a 17th-century document long considered to represent the essence of John Calvin's theology. The tract's cover declared in bold block letters, "God hates you and has a horrible plan for your life."

The title accurately summarizes the impression most people have of Calvin and his theology, including many within the academic community. Encyclopedia articles about Calvin feature a fairly predictable cluster of terms still associated with his name: strict, moralistic, legalistic, authoritarian, rigorous, rigid, severe, cold, logical, systematic, biblicist, theocratic, dictatorial and austere. Another set of predictable terms and themes are pressed into service to describe Calvin's vision of God: distant, transcendent, sovereign, omnipotent, electing some to salvation and reprobating the rest to eternal damnation and misery

The common impression of Calvin and his theology can be summarized this way: 1) Calvin is a cold, logical and rigidly systematic thinker. 2) Calvin is a man of one book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion of 1559, which contains the sum of his system. 3) The central concept of Calvin's doctrinal system is God's sovereign omnipotence -- a sovereignty that demands our complete obedience, and that necessarily entails the doctrine of election and reprobation.

But recent analyses of the Reformer's work have dramatically complicated and modified this portrait. Calvin scholarship of the past decade places the Genevan Reformer squarely within the matrix of a French and European biblical humanism that worked to recover the church's purity by restoring access to the sources: scripture, the early church fathers and late classical authors. Overall, the Calvin of recent scholarship is a far more alluring and intriguing figure than the conventional view suggests. In light of this scholarship, I'll try to do my part in restoring Calvin's image by revisiting the three propositions that constitute the popular view of Calvin.

Rigid and systematic thinker. The image of Calvin as a cold, logical and rigidly systematic thinker appears to have been created by Reformed scholasticism, vividly expressed in the Westminster Confession of 1649 -- which is assumed to be an expression of Calvin's own mode of thought. Scholars now recognize Calvin as above all else a teacher who sought to open the Word of God in scripture to the common people from whom, Calvin claimed, the Bible had been withheld by the scholastics, monks and priests of the Roman church. Moreover, Calvin claimed that true and godly teaching is not "cold, inane speculation" which "flits about in the brain," but is rather "sincere, solid, and certain teaching" which "takes root in the inmost affection of the heart." Such teaching leads not to the development of a system but to the transformation of life. "We have given the first place to the doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it," wrote Calvin. "But it must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us." Calvin thought that all doctrine or teaching which is not useful and fruitful for the building up of piety should be abolished.

Calvin's efforts to restore access to the sources of true and edifying knowledge, and to build up piety by means of those sources, were shared by other biblical humanists such as the classics scholar Guillaume Budé of France and the great Dutch humanist Erasmus. Calvin's own commitment to humanism is evident in the first publication from his pen -- a commentary on Seneca's writing on clemency in which Calvin sought to return Seneca to his rightful place in Latin letters.

When he became an evangelical in the mid 1530s, Calvin used the learning he had developed among the humanists to accomplish another restoration project. By recapturing scripture's simple, genuine and natural sense, Calvin returned scripture to its rightful place in the church. In doing so he saw himself in continuity with the great teachers of the patristic period, especially John Chrysostom, whose works he once considered translating into French. Calvin was a representative of the learned class who wanted to use his skills in the liberal arts for the benefit of common people who had neither the time nor the skill to acquire such learning. His sole object as a teacher was "to lay down a pathway to the reading of sacred Scripture for the simple and uneducated."

If the learned are to teach others who lack such learning, they must accommodate themselves to the capacities of their students. Such accommodation was made by scripture itself, Calvin thought, for in scripture and through the work of the Holy Spirit God descends to the level of common human understanding and babbles to us the way a mother babbles to her child. Calvin endeavored in his writings -- whether in Latin or in French -- to mirror such divine self-accommodation by addressing the ordinary reading public. He wanted to lead his students "by the hand."

But this task was not simple, according to Calvin. In order to teach fruitfully the teacher must know and follow the right order or method of teaching. Throughout his career Calvin searched for this method in scripture itself, hoping his own teaching would mirror God's style of pedagogy. In the 1559 edition of the Institutes, Calvin claimed, he had finally got the order of Christian teaching right.

Calvin's concern for properly ordered teaching is probably one reason why many people have found his thought inordinately "systematic." In this pedagogical pursuit, however, Calvin adopted, in concert with church fathers such as Irenaeus and Chrysostom, the rhetorical tradition of accommodation embodied in, among other classical writers, Cicero and Quintillian. By no means is Calvin accurately placed in a tradition of deductive, systematic thought commonly associated with such later figures as Descartes, Leibniz and Hegel.

Calvin's interest in pedagogical accommodation is also seen in the writing style he developed in both Latin and French. If a theologian is writing for the common people who have neither time nor ability to acquire the knowledge of letters, Calvin reasoned, then the theologian's writing must be clear and brief. Calvin was committed to the ideal of lucid brevity. Moreover, since his concern as a teacher was to root doctrine in the inmost affection of the heart, he learned from the rhetorical tradition recovered by Erasmus and Budé how to use language to move the hearts and affections of his readers so that their piety might be built up within them.

Calvin also learned from Paul in 1 Corinthians 1, however, that the true teacher of the gospel is not to use eloquence in a way that detracts from the power of the word of the cross. "It follows that the eloquence, which is in keeping with the Spirit of God, is not bombastic and ostentatious, and does not make a lot of noise that amounts to nothing," he wrote. "Rather, it is genuine and efficacious, and has more sincerity than refinement." The balance Calvin strikes between passion and restraint often infuses his writing with a distinct quality of controlled intensity.

Although the primary objective of the teacher of the gospel is to lead the pious to the knowledge of God in scripture, Calvin was convinced this objective could not be reached unless the teacher also contended with those false teachers who were leading the people of God astray. Calvin not only argued against them on the basis of clear scripture, proper definitions and dialectical reasoning. He also aggressively impugned the character and mental abilities of his opponents. Those whom he called the "contentious" he frequently identified with animals (especially pigs and asses) and monsters, or with the insane, and compared their claims to the ravings of madmen. In using such language he was hardly attempting to refute his opponents' teaching with clear and persuasive argument.

Personal attacks such as these -- by today's standards a clear breach of civility -- can strike the reader as harsh and perhaps contribute to Calvin's reputation as a "cold" thinker. But his ruthlessness toward his opponents was motivated by more than cool malevolence. Calvin's rhetoric of opprobrium was designed to stigmatize false teachers and in so doing to steer the godly away from them. For Calvin, "the truth which has been peaceably shown must be maintained against all the calumnies of the wicked. And. . . I will exert especial effort to the end that they who lend ready and open ears to God's Word may have a firm standing ground." Calvin's main goal as a teacher, even at his most polemical, was to build up the piety of the common people who looked to him to lead them into the knowledge of God in scripture.

A man of one book. The common impression of Calvin as a man of one book, the Institutes, is closely linked to the image of him as a rigidly systematic thinker. However, if Calvin desired as a teacher to open scripture to the unlearned, then the Institutes must be read with that motive in mind. Moreover, the Institutes cannot be read in isolation from his other work. His aim in writing the Institutes, Calvin said, was "to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling." Even the order of right teaching which Calvin develops in the Institutes is designed to ensure the reader a profitable and fruitful encounter with scripture. Calvin thought the Institutes had "so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and. . . arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents."

Calvin further labored to set forth the clear and genuine meaning of scripture in his biblical commentaries. The Institutes is what he terms a "necessary tool" for the reading of his commentaries. To regard the Institutes as Calvin's essential theological contribution is therefore a grave mistake. In Calvin's eyes, the significance of his commentaries was directly tied to the Roman church's deficiencies.

Calvin was convinced that the Church of Rome fell into decay when true interpreters of scripture were eclipsed by sophists and deceivers who obscured scripture's true meaning with their distorting glosses. To deliver the church from this impoverished state required restoring within it the brightness of scripture. For Calvin this meant dedicating himself not primarily to the Institutes but to biblical commentary. In 1551 he wrote to Edward VI of England about his commentaries, "In an especial manner I have resolved to devote myself to this work as long as I live, if time and place are afforded me. In the first place, the Church to which I belong shall receive the fruit of this labor, so that it may hereafter continue longer, for even if only a brief portion of time remains to me from the duties of my office, yet that, however small it may be, I have determined to devote to this kind of writing."

Calvin's plans to write biblical commentaries probably date from the time he was converted to the evangelical position in 1534. His first commentary, published in 1539, was on the Epistle to the Romans, the text Calvin believed to be the door to the whole of scripture. His work in Geneva slowed progress on this project, but after 1546 he had gained sufficient momentum to produce commentaries on most of the Hebrew Bible and the whole of the New Testament except 2 and 3 John and Revelation. Considering, in addition to his commentaries, his lectures on scripture and his expository sermons in Geneva, there can be no doubt that the clear exposition and application of the true meaning of scripture is the focus of Calvin's work. If pride of place is to be given to any of his writings, it should be given to the commentaries and not to the Institutes.

As for his approach to the Bible, Calvin was persuaded that the interpreter's task is to "reveal the mind of the author." To avoid obscuring the text or leading the reader away from the mind of the author, the interpreter must practice moderation and "lucid brevity." Also, the author's mind can be revealed only by reading his work in context, which for Calvin meant reading the author's other writings and carefully attending to his historical context and his distinctive use of language. Calvin was confident that the true meaning of even the most difficult scriptural passages would emerge from contextual reading. Concern for context, moderation and lucid brevity combine to give Calvin's commentaries a unique character, even when his final exegetical judgments might be shared by the fathers or his contemporaries.

While the Institutes and the commentaries form an inseparable whole, the former evokes an impression of Calvin that is decidedly different from the one created by the latter. The long doctrinal discussions and polemics that mark the Institutes are intentionally absent from the commentaries so that the godly reader might "be spared great annoyance and boredom." Moreover, the commentaries reveal the teachable side of Calvin the teacher, who willingly expresses his indebtedness to the fathers (especially Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine) and his contemporaries (especially Melanchthon, Bucer and Bullinger).

Where Calvin disagrees with others' interpretations, he refrains from the polemics of the Institutes and instead offers his own interpretation even as he acknowledges the legitimate diversity of opinion. "When, therefore, we depart from the views of our predecessors, we are not to be stimulated by any passion for innovation, impelled by any desire to slander others, aroused by any hatred, or prompted by any ambition," he writes. "Necessity alone is to compel us, and we are to have no other object than that of doing good." Were Calvin's commentaries more widely regarded as the heart of his bequest to the church, our impression of him would be much more alluring and inviting.

Theologian of God's sovereign omnipotence. The claim that the central idea of Calvin's theology is God's sovereign omnipotence, which demands our complete obedience and which necessarily entails the doctrine of election and reprobation, is misleading on two grounds. First, such an interpretation rests on the incorrect assumption that Calvin's theology is a system logically deduced from a central idea. As I've argued, Calvin understood his theological work far more in terms of the rhetorical model of opening access to the genuine meaning of sacred scripture. Second, and more important, the goal toward which Calvin hoped to lead the reader of scripture was not God's sovereign omnipotence but Jesus Christ and the infinite riches of God set forth in him. "This is what we should in short seek in the whole of scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father."

Even though the godly teacher does all he can to direct the reader of scripture to Christ, Calvin claimed that only the Spirit of God could lead the reader to this goal. "It is the Father's gift that the Son is known, for by his Spirit he opens the eyes of our minds and we perceive the glory of Christ which otherwise would be hidden from us," Calvin wrote. However, Jesus Christ is set before us in scripture precisely because he alone opens access for us to God the Father, and leads us by the hand to the Father who is the author and fountain of every good thing which we find in Christ. There is, then, a point at which the efforts of teacher and student come to an end: "Our minds ought to come to a halt at the point where we learn in Scripture to know Jesus Christ and him alone, so that we may be directly led by him to the Father who contains in himself all perfection."

We are to seek God not because we have no other choice -- compelled to do so sheerly by God's omnipotence; we seek God because God kindly invites us and gently allures us by the sweetness of God's goodness. We seek God from the inmost affection of our hearts and willingly surrender our lives to God in response to God's graciousness. Even the humbling of sinners by the revelation of God's judgment and wrath against sin has as its purpose the religious awakening of sinners that they might be drawn toward the self-giving goodness of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

If we are led to Jesus Christ so that he might offer us access to God, then our relationship with God does not command cowering prostration before the power and might of a distant, omnipotent God; rather, it invites trust, joy and thankfulness in the presence of the fountain of every good thing. According to Calvin, the opening of access to God by Christ in the Holy Spirit culminates in an invocation in which the children of God confidently cry out, "Abba! Father!" We know that our piety and religion are true when we can approach God with this confidence, even in light of God's judgment against our sinfulness.

Calvin's teaching on the eternal election and reprobation of God must finally be understood, then, in the context of God's self-giving goodness in Jesus Christ. For Calvin such goodness would not be freely given to sinful humanity unless God gave to some what God denied to others. And God must give and deny not on the basis of human deserving but solely on the basis of God's good pleasure from before the creation of the world. "We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God's free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God's grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others."

It was not enough, Calvin believed, to focus on free election, as Melanchthon and Bullinger urged him to do. He insisted that "election could not stand except as set over against reprobation." Calvin's reading of scripture, and his experience in 16th-century Europe, convinced him that God from all eternity willed to save only a remnant, which he often describes in terms of "one in a hundred."

Calvin did not shy away from the consequences of this teaching, namely, that the same God who is the author and fountain of every good thing in Jesus Christ created the bulk of humanity only to have them fall in Adam unto their eternal condemnation and destruction. Following his interpretation of Romans 9, Calvin declared that God is glorified both by the salvation of the elect and by the destruction of the reprobate. No doubt this element of his teaching is largely responsible for the claim that Calvin's God is a distant, remote and capricious tyrant -- a claim made in Calvin's own day by another Genevan, Jerome Bolsec.

It seems never to have occurred to Calvin that his teaching on reprobation might do more to undermine than to support the godly person's confidence in the goodness and mercy of God. In any case, it is clear that Calvin encouraged the pious to seek the goodness of God the Father revealed in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, not to brood over God's eternal election and reprobation. When Calvin addresses "double predestination" in Book III of the Institutes, he does not end with a discussion of election and reprobation. Instead he concludes with the resurrection, when the godly will be united to the author and fountain of goodness itself and will behold God face to face, no longer needing the access to God provided for them by Jesus Christ. Toward this goal alone Calvin wished to direct the church.

In the end, Calvin is best understood as a theologian who adopted the humanist cry, "To the sources! Ad fontes!" and put this impulse to work in the service of the gospel. He dedicated his life to reforming the church by restoring access to the genuine meaning of scripture so that the common people and the unlearned might be guided by the learned to seek Jesus Christ in scripture and be led by Christ to the freely flowing fountain of every good thing found in God the Father. The full extent of Calvin's contribution to the Christian tradition has yet to be fully fathomed or appreciated.