Part 6: Reformation to Today. Lesson 3 of 7.
Lesson 36. Calvin

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will learn patience with the different opinions of Christians by learning about the background and development of these differences.

1.Calvin. John Calvin was only 8 years old when Luther began the Reformation in 1517,  but he moved to Switzerland in 1536.  From 1541 to 1564 Calvin controlled the church in Geneva, Switzerland.

2.Systematic Approach. Calvin was a systematic writer.  He wrote down the reformed ideas in a logical and complete way.  In 1536 Calvin wrote the book called Institutes of Christian Religion. This book is a source for those churches that follow his ideas, such as the Dutch Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Church: these churches are called “reformed” churches. Calvin’s approach however extends beyond these churches, influencing most of the churches that do not follow Luther’s ideas.

3.Central point. Calvin continued Zwingli’s idea that the starting point for theology was “the sovereignty of God.” (God’s authority and standards).  This was different from Luther, who emphasized “justification by faith” as the starting point.  This simple point helps us understand why followers of Luther and Calvin talk about different things.  Someone influenced by Calvin will be likely to see the Bible as a guidebook for bringing glory to God, and emphasize “spiritual principles.”  Someone influenced by Luther will note that we have not kept God’s principles, and focus on “forgiveness of sins.”

4.Predestination. Calvin accepted Zwingli’s idea that since God was all-powerful, therefore nothing can happen unless God causes it.   Therefore God must have already decided which people will go to heaven and which will not.  Calvin quoted Augustine in support of his view.  Luther’s view was different: Luther said that those who are saved can rest in the assurance that God has predestined them, but those who are not saved cannot blame God.

5.Baptism. Calvin accepted Zwingli’s view on Baptism.  They both accepted infant baptism, but said it did not bring God’s grace.  They taught that babies of Christians were a part of God’s covenant, just like the Old Testament believers were. Luther taught that babies were born without a relationship with God, and that infant baptism put them into that relationship.  The Anabaptists taught that the relationship came only after the person was old enough to understand and confess personal faith.

6.Communion. Calvin did not accept Zwingli’s view on communion, although the Anabaptists did accept it.  Calvin tried to find a position midway between Zwingli and Luther.  Calvin’s explanation was that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine, due to the power of the Holy Spirit who unites us with Christ.  The following table shows all the viewpoints:

Zwingli Calvin Anabaptists Luther Catholics
Communion Symbol.  Christ is in heaven but not in bread Symbol, and Christ is present in a spiritual way Like Zwingli Christ’s words “this is my body” are accepted Priest,s prayer changes bread into body
Baptism Declares an existing faith Like Zwingli Like Zwingli Gives grace, and promises Gives grace
Infant Baptism Can, because children of Christian parents are already in God’s covenant Like Zwingli: children of Christian parents are already in God’s covenant Not permitted, because only those who verbally confess faith should be baptized Important to do, because in baptism God gives new life to babies Important to do, because in baptism God takes away the guilt of original sin


7.Hymns. Because of their principle of doing only those customs that were commanded in the Bible, the reformed movement decided not to sing hymns in church (this was in contrast with Luther; for the German Lutherans, hymns were a major part of the movement). They decided they should sing only Psalms.  To carry this out, they made a great contribution to church music.  They wanted the people to be able to sing the Psalms, so they knew they could not use the chanting and professional choral music of the Middle Ages.  They translated the Psalms into poetic form, and then wrote music with a beat to be used with those songs.  They wrote poems and melodies for all 150 Psalms.  These can still be found in the songbooks of churches with the term “reformed” in the name, such as the Dutch Reformed Church.  Other churches under Calvin’s influence, such as the Presbyterian Church and the church of England, did begin to add hymns into their services in the 18th century.

8.Culture. The followers of Calvin generally believe that it is the Christian’s job to influence culture and to reform government.  This is different from Luther’s view that church and government are two “kingdoms” with different methods.  It is also different from the Anabaptist view that the church should be totally separate from government.  For example, a Calvinist would say that government should pass laws to enforce Christian behavior on all citizens, as Calvin did in Switzerland; the Lutheran view is that the church should not influence the laws, but that individual Christians who become politicians of course will use their values to make decision that they feel are fair and free for all; the Anabaptists urged people not to enter government service.  Followers of Calvin do not look at law the way Luther did.  Luther said the primary purpose of God’s law is to show us our sins, so that we can depend on the gospel for living.  Calvinists use the law more as prescriptions for correct behavior, that we can and should follow.  Each would accept the other’s view of law, but would keep his view as the main focus. Calvin died in 1564, and In 1566 the remaining followers of Zwingli united with the followers of Calvin. See footnote 4 for details on Zwingli and Calvin.  See more people from the Reformation era.

7.Calvinists divide. Please fill in the blanks by getting information you wrote in your “centuries” notebook.  After the King of England took his country away from the authority of the pope in Rome, the church gradually came under the influence of Calvin’s ideas.  The kings and queens wanted a church that would be acceptable to all the people, so they kept a lot of the Catholic customs and ceremonies, clothing and the traditional service order.  The followers of Calvin in England who felt that the Church of England was not rejecting enough Catholic customs and wanted it to follow Calvin’s views more completely were called Puritans.  They were against the traditional order of worship, the singing of hymns, and the use of special clothing by pastors.  The Puritans were suppressed in England, but were able to influence the church of Scotland to become Presbyterian.  Others in England did not try to change the Church of England, but formed independent churches, organized in the “congregational” system.  All these groups also sent immigrants to America, where they became the dominant churches in American life.  Because of their Calvinistic view of predestination, they were preoccupied with the problem of knowing whether or not they were predestined.  They therefore began to use criteria to judge whether someone was predestined.  These criteria would include looking to see if the person was leading a moral life and was making good use of his time.  Later they added the idea that the person should be able to point to a time in life when he truly felt that he believed in Christ.  Through missionaries, these doubts have become widespread in the world.  Luther would have said: “do not look at yourself at all.  Find your confidence in the promises of God.”  The Roman Catholic view is “you can be saved if you make use of the grace that God is giving to you in order to continue having faith in God and do the good works He gives you opportunity to do.”

10.Double Predestination. Calvin taught that since God is all powerful, it must be that God decides After Calvin’s death in 1564, the next generation refined his theology.  They tried to explain things that Calvin had left as mysteries, and they were less patient with people who disagreed with their explanations.  They extended the idea of God as cause of everything to say that God had even planned the fall of man.  Paul writes that we are selected from all eternity according to God’s will.1 This is the point emphasized by Calvin’s followers.  They then concluded that since God is all powerful, no one can resist His will.  Luther felt that logic should not cause us to teach more than the Bible actually says.  Luther’s point was that even though the Bible says that God has predestined people to be saved, the Bible does not say that God has predestined others to be damned.  The Bible makes clear that those who are lost have no excuse: the whole world is accountable  before God. 2  If God already decided who will be saved, would God hold them accountable?  Luther’s use of predestination was for pastoral care.  He gave comfort to Christians by saying “God has already made your future sure.”  He did not use predestination as a topic within a logical system.

11.Arminius. The followers of Calvin divided into those who agreed and those who disagreed with how much God controlled and what the role was for free will.  In the 1590’s a reformed preacher named Arminius explained predestination in a way that gave more scope for free will. Arminius did not agree with double predestination.  He taught that predestination must be understood in such a way that it is compatible with God’s love and with human free will.  Paul writes that those whom God foreknew he also predestined. 3 Arminius said that God foreknew that mankind would fall, but did not plan the Fall.  Ten years after Arminius died, in 1619 his opponents created a document. Against Arminius’ views and defending Double Predestination  The following table tells their five main points about predestination, and compares the views of Luther and Arminius:

Double Predestination view    Luther Arminius
People cannot contribute to their salvation agree disagree: man can freely choose God, as God gives grace to do so.
God selects people without any conditions Agree.  It is all by grace disagree: God foreknew who would believe
Jesus died only for the saved disagree disagree: Jesus died for all
People cannot resist God’s grace disagree disagree: people can resist
Those God chose cannot fall away disagree disagree: people can fall away

12.Today’s Situation.  Calvin’s followers today are divided among these two views. The reformed churches of Holland, Switzerland, and Scotland maintain the strict “double-predestination” teaching. The largest church that takes an Arminian view is the Methodist church; it will be explained in the next chapter.  Other churches are divided.   For example, there are “predestinarian Baptists” and “free-will Baptists” who follow the ideas of Arminius.  The views of Arminius certainly contributed to the Protestant missionary movement.  If God had already decided who was to be saved, then there was no urgency to do mission work.  But if people had a free choice, then there was a motivation to tell them about Christ so that they would choose.

13.Influence upon Catholics. Some Catholics have been influenced by movements within Protestantism. From 1640, a Catholic named Jansen promoted ideas similar to Calvinism.  The pope condemned him, but his followers formed a group in the Netherlands that they called the “Old Catholic Church.”  Another Protestant influence on Catholics occurred in the 1960’s when many Catholics took up the ideas of the charismatic movement.  This time the pope did not condemn them, but did create a system in which they could be shepherded and counseled.

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1 Ephesians 1:4
2 Romans 3:19
3 Romans 8:28-30
4 For details on Zwingli and Calvin, go to