John Calvin, the Person and the Theologian

[Posted to commemorate the 451st anniversary of John Calvin’s death]

Jonh Calvin

As a person, Calvin is studious and erudite. He is familiar with Greek, the writings of the Church Fathers, as well as the pagan Greek and Latin writers. He values his own intellect, learning and, more importantly, independence and freedom of thought. It is perhaps for this reason, more than anything else, that he treats the Roman Catholic Church as a tyrannical institution. The Pope, he argues, usurps authority over the soul and conscience of man, which belongs to God alone.

As a theologian, he acknowledges the authority of the Scripture and a few Church Fathers, most notably, St. Augustine. And yet, he does not hesitate to indicate that, in certain passages of the New Testament, the Greek words are not used in their proper sense, as though he knew better than the writers of the Scriptures what they really meant, nor does he refrain from pointing out the mistakes of the Church Fathers when he disagrees with them.

As a person, Calvin is far from charitable in his treatment of those whom he considers heretics. When debating theology, he has a habit of attacking his opponents as well as their ideas, believing that all who disagree with his understanding of the Scripture are mistaken at the best, heretical and wicked at the worst. He played a major role in having Michael Servetus executed as a heretic for the latter’s non-trinitarian doctrine. Given his training as a lawyer and the circumstances of his time, it is perhaps somewhat understandable, but repellent and worrisome nevertheless.

As a theologian, however, Calvin is clear-sighted enough to point out that the Christian doctrine does not condone violence against non-believers or heretics. For Christ’s commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The most severe punishment the Church can inflict on an individual is excommunication, which can be reversed upon condition of true repentance.

I cannot help but speculate whether the following are the inevitable, though perhaps unintended, outcome of the Protestant Reformation: First, instead of an objective standard of Christian doctrine, everyone have their own private interpretations, and the only peaceful way to a consensus is by voting. Consequently, democracy and division are formally ushered into the Church, for better or worse. Second, a shift from the communal to the individual aspect of Christian practice, and the emphasis on individual salvation. For instance, there is nothing in the TULIP of Calvinism or the Five Solas of Reformed Theology that makes reference to the community of believers, the Church.

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2 thoughts on “John Calvin, the Person and the Theologian

  1. Or perhaps we could mature enough as a universal body of Christ to allow the other to pursue differences, that do not break with Scripture, by the measure of faith we are given. We can, with clarity, agree to disagree while thanking G-d for the other’s salvation and pursuit of knowing Him.

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