Rarely[1] has a man provoked such controversy as the man John Calvin. He is often depicted as the cruel tyrant of Geneva. The 1994 edition of the CD-ROM Webster's Concise Interactive Encyclopedia claims that Michael Servetus "was burned alive by the church reformer Calvin,"[2] and that Calvin "established a rigorous theocracy;"[3] all of which leaves the distinct impression that Calvin was something less than human. It is my purpose in this article to demonstrate otherwise.

The nineteenth-century German Reformed church historian Philip Schaff asserted that Calvin "must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity."[4] Most moderns would hardly concur. But why? There are at least two reasons of which I am aware. The first is that Calvin's image has been purposely distorted by his opponents, and this distortion is simply parroted by their students who have never read Calvin for themselves. The second is that Calvin's Master warned his disciples: "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours" (John 15:18-20). John Calvin merited reproach like his Master.

One would hope that even those who staunchly disagree with Calvin's theology would treat Calvin with the historical fairness accorded Calvin by his nineteenth-century French opponent Ernest Renan who called him "the most Christian man of his age."[5] Such, however, has not been the case. The first notable detractor was Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec, a Roman Catholic, who in 1577 accused Calvin of being an ambitious, presumptuous, arrogant, cruel, evil, vindictive, and above all, ignorant man.[6] In 1688 Bosset launched a more subtle attack asserting that Calvin was an ambitious, quick tempered autocrat, with a morose and bitter spirit, displaying a "serious sickness" in the way he pursued his adversaries.[7] In 1841 J. M. Audin wrote a biography of Calvin, authorized by the French Roman Catholic Church up until World War I. In it Calvin is portrayed as an egocentric coward, who "never loved." "He has the nature of a snake."[8] Most recently, in 1951, Father André Favre-Dorsaz wrote what Calvin scholar Richard Stauffer describes as "the most destructive book about Calvin with which I am acquainted." According to Favre-Dorsaz, Calvin was a cruel, sadistic dictator, a superficial theologian, and a believer whose religious feeling was of a doubtful character.[9] Finally in 1955 Daniel-Rops summed up modern opinion by identifying Calvin as "the perfect type of fanatic."[10]

During his lifetime Calvin was aware of his detractors. He reflected to a friend: "When I hear that I am everywhere so foully defamed, I have not such iron nerves as not to be stung by pain."[11] Calvin was certainly, by his own admission, not a perfect man. He was a sinner saved by grace. But oh, what a beautiful difference grace made in his life. This is clearly evinced by his life, his teaching, his letters, and in every relationship, even with his enemies. Let us attempt to set the record straight.

The Theology Underlying Calvin's Humanity

I. Man in God's Image Is a Servant-Ruler of Creation

Based on his study of Scripture, Calvin believed that man was created to be a servant-ruler under God. Man cannot be properly understood, or understand himself, apart from his relationship to his Creator. Thus he was commanded to subdue and cultivate the creation under the wise and loving direction of the Lord, for God's glory and the blessing and benefit of his fellow man.

A classic criticism of Calvin's doctrine of man is that the Calvinistic work ethic has promoted wasteful exploitation of the natural environment. Calvin's doctrine leads to no such conclusion. In his commentary on Genesis 2:15 Calvin says that the custody given by God to Adam and Eve over the garden shows that "we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on condition, that being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to his posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated."[12] No one rules creation properly who does not use the creation in service to God and man. The failure to do so dehumanizes mankind and destroys nature. The thoughtless pollution of the world in the name of capitalism or any other economic philosophy is not Calvinism. "Even kings do not rule justly or lawfully, unless they serve."[13]

Service is especially necessary in connection with one's neighbor. "God has bound us so strongly to each other, that no man ought to avoid subjection and when love reigns mutual service will be rendered."[14] "The law does not only pertain to the sizable profits, but from ancient days God has commanded us to remember it in the small kindnesses of life."[15] "Christians certainly ought to display more than a smiling face, a cheerful mood, and polite language when they practice charity. First of all Christians ought to imagine themselves in the place of the person who needs their help, and they ought to sympathize with him as though they themselves were suffering; they ought to show real mercy and humanness and offer their assistance as readily as if it were themselves."[16]

Calvin understood that because of the fall of Adam, loving service is not natural to man. The image of God has been distorted. Because man no longer thinks of himself in relationship to God, against whom he has rebelled, he now considers himself a lord and not a servant of God or mankind. "Each man has a kingdom in his breast."[17] Calvin has been criticized for his references to man as "a worm."[18] Taken in context, these references always refer to man in his use of creation for his own selfish ends. By living for himself man loses his created dignity, in which he was created to be elevated to communion with his Creator. For Calvin it is man's sinful quest for independence that is degrading, and not his humanity per se.[19]

Only Jesus Christ can restore man to his created dignity and integrity. Repentance and faith re-orient man to God-centered living.[20] In Christ man is a new creation, fulfilling God's purposes in the Second Adam. Calvin's negative assessment focuses on man as a child of the fallen First Adam. In his discussion of "remaining sin" in Romans 7, Calvin asserts that despite the Christian's battle with sin he is "never without reason for joy" because of what God has already given him in Christ.[21] "Full manhood is found in Christ; but foolish men do not in a proper manner seek their perfection in Christ ... whoever is a man in Christ is in every respect a perfect man."[22] As for Paul, so for Calvin, Christ was his summum bonum. In redemption man is restored to his proper role in Christ as a servant-ruler. The blessings of this restoration begin in this life and radically influence his relationship with God, man, and nature.

II. Man Is Redeemed to Enjoy God's World

In Christ the world is seen through new eyes. God's glory is everywhere, and "the whole world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of man."[23] The world was created to be man's home—the theatre for living to God's glory. Though the curse on the city of man has not been lifted, since Christ came, the Christian, restored in Christ, may begin to live in the world as God intended, in limited but real enjoyment of God's blessings. Tokens of God's restoration are distributed in his providence.[24]

The proper use of God's creation is oriented by faith. "The use of earthly blessings is connected with the pure feelings of faith in the exercise of which we can alone enjoy them rightly and lawfully to our own enjoyment and welfare."[25] Whether we eat or drink all is to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Although the heavenly life to come is superior, this life is not to be despised because it is the wonderful gift of God.[26]

Calvin was no ascetic. Creation is not only useful but meant to be truly enjoyed by the Christian. "Let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theatre."[27] In a sermon on Job 3:1-10, Calvin recommends celebrating birthdays instead of cursing the day of our birth as Job did.[28] It is not only for their usefulness that fruits, flowers, fabrics, and metals were created but also for their beauty.[29] "Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that He meant not only to provide for necessity, but also for delight and good cheer."[30]

Even civil government is to be enjoyed as an instrument of God's common grace to promote peace and tranquility during the Christian's pilgrimage. "If it is God's will that we go as pilgrims upon the earth, while we aspire to the true fatherland, and if the pilgrimage requires such helps, those who take these from man deprive him of his very humanity."[31] For Calvin, any philosophy, such as Monasticism and Anabaptism, which depreciates creation, civil government, and culture is an "inhumane philosophy," which reduces man to a "block" and "maliciously deprives us of the lawful fruit of divine benevolence."[32] Creation is the good gift of God, and man, redeemed from sin in Christ, may truly enjoy it.

III. Man Should Use and Enjoy His Creative Gifts

As the image of God, man is a creative creature. It is his dignity that he is gifted to cultivate the riches of God's creation for God's glory and his present and eternal enjoyment. Adam named the animals and cultivated the flora in the Garden of Eden. While sin distorts man's motives, it does not obliterate his creative instinct. As a sinner, he misdirects his creativity to glorify himself instead of God. Nonetheless his creativity is still God's gift to saint and sinner alike, and should thus not be disdained. "God is despised in his gifts except we honor those on whom he has conferred any excellency."[33]

The cultural gifts of arts, crafts, and agriculture developed by Jabal, Jubal, and Tubalcain are "rare endowments ... rays of divine light have shown on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life ... excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race."[34] All academic disciplines and human learning should be appreciated and enjoyed. Music and poetry were especially loved by Calvin. His friend Louis Bourgeois wrote many psalm settings and hymn tunes for Calvin to use in the worship of the Genevan churches. Of congregational singing Calvin said: it is "an excellent method of kindling the heart and making it burn with great ardor in prayer."[35] "Music may minister to our pleasure rather than our necessity ... pleasure is indeed to be condemned, unless it be combined with fear of God, and with the common benefit of human society."[36]

Because Calvin rejected much ecclesiastical sculpture and painting due to its idolatrous tendencies relative to the second commandment, many think he rejected fine art altogether. To the contrary he asserted: "And yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction."[37]

In conclusion, Calvin's view of man, creation, and creativity is essentially positive, when seen in the context of redemptive history, which takes the reality of sin into account. Noted Calvin scholar Louis A. Vos concludes: "In spite of all the presentations of Calvin as an austere and rigid sort of person, it must be said that Calvin promoted joyful living. Our happiness he claims is in the Lord."[38]

Calvin himself concludes: "We have never been forbidden to laugh or to be filled or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine."[39] Here Calvin sounds like Luther, and no wonder, for despite their very different personalities, backgrounds, and situations, they both knew and served the same wonderful God.

The Practice Demonstrating Calvin's Humanity

Here I follow the outline found in Stauffer's splendid little study The Humanness of John Calvin. The bulk of evidence comes from Calvin's lifelong voluminous correspondence, much of which may be found in the last four volumes of Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters.[40]

I. Husband and Father

Calvin did not marry until he was thirty-one because of the dangers he faced as a Protestant refugee and exile. In 1538 Calvin assumed his duties as pastor to the French refugees and professor of exegesis in Strasbourg. At the Frankfurt Conference in February of 1539, seeking Protestant unity, his friend Melanchthon chided him because of his pensiveness: "He was dreaming of getting married."[41] In May Calvin wrote to his friend and colleague Farel concerning his quest for a wife. "Remember well what I am looking for in her. I am not of that crazy breed of lovers, who, stricken by the beauty of a woman, love even her faults. The only beauty which captivates me is that of a chaste, kind, modest, thrifty, patient woman, who I might finally hope would be attentive to my health."[42]

The following year Farel wrote to a friend that Calvin had finally been married in Strasbourg to an "upright and honest" and "even pretty" woman.[43] Her name was Idelette de Bure. When a plague broke out in Strasbourg in 1541, Idelette took refuge with a nearby relative. Calvin wrote to Farel, not as a stoic, but as a man of deep feeling: "Night and day my wife is in my thoughts, deprived of advice since she is not in her husband's presence." Then, in the same letter, after referring to a friend's bereavement, Calvin laments: "These events bring me such sadness that they completely overwhelm my soul and break my spirit."[44]

In 1542 Idelette brought a son, Jacques, into the world prematurely. When he did not survive Calvin wrote: "Certainly the Lord has afflicted us with a deep and painful wound in the death of our beloved son. But he is our Father: He knows what is best for his children."[45] In 1549 Idelette herself died. Of this terrible blow Calvin wrote to Farel: "I am trying as much as possible not to be overwhelmed with grief."[46] Then he wrote to Viret: "I am deprived of my excellent life companion."[47] In his commentary on Ephesians 5:28 Calvin had asserted: "The man who does not love his wife is a monster."[48]

II. Friend

Concerning friendship Stauffer observes that "no other reformer had the personal attraction that Calvin had."[49] Calvin's faithfulness caused his friendships to be deep and lasting. Lucien Febvre comments: "Before the classical pictures of Calvin ... there had lived in this world a little Picard—lively, alert, with bright and sparkling eyes—a very fascinating Picard—with qualities of frankness, openness, thoughtfulness."[50] Contrary to the portrait painted by his detractors, Calvin was affable and gracious to all.

Upon hearing of the death of an Augustinian monk who had become a reformer, Calvin mourned: "I am so staggered that I cannot express how deep my grief is. On that day I could do nothing ..."[51] Calvin was also frank and open as a friend. He once gently warned Farel of the verbosity of his sermons and writings: "I think that the somewhat complicated style and the rather verbose way of approaching the subject only obscure the light which I find in it."[52] Even in criticism he did not fail to show genuine appreciation. In 1553 Calvin received news of Farel's approaching death. After announcing his death to all he departed quickly with the hope that he would be too late to see his friend die. When Calvin received news of Farel's sudden recovery, he wrote: "After having discharged for your sake what I considered the last duty of a friend, by an early departure I hoped to escape the grief and pain of seeing you die." He closed: "May it please God, since I have buried you before your time, that the church may see you outlive me."[53]

Calvin dealt graciously with differences. Calvin was somewhat distant from Farel for five years before his own death because Farel had married a very young woman when he was 69. Calvin thought it very unwise because of the gossip it would elicit, harming the reputation of the reformers. Calvin got his wish that Farel should outlive him. In his last letter to Farel he demonstrates his love for a friend with whom he had such a strong difference. "Good health, to you my very good and very dear friend; and since it may please God that you live on after me, please remember our unity, the fruit of which awaits us in heaven, since it has been useful to the church of God.... I breathe with the greatest difficulty and expect my breath to fail me at any time. It is enough that I live and die in Christ, who is gain for his own both in life and death. I commend you to God along with the brothers up there."[54]

Despite strong theological differences with his friend Melanchthon over the doctrine of Predestination he remained a faithful friend and admirer. He once wrote to Melanchthon: "I have wished a thousand times that we might be together again."[55] To Luther, who was very angry with the Swiss theologians over differences concerning the Lord's Supper, Calvin began his letter: "To my much respected father ..." and closed "Adieu, most renowned sir, most distinguished minister of Christ, and my ever honoured father."[56]

This should remind us of the memorable saying of Reformed apologist Cornelius Van Til: "Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re—gentle in presentation, powerful in substance."[57] This ideal Calvin embodied to a rare degree.

III. Pastor

Far from being the cruel, self serving dictator depicted by his detractors, Calvin sought the unity of the church throughout the world, as well as in his own city of Geneva. This required patient tolerance of imperfection. His was the attitude of a pastor. To schismatics he wrote: "Occupy yourselves more in doing to others as you would have them do to you."[58] After three years of exile from Geneva, Calvin returned without a grudge. He picked up exactly where he left off expositing Scripture on the Lord's Day.[59] He visited the poor and sick tirelessly. He accepted the guardianship of the children of a friend and told Beza: "I owe it to the memory of my wonderful friend to love his children as if they were my own."[60] He wept with the sorrowful and rejoiced with those who were blessed.

Calvin's correspondence reveals that he was a pastor to pastors and Christians all over Europe. He worried, prayed over, and encouraged the martyrs of Lyon when he wrote: "Since we have no other means of fulfilling our responsibility except to pray to God in our prayers of the compassion and concern which we have for you, please be aware that we never fail to do this."[61] Here we see the full measure of his humanity.

On his death bed Calvin asked forgiveness of each person he had offended, and begged God for mercy. "To see the good things that he has done for me only makes me more guilty, so that my only recourse is to that One who, being the Father of mercy, may be and show Himself to be the Father of one who is such a wretched sinner." Stauffer concludes his little book: " 'Such a wretched sinner!' Is not this confession the best proof that Calvin was not the inhuman or anti-human person whom some people have believed him to be? After having offered his heart as a burnt sacrifice to the Lord, after having spent body and soul for the triumph of the gospel, far from shutting himself up in a prideful contemplation of his sacrifice or his genius, he felt a solidarity with sinful humanity which can find justification only in Jesus Christ."[62]


[1] Originally published in Banner of Truth Magazine, vols. 448, 449 (Jan.-Feb. 2001), 19-23, 25-27.

[2] Webster's Concise Interactive Encyclopedia, CD-ROM, 1994 ed., s.v. "Servetus, Michael."

[3] Ibid., s.v. "Calvin, John."

[4] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8, (1910; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 834, emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., 835.

[6] Richard Stauffer, The Humanness of John Calvin, translated by George Shriver (Nashville/New York: Abingdon, 1971), 20.

[7] Ibid., 22, 23.

[8] Ibid., 23.

[9] Ibid., 25, 26.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8, 838.

[12] John Calvin, Commentaries, 1540-1563 (1847 repr., (22 vols.) Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), Gen. 2:15.

[13] Calvin, Commentaries, Matt. 20:25.

[14] Calvin, Commentaries, Eph. 5:21.

[15] John Calvin, Golden Book of the True Christian Life. Translated by Henry J. Van Andel (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1952) 32. Cf. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1559. Reprint (2 vols.). The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) Book III, chapters 6-10.

[16] Ibid., 36.

[17] Calvin, Institutes, III.7.4.

[18] John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 2:1-5. Cf. Sermons on Job, tranls. Leroy Nixon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 33:29-34; Institutes, I.5.4.

[19] Louis A. Vos, "Calvin and the Christian Self-Image: God's Noble Workmanship, A Wretched Worm or a New Creature?" in Exploring the Heritage of John Calvin, David E. Holwerda, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 80ff.

[20] Calvin, Commentaries, Psalm 8:5.

[21] Calvin, Commentaries, Rom. 7:25.

[22] Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, 4:13. Cf. Commentaries, John 11:33; Rom. 5:12.

[23] Calvin, Commentaries, Psalm 8:7.

[24] Ibid., Psalm 128:3.

[25] Ibid., Psalm 36:9. Cf. Commentaries, 1 Cor. 10:25; 1 Tim. 4:5.

[26] Calvin, Commentaries, Phil. 2:27.

[27] Calvin, Institutes, I.14.20.

[28] Calvin, Sermons on Job, 3:1-10.

[29] Calvin, Sermons on 1 Cor. 10:31-11:1. Cf. Commentaries, 1 Tim. 6:17; Ps. 104:15.

[30] Calvin, Institutes, III.10.2.

[31] Ibid., IV.20.2.

[32] Ibid., III.10.3.

[33] Calvin, Commentaries, 1 Peter 3:7.

[34] Calvin, Commentaries, Gen. 4:20-22. Cf. Institutes, II.2.16.

[35] Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8, 841.

[36] Calvin, Commentaries, Gen. 4:20-22.

[37] Calvin, Institutes, I.11.12. Cf. I.11.7, 8, 11.

[38] Vos, "Calvin and the Christian Self-Image," 103.

[39] Calvin, Institutes, III.19.9.

[40] Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, edited by Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet. Reprint 1844 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983).

[41] Stauffer, The Humanness of John Calvin, 34.

[42] Ibid., 35.

[43] Ibid., 39.

[44] Ibid., 40, 41.

[45] Ibid., 42.

[46] Ibid., 45.

[47] Ibid., 45.

[48] Calvin, Commentaries, Eph. 5:28.

[49] Stauffer, The Humanness of John Calvin, 47.

[50] Ibid., 51.

[51] Ibid., 54.

[52] Ibid., 57, fn.

[53] Ibid., 59.

[54] Ibid., 61.

[55] Ibid., 65, 66.

[56] Selected Works of John Calvin, vol. 4, 440-442.

[57] John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1994), fn. 192.

[58] Ibid., 76.

[59] Ibid., 78.

[60] Ibid., 85.

[61] Ibid., 91.

[62] Ibid., 96.

Ordained Servant, October 2009

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Ordained Servant: October 2009

Calvin at 500: The Word

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John Calvin and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

John Calvin: Servant of the Word

Review: Why Johnny Can't Preach

Review: The Message of the Old Testament

Review: A Preparatory Grammar for New Testament Greek

Death, Be Not Proud [Holy Sonnet 10]

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