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  • Writer's pictureDan De Graff

Luther to Calvin

In my first blog, we traveled back in time to Germany from 1483 to 1521 to look at Martin Luther, but his life and ministry continued until 1546. When we look at the locations where he was, from Eisleben, the place of his birth, to Erfurt, where he began his studies, to Wittenberg to Worms and other places in that region. We’re talking about the span of several hundred miles. Luther was not a globetrotter; he was a German pastor and theologian.

Despite his excommunication, Luther had friends in high places who protected him. He committed himself to writing and teaching, and he was not alone in his biblical and theological ideas. One of his greatest works was translating the Bible into German. If people could read it for themselves, they could see the errors of the church and how they should worship and follow God. Things started circulating around Europe.

Let’s back up to 1509, though. Luther was 25 years old when a baby was born in Noyon, France, who would become the man who is probably my favorite theologian: John Calvin. When Luther posted his 95 Theses, Calvin was just 8 years old and about 600 miles away. He was raised in the Catholic Church, which his dad worked with and wanted John and his other sons to be priests in.

Calvin had access to all sorts of educational and vocational opportunities, which prepared him for the substantial study and writing he later did. He began in Paris, but around the age of 16, his dad decided to send him to Orleans to study law. Eventually he ended up not too far from there in Bourges, where his conversion is believed to have happened around the age of 21.

Converted to what?

In a way it seems to strange to read or hear that his conversion happened at this point in his life when he was connected to the Catholic Church since birth. Even studying to potentially be a priest, he was religious—wasn’t John Calvin a Christian? Historical theologian Justo Gonzalez emphasizes what Calvin saw regarding the first part of his life, “I was stubbornly tied to the superstitions of the papacy.” Being a devoted member of the Catholic Church, at least in this time period, did not necessarily mean someone was or understood themselves to be a saved believer.

Because Paris was a cultural center, the Reformation teachings and issues were being considered, at least in the academy, during Calvin’s time there. All that was happening in Germany with Martin Luther and in Zurich, Switzerland with Ulrich Zwingli around Calvin’s teenage years were things he got to hear about and had a lasting impression on him

Despite completing his study of law, Calvin was invested not just in faith but still in biblical studies. In the fall of 1533, he came back in Paris, where the ideas of the Protestant Reformation were now contentiousness. One of the faculty members and a friend of Calvin, Nicolas Cop, fled to Basel, Switzerland, about 350 miles to the east of Paris and bordering on Germany, because of persecution. In 1535, at 26 years old, Calvin joined him.

It was there that Calvin’s theological writing took off. He wrote the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a much more condensed version from what it grew to. This is his defense of his beliefs, which were rooted in Scripture and had much in common with the Reformed teachings of his day. In the span of a year or so, Calvin spent time in Italy, France, and eventually ended up in Geneva, Switzerland, 150 miles or so to the south of Basel and much closer to Italy. He became pastor of the church there and extensively worked to bring reforms, which were not always received well, and by 1538, he had moved on to Strasbourg, France. He worked vigorously there, teaching daily, preaching weekly, further working on the Institutes, and beginning to work on commentaries of the books of the Bible.

In 1541, though, Geneva wanted Calvin back. In addition to continuing all the work I’ve mentioned so far, he further developed the polity, or governance, of the church there, and also refined the political government. He strongly advocated for the singing of Psalms. He developed a Catechism. This was a busy guy, and it took his friends to encourage him to marry, which he eventually did. You can Google, Wikipedia, or check biographies to read more about the details of his life and ministry that continued to his death in1564.

John Calvin, also, was a sinner.

He was not and is not God. Neither he nor his ideas are perfect. If you’ve never read his work and decide to pick him up, you might be shocked by his vocal disdain for “the popery” and the Catholic Church. If you know only his writing, something like his involvement in the execution of a man for his theological beliefs may come as an unsettling surprise. Despite his flaws, I believe he was blessed by God with a brilliant mind that enabled him to read and think deeply about Scripture and historical Christian works and the application of these. It’s widely held that Martin Luther and he likely never met, but he was influenced by Luther on certain things. On others, perhaps most notably the Lord’s Supper, they differed and were intensely divided. Yet there is much for contemporary Christians to learn from both of these theologians! If you’re interested in learning how the Bible came in a readable form to the normal person and how differing positions and views can be held on theological issues, I encourage you to check out Luther and Calvin.

The Reformation spread across Europe over time.

I’ve included a lot of dates, places, and mileage. I think this is worth remembering for those of us living today who are so connected to technology, mobile networks, and social media. Over the past 30-40 years incredible advances have been made that have connected people around the globe at the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen. We have no idea how many people will read these articles and how far it will travel beyond western Wisconsin, but theoretically someone in South Africa or Thailand or Chile could read these words the moment after we post them. That wasn’t the case in the 1500s.

Ideas took time from the development in individuals’ minds to be taught or discussed or written down. Due to the recent invention of the printing press in the 15th century, publications could now be mass produced and spread these ideas that were reforming the traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church. Hopefully this also helps make sense of why certain people were so impactful on certain parts of Europe and the traditions that developed there. Calvin’s impact continues to be seen in many confessional Reformed churches around the world to this day, including in their polity, and the singing of psalms and liturgy in worship services. Not all Calvinists are the same or agree with Calvin on every single doctrine or belief he had, and that's okay. While reforming continues to take place according to God’s word and we think about certain things that weren’t being challenged in the 16th century, by the grace of God, Calvin’s contributions will continue to be treasured for years to come.

Dan De Graff

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