Calvin as Man and as Christian

It was Carlyle, in his famous book, On Heroes and Hero-Worship, who described his heroes as being first of all men of sincerity. “I should say sincerity, a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.” He meant by it “not the sincerity that calls itself sincere”; but that sincere conviction of the soul, that he is “a messenger, sent from the Infinite Unknown, with tidings to us.” Among his heroes he includes, with great impartiality, Napoleon as well as Cromwell, Mohammed as well as Luther; but it is at least open to question, whether he would have been willing to give John Calvin a place among them. This is possible, for Carlyle had a great admiration for that extreme Calvinist of his own country, John Knox. But it is also possible that he would have suspected Calvin’s sincerity, that first virtue of his heroes; and how could he in that case have given him a place in his famous gallery of heroes?

A Man Hated and Loved

The name of the reformer of Geneva was often maligned in his time, and this is an old story. We can divide the historiography of Calvin’s life into two classes.

From the beginning there has been a genuine and comprehensive survey of his life and deeds, the biography of Beza being a notable example.

From the beginning there also was a distorted and ill-disposed description of his person and character. The Vie de Calvin of his enemy Bolsec was a notorious case in point. And so it has been till our day: the finest and most comprehensive biography of Calvin in our own age is that of Doumergue, who praises his hero abundantly, while the Roman Catholic historian Favre-Dorsaz pictures him as a man of pride and an impostor. Always again it was Calvin’s sincerity that was questioned, his divine call as a reformer. He has been accused of being a tyrant, a dictator, the pope of Geneva, a man who sought his own glory and not the glory of God. However, in this Calvin does not stand alone. You have only to read the splendid oration of H. H. Kuyper: Het Zedelyk Karakter van de Reformatie Gehandhaafd tegenover Rome (The moral character of the Reformation defended over against Rome) to realize that similar accusations have been hurled at Luther.

The question arises: How is it possible that men who sacrificed their lives in the service of God could be denounced in such a manner?

The answer is to be found in the deep-rooted antagonism to the work of God in the great Reformation. To this we may add that both Luther and Calvin had to say about themselves: “Homo sum et nihil humanum me alienum puto” (I am a man and nothing human is strange to me).

Calvin was a man with the defects and sins of a human being. He was a man with a burning heart, and the confession, that “even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of the perfect obedience,” was his own.

At the end of his life he declared concerning himself:

I have had many faults, and you have had to put up with them, and all that I have done is of no value. The wicked will seize me upon that word, but I say it again: all that I have done is of no value, and I am a wretched sinner. But, if I may say so, I have wanted to do well, my sins have always displeased me, and the fear of God has been in my heart.

And when he was banished from Geneva in 1538, for the sake of his firm defense of the purity of the church, he wrote these words in a letter of consolation to that church:

As often as the question recurs of compearance [appearance in a court] before God, I have no doubt that he has humbled us in this way to make us acknowledge our ignorance, our imprudence, and those infirmities which, for my own part, I feel in myself, and have no difficulty in confessing before the Church of the Lord.

Calvin’s weakness was ever his Gallic temper, his emotionality, his passion; sometimes he spoke too fervently, too uncontrolled; his heart burned, and people knew it; but usually the word of Beza appeared to be true:

The Spirit of the Lord had taught him to moderate his anger in this manner that he never spoke a word which was improper for a good-natured person.



However, Calvin’s weakness was the reverse side of a very strong trait: he was a man with a heart; a heart burning for the honor of the Lord; a heart full of compassion and love for the people of the Lord and the coming of his kingdom. Therefore it is no wonder that he had many warm friends as well as enemies; that men were willing to go through fire and water for him; that young men, students, liked to be in his home; that he was a man of great and sincere attraction and friendship. I refrain from giving examples, which exist in great abundance, as I have shown in my biography of the Reformer.

It is not an easy task to present in a single article a sketch of Calvin as man of God. I think I can do this best by turning to our Catechism’s definition of a Christian and try to give an impression of Calvin as prophet, as priest, and as king; that would have been according to Calvin’s own taste.

Calvin as Prophet

What is a true prophet?

A true prophet, according to Catechism, is one who confesses the name of Christ. Now, this has been to the honor of John Calvin that in his whole life he strove to be a confessor of Christ.

In this respect there was no difference between Calvin and Luther. There has been much controversy about the question of Calvin’s dependence on Luther. He has been called an “epigone” of Luther, or even a man who has distorted Luther’s message.

Fundamentally, however, there was no difference between the two great reformers. Both brought the message of justification by faith only; Calvin even preferred Luther to Zwingli and in turn Luther read a book of Calvin “with special delight.”

No Compromiser

Calvin was in and before all things a messenger of Jesus Christ; but this was his special distinction, that he brought this message consistently and without any form of compromise. He was at heart a scholar, and his personal preference was for a quiet life, with his books and his studies. But as soon as he was converted, he knew he was called by the Lord to bring the new message of the old gospel everywhere and always. In consequence he was pursued from one place to the other, from France to Italy, from Italy to France, and from France to Germany; but on the way he was arrested by Farel; he was called to a prophetic office in Geneva, an office he did not want. He said he was too young and too inexperienced and he had other ideals; but in the voice of Farel he heard the voice of the Lord and he could not resist it.

Calvin was always the prophet without compromise. The most striking example of this attitude can be found in his struggle against the “Nicodemites” in France. These men of Reformed conviction remained outwardly Roman Catholic for fear of the persecutions. They were “middle-of-the-road men,” and in those hard days they seemed to have sufficient reasons for the concealment of their faith. But Calvin wrote a treatise against them, and even a second one.

When I heard that many persons complained about my strictness, and especially persons of that class who consider it a proof of superior wisdom to care for their personal safety, I wrote an Apology, which has made their ears tingle even more severely than did the former book.

Calvin dared to stand alone with the gospel. He stood like the prophet of old and he demanded of his followers the same resolute stand.

The Struggle in Geneva

Calvin was the prophet of Geneva. Almost his whole life in this city was a hard struggle for the purity of the gospel and the right of the church to maintain discipline in harmony with that gospel; and he never wavered or trembled. On his deathbed he spoke to the ministers of the city and he recalled the tumult of 1547 when a mob invaded the Council of the city.

When I came in they said ‘Monsieur, withdraw, it is not you that we want.’ But I said to them. ‘No, I will not. Go on, you blackguards, and kill me; my blood will witness against you and these very benches will require it at your hands.’ So I have been through many struggles, and yours will be not less than mine but greater. For you are in the midst of a perverse and unhappy generation and, though there are some righteous men among them, the nation is a wicked one and you will have trouble when I go.

Loyalty to the Word

That was the fearless language of a prophet; in that spirit Calvin proclaimed the Word of God all his life. And he proclaimed the whole Word of God. Read his Institutes and you will always be amazed at his wide and profound knowledge of the Bible in all its parts. If Calvin was convinced of one thing, it was of his faithfulness to the Scriptures. He had not thought out his doctrine, he did not want a Calvinistic system, he did not propound a philosophical system whose keynote was predestination or the sovereignty of God; he was only a prophet of the Word of God.

Therefore Calvin so ardently desired personal contact with Luther; and he pinned his hopes on an open discussion with the fervent Lutherans because he was convinced of the power of the Word of God. He felt they would have to come to an agreement if all would only bow themselves before the authority and majesty of that Word.

Calvin was a prophet who opposed all heresies: the ecclesiastical heresies of Rome, the spiritual heresies of the Anabaptists, and the intellectual heresies of the humanists. He was not a man who loved to fight. As we have already said, he was a man with a warm heart that craved true friendship; but when the Word of God was at stake, he barked as a dog barks when his master is attacked.

Calvin was a prophet, not the least in his beautiful commentaries. His expositions of the Word of God, in their sober style, are still of great value. They are well written and rich in contents. Their background is always: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

Calvin as Priest

Speaking of Calvin the priest, we have to bear in mind the words of the Catechism: “that I present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him.”

The doctrine of Gratitude is a central doctrine, a culminating-point in Calvin’s theology. It was the big risk of the theology of Reformation, it was the splendid emphasis but also one-sidedness of Luther’s theology that its first and last word was the doctrine of justification by faith. Calvin did not fall a victim to that one-sidedness. His first and his last word was not: “Are you saved?” but: “Do you serve the Lord with your whole life and in sincere thankfulness?”

Emphasis on Christian Living

And here also, precisely as in his prophetic office, Calvin was a man of consistency. He wanted real thankfulness, not merely some beautiful words; and so he became the exponent of a so-called rigid discipline.

Was it really a rigid discipline? I should prefer to call it a consistent discipline. Much fuss is made about the Cries, the laws on luxury in Geneva; but it is a proven fact that in those days other cities had the same or similar laws. In Geneva those laws were enforced because Calvin did not want them to be a dead letter.

Calvin wanted Christians to present their lives as living sacrifices of thankfulness to God. We may say that he was the creator of an “innerweltliche Askese” [worldly asceticism]. He wanted the people of Geneva to be in the world and yet not of the world, and he himself set the example.

Suffering and Self-Denial

Night and day Calvin sacrificed himself to the demands and needs of the work of the Lord. His very weak body was kept under control by a very strong will. It is most moving to read in one of his last letters to the physicians of Montpellier:

Twenty years ago I experienced the same courteous services from the distinguished Parisian physicians Acatus, Tagant, and Gallois. But at that time I was not attacked by arthritic pains, knew nothing of the stone or the gravel. . . . I was not tormented with the gripings of the cholic, not afflicted with hemorrhoids, nor threatened with expectoration of blood. At present all these ailments assail me as it were in troops.

Calvin did not live in these nervous days of faith-healing. He accepted his diseases from the hand of his heavenly Father, and he worked in His service till the night came.

Tender Sympathy

Here was a priest who knew what sorrow was, but for that very reason he could comfort those in distress. In all his letters one can find the most splendid examples of the tender concern of his heart for the people of the Lord all over the world. I mention only the one which he addressed to M. de Richebourg after the death of his son, who had been a pupil of Calvin in Strasbourg. He writes:

When I first received the intelligence of the death of Claude and of your son Louis, I was so utterly overpowered that for many days I was fit for nothing but to grieve; and albeit I was somehow upheld before the Lord by those aids wherewith He sustains our souls in affliction, among men, however, I was almost a nonentity; so far at least as regards my discharge of duty, I appeared to myself quite as unfit for it as if I had been half dead. . . . The son whom the Lord had lent you for a season He has taken away. If you bethink yourself how difficult it is, in this most deplorable age, to maintain an upright course through life, you will judge him to be blessed, who, before encountering so many coming dangers which were already hovering over him, and to be encountered in his day and generation, was so early delivered from them all. He is like one who has set sail upon a stormy and tempestuous sea and, before he has been carried out into the deeps, gets in safety to the secure haven. Now certainly, because the Lord Himself, who is the Father of us all, had willed that Louis should be placed among his children as a son of His adoption, he bestowed this benefit upon you, out of the multitude of His mercies, that you might reap the excellent fruit of your careful education before his death; whence also you might know your interest in the blessing that belonged to you: “I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed.”

Calvin was a comforter, because he was a man of prayer.

The finest part of the Catechism, dealing with the subject of Gratitude, has its foundation in Calvin’s Institutes.

Calvin as King

Speaking of Calvin the king, we again quote the Catechism in its definition of the name “Christian”: “that I with a free and good conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with Him eternally over all creatures.”

Calvin was a man of the battle, the spiritual battle, not because he loved war, but because he feared the Lord and was ready to face all the consequences. I have already mentioned the fact that he wanted the Reformed people of France to be free from fear, to confess their faith publicly, never to be ashamed of the truth of Christ. The consequence was persecution and martyrdom. Nevertheless, Calvin sent his young students to that country to be fearless preachers of the only way of salvation. And when they had to die, Calvin comforted them and did not hesitate to send new preachers. In this way a strong Church arose, the church of the Huguenots, who went to the scaffold singing psalms.

In 1552 five young Frenchmen, instructed in Lausanne, went back to their own country. They were arrested at Lyons, and after a long trial, during which the cruelty of the judges was equaled only by the constancy of the victims, they were executed. Calvin wrote them:

We hope, come what may, that God of His goodness will give a happy issue to your captivity, so that we shall have reason to rejoice. You see to what He has called you; doubt not, therefore, that according as He employs you, He will give you strength to fulfill his work; for He has promised this, and we know by experience that He has never failed those who allow themselves to be governed by Him. Even now you have proof of this in yourselves, for He has shown His power by giving you so much constancy in withstanding the first assaults. Be confident, therefore, that He will not leave the work of His hand imperfect.

Calvin himself was hard pressed in Geneva; more than once he was in danger of death. But he built a church! He went the way of the Lord and he held his ground fighting with a free and good conscience against the Lord’s enemies. In that church which he founded, Calvin acknowledged that Christ only was its King. During his entire life he had to fight for the right of the consistory to rule the church in the name of the Lord. More than once it seemed as if he would lose the battle, but in the end he won. Calvin was not the dictator of Geneva; the church was ruled by its own office-bearers in the name of their King.

And then Calvin also had a vision of a very splendid and a very wide spiritual kingdom—not only the kingdom of the instituted Church, but also the kingdom of Christ in the area of the state and of science. Calvin believed that the laws of the state should be in accordance with the Word of God and that science should be studied in obedience to the Lord of science. Therefore he founded his university, and by means of that university he sent Calvinists to all parts of the Christian world, who stood up for Jesus and lifted high his royal banner.

In the beginning of this article I quoted Thomas Carlyle on what makes a man a hero. He writes about his great Scottish hero, the Calvinist John Knox, that he strove to make of Scotland a theocracy. “He did mean,” Carlyle writes,

that Kings and Prime Ministers, and all manner of persons, in public or private, diplomatising or whatever else they might be doing, should walk according to the Gospel of Christ, and understand that this was their Law, supreme over all laws. He hoped that some day he would see such a thing realized.

Carlyle might have said the same of Calvin, and we shall apply his words about John Knox to the reformer of Geneva:

Theocracy, government of God, is precisely the thing to be struggled for! There will never be wanting men who shrug their shoulders and say: ‘A pious dream!’ We will praise the hero rather, who does what is in him, and wears out, in toil, calumny, contradiction, a noble life, to make a God’s kingdom of this earth.


This article is reprinted from the March, 1959 issue of the Torch and Trumpet.

Rev. Louis Praamsma (1910–1984) served several churches in the Christian Reformed Church. He also served as an Assistant Professor at Calvin Theological Seminary.