Who Was John Calvin, and What Is Calvinism?

By: Dave Roos  | 
John Calvin, expounds
John Calvin, a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, is shown writing. This etching was displayed at the Musee International de la Reforme, Geneva. GODONG/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1536, a 27-year-old Jean Calvin (better known as John Calvin) fled his native France, where he had been persecuted for his newfound Protestant faith, and written a groundbreaking theological treatise titled "Institutes of the Christian Religion."

A wanted man in Catholic France, Calvin sought refuge in neighboring Switzerland, and stopped at an inn in Geneva where he planned to spend just one night. But when local church leader William Farel learned that the author of "Institutes" was there, he stormed into the inn and told Calvin that it was God's will that he stay and preach in Geneva.


When Calvin tried to explain that he was a scholar, not a preacher, Farel turned red in the face (not hard for a redhead) and swore an oath that God would curse Calvin's so-called "studies" if he dared to leave Geneva. A man of great faith, Calvin took this as a sign.

"I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course," Calvin later wrote, "and I was so terror stricken that I did not continue my journey."

John Calvin spent the rest of his life in Geneva preaching a new strain of Protestantism known as Reformed Theology. A contemporary of famed Reformation leader Martin Luther, Calvin was the father of Calvinism, a faith that's inextricably tied to the controversial doctrine of predestination, which holds that a sovereign God has already selected who will be saved and who will be damned.

To better understand the life and legacy of Calvin — one of the most influential and controversial figures in Christianity — we spoke with Bruce Gordon, a professor of ecclesiastical history at the Yale Divinity School and author of the biography "Calvin" and "John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography."


'If God Wills It, It Must Be Good'

In his early 20s, Calvin was studying law in France (his father's idea) when he discovered the preaching of Luther, who taught that God was found in the Bible, not in the saints and sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Much like his later experience in the Geneva inn, Calvin was convinced that it was God's will that he quit law school and follow in the footsteps of Luther and other early church reformers.

God's will — or more specifically the "sovereignty" of God's will — is a central tenet of Calvinism, the Protestant movement that was founded in Calvin's name. For Calvin as well as most early reformers, the Bible made it perfectly clear that God was an all-powerful being who was in control of everything, including the salvation of mankind.


In Romans 9:15, Paul quotes God telling Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." In other words, God chooses to save who he wants to save, and he has his own incomprehensible reasons for doing so; i.e., he is sovereign. For Calvin, the important thing wasn't understanding God's will, but accepting it.

"One of Calvin's major themes was that we don't know the mind of God," says Gordon. "But if God wills it, it must be good."

If God is solely in charge, then there's nothing we as sinful humans can do to "earn" our salvation. Yes, we can be "justified" by faith in Jesus Christ, as Luther taught, but even that faith in Christ isn't a product of our will. It is a gift from God prepared since the dawn of time.


'Double Predestination'

Born almost 30 years after Luther, Calvin was a "second generation" Protestant reformer, explains Gordon, which meant that he inherited much of his theology from those who came before him, including the influential Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, who Gordon just published a book about ("Zwingli: God's Armed Prophet").

John Calvin, expounds
Young Calvin expounds on the Bible to a family at Bourges, France.
Bettmann/Getty Images

One of those widely accepted Reformation-era doctrines was predestination.


"Calvin is famously associated with predestination, but what a lot of people don't know is that predestination was a mainline teaching of Christianity right back to early Church fathers like St. Augustine," says Gordon.

The accepted version of predestination was that God had "elected" those who would be saved since before the creation of the world. But Calvin went a step further and took predestination to its next logical conclusion: If God alone decided who was saved and would abide with Him in heaven, then he also decided who was damned and would spend an eternity in hell. And here's the kicker: There's nothing we can do to change that.

In theological terms, Calvin's belief in a sovereign God who both saves and damns according to His own will is called "double predestination," and it was controversial from the start.

"The double predestination idea shocks a lot of people, because they start to say, Calvin has created this God who is the source of evil," says Gordon.

Keep in mind that Calvin was preaching in the 16th century, when a belief in a literal heaven and hell was universal. In that context, double predestination seems to raise a harrowing question: If God has already decided who is going where, then how do I know if I'm among the lucky elect?

"Interestingly, Calvin was quite optimistic about this," says Gordon. "Calvin taught that if you're troubled by this question and trying to find signs of your election, that itself is a sign that you're counted among the elect. There's a sense that the damned don't give a damn."

Calvin came to believe that election could be "proven" by outward signs, including: profession of faith, disciplined Christian behavior and dutiful participation in the Lord's Supper (or communion) the only sacrament carried over from Catholicism.


The Servetus Affair

Much like predestination, no discussion of John Calvin can leave out an infamous incident that took place in 1553, when Calvin was the chief religious authority in Geneva, that's known as "the Servetus affair."

Michael Servetus burned at stake
Michael Servetus is burned alive in Geneva, Oct. 27, 1553.

Michael Servetus (Miguel Serveto) was a Spanish "Renaissance man" in a very literal sense. He was a self-taught scholar of the Bible, cartography, human physiology and more. Servetus got in hot water with Catholic authorities when he published tracts rejecting the Trinity, the doctrine that God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit were three distinct persons united in one Godhead. For his crime of heresy, Servetus was condemned to death by the Catholic Church.


But Servetus escaped from prison and fled to Geneva, where he appeared publicly at one of Calvin's sermons and was summarily arrested. Calvin and Servetus had a history. They had exchanged letters for years, each trying to convince the other of his theological follies, and Calvin had even visited Servetus in Paris — at great risk to Calvin's own safety — to urge the heretical Servetus to repent.

In the end, Servetus was executed in Geneva for his heretical teachings. Defenders of Calvin argue that he didn't have the authority to save or condemn Servetus, and that it was the state that killed him. Critics of Calvin insist that a man of Calvin's religious authority in Geneva could have stepped in to save Servetus's life. Instead, he burned at the stake.

Gordon says that the Servetus affair made Calvin look like a cold-blooded hardliner, and provided ammunition for Calvin's critics and opponents, of which he had many by the 1550s.

"That story makes Calvin infamous among many people as this 'Zeus throwing thunderbolts' who was creating a punitive, judgmental God in his own image," says Gordon. "Calvin becomes associated with this very severe notion of God."


Calvinism and the Protestant Work Ethic

In Geneva, Calvin helped to create a theocratic society in which the Bible was the chief guidebook for moral and civic order. Ordained pastors, elders and deacons oversaw the spiritual and temporal welfare of the city, ministering to the poor and admonishing the wicked. Attendance at Sunday church was mandatory. Lectures, sermons and religious services were held every day of the week, with Calvin himself publicly preaching and teaching daily. He maintained this tireless pace until his death in 1564.

In the next century, Calvinism arrived in England, where it was embraced by the Puritan movement. Not all Puritans who came to America were Calvinists, but the sociologist Max Weber credits Calvinist theology with fueling the rise of capitalism in the colonies.


The Puritans, unlike Calvin himself, were wracked with anxiety over the question of their predestined status: were they among the elect or the damned? Puritans came to believe that an outward sign of election was economic prosperity. That Puritan doctrine fostered the development of what Weber called the "protestant work ethic," in which individuals carry out God's will through worldly vocations.

By the 18th century, Gordon says that Calvinism went into decline as Enlightenment ideals of personal freedom chafed against the rigidity of predestination. In its place, a more liberal strain of Protestantism took hold that shifted away from strict predestination to the more inclusive concept of "universality," in which all mankind can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ.

But that's not to say that Calvinism is dead. Far from it. Calvinism has made a comeback in the resurgence of Reformed theology and the popularity of Reformed churches and pastors like John Piper and Timothy Keller. As chronicled in the book "Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists," the uncompromising teachings of Calvin, including predestination, have caught on with a new generation of young evangelical Christians.

HowStuffWorks earns a small affiliate commission when you purchase through links on our site.