Lessons from Calvin: Is it Time for Another Reformation?

It is no secret that the American evangelical church finds herself in turmoil. As attendance and membership decline in spite of increased numbers of clergy and church buildings (whether constructed, rented, or meeting in houses), many wonder if we might be on the brink of another reformation. On this Reformation Day, I thought I would pause to see what lessons I might learn from an early reformer, John Calvin.

In 1536, the 27-year-old Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in Latin. It was later revised and published in his native French in 1560. Intended to be a confession of the doctrines of the Protestant Church, it is rightly considered a defense for those who suffered persecution for their beliefs. In his prefatory address to King Francis, Calvin noted, “For I fear not to declare, that what I have here given may be regarded as a summary of the very doctrine which, they vociferate, ought to be punished with confiscation, exile, imprisonment, and flames, as well as exterminated by land and sea” (Institutes, 3-4).

Calvin noted that the Roman Catholic Church represented by the pope and priests, unwarrantedly accused him and others of being schismatic. The doctrines he espoused, according to his accusers, were a corruption of Scripture. Not to be out maneuvered, Calvin retorted that the priesthood of the Church was only concerned for its own well-being. He wrote, “He, accordingly, who is most anxious about his stomach, proves the fiercest champion of his faith” (Institutes, p. 7). 

Calvin’s Defense for Reformation

In defense of his doctrine before the king, Calvin outlined seven points. In essence, these seven points comprise his argument for a proper reformation. First, Calvin addressed the accusation that his doctrine was a novelty. In retort, he stated that his doctrine was in fact a restoration of “its antiquity.” Always appealing to Christ, Calvin assured the king that his doctrine was not an innovation. Rather, it built solidly on the old saying, “that Christ Jesus ‘died for our sins, and rose again for our justification’” (Institutes, p. 8).

Second, Calvin’s detractors accused his doctrine of being doubtful and uncertain. In response, Calvin claimed that they are themselves ignorant just as Israel was ignorant and rebelled against the Lord (Isa 1:3). Calvin maintained that the proof for the veracity of his doctrine was found in the confidence of the protestors who willingly died for their beliefs. Third, the priests claimed that there were no miracles to confirm Calvin’s doctrine. Calvin responded, “for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought” (Institutes, p. 8).

Fourth, to demonstrate the anchor of his doctrine was in line with the Church, Calvin appealed to the Church Fathers, 

“So far are we from despising them [Church Fathers], that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavored to remember, that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception.” (Institutes, p. 9)

Turning the table on his critics, Calvin argued that he was in fact the one who remained faithful to the Church Fathers. The priests, he argued, departed from the Fathers’ teachings in as much as they substituted the worship of God with the worship of their church buildings. The priests further departed from the Father by demanding external acts by the laity—Lent, fasting, lighting candles for the dead—to secure their salvation. They substituted their own doctrines—transubstantiation, celibacy of the priesthood, indulgences, veneration of icons, purgatory—for those taught by the Fathers. Calvin, instead, observed that the Fathers insisted on the primacy of Christ’s commands over those of the priests, the centrality of Christ versus the centrality of the Church, and the priority of the Word above the disputes of the Church’s theologians.

Fifth, his accusers claimed that Calvin did not follow the traditions of the Church. Indeed, Calvin conceded as he viewed the Church’s customs were unjust, evil, and against the law of God. He writes, “But be it so that public error must have a place in human society, still, in the kingdom of God, we must look and listen only to his eternal truth, against which no series of years, no custom, no conspiracy, can plead prescription” (Institutes, p. 13).

Sixth, to the claim that he was schismatic, Calvin held tightly to an understanding that the Church has always been one, “The Church of Christ assuredly has lived, and will live as long as Christ shall reign at the right hand of the Father. By his hand it is sustained, by his protection defended, by his mighty power preserved in safety” (Institutes, p. 14). Her marks were the “pure preaching of the word of God, and the due administration of the sacraments.” Calvin believed that God would withdraw his presence from the Church in punishment for her wickedness. “But had it never been discovered before that the Church is not tied to external pomp, we are furnished with a lengthened proof in their own conduct, in proudly vending themselves to the world under the specious title of Church, notwithstanding that they are the deadly pests of the Church” (Institutes, p. 17).

Finally, against the accusations that the fruit of the doctrine produced division and seditious disturbances, Calvin argued “it is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God” (Institutes, p. 18). Indeed, for Calvin, the accurate teaching of Scripture would naturally stir the evil response of Satan.

Lessons from Calvin

For nearly 500 years, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion has been a mainstay for contemporary Reformed theologians. While it clearly arose in a particular context addressing specific issues of the day, its continued merit as an example of contextual theology is worthy of study. So, what have I learned about Calvin’s reformation that might find application for today? First, a reformation of any sort must focus on the centrality of Christ in the life of the Church as she follows his commands. Loyalties to denominations, local churches, church leadership, and pastors must be completely foreign to any reformation. It is loyalty to Christ alone as demonstrated by identifying with Him and uniting together in His church.

Second, we can find an anchor for the practice of the Church in the Church Fathers. Calvin did not shy away from appealing to these ancient followers of Jesus. That anchor ensures that a reformation will not be an innovation, but will genuinely be founded on the teachings of the apostles. Third, if we were to see a reformation today, we can expect turmoil among Christians as doctrine is re-articulated in new language. This implies progress in our understanding and not novelty.

Fourth, current clergy—our modern-day pastors and priests—must recognize where their allegiances lie. With so many efforts to attract people to a Sunday morning event focused on the performance of a few, Calvin’s words rightly admonish, “They so much delighted with gold, silver, ivory, marble, gems, and silks, that unless everything is overlaid with costly show, or rather insane luxury, they think God is not duly worshipped” (Institutes, p. 11). A contemporary rendering of Calvin’s reprimand might include lavish church buildings, smoke machines, neon lights, concert style worship, and rock-star like personalities. Dispensing with such idols will be a telltale sign of another reformation. 

Finally, if a reformation were to occur today, it will mean a re-evangelization of the Church. It is not a new gospel that will be declared. Rather, it is a restored gospel, perhaps even a rediscovered gospel whose message has been clouded by varied additions—political, theological, cultural. Calvin noted, “That it [the gospel] long lay buried and unknown is the guilty consequence of man’s impiety; but now when, by the kindness of God, it is restored to us, it ought to resume its antiquity …” (Institutes, p. 8).

Certainly the axiom is true. The church reformed is always reforming, or at least that is the hope. Soli deo Gloria!

Learn more about the first century church in Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement

Learn More