Who Was John Calvin And Why Was He Important?

Calvin’s role was so pivotal in Reformed thinking that his name became synonymous with the movement, even though he was not its founder or most influential voice until the end of his life.

By the end of his life, then, Calvin had grown into a dominant international voice for Reformed theology. He was not the founder of the Reformed movement, and he was not ever considered to be the sole Reformed leader in all matters. Still his influence was not accidental, as we might say today. It was a result of his enormous abilities to explain, defend, and publish the Institutes for those studying for pastoral ministry.

 

John Calvin was a short Frenchman who spent his life in a city that did not always appreciate him. He came under fire almost immediately in his role in Geneva, lost his job over a fight on the sacraments, was nurtured back to wholeness by Martin Bucer, and only begrudgingly returned to Geneva to finish the reformation there. He also wrote what was until modern times the most widely published and read book of theology in English translation: the Institutes.

In fact, so pivotal was Calvin’s role in Reformed thinking that his name became synonymous with the movement, even though he was not its founder or most influential voice until the end of his life. English-speakers in particular took on the name ‘Calvinist’ with a sense of pride, while opponents to Reformed ideas would always write against the ‘Calvinists’ in their midst.

But what set Calvin above others as perhaps the most influential theologian of the Reformation?

CALVIN BUT NOT LUTHER?

When Trevin Wax first released his list of the Top-Five Theologians perhaps the most controversial part of the list was the choice of Calvin over Luther. I agree with his choice (as do many scholars, not all of them Reformed) and so a few words need to be said about why Luther is not above Calvin.

The debate comes down to how one defines the importance of a theological figure. With Luther, no one would doubt the influence of his reformation. One could easily point out that without Luther there would be no Calvin—indeed there would be no Protestantism. His stance before the Holy Roman Emperor is iconic, almost a microcosm of the Reformation itself.

Still Luther’s influence is truncated by a few factors, not the least of which is that few Protestants today would share Luther’s theological position on several things beyond the doctrines of grace, justification, and the Law. His doctrine of the sacraments is unique to the Lutheran expression of the faith and a bone of contention between Lutherans and many other Protestant denominations. Luther’s views on baptism, too, would leave many outside his definition of the sacraments, and he retained an abnormally high view of Mary amongst the reformers.

So if we take the words ‘most influential’ to mean ‘the one who influenced the start of the Reformation,’ then obviously Luther would be in the lead. But this would be a poor definition—in fact it would mean that only Luther can fit this definition, which is hardly a debate.

Instead we should take ‘most influential’ in the broader sense to mean those who shaped the most people over the centuries. Which figure sold the most books, spawned the most movements beyond their immediate context, and even influenced the most hostile ideas against their theology? (Not all influence is positive, of course.)

On this definition, many historians would grudgingly choose Calvin over Luther, but again not in a way that sees Luther as less than vital to the Reformation and evangelical history. Still, given the international influence of Calvinism—both in the Reformation and today in places like Korea—most would place Calvin ahead of Luther. But not without feeling a sense of chagrin that we can’t fit them both in the list.

Another important factor is that the other dominant theology of evangelicalism, Arminianism, was itself spawned out of a rejection of certain points of Reformed theology, and Arminianism has always seen Calvinism as its chief opponent. Wesleyan, Baptist, and Congregational churches that embrace Arminianism, then, will always stand against against Calvin and rarely Luther. The specter of Calvinism on these groups is enormous and weighs into the decision as to Calvin’s influence.

So on these terms the choice of Calvin over Luther is not based only on being a ‘homer’ for Calvin, but on a wider view of the influential theologies within evangelicalism. Calvin’s influence on both his theological advocates and enemies is unrivaled from the early generations of the Reformation—at least insofar as Calvin’s name became synonymous with subsequent developments within Reformed thinking.

But if we had extended the list to 10 instead of 5, it hardly needs to be said that Luther would easily be on the list. For now, we’ll stick with Calvin.

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