Calvinism is distinguished in particular by the function of the law as well as by an openness to earthly life. In Calvin’s mind, the law has continuing meaning and is regarded as a rule for Christian life. This view is expressed in various ways, including paying attention to a correct lifestyle, a commitment to mercy, continuing reflection on law and justice, and the question of the right of resistance of subjects to the authorities. Openness to the earth has to do with Calvin’s view that God is also revealed in creation; thus, scientific research contributes to the recognition of God (Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, among others). Culturally, Calvinism inside the church led to resistance to the cult of images as a threat to the proclamation of the Word and outside the church to an impulse for art and culture as a means of worshiping God. There is, at the same time in Calvinism, a sense of reservation concerning culture and science, because these can also become a spiritual danger.
Concentration on the Word and the cognitive approach of the theology of Calvin can be seen in the fact that Calvinism has a distinguished history in terms of creating a reading culture and has attracted many intellectuals to its folds over the centuries. This “binding to the Bible” has resulted in a church order that emanates from the independence of the church over against the governing authorities and assigns the elders the direction of the church. The function of the elders, who play the central role in the church, is typical of the Calvinist understanding of the church. The key to the Lord’s Supper lies in the exercise of the church’s discipline.
The understanding of the unity of Scripture results in a strong identification with Old Testament Israel. This identification manifests itself in a predilection for the book of Psalms both in preaching and in liturgy. The singing of these psalms further strengthened this identification, indeed, because of another characteristic of Calvinism, namely the pilgrimage motif. The persecution of the Reformed and their refugee existence led them, in their own opinion, to play the role of Israel expelled from Egypt to live in the desert on their way to heaven, the Promised Land. This predilection for the Old Testament can be seen in the many commentaries that appeared from the Reformed side on this part of the Bible. As a result of this understanding, the study of Hebrew and related fields has also reached an especially great flowering in Reformed circles.
Luther and Calvin
As much as Calvin desired to do so, he never met Martin Luther personally. The only occasion for contact that could have occurred between Calvin and Luther was prevented by Philip Melanchthon, because he did not dare to forward the letter Calvin had written to Luther in January 1545. There are some remarks of Luther in which he reports positively about Calvin’s works. As to Luther’s influence on Calvin, it is evident that the Genevan was in the true sense a pupil of the Reformer in Wittenberg. Calvin was convinced to build on the foundation Luther laid down, not to imitate Luther or just repeat what he had said but to further develop Luther’s theology without changing it. As to differences, it can be said that Calvin had more trouble with Luther’s character than with his ideas. That Calvin saw his own teaching of the Lord’s Supper substantially in agreement with that of Luther is clear, but he did criticize him for sticking too much to the physical presence of Christ in bread and wine. Apart from this point, Calvin stays completely in line with Luther. This influence of Luther on Calvin means Luther’s thought can be found in a much wider selection of theological traditions than just the Lutheran one. It is also due to international Calvinism that Luther can be found worldwide, as his spirituality, his liturgical insights, his views on preaching and teaching, and much more of his work has shaped endless numbers of Calvinists worldwide to this very day.
It goes without saying that Calvinism has a worldview of its own. It, thus, has exerted great influence in the fields of sociology, politics, economics, and law. Although the so-called Weber thesis, according to which there is a direct link between Calvinism and capitalism, is scientifically disproven, a certain influence of Calvinism on economic developments cannot be denied. Calvin was the first Christian thinker to develop a theory of the biblical right to interest rate recovery, which gave trade a vital impetus. Calvinism’s views on justification and sanctification and the strict practice of church discipline have led to a lifestyle that is strongly inspired by the Bible.
The influence of Calvinism, with its very own view of law and order, is also clearly perceptible in the sphere of law. The political and legal theories of John Althusius (1557–1638) and Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) are examples of this. Calvinism has also contributed to the democratic development of the Western world. The organizing principle of the “Calvinist” church, in which democracy and Christocracy are connected, has become, politically, a model wherein the government binds itself to the Bible as a norm without causing the theocratic element to be exercised at the expense of the democratic one. In addition, Calvin’s theory of the right to insurrection became one of the main foundations of the uprising that led to the independence of the Netherlands.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 24, 2018.