Who is John Calvin?

Not sure if you’ve heard or not, but over the last few months and years the word “Calvinism” has been thrown around like dinner rolls in a food fight. There has been an absolute firestorm over the name “John Calvin”, and not all of it helpful, to say the least. Unfortunately most of the people doing the loudest talking don’t have a clue who John Calvin really was, what his contributions really were, or what he really believed because…oh yeah, they’ve never read a single word that the man actually wrote. I’ve seriously never heard (or, regrettably, been a part) of such pointless bickering. People claim Calvinism (or a differing theological school of thought, like Arminianism) and then go to arguing like grade school children in a playground taunt.

Typically people who hold these views hold them very fiercely. “Young, restless, and Reformed” has become something of a uniting banner among young Christians who identify with Calvinist theology (Reformed or Reformation theology is just a general synonym for Calvinist theology these days). And of course, the pastor everyone knows – John Piper – was famously Calvinist when Calvinism wasn’t cool.

With all this chatter, a little clarity will go a long way. I’m no expert, believe me, but I’d like to offer a starting point for Christians to understand a little more about John Calvin and what he taught. If there were a more widespread, accurate knowledge of the man and his bible exposition (teaching), I think there would be less unfruitful division and more biblical unity in the body of Christ. No, I know that.

So let’s jump right into it.

First things first. You’ve probably have heard of “five-point Calvinism”, and the elephant in the room is a little acronym called T.U.L.I.P. It stands for:  total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. If you hear people arguing about Calvinism, they are probably up in arms over these points (or the topic of predestination, which is quite interwoven). But here’s a fun fact – John Calvin never came up with the acronym TULIP. He never preached “five points.” Ever. If you had come across John Calvin in the streets of Geneva one afternoon and walked up and said, “Mr. Calvin, what do I need to know about God?”, he would not have said, “Here are five points.” He did, of course, believe that the concepts that the acronym TULIP seeks to portray are true when rightly understood. But those ideas were not so organized and made into an acronym until after his death. That is an important distinction. (Side note: there are monumental debates and misunderstandings among Christians about each of the five points, what they mean, and whether they are biblical theological concepts or not. For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave these alone for now. Maybe the future holds a five-part blog series, you never know. For now, just know that the acronym exists, and that you should be very picky about who you let explain these things to you.)

Regardless, here is a hugely important fact – TULIP (and the commonly-intermingled predestination issue) were not the central focus of John Calvin’s teaching. The five points address soteriological concepts, which are only a fraction of a complete theology. A sufficient definition for soteriology is simply “the study of salvation” (how a person comes to be saved). There are many other “-ologies” that combine to make up an integrated, systematic theology, and soteriology is just one of them (albeit a very important one). Calvin held his soteriological beliefs near and dear, no question. But they were not the central concept of the man’s theology.

So what was it? If not the famous TULIP, what was on John Calvin’s mind sermon in and sermon out? The answer is the doxological purpose of God in all things. In other words, God’s glory. The integrative, key concept about which the theology of John Calvin is centered is the glory of God. Not only the glory that we should rightfully seek to offer God, but the glory that he himself should rightfully seek from all creation (including humanity) which is due him. John Calvin was obsessed with the elevation, praise, and glory of the name of God. (That should sound familiar, Piper-olaters. “God is most glorified in us…”) As a follower of Christ, it should be hard for you to dislike someone who is obsessed with giving God maximum glory. And that’s what John Calvin was obsessed with. At the bare minimum, we can appreciate that.

Here’s another contribution that every single evangelical Christian in the Western world desperately needs to appreciate. Let’s go back in time to the Reformation itself – the period in which the Protestant, non-Roman Catholic church began (this will be a brief, rough history lesson). Martin Luther famously began the Reformation in 1517 with the nailing of his famous “95 Theses for Debate” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The Reformation was off with a bang. But there was a major issue with the movement – it was not unified. The Germans were behind Luther, sure. But all over Europe other Reformers were generating followers as well. These other factions had their own theological convictions and complaints against the Roman Catholic church as well, but they were all different from one another, and no unified effort existed. The Reformation was on the verge of petering out and being crushed. That is, until a certain book was written – The Institutes of the Christian Religion by one John Calvin. It is the systematic and biblical theology of John Calvin, and it is one of the most important books ever written.  A few decades after Luther’s Theses, Calvin’s Institutes were penned, translated, and dispersed throughout all of Europe (garnering threats on Calvin’s life). The book succeeded where no other effort had – the Reformation movement was unified and stood a chance. Many paid in blood and the road was hard, but the Reformation succeeded. This was all in no small part to the writing, teaching, and influence of John Calvin.

If you are a Protestant Christian, let me put it in no uncertain terms:  John Calvin is the reason you are not Catholic. 

Now, in light of all that, I hope you have a little better understanding of who John Calvin was and what the fuss is about (or what it should be about).

In closing, let me say this:  it is obvious that I am grateful for Calvin’s life and teaching. I think it is undeniable that he had a genuine passion for the glory of God. But the purpose of this writing is not to convince you to become a hair-on-fire Calvinist (I would like you be a hair-on-fire Jesus-follower, whatever your theological convictions). I am just hoping to provide a clear look at what Calvin really did and said. As followers of Christ, we ought to appreciate what so many historical theologians went through to provide us with biblical knowledge.

And do not be side-tracked by all the “he said/she said” of mindless theological debate. If you want to know what Calvin wrote, open his books (or even better, to see what God has written, open the Bible). Above all else, remember that there is one body of Christ, and we should be eager to maintain that unity (Ephesians 4).

Assuming that their faith was genuine, Arminius, Luther, Zwingli, and all the Reformers (including John Calvin) are in heaven praising the name of God together at this very moment.

Let’s try to keep our eye on the ball here.


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