Who Was John Calvin And Why Was He Important?


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?


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.

Luther 7

Luther after the Reformation

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.


Wesley famously rejected Calvinism

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.


Geneva on Lake Geneva


For all of his later influence on Protestants and evangelicals, Calvin was the outsider for much of his life. For one, he was the youngest of the first-generation reformers, almost to the point that many consider him to be part of the second generation. At the time of his conversion, the Reformation was more than a decade old, and the Reformed movement—as we would later call it—was already well underway with Zwingli and Bullinger in Zurich, as well as other Swiss cities.


Farel gently asking Calvin to stay

When Calvin arrived in Geneva in 1536 he was also stepping into a tense theological situation made worse by politics. In 1531, just as the Reformed identity was rising in Zurich, armies marched on the city, killed Zwingli on the battlefield, and reimposed Catholicism. With Zwingli’s death went the possibility that Zurich would become the Reformed Wittenberg, shaping all Reformed opinions exclusively. What was left was a chaotic Swiss region, now in need of something to galvanize them and secure their future.

One of the steps taken by the city of Bern, for example, was to annex Geneva and forcibly move it from Catholicism to Protestantism. Geneva was French-speaking (as opposed to German-speaking Bern and Zurich) and had answered to the Duke of Savoy for centuries. Bern had a large army and a passion for reform. The only thing Bern lacked was the ability to send French-speaking pastors to shape the now-Protestant church in the city.

Enter Calvin and Farel, two French exiles who had embraced humanism back in France, then the gospel, and finally broke with the Protestant church. The French king had swung aggressively against Protestantism, and Calvin and Farel were forced to flee. Bern had worked with Farel before and so hired him to Geneva; Farel also knew Calvin through friends and so eagerly wanted his help. After some gentle strokes of divine threat, Calvin agreed.

The budding problems with these men were numerous: they were both young, the language barrier was significant, Farel was a notorious hothead, Calvin was effectively a nobody and a bit of a snob when it came to education, and the city of Geneva was not entirely happy to have been swung into the Reformation without asking for it.

So Calvin failed his first attempt at leadership in Geneva, not all entirely for his own stubbornness, though it didn’t help. When he returned to Geneva in 1541, he was a wiser man, now married, and plunged himself into writing nonstop.


Within this complex Swiss world, Calvin began to make his stand for the Reformed faith. Still, even after he was restored to Geneva, he was not immediately the major voice in the Swiss regions, and certainly not throughout Europe. These things would come, but for now he was the younger brother to men like Bucer, Bullinger, and other leaders who had more experience and more leverage in other countries.

Calvin and Bullinger meet

Calvin and Bullinger meet

Calvin never seemed to chafe in these circumstances, and his life is marked by his willingness to work with other cities and reformers to bring a unity to the Reformed faith. His letters to these men are marked as much by his collegiality as they are by his willingness to offer his own perspective. They also reveal his willingness to learn from his Reformed companions in other cities. At no point, however, do we see Calvin ever attempt to take on a role similar to Luther’s, where all roads lead to his door, all opinions submitted to him for a verdict.

In this sense, the Reformed movement was always more of a band of brothers—and if you’ve ever lived with brothers, you know how riotous the house can be. They didn’t always get along, and when they squabbled they didn’t always do so kindly. Bucer and Bullinger—both eligible for the most influential voice in early Reformed theology—had a falling out to such an extent that Bullinger forever suspected Bucer of being a crypto-Lutheran on the sacraments. But in this messy life together, Calvin and others were shaping the core perspective of the Reformed perspective.


So Calvin was the younger brother, but he was not the runt in the family. By the end of his life he became the leading voice in the wider Reformed world as it began to develop in Scotland, England, France, and the Netherlands. Much of his influence comes down to two major factors: the clarity of his writing and the translation of the Institutes into other languages, especially English.

Institutes-first-editionOn Calvin’s writing, he is not perfect and, like any other theologian, he has moments where he confuses as much as helps. But compared with the wider scope of Protestant writings, Calvin is the clearest and most lucid of nearly all other Protestant voices. Luther, for example, is great fun to read, but he writes like a rabbit runs. He also trades in hyperbole so often he can seem to contradict his own statements (at least at first). Bucer, by contrast, was so wordy and obtuse people in his own day had a wry humor about his inability to stick to the point.

Open Calvin’s works and we find something different, even after 500 years and in a translation. The humanist training Calvin received gave him the tools to carry his reader along to the point he wanted to make. And when he made his point, Calvin often did so carefully with rarely a word out of place. When he does get bogged down in abstract or wordy points, he does not stay there for long. He also had the unique patience—heroic in any century, but certainly by today’s attention standards—to edit and rework hisInstitutes over the course of his entire life.

Most importantly for English readers, however, Calvin’s writings were the most important theological texts printed in England by the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. Other reformers’ works remained in Latin, which was still a living language for academics but made it impossible for lay readers to study. Before long even academics would not write in Latin. Calvin, by contrast, not only wrote in Latin but worked on his own French translation of the Institutes—a world German-speaking Reformed voices could not engage.

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.