The Legacy of John Calvin
This year Christians who are heirs of John Calvin’s theological work are celebrating his 500th birthday. Calvinists like to refer to Calvin’s work as the “second wave” of the Reformation and often we hear Calvinists asserting that it was left to Calvin to complete the Reformation that Luther began. This has been the standard “party line” from Reformed theologians, and Crypto-Calvinists, both before and ever since Luther’s death in 1546. It is very important that Lutheran Christians remain aware of the very serious, foundational differences in doctrine between historic, classic Lutheranism and historic, classic Calvinism. Where both confessional Lutherans and confessional Calvinists do agree is often on the moral issues of our day and in a common stand against the liberal mainline protestant theology that has taken over many historically Lutheran and Calvinist Churches. But agreement on these issues is not such that we can simply neglect the reality of our historic differences on key and essential doctrines, including, but not limited to: the person and work of Christ, Christ’s atonement, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, the means of grace, predestination, the uses of the Law, etc.
I consider it a great tragedy that John Calvin did so much to corrupt the genuine evangelical Reformation of the Western Church. The errors that flow from Calvin’s theology of a limited atonement, an irresistible grace and a predestination of some to hell, are a corruption of the Scriptures and the Gospel of Christ. Calvin and those that followed him, taught that the atonement of Christ is limited only to those who are saved, thus robbing everyone of the comfort of the Gospel promise that Christ died for all, not simply for some. Calvin’s errors on the atonement and predestination come from Calvinism’s erroneous use of reason, and its penchant to try to construct an ex post facto explanation of why some are saved and not others. Calvin also corrupted the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and in spite of lofty claims about the Eucharist, Calvin does not confess that Christ actually gives His body to communicants, but rather communicants in receiving bread, ascend to heaven with their souls and there feed on Christ by faith. It is an empty shell of a supper that Calvin would have us receive in Holy Communion.
While we certainly do not deny that the Gospel is heard and believed by Reformed Christians, who clearly do love our common Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we can not consider Calvinism, and the Reformed Church tradition that follows it, to be an authentic expression of Luther’s Reformation. I am not in favor of Lutherans allying themselves with Reformed theologians, no matter how conservative they might be on certain issues. Calvin’s work in Geneva was, in large part, one of iconoclastic destruction, not a conservative reformation. Calvinism put into place a theological system that deemphasizes God’s chief and most essential quality: love and replaces it with a focus on God’s “sovereignty.”
The fundamental problem with Calvinism is well summarized by Francis Pieper in his magisterial work Christian Dogmatics (Volume 1, pg. 25ff):
The Reformed denominations likewise acknowledge in principle the divine authority of the divinely inspired Scriptures. The inspiration of Scripture has found valiant champions among the Reformed theologians not only in the past, but also today. But in practice Reformed theology forsakes the Scripture principle. It has become the fashion to say that the difference between the Reformed and the Lutheran Church consists in this, that the Reformed Church “more exclusively” makes Scripture the source of the Christian doctrine, while the Lutheran Church, being more deeply “rooted in the past” and of a more “conservative” nature, accepts not only Scripture, but also tradition as authoritative. But this is not in accord with the facts. The history of dogma tells this story: In those doctrines in which it differs from the Lutheran Church and for the sake of which it has established itself as a separate body within visible Christendom, the Reformed Church, as far as it follows in the footsteps of Zwingli and Calvin, sets aside the Scripture principle and operates instead with rationalistic axioms. The Reformed theologians frankly state that reason must have a voice in determining Christian doctrine.
Read the extended entry for a further summary and presentation of the fundamental problems with Calvinis theology. It is for these reasons that Calvin’s work is not to be celebrated, but lamented.
NOTE: this is copied from Pieper’s Dogmatics, and I can not replicate the footnotes:
a. Rationalistic considerations have produced, first, the Reformed doctrine of the means of grace. While Scripture teaches that God offers and gives the forgiveness of sins which Christ gained and creates and sustains faith through external means ordained by Him (the Word of the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper),38 Zwingli and Calvin argue that it does not befit the Holy Ghost to make use of external means for the revelation and operation of His grace, that He does not need such external means, and that He does not, in fact, use them where His saving grace operates.39 Modern Calvinists take the same position. And this “holy spirit,” which severed the Holy Spirit from the means of grace, caused the division in the Protestant camp at the time of the Reformation; it raised the charge against Luther that he did not understand the Gospel, for by his clinging to the means of grace he showed that he was still in “the flesh.”40
Separating the revelation and operation of grace from the means of grace is, in effect, a reversion to the Romish “infused grace” (gratia infusa) and therefore a defection from the Christian doctrine of justification. For when men set aside the external means of grace, they can no longer base their confidence in God on God’s gracious disposition (favor Dei propter Christum), i.e., on the forgiveness of sin for Christs sake, which the grace of God offers in the Gospel promise and which is to be believed on the basis of this objective promise and offer; they necessarily base their confidence in God on an inward transformation, illumination, and renewal, which allegedly is effected by an immediate operation. This reduces grace in the final analysis to a good quality in man. Since the Holy Ghost will not deal in such immediate operations, all those who follow Zwinli’s and Calvin’s instructions and seek an immediate illumination and renewal necessarily substitute for the genuine operation of the Spirit their own human product.—Luther said repeatedly: “Papist and ‘enthusiast’ are one.” That judgment was not an outburst of “the immoderate polemics in the 16th century,” but is based on facts.
The fact that despite the Reformed repudiation of the means of grace many Christians are found in the Reformed denominations is due to an inconsistency, to which Luther points frequently, particularly in the Smalcald Articles. If the Reformed would translate their theory concerning the supposed immediate operation of the Spirit into practice, they would have to refrain from proclaiming the Gospel by the printed or spoken word and keep silence lest they interfere with the operation of the Spirit. But they refuse to do this, and in as far as they teach the Gospel of the Savior crucified for the sins of the world, they give the Holy Ghost the opportunity to create and sustain faith in Christ, not without the Word and alongside the Word, but through the Word, mediately.
b. Again, when the Reformed deny the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, they are repudiating the Word of God because of rationalistic considerations. They admit, directly and indirectly, that the Scriptural statements on the Lord’s Supper indicate prima facie not the absence, but the presence of the body and blood of Christ. But, they say, the words of institution must be so interpreted that they agree with “faith.” And when they are asked what this “faith” is which must interpret Scripture, the Reformed theologians of all times do not adduce Scripture but a rationalistic axiom. They insist that since every human body occupies space and is visible, the body of Christ, too, can have only a visible and local mode of presence (visibilis et localis praesentia); else it would not be a true human body. The presence of Christ’s human nature, says Calvin, cannot extend beyond the natural dimensions of the body of Christ (dimensio corporis, mensura corporis), beyond about six feet, and consequently cannot suffice for the simultaneous celebration of the Lord’s Supper at many places in the world. Carlstadt and Zwingli, and Calvin, too, deny the Real Presence, clearly taught in the words of institution, on the strength of the rationalistic canon that wherever the body of Christ is, it must necessarily occupy space and be visible.41 The Reformed denial of the Real Presence is thus based not on what Scripture says, but on what reason dictates; a human judgment counts more than the Scripture statement. Calvin accepts Luther’s definition of the status controversiae: “Their whole case rests on this, that Christ’s body must be at one place only, in a local and tangible manner.” The motive for the Reformed denial of the Real Presence is fully discussed in Vol. III.
c. The false principle, both the formal and the material, of the Calvinistic theologians is evident particularly in their answer to the question: Is the grace of God in Christ universal (gratia universalis) or particular (gratia particularis)? The Calvinistic Reformed will not permit Scripture to answer the question, though in many passages it teaches the gratia universalis (John 1:29; 3:16 ff.; 1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 2:4–6, etc.); they find the answer in the historical “result” or the historical “experience.” Hodge: “We must assume that the result is the interpretation of the purposes of God” (Syst. Theol. II, 323).42 The Reformed argue: Since actually not all men are saved, we must conclude that Christ’s merit and God’s will of grace do not extend over all men; to say that God wills something (the salvation of all men) which is only partially accomplished is to make sport of God’s wisdom, power, and majesty.43 The rationalistic conclusions nullify the declarations of Scripture.
In a very pronounced way Calvin rejects the Scripture principle in favor of speculative rationalism when he denies that Matt. 23:37, Luke 19:41 ff., Is. 65:2, and Rom. 10:21 prove that God seriously wills the salvation of all. It would be ridiculous, he contends, to take seriously the plaint and tears of Jesus and the “hands stretched forth” to the people and thus to “transfer to God what is peculiar to man.” (Inst. III, ch. 24, 17.) It will be seen that Calvin is so obsessed with his rationalistic speculations about the absolute God that he becomes the bitter enemy of all Scripture statements that teach universal grace.
The inevitable result of eliminating the gratia universalis is that the Gospel is, in effect, paralyzed. The stricken sinner does not believe in the Savior of sinners if he is really convinced that Jesus is the Savior of only some of the sinners (gratia particularis). The children of God within the Calvinistic Reformed Church rejoice in the salvation gained for them by Christ only because they never believed in the gratia particularis; or if they have accepted it intellectually, they comfort themselves in the terrores conscientiae with the gratia universalis.—When Reformed theologians, contrary to their own principle, direct the despairing sinner to the gratia universalis, they themselves condemn their partisanship for the gratia particularis.44
The Arminian section of the Reformed Church makes much of the gratia universalis, but does so at the expense of the sola gratia. Arminianism stands for a human co-operation in conversion.45 But in thus “limiting” the sola gratia it has abandoned the Scripture principle, for Scripture ascribes the conversion and salvation of man to the monergism of God (Eph. 1:19: “who believe according to the working of His mighty power”; Phil. 1:29; 1 Cor. 2:14; 1:23).46—At the same time this Arminian faith, which is in part the work of man, strikes at the heart of the Christian doctrine of justification χωρὶς νόμου, οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων, without the Law, not by works. When Erasmus declared that the facultas se applicandi ad gratiam, the co-operation of man, is needed to bring about conversion, Luther said: “Du bist mir an die Kehle gefahren” (“iugulum petisti, ” “you have me by the throat”), “You have attacked the vital part at once” (St. Louis XVIII:1967. Opp. v. a. VII, 367).