Calvin’s Spirituality – Not an Oxymoron

Within the first few pages of Elsie Anne McKee’s John Calvin – Writings on Pastoral Piety, I was stricken with disbelief. Incredibly, McKee used ‘piety’ and ‘spirituality’ interchangeably.[1]  “Now I know piety and it’s not spirituality,” I said in no uncertain terms as I looked it up in my dictionary and read “having or exhibiting religious reverence; earnestly compliant in the observance of religion; devout.”[2]  Hmmm. I then thumbed to spirituality and found “the quality or state of being spiritual; pious; heavenly-mindedness.”[3]  It appeared my negative understanding of piety as rigid, dogmatic and judgmental belief was based far too much on my early experiences with the somewhat puritanical Christian Reformed Church in Australia.

It is also became clear that I had to wrestle with the similarly severe image of Calvin that I had developed as a result of equating Calvin with some of the forms of Calvinism that have existed, “which serves to emphasize the need for caution in discussing the specific contribution of Calvin’s own thought [to Calvinism].”[4]  Upon reading the Writings I have come to more fully appreciate the difference between the spirituality of the man and the pieces of that piety that have been developed by various groups into such a wide range of theological perspectives. Of particular interest was where the rubber hit the road, how Calvin’s piety played out in ethics and justice.

Calvin, born in Noyon, France to a bishop’s cleric, was chosen by his father to train as a priest, but eventually, after a change of opinion by his father, to work towards becoming a lawyer. During his studies in Paris, Orleans and Bourges, Calvin was greatly influenced by humanism, studied Greek and Hebrew, and came into contact with new religious ideas that were circulating in France.[5]  Implicated in the distribution of these new ideas by his friendship with Nicolas Cop, Calvin left Paris and wrestled with his need to break with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1534, he returned to Noyon to resign the ecclesiastical positions and accompanying support his father had arranged, thereby breaking his last tie to Rome. Predisposed to a quiet study of Scripture and his faith, and writing treatises explicating basic tenets of that faith, Calvin went into exile in the city of Basel.[6]  There, in 1536, he produced the first version of his most famous work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a small book of six chapters that spread quickly through Europe and gave its author a level of fame and notoriety.

After a brief visit to France, Calvin, still recognizing the need to be in exile, decided to settle in Strasbourg, a city much under the influence of early Protestants. While traveling through Geneva, where his reputation preceded him thanks to the Institutes, he was convinced by the relentless and damning arguments of fellow Frenchman, William Farel, to stay and assist in the development of a Protestant Genevan Church.[7]  The combination of his zeal, legal training and theological insight quickly assured Calvin a position of prominence in the young city-state, but also brought him into conflict with the predominantly mercantile class government. Calvin’s vision of ecclesiology included a church that was outside of civil control. Concerns of disloyalty quickly developed in the civil government, however, which then sought to trim the Church’s, and Calvin’s, wings. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva.[8]

After finally finishing his initial trip to Strasbourg, Calvin became pastor to a growing number of exiled French Protestants and resumed his writing. By 1539, he had compiled a more comprehensive version of the Institutes, a translation of some of the Psalms in a French psalter and had begun work on a biblical exegesis of Romans that would be published the following year.[9] During that same year he was also called on by the Genevan government to defend Protestantism against a letter from Cardinal Sadoleto entreating the city-state to return to Catholicism. By 1541, the Genevans’ recognition of their need for Calvin, combined with his sense that he needed to finish that which he had started, precipitated his return to Geneva to guide the church. While the remainder of Calvin’s time in Geneva, until his death on May 27, 1564, was spent in establishing the Swiss Reformed Church and writing and compiling many more works, it is now time to turn to the subject of this paper – Calvin’s writings on piety.

McKee used excerpts from many of Calvin’s extant writings, or translations of the same, to compile Writings on Pastoral Piety. Calvin’s use of language, at first glance, seemed unwieldy as noted by Hugh T. Kerr, the author of Calvin’s Institutes: A New Compend, in his article in Theology Today, “no matter how good translations can be, Calvin’s language seems ponderous and turgid for today, and there is no way to make his writing ‘inclusive’.”[10] He also stated, “…but conviction and even passion, and Calvin had both, are also necessary for a creative theology and today that may seem more important than skill at discursive argument; and finally, through it all, Calvin still speaks with the voice of one steeped in the Scriptures and whose heart, as he inscribed on his so-called crest, was devoted “completely and sincerely” to God in Jesus Christ.”[11]  McKee, through groupings of many translations, including some of her own, and the inclusion of brief but substantive introductions, managed to couch Calvin’s writings in a truly spiritual framework. Missing is the individualistic spirituality so popular in America, but instead what emanated is a sense of the spiritual nature of the individual as a member of the community that is church. The community’s relationship with God, nourished by “public and corporate means”, requires faith and prayer to “transform the community and the world as they transform each praying believer.”[12] 

In the autobiographical section of the Writings McKee gave a glimpse into the personal faith of John Calvin, by including in this section his response to Sadoleto, his preface to the commentary on the Psalms, and some personal letters to close friends. In particular, A Letter to Farel Regarding His Call to Return to Geneva, 1540, described his understanding of God’s call on his life and his understanding of how God communicates through others. Calvin wrote “… had I the choice at my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice [to return to Geneva]. But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord.”[13]  Calvin’s concept of humans belonging wholly to God – owing everything humanity is and has to God – was a recurring theme in his writings. Once God’s sovereignty was accepted, the human had little else to do but accept the call. That call, however, was rightly recognized when it comes from others – “…and whenever I am at a loss for counsel of my own, I submit myself to those by whom I hope that the Lord Himself [sic] will speak to me.”[14] 

The Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms contains significant insights into Calvin’s faith. He viewed the Psalms as reflecting all possible expressions of the soul – the Scriptural example for prayer. “The Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which humans minds are wont to be agitated,” precedes his instruction that “Genuine and earnest prayer proceeds first from a sense of our need, and next, from faith in the promises of God.”[15]  Calvin further discussed his own identification with David the psalmist by likening his own battles with antagonists within and without the church to the wars David fought against foreign enemies.

Part two, Theological Orientation, contains three excerpts from the 1559 InstitutesPiety from Book Two: The Knowledge of God the Creator; Faith from Book Three: The Way We Receive the Grace of Christ; and The Church from Book Four: The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein. Calvin discussed his concept of the “depravity” of humans in the first section. While there is no avoiding the judgment of severe corruption with which he indicts humans, Calvin did not relegate people to the level of earthworms. His thought, overly simplified of course, was based on the Fall of Adam casting humanity into ruin, a state it must seek to escape. In considering their own humanity, people are prompted to seek the goodness of God. When humans compare themselves to the obvious ‘majesty’ of God, there is no choice but to recognize their own impurity and corruption. In this process, humans become aware of the two-fold nature of God’s relationship with Creation – Creator and Redeemer. Piety occurs when a person recognizes God’s sovereignty in his or her life, by virtue of God’s creation and redemptive action through Jesus Christ, and responds to God in absolute reverence.[16]

Faith in the gospel – the good news – is the next step, developing after initial piety fosters reverence, in bringing humans to the loving service of God. Knowledge of faith, according to Calvin, is more an understanding of the assurance of God’s love and grace, than a comprehension of facts. Due to the human characteristic of vanity, the Holy Spirit is required to strengthen the heart and mitigate the dullness that limits understanding. In short faith is the “pouring into the heart itself what the mind has absorbed”.[17] Regeneration through repentance and justification complete the section on faith. Repentance, the acts of identifying and seeking forgiveness for the errors of the past and inadequacies of the present, and then recognizing and accepting God’s grace freely given, leads to justification. Being reconciled to God through Christ’s purity – the remission of sins and attribution of Christ’s righteousness – enables humans to cultivate blamelessness and purity of life, and to seek to serve only God’s will in this world.[18]

Since salvation and eternal blessings are made available to humans though faith in the gospel, Calvin next delineated how God made provision for the dissemination of the gospel to all – the Church. God instituted pastors and teachers “through whose lips He [sic] might teach His own, …and sacraments, which we who have experienced them feel to be highly useful aids to foster and strengthen faith.”[19]  While addressing his concept of the “elect” or “invisible church”, Calvin’s writings here discussed the visible church – the united body of believers under the leadership of Christ – the communion of saints. He asserted that it is not a human responsibility to distinguish between the elect and non-elect – the saved and the reprobate – since “that is for God alone, not for us, to do.”[20]  Calvin expounded that God has chosen to speak to our brokenness through interpreters within the church, the living image of God in the world, rather than drive us away in fear of the magnitude of his actual presence. This church existed where the word was preached and heard purely, and the sacraments administered as prescribed by Christ, and was the “whole multitude of people spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ.”[21]  As will be seen later, Calvin also believed the church to be God’s method of agency in the world.

Part Three, Liturgical and Sacramental Practices, and Part Four, Prayer, lay out certain facets of church life and practice. Described in Part Three are the forms, as well as some of the content, that the church uses to make the proclamation of the gospel. It generally discusses Calvin’s use of the Psalms, liturgical outlines for Sundays, Holy Days and weekdays, and some of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries on Scripture. Calvin believed prayer was fundamental to Christian life and, as such, prayer accompanied virtually every event – public or private. While prayer could be unspoken, he believed a major function of ministry was the teaching of the laity to pray. There was a general pattern to Calvin’s prayers: an introductory section that was usually fixed, but that changed gradually over time, and contained an acknowledgement of sins and a request for God’s forgiveness; a variety of prescribed endings whose selection depended on the particular day of the week or nature of the event; a central section, longer than the others, that summarized the sermon or exhorted the church to act based on the content of the sermon.[22]  When lecturing, Calvin appended a short prayer at the end generally related to the topic discussed. Except for some original Old Testament lectures, these prayers were removed before the talk was transcribed into commentaries for later publication.

While prayer was the “chief exercise of piety”, activity in the world was the chief response of the pious to God’s call, and the Church was the agent of that activity. “Calvin’s piety can be characterized as intensely activist, a devotion to God lived out in the practical present daily world,”[23] described Calvin’s belief that real devotion to God was lived out by caring for your neighbor and keeping to just and righteous actions. In sermons, the Institutes, commentaries and letters to individuals, Calvin clearly espoused tenets of Christian charity – not as magnanimous acts of a ‘more elevated’ person to a ‘lesser’ one, but with a clear understanding that any worldly attributes were given by God to be used for the collective benefit of all God’s children.

Calvin exhorted all to not only keep the Sabbath themselves, but to ensure that all in their employ, or all in poverty, could also observe it by not having to work. It wasn’t simple charity that led people to treat employees fairly, or to share with the poor, but also a righteous response to God’s call to keep his Commandments.[24] God demanded this observance of God’s law as an expression of service to the divine will. Elsewhere, Calvin proclaimed that giving in to self-interest was a “pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction”[25] and “whatever person we deal with, we shall treat him [sic] not only moderately and modestly but also cordially and as a friend.”[26]  Calvin clearly proposed that, upon meeting anyone, no consideration of his or her apparent evil or earthly station be given, just recognition of the image of God in their face.

Later forms of Calvinism departed from some of Calvin’s theology. Christopher Burchill wrote, “Indeed, in his major statement on the question, which appeared under the title of ‘Early-Orthodoxy and Rationalism’ in Barth’s Theologische Studien in 1963, Bizer was able to identify a series of issues on which the theologians of Geneva and Heidelberg had departed from the teaching of their mentor within less than twenty years of Calvin’s death.”[27]  Some Calvinist attitudes seemed to adopt a sense that, despite not knowing the identity of the elect, God’s favor in someone’s life could be discerned by their economic and social status. Many Calvinists, for instance the eminent, civil war era pastor and professor R.L. Dabney, defended slavery and workplace exploitation, which appears to be in stark contrast to Calvin’s thoughts. Calvin, being widely understood as a ‘father’ of capitalism, seemed to propose activity in the world that is incompatible with a capitalist society as it is known today. In an age in which accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption of resources is expected, if not admired to a great extent, Calvin’s message seems almost anti-capitalist.

In closing, Calvin’s spirituality and, yes, his piety were clearly practical – reverence for God promoting agency in the community and world – not just for goodness’ sake, but in order to acknowledge God’s grace and redemptive activity in our lives by our equally redemptive activity towards our neighbors.



[1] Elsie Anne McKee, editor & translator, John Calvin – Writings on Pastoral Piety, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001, p 4.

[2] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc, 1971, p 992.

[3] Ibid, p 1246

[4] Christopher Burchill, Visiting Assistant Professor in Core Humanities at Villanova University, Calvin against the Calvinists, lecture delivered at a conference in Aberdeen (1984), p 6. <http://www74.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.burchill/my%20papers/Calvin%20against%20the%20Calvinists.pdf&gt;.

[5] McKee, p 7

[6] Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity,Vol 2. The Reformation to the Present Day, New York: HarperCollins, 1985, p 63.

[7] Ibid, pp 65-66

[8] McKee, pp 9-11

[9] Ibid p12

[10] Hugh T. Kerr, “Reflections on Revisions”, Theology Today Vol 47, No 2,  Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, July 1990, p 117.

[11] Ibid.

[12] McKee, p 4

[13] Ibid, p 51

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, p 56

[16] Ibid pp 67-73

[17] Ibid p 77

[18] Ibid pp 74-78

[19] Ibid p 79

[20] Ibid p 80

[21] Ibid p 81

[22] Ibid p 220

[23] Ibid p 249

[24] Ibid p 265

[25] Ibid p 273

[26] Ibid p 275

[27] Burchill, p 3

2 Responses to “Calvin’s Spirituality – Not an Oxymoron”

  1. April 28, 2009 at 6:33 PM

    Have you seen the new Calvin materials posted at http://www.calvin500.com? I thought you might be interested.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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