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10 Things You Should Know about the Theology of John Calvin


Last week we looked at ten things all of us should know about the life of John Calvin. Today we turn our attention to ten things concerning his theology. Our primary, but not exclusive, source for these truths about Calvin’s theology come from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition of which in 1536 contained only 6 chapters. The final edition of 1550 had 80 chapters. Continue reading . . . 

Last week we looked at ten things all of us should know about the life of John Calvin. Today we turn our attention to ten things concerning his theology. Our primary, but not exclusive, source for these truths about Calvin’s theology come from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition of which in 1536 contained only 6 chapters. The final edition of 1550 had 80 chapters.

(1) Calvin’s view on the knowledge of God and Scripture is foundational to everything else he believed. “No one,” says Calvin, “can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God” (I, 1.1). It is only through a realization of who and what we are that we come to know the same of God. It is only through the recognition of our own poverty that we see God’s riches. “Each of us must . . . be stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God” (I, 1.1.). Yet, on the other hand, “it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself” (I, 1.2). That is to say, only by comparison with the divine and the infinite do we see ourselves to be truly human and finite: “As a consequence, we must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (I, 1.3).

Calvin argued that God has implanted a seed of religion or an “awareness of divinity” in everyone. Thus there is “no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God” (I, 3.1). Theoretical atheism, therefore, is impossible. Men may live as if there is no God, but they cannot deny his existence, “for the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within” (I, 3.3). However, the innate knowledge of God is corrupted by sin and consequently men “deliberately befuddle themselves” (I, 4.2).

There is also a knowledge of God that proceeds from God’s revelation of himself in nature: “Men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him” (I, 5.1), and “wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory” (I, 5.1). This general revelation renders all without excuse. But the knowledge of God that leads to salvation is found only in Scripture:

“Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God” (I, 6.1).

(2) Calvin advocated what he called the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” or the Testimonium Internum Spiritus Sancti. How can we know the authority of Scripture? Calvin believed that “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color or sweet and bitter things of their taste” (I, 7.2). The persuasion that God is the author of Scripture was established in us by the internal testimony of the Spirit. The Word of God does not derive its authority from the Church, but the reverse. The authority of the Word arises from the testimony it receives from the inner work of the Spirit in the regenerate mind:

“The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (I, 7.4).

Thus, Scripture is self-authenticating. “It is not right,” notes Calvin, “to subject it to proof and reasoning” (I, 7.5). Again,

“Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork” (I, 7.5).

So far as reason goes, there are many firm proofs to establish the credibility of Scripture. These “proofs”, however, are of the nature of confirmation for the believer, not demonstration for the unbeliever. Calvin points to such things as the superiority of its wisdom, antiquity, miracles, fulfilled prophecy, preservation and transmission of the text, simplicity, heavenly character, that martyrs died for it, etc. Nevertheless,

“Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. . . . But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known” (I, 8.13).

(3) Calvin was a strong advocate of the inerrancy of Scripture. Some believe he rejected inerrancy but their concerns can be answered by remembering several things. First, Calvin refers to instances in which God has accommodated himself to the knowledge and speech of the author’s situation, as in the use of phenomenological language. Also, where Calvin does acknowledge an “error” it is almost always an “error” resulting from transmission of the text that would not have been found in the original. Dowey says that when Calvin “does admit an undeniable error of grammar or fact, without exception he attributes it to copyists, never to the inspired writer. There is no hint anywhere in Calvin’s writings that the original text contained flaws at all” (The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, 100). Third, other alleged errors pertain to instances where NT authors loosely quote or cite OT texts. Finally, there is what J. I. Packer calls a “formal inaccuracy.” He argues that in instances where no assertion was intended, no error can be made. For example,

“An example of this class of statements is Calvin’s denial that the evangelists meant at every point to write narratives which were chronologically ordered, leading to the claim that since they did not intend to connect everything chronologically, but on occasion preferred to follow a topical or theological principle of arrangement, therefore they cannot be held to contradict each other when they narrate the same events in a different sequence” (106).

(4) Another feature of his theology has come to be known as the Illud Calvinisticum. The Lutherans had contended that the whole Logos (Word) was present in Jesus, thus demanding the communication of the divine attribute of omnipresence to the humanity (and hence the latter’s ubiquity). Calvin and the reformed tradition held to a much stronger distinction between the infinite and finite and thus concluded that the Logos, truly present in Jesus’ manhood, is nonetheless existent outside it, governing the world simultaneously from a different center of life and consciousness, so to speak, from that at which he dwelt incarnate in Jesus. Said Calvin:

“Although the boundless essence of the Word was united with human nature into one person, we have no idea of any enclosing. The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet always filled the world as from the beginning” (II, 13ff.).

(5) One of Calvin’s principal contributions to the church’s understanding of the work of Christ was his focus on the active obedience of Christ:

“When it is asked then how Christ, by abolishing sin, removed the enmity between God and us, and purchased a righteousness which made him favorable and kind to us, it may be answered generally, that he accomplished this by the whole course of his obedience [emphasis mine]. This is proved by the testimony of Paul, ‘As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous’ (Rom. 5:19). And indeed he elsewhere extends the ground of pardon which exempts from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ, ‘when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law’ (Gal. 4:4,5). Thus even at his baptism he declared that a part of righteousness was fulfilled by his yielding obedience to the command of the Father. In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance. Scripture, however, the more certainly to define the mode of salvation ascribes it peculiarly and specially to the death of Christ” (II, 16.5).

As for the efficacy of the cross, he writes: “Our acquittal is in this – that the guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God (Isa. 53:12)” (II, 16.5). And again, “For the Son of God, though spotlessly pure, took upon him the disgrace and ignominy of our iniquities, and in return clothed us with his purity” (II, 16.6).

(6) As for original sin, he identifies Adam’s transgression as unfaithfulness. “But thereafter ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam by seeking more than was granted him shamefully spurned God’s great bounty, which had been lavished upon him” (II, 1.4). Did God ordain Adam’s fall into sin? “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man and the ruin of his posterity in him, but appointed it by his own will.”

“Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’” (II, 1.8). Again, “Therefore, all of us, who have descended from impure seed, are born infected with the contagion of sin. In fact, before we saw the light of this life, we were soiled and spotted in God’s sight” (II, 1.5). Thus, “the beginning of corruption in Adam was such that it was conveyed in a perpetual stream from the ancestors into their descendants” (II, 1.7).

He appears to deny the concept of the immediate imputation of guilt: “. . . we are so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God. . . . And this is not liability for another’s transgression. For, since it is said that we became subject to God’s judgment through Adam’s sin, we are to understand it not as if we, guiltless and undeserving bore the guilt of his offense but in the sense that, since we through his transgression have become entangled in the curse, he is said to have made us guilty” (II, 1.8). I.e., guilt comes with and because of corruption of nature, not prior to it. Again,

“And the apostle himself most eloquently testifies that ‘death has spread to all because all have sinned’ (Rom. 5:12). That is, they have been enveloped in original sin and defiled by its stains. For that reason, even infants themselves, while they carry their condemnation along with them from the mother’s womb, are guilty not of another’s fault but of their own. For, even though the fruits of their iniquity have not yet come forth, they have the seed enclosed within them. Indeed, their whole nature is a seed of sin; hence it can be only hateful and abhorrent to God. From this it follows that it is rightly considered sin in God’s sight, for without guilt there would be no accusation” (II, 1.8).

(7) The human will is inextricably bound up with and is the voluntary fruit of human nature: “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace” (II, 3.5). Therefore, man acts and sins willingly, not of compulsion: “the mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench” (II, 5.19).

As for conversion, even faith is a divine gift: “But since the whole of Scripture proclaims that faith is a free gift of God, it follows that when we, who are by nature inclined to evil with our whole heart, begin to will good, we do so out of mere grace” (II, 3.8).

(8) As for his doctrine of predestination, he declares that

“We shall never be clearly persuaded as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others. . . . How much the ignorance of this principle detracts from God’s glory; how much it takes away from true humility, is well known” (III, 21.1).

Calvin defines predestination as “God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or death” (III, 21.5).

Election is unconditional, pre-temporal, to salvation and not merely to service, and entails reprobation: “those whom God passes over, he condemns; and this he does for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children” (III, 23.1).

In response to those who would object and accuse God of injustice, Calvin says:

“. . . it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are. For if it has any cause, something must precede it, to which it is, as it were, bound; this is unlawful to imagine. For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found. Let men’s rashness, then, restrain itself, and not seek what does not exist, lest perhaps it fail to find what does exist” (III, 23.2).

(9) Calvin affirmed the forensic nature of justification by faith alone:

“Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (III, 21.2).

(10) Calvin’s views on church and sacrament should also briefly be noted. He says that the Bible speaks of the church in two ways: (1) that which is in God’s presence, “into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit.” This includes all saints, both living and dead. (2) But often the term “church” designates “the whole multitude of men spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ” (IV, 1.7). The latter use of the term contains unbelievers, known only to God, just as the former contains only the elect, again known only to God.

The marks of a true church are two-fold: first, the preaching of the Word, and second, the sacraments. “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to God’s institution, there, it is not be doubted, a church of God exists” (IV, 1.9). Calvin, like the other reformers, recognized only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is a sign and seal of the remission of sins, showing that we have been grafted into the body and the visible church. Calvin advocated paedo-baptism.

He denied as a “monstrous iniquity” the concept of the physical presence of Christ in the elements, yet he affirmed a spiritual presence. Christ is somehow received in the supper, either descending by the Spirit or by our being lifted up to him by the Spirit.


I am wondering how Calvin would account for the saving faith of folks like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Rahab, and others in the OT record who would have had no access to the knowledge of Christ or even the OT revelation / scriptures. I suppose he would have assumed that they must have received some kind of "special revelation" but that seems forced.

I find it odd reasoning and hard to accept, biblically, that the revelation of God's attributes clearly seen in creation and in functioning conscience would be sufficient to damn those who suppress it but insufficient for salvation in those who receive it in faith, via common grace. I don't think those folks could enjoy much assurance but I have yet to understand why we should assume that everyone who has never heard of Jesus should be presumed to perish, given God's stated love for the world and Christ's propitiation for the whole world.

It makes more sense that God's grace would always be sufficient for the revelation that He gives to each individual. Unto whom much is given much is expected...

Or, as Kenny Rogers' old Gambler would say, "Every hand's a winner and every hand's a loser."

I am trying to read through Calvin's Institutes this year, and I am about a third of the way through. For all his intellect it is thus far a surprisingly understandable and edifying read! I appreciate Calvin's high view of God, and just how much Scripture saturates his writing. I encourage Christians (even your non-five pointers) to give it a read through!

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