Born in France in 1509, theologian/ecclesiastical statesman John Calvin was Martin Luther’s successor as the preeminent Protestant theologian. Calvin made a powerful impact on the fundamental doctrines of Protestantism, and is widely credited as the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation. He died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1564. [Biography.com]
Born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, Picardy, France, John Calvin was a law student at the University of Orléans when he first joined the cause of the Reformation. In 1536, he published the landmark text Institutes of the Christian Religion, an early attempt to standardize the theories of Protestantism. Calvin’s religious teachings emphasized the sovereignty of the scriptures and divine predestination—a doctrine holding that God chooses a select few to enter Heaven, regardless of their good works or their faith.
Leading Figure of Reformation
Calvin lived in Geneva briefly, until anti-Protestant authorities in 1538 forced him to leave. He was invited back again in 1541, and upon his return from Germany, where he had been living, he became an important spiritual and political leader. Calvin used Protestant principles to establish a religious government; and in 1555, he was given absolute supremacy as leader in Geneva.
As Martin Luther’s successor as the preeminent Protestant theologian, Calvin was known for an intellectual, unemotional approach to faith that provided Protestantism’s theological underpinnings, whereas Luther brought passion and populism to his religious cause.
While instituting many positive policies, Calvin’s government also punished “impiety” and dissent against his particularly spare vision of Christianity with execution. In the first five years of his rule in Geneva, 58 people were executed and 76 exiled for their religious beliefs. Calvin allowed no art other than music, and even that could not involve instruments. Under his rule, Geneva became the center of Protestantism, and sent out pastors to the rest of Europe, creating Presbyterianism in Scotland, the Puritan Movement in England and the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.
Death and Legacy
Calvin died on May 27, 1564, in Geneva, Switzerland. It is unknown where he is buried. Today, Calvin remains widely credited as the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin “generally had a more benevolent view of the Jews” than did other Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther. However, his views are somewhat inconsistent, and the subject of continuing debate.
“Although at times his remarks could be acerbic, he nevertheless taught that the Bible indicated a time when Israel would be restored by coming to faith in their Messiah. “ In speaking about the Jews, Calvin said, “I extend the word Israel to all the people of God, according to this meaning, When the Gentiles shall come in, the Jews also shall return from their defection to the obedience of faith; and thus shall be completed the salvation of the whole Israel of God, which must be gathered from both; and yet in such a way that the Jews shall obtain the first place, being as it were the first born in God’s family.”
“As Jews are the firstborn, what the Prophet declares must be fulfilled, especially in them: for that scripture calls all the people of God Israelites, it is to be ascribed to the pre-eminence of that nation, who God had preferred to all other nations…God distinctly claims for himself a certain seed, so that his redemption may be effectual in his elect and peculiar nation…God was not unmindful of the covenant which he had made with their fathers, and by which he testified that according to his eternal purpose he loved that nation: and this he confirms by this remarkable declaration, that the grace of the divine calling cannot be made void.”
One of the issues confronting Christians was the determination of the proper age for Baptism. Calvin believed in the baptism of infants. He saw baptism as analogous to circumcision – a rite by which the child is sealed in the faith of his fathers. Since God had ordained circumcision for Jewish infants, it was obvious that He intended for Christian to undergo their version of the ritual as infants as well.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the life, work and legacy of this great Protestant Reformer. Help us to make use of his contribution as he sought to explain the nature of the Church and Israel, and develop his thought further where necessary. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Please see Mary Potter Engel’s excellent study for more material, and R K Soulen’s important work “The God of Israel and Christian Theology” to set Calvin in his place in Christian thought on Israel.
Michael Vlach writes:
John Calvin’s views on Israel also appear to evidence a rejection/acceptance tension. According to Willem VanGemeren, “Some have seen the utter rejection of Israel in Calvin’s writing, whereas others have also viewed the hope for national Israel.”57 Williamson, for example, believes there is a tension in Calvin’s writings on this issue when he states, “On the one hand, Calvin strongly insisted that God’s promise to and covenant with the people Israel was unconditional, unbreakable, and gracious. . . . On the other hand, Calvin often makes statements exactly opposing the above.”58
At times, Calvin made statements consistent with supersessionism. For him, the “all Israel” who will be saved in Rom 11:26 is a reference to the church composed of Jews and Gentiles.59 He also took the interpretation that the “Israel of God” in Gal 6:16 refers to “all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, who were united into one church.”60 At other times, though, Calvin made statements that seem to indicate he believed in some form of a future for the Jewish people. For example, in his commentary on Isa 59:20, he stated,
Paul quotes this passage, (Rom. xi. 26,) in order to shew that there is still some remaining hope among the Jews; although from their unconquerable obstinacy it might be inferred that they were altogether cast off and doomed to eternal death. But because God is continually mindful of his covenant, and “his gifts and calling are without repentance” (Rom. xi. 29), Paul justly concludes that it is impossible that there shall not at length be some remnant that come to Christ, and obtain that salvation which he has procured. Thus the Jews must at length be collected along with the Gentiles that out of both “there may be one fold” under Christ. (John x. 16). . . . Hence we have said that Paul infers that he [Christ] could not be the redeemer of the world, without belonging to some Jews, whose fathers he had chosen, and to whom this promise was directly addressed.61
John Calvin and the Jews: His Exegetical Legacy
by G. Sujin Pak
The topic of Calvin and the Jews is a much-debated topic within scholarship. Indeed, the lack of consensus in scholarship on Calvin’s place in the history of Christian-Jewish relations ranges from seeing Calvin as one of the least anti-Judaic figures of his time1 to one holding typical sixteenth-century views of Jews and Judaism2 to being a firm antagonist of Jews and Judaism.3 Achim Detmers’s book Reformation und Judentum is the most thorough recent account on the topic of Calvin and the Jews, and in it he distinguishes between a first and a second way in which Calvin teaches about “Israel.” The first way concerns biblical Jews and Judaism, whereas the second way concerns contemporary Jews and Judaism. Indeed, Detmers rightly points out that a key cause of the discrepancies in scholarship on the topic of Calvin and the Jews is that “Calvin’s theological statements regarding biblical Judaism and his statements about contemporary Judaism have not been clearly enough distinguished.”5 Detmers also appropriately calls attention to the fact that the history of Calvin’s actual contacts with Jews has not been adequately investigated. Indeed, Detmers
provides one of the most thorough accounts available of what we can know about Calvin’s contacts with Jews.6