Calvin: The Theologian
John Calvin had an insatiable appetite for writing and it showed itself true in his theological writings. He had a special way of crafting words together, especially as it pertained to theology. Of all of Calvin’s giftedness given to him by God, his ability to write is ranked as one of the highest. Calvin’s depth and breadth in education helped make him one of the most prolific writers in all of church history. His giftedness in writing is noticed even today, as there are still a vast number of his theological writings that are being published.
Calvin handwrote the majority of his work published. Calvin was known for his fast and efficient handwriting. His writings were in Latin, which were “largely Ciceronian in style and wonderfully clear.” He wrote mostly concise and lucid sentences; however, there were times where he would interweave sentences that were full of imagery. God gifted Calvin with the intellectual wherewithal of piecing together the language with his prose.
One of the greatest theological contributions Calvin made was his writing of the Institutes. The Institutes of the Christian Religion was first published in 1536 when Calvin was only 27 years old. The book became famous almost instantaneously and became the doctrinal compass for the Protestant movement. Not only did Calvin produce the Institutes, but he also published commentaries. His commentaries had the largest impact on the Protestant movement, not because he produced the largest amount of writings, but because of his scholarly methods of approach within the scriptures.
Calvin’s commentaries were pastoral in content and sumptuous in scholarship. The Commentary on Romans was the first commentary published by Calvin in 1539, which was a masterpiece. Calvin, like Luther, saw the book of Romans as the most important book of the Bible. Calvin, in his brilliance and consistency, would eventually write commentaries on most of the Old Testament and all the books of the New Testament, except for Revelation, 2 and 3 John. Within the commentaries, one can sense the theological mind and heart of Calvin.
Calvin rarely wrote a manuscript out and usually preached extemporaneously from his Greek or Hebrew Bible. However, some of Calvin’s more well-to-do parishioners thought it would be a good idea to hire someone to write out his sermons. Nevertheless, “the preservation of the sermons in published form was not Calvin’s idea and was not a project he was particularly enthusiastic about.” The purpose for his sermons to be transcribed was for the common man to be able to read and understand Calvin, since his other writings were too challenging to some.
The letters of Calvin may be the most underrated of all his writings. There are over four thousand that have been published called, Corpus Refomatorum. As Calvin grew older and more physically fatigued, the duty of answering all the correspondences he received was overwhelming. Yet, he continued to write and respond to those who contacted him. During his correspondence to Servetus, he employed the pseudonym “Charles d’Espeville,” but his true identity was no secret to Servetus and others who received his letters. These letters were easily recognized due to Calvin’s pastoral heart, theological precision, and doctrinal dogma when he was trying to encourage, exhort, or rebuke the recipient.
Calvin’s theological writings and mind was not only used on paper, but also in the classroom. John Strum, a native of France, who was a scholar at the University of Paris, started a school in Strasbough, which Calvin was appointed as lecture of the Scriptures. Calvin lectured three days a week by giving exegetical courses on the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul. Calvin’s teaching in Strasbourgh would eventually pave the way for his academy in Geneva. Although Calvin was a faithful preacher, writer, and professor, he earned only a “florin per week for his lectures.” He would supplement his income by other means such as lawyering on the side, giving private lessons, or land lording. One of the greatest pains he must have experienced was when he had to sell part of his library. He was noted for complaining about the cost of living in Strasbourgh when he stated, “I can not claim a single penny my own. It is astonishing how money slips away in extraordinary expenses.”
Calvin’s theological writing gives one insight to his mind and heart as it pertains to the Bible. Calvin’s theology was defiantly more reformed than that of his Catholic upbringing. By being a pastor, writer, and professor of the Scriptures, Calvin had an outlet when it came to his theological convictions. Calvin was known largely for his strong convictions on the sinfulness of man and God’s decree in predestination of his elect. Sadly, Calvin’s views on other theological convictions are just as helpful, yet these two doctrinal positions seem to have acquired him the most opposition.
Calvin did not set out to base his whole ministry of pastoring, writing, and teaching around the doctrine of election. As a matter of fact, “Calvin did not begin with predestination and then proceed to atonement, regeneration, justification, and other doctrines. Predestination became an issue in the context of the history of salvation.” The issue arose for Calvin as he reflected on why, when the gospel is proclaimed, there are some who respond to God by repentance and faith and others do not?
Calvin’s understanding of election started with salvation. He taught and wrote those who were saved, i.e., the elect, were only saved because of God’s sovereign election and predestination. The same sovereign choice of those to salvation was the same sovereign choice of God for others to condemnation. Calvin wrote, “Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.” Thus, Calvin’s assertion is that the purpose behind God’s predestination and election is in God, and not the creature.
Likewise, Calvin’s understanding of man’s spiritual inability gave the logical reasoning behind Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional election. This would also be the reasoning why some are saved and others are not. Those who are not sovereignly elected to salvation are not elected to hell, but are passed over by God’s grace for reasons only He will ever know. Calvin gave this insight to election and reprobation when he said, “We assert that, with respect to the elect this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation.” Calvin’s understanding of election and predestination was not something he made up; rather it was based upon the clear teaching from Scripture.
Consequently, lest someone think Calvin to be arrogant in the doctrine of election, he was sympathetic toward others who delayed in teaching it when he wrote, “Their moderation in this matter is rightly to be praised, because they feel that these mysteries ought to be discussed with great soberness.” Calvin’s only desire was to stay committed to the Scripture as he exegeted the text, unlike today, where sermon series are stopped at Romans 8 or Ephesians 1 due to the lack of confidence in the Word of God. Calvin believed that the scriptures were sufficient because he believed that Christians have a duty to know and believe all that God sees fit to teach them in His Word.
Calvin was an impressive writer, preacher, and professor; however, all of Calvin’s accomplishments were due to him being rooted and grounded in his theology. Calvin was a brilliant theologian and it affected every area of his life. His doctrine and theology was Christocentric and God-glorifying, which made him a brilliant writer, professor, and theologian. He never intended for a theological system or specific doctrines to be ascribed to him with his name attached to them. Thus, Calvin believed and held that the doctrine of predestination and election brought about humility to the Christian, rather than boasting. Calvin’s theology and the boldness to write changed the course of church history, affected a generation of pastors, and the people of God in a major way, the effects of which can still be felt today.
 Ibid., p.148.
 Ibid p.104
 Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2013), 189.
 T.H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, (London: Westminister John Knox Press, 1975), 69.
 George, 241.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics, XX-XXI (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 3.21.3.
 Ibid., 3.21.7.
 Ibid., 3.21.3