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Evangelicalism and John Calvin

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 28 July 2022

While reading William Bouwsma's book on Calvin I was again and again reminded of links with evangelicalism. This is not surprising. Talking to an ex-evangelical who found his way out, he told me that evangelicals love Calvin. The similarities are numerous but the most prominent shared idea is that God had ordered the world in certain ways and to break free of those ways was an occasion of sin and damnation. God had a plan for the world and each person living. Bouwsma explains that Calvin lived as if the medieval construction of the universe still held, that the earth existed in sublunary space that was surrounded by the divine and unchanging realm of heaven. The order of the world was determined by the order of heaven. As the saying goes: "as above, so below". This produced an extreme conservatism that abhorred all change in society, in politics and in the Church. Each person had been called by God to live in his or her place in society. Wives were subject to husbands and could only live as mothers and housekeepers. Sons would follow their father's professions; the aristocracy would be immune from attempts at revolution and the state held the means of social correction. The Church had authority over government.

This explains, in part, Calvin's moralising tendency that sought to order the city of Geneva in the paths of the will of God. However, this ordering, that to him, was plain as day, in the bible, was confronted by philosophical and scientific evidence. Copernicus had, in Calvin's lifetime, demonstrated the heliocentric structure of the solar system. He missed the work of Galileo published in 1609 that showed that the sun, the planets and their moons were not divine but very much like the earth. In retrospect, Calvin would eventually have had to back down on his medieval astronomy as eventually the Roman church realised.

Copernicus' findings were a cataclysm for the medieval synthesis. Calvin's assumed astronomical hierarchy, in which the order of the heavens dictated the order of earth was untenable. Calvin could only maintain that ordering by ignoring Copernicus, which he did. To be fair, he was not alone.


There were other changes, not in scientific understanding, but in philosophy that Calvin could not ignore. There came about, with the aid of William of Ockham, the destruction of medieval epistemology. This movement, called Nominalism destroyed Aristotle's understanding that "The act of knowing is the same as the thing known." Hence there was no distance between the thing and language about the thing. The old certainties of the Medieval age were swept away. A veil was drawn between a thing and language that indicated it. Calvin, trained in philosophy and Renaissance humanism, recognised the truth of this change. The idea that universals linked things with their names was destroyed, they were only names and had no existence. Only discreet things had existence and knowledge of them had to be deduced. Without this movement natural science would have been impossible. A profound philosophical scepticism about how we can know the world came into view.

It is Bouwsma's contention that, along with Calvin's personal attributes and a previous expulsion from Geneva, these two great changes in natural science and philosophy contributed to an extreme form of anxiety that drove him to control himself and the society of Geneva so that the will of God would be obeyed. As the primary leader of the Genevan church, he was faced with the newly formed Jesuits, the popes shock troops of the counter reformation, the council of Trent and wars on all sides. There was certainly much to be anxious about. But the philosophical anxiety threatened the foundations of theology and without certainty how could Calvin steadfastly lead the troublesome church in Geneva?

The urge to control anything outside what he perceived to be the will of God changed the city of Geneva into a theocracy. Calvin became a zealot and a killjoy. His zealotry was fuelled by his hatred of Catholicism and the superstition it had engendered in believers. For example, he forbade use of the name Claude, who was patron saint of Geneva, in the naming of children in baptism. To do so would invite idolatry. Similarly, he was against the use of musical instruments in church and condemned dancing in the city. Calvin's moralism could also lead him into a facile view of calamity as punishment for sin so that he sided with Job's accusers instead of with Job, the righteous man who was unfairly punished by God. His view of human life was overwhelmed by considerations of salvation or perdition in the afterlife, so much so that the present life was emptied of joy, and he teetered on the brink of Manicheism, the understanding that the world was divided between good and evil. He failed to realise that good and evil were inextricably intertangled and this led to a false piety. His language was often peppered with immoderate and scatological terms, such was his passion.

Calvin was a biblical theologian. He read the bible as God's instructions to humanity concerning His will. This made his reading difficult because he found content in the bible what was not at all in line with this idea. Consequently, in his commentaries, we find himself twisting himself in knots in order to arrive at a "proper" moral interpretation.

Although Calvin gave a nod to Trinitarianism and his theology was strongly Christological, his God was less the merciful father and more a monarchical despot who forced his will on humankind. Since, as was common for the time, God was thought to have the power to intervene in the working of the world, the misfortune that befell societies and individuals was interpreted as the wrath of God.

This construction so overwhelmed his thought that he took no comfort at the glory of the creation. Indeed, the Fall condemned the whole creation to perdition, no comfort could come from such a broken state of being. "He clung, at times with frantic tenacity, to the conception of a natural order that had traditionally helped human beings to feel comfortable in the world. But this conception was also antithetical to his deep sense of the incomprehensibility of God and the contingency of the world."


The idea of universal perdition and double predestination produced fear of hell that could only be ameliorated by strict obedience to the will of God in all things, a contrast to the original impulse of the Reformation that declared, after Paul, that righteousness could not be obtained by good works but only by faith. A refinement of Paul in our time notes that it is not our faith that saves but the faith of Jesus, thus removing trust in personal piety.

God may be the same from the beginning of eternity, but it is also true that humanity progresses into further understanding. Although much of the New Testament is based on the Old, there are radical differences such as the inclusion of the uncircumcised and the abolition of the food and purity laws that produced a rift between Judaism and Christianity. In Christ the Church was confronted by a new vision of God. A new appreciation of the eschatological tropes in both the Old and New Testaments shapes a community that looks to the future instead of clinging to the past. To insist that we must be where Calvin was all those years ago is to resist the movement of the Holy Spirit to create a new future that looks just a bit more like the kingdom of God.

Much theology of our time differs from Calvin in that it is not solely directed to the afterlife; to individual salvation in heaven. A closer inspection of the New Testament reveals that Jesus saw the coming of the kingdom of heaven to us, on earth. Since the Copernican revolution, heaven cannot be a place to which the immortal soul can travel after death. The idea of soul-body dualism has been found to be incomprehensible to modern neurophysiology and psychiatry. It appears that human beings consist of an ensouled body.

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Quotations are from William J. Bouwsma. John Calvin. A sixteenth Century Portrait. (1988)

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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