The Philosophy of John Calvin

By Wayne Jackson

John Calvin was born in 1509 in a small village about fifty miles north of Paris. When he was fourteen years old, he went to Paris to study theology and philosophy.

For a while, he turned his attention to pursuing a law degree. In 1534, he began work on his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he completed the following year; he was only twenty-six at the time. This work was revised over a period of twenty-five years. Calvin died of tuberculosis in 1564 at the age of fifty-five.

John Calvin was tremendously influential in the Protestant world. He is generally credited with being the spiritual father of Prebyterianism and the Reformed Churches. But he himself had been significantly influenced by Augustine (354-430). One authority says that “Calvin often read the Biblical text through the eyes of Augustine . . .” (Westminster Dictionary of Church History, p. 148).

And so, while it is true that, to some degree, Calvin was a “reformer,” it is likewise the case that he carried a considerable amount of “baggage” from the Western (Roman) Church, that body which eventually would evolve in to the Roman Catholic Church.

There is a passage from Calvin’s Institutes that vividly illustrates the attitude he entertained as to how the authority of the Scripture is to be considered. His jaded viewpoint is common in the religious community today. The topic is baptism – particulary the “mode.” May the rite be administered by the sprinkling of water, or is the immersion of the whole person required?

“Whether the person baptized is to be wholly immersed . . . or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptize means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church” (Institutes, 1975 ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, II, 524.)

There are several important points to consider in this revealing quotation.

First, Calvin concedes that the word “baptize” means immerse. This is telling testimony from an unbiased source who thinks the “mode” is immaterial.

The verb does signify “immerse,” as several texts, both in the Greek Old Testament and in the original New Testament, clearly reflect (cf. 2 Kgs. 5:14; Lk. 16:24; Jn. 13:26) —passages that translators were not tempted to tamper with because their theological bias was not challenged. And so, they rendered the original languages purely, rather then employing the camouflage of anglicizing, i.e., bringing the term from one language directly into another, with only slight letter modification.

Second, Calvin acknowledged that immersion “was the form used by the primitive Church.” This is very significant because it reveals what the early practice was as the church functioned under the oversight of inspired apostles.

Moreover, the reformer cited no example where doctrinal adjustment is permitted to accomodate “diversity of climates.” This reveals a very strong precedent in those days of no “heated” baptistries. There must be some reason why the ancient church insisted on immersion, even though that clearly was inconvenient on numerous occasions.

Third, Calvin reveals much when he suggests that churches “should be at liberty” to ignore the meaning of the words of holy scripture, and flaunt the example of divinely inspired church leaders.

This flawed ideology is at the root of vast changes that have corrupted the religion of Jesus Christ. May we learn from this distressing episode.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.