Christianity in the Reformation Era
Class 7 - Spread of Calvinism

Class 7

The Spread of Calvinism


Scope:   The most important theologian and religious leader in the second generation of Protestantism was John Calvin (1509–1564). Immersion in humanism and study of the law, as well as the experience of religious exile, were among Calvin’s most important formative influences. Calvin’s theology, best known through his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, emphasizes God’s sovereignty and majesty, divine providence, predestination, and Christian activism in the world. Calvin played the crucial role in establishing the distinctive ecclesiastical order in his adoptive Swiss city of Geneva, with its four ministries (doctors, pastors, elders, and deacons) and the disciplinary body known as the Consistory.


John Calvin, was significantly influenced by humanism, the study of law, and the experience of religious exile.

Calvin studied at the University of Paris, where he was exposed to traditional scholasticism, as well as humanism.

Humanism had a much deeper influence on Calvin than on Luther.

Calvin’s first published work was a learned commentary on Seneca’s De clementia (1532).

After Paris, Calvin studied law at Orleans and Bourges.

Legal ways of thinking and arguing shaped Calvin’s theology. He was sensitive to the importance of laws and their relationship to institutions for collective human life.

In his theology, we see a more positive view of the role of law in Christianity and Christian theology than we do in Luther. For Luther, God’s law functioned only to drive individuals to Christ and to restrain the wicked in public life. For Calvin, God’s law is also a positive guide to Christian practice.

In a sense, Calvin viewed scripture as God’s last will and testament, notarized by Christ.

Calvin spent his entire career as a refugee for his religious views.

After his conversion to Protestantism, Calvin left France and, in 1536, was persuaded to help establish the Reformation in Geneva with Guillaume Farel.

Calvin and Farel were exiled from Geneva in 1538 after trying to do too much too quickly.

Calvin spent three years in Strasbourg with Martin Bucer as the pastor to French-speaking Protestant refugees.

In 1541, Calvin accepted an invitation to return to Geneva, where he remained until his death in 1564.

Calvin’s theology stresses, most systematically in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, God’s sovereignty and majesty, divine providence, predestination, and a determined Christian activism.

Calvin shared many central Protestant convictions with Luther.

The idea of justification by faith alone was fundamental for Calvin.

Calvin upheld the autonomy of scripture as God’s word and, thus, its authority in all matters of Christian doctrine and life.

Like Luther, he rejected many Catholic teachings and practices.

A profound sense of reverent awe for God as creator and redeemer pervades Calvin’s theology and is directly related to his uncompromising concern with true doctrine and right worship.

Calvin’s sense of divine providence means that everything that transpires does so as the result of God’s will.

God’s sovereign providence is directly related to a profound trust that in the end, God will never let down his elect.

Calvin’s theology is less apocalyptic and more hopeful about the future than Luther’s.

A corollary of God’s sovereignty and providence is double predestination, the teaching that God predestines by his grace some souls to eternal salvation and others to eternal damnation.

Predestination is meant to remove entirely any anxiety about one’s own status in God’s eyes.

A denial of predestination affronts God’s sovereignty, as it reflects the human desire to create a reasonable God in man’s image.

According to Calvin, the Christian’s gratitude for the gift of eternal life should be manifest in every domain of one’s life, doing good works and avoiding immorality to reflect God’s glory.

With Luther, salvation is a point of arrival; with Calvin, it is more a point of departure.

Calvin stresses much more than Luther the process of sanctification that follows justification by faith alone.

Psychologically, Calvin’s emphasis on predestination probably also affected his Christian activism, seeing in a model Christian life a presumptive indication of one’s elect status.

Calvin was the chief architect of Geneva's ecclesiastical institutions; he sought to make the city a civic reflection of God’s glory, an “anti- Münster.”

The process of Christian sanctification required a stable framework for individual and collective life, implying institutions, laws, and discipline.

Ministry in the church in Geneva was carried out through four distinct offices, established in late 1541 after Calvin’s return to the city.

Pastors were responsible for preaching the word of God, for instructing and admonishing Christians, and for administering the sacraments.

Doctors were teachers who were responsible for preserving and teaching pure doctrine.

Elders were laymen chosen by the city’s magistrates, who together with the pastors, supervised the discipline and morals of people in the city.

Deacons were laymen responsible for overseeing aid to the sick and the needy.

The pastors and elders together composed the Consistory, Geneva’s religious and moral judicial institution.

The Consistory met every week and was responsible for maintaining discipline and punishing breaches in Christian morality.

Scrupulosity characterized the Consistory’s work, which made no exemptions for the powerful and well connected.

Ecclesiastical and civic institutions in Geneva were distinct yet cooperative, seeking the common goal of a well-ordered Christian commonwealth that reflected God’s glory.

Calvinism in France and the Low Countries

Scope:   Calvinism grew enormously in France between 1555 and 1562 and in the Low Countries between 1555 and 1566. After the first official Calvinist church was established in Paris in 1555, Calvinists made effective use of different forms of communication to attract significant numbers of followers among the urban “middling sorts,” especially in southern France. Relations between Huguenots (as French Calvinists were called) and Catholics grew increasingly strained until they finally erupted in 1562, initiating the French Wars of Religion. A similar pattern may be observed in the Low Countries after the establishment of the first official Calvinist church in Antwerp in 1555, although the significant growth in Calvinism did not occur until the 1560s. Tense relations boiled over in the summer of 1566 in the Iconoclastic Fury, a Calvinist campaign that destroyed Catholic ecclesiastical art in hundreds of churches. During these tense, volatile years, earlier Protestant admonitions to passive disobedience were transformed into theories of active resistance in Protestant political thought. 


Between 1555 and 1562, Calvinism grew enormously in France. Tensions between Calvinists and Catholics eventually erupted in war in 1562.

Calvinism spread by means of printing, ministers trained in Geneva, and oral communication.

Numerous Calvinist works poured from clandestine presses in Paris, Lyons, and Geneva, during the 1540s and 1560s.

Even though demand far outstripped supply, at least 88 trained ministers were sent from Geneva to new Calvinist churches between 1555 and 1562.

Oral communication, including open preaching and singing, helped spread Calvinism.

Calvinism found most of its adherents among urban “middling sorts” and the nobility.

The Protestant emphasis on the Bible and God’s Word helps account for the fact that most Calvinists were urban, literate artisans, lawyers, city officials, shopkeepers, and small merchants.

Highly significant were the converts among the nobility, about half of whom had become Calvinist by 1560, giving Calvinism a disproportionate political clout.

Calvinism was concentrated in a southern arc from La Rochelle to Lyons, with additional concentrations in Paris and Normandy.

Several chronological milestones mark the years of explosive Calvinist growth in France.

The first official, organized Calvinist church in France was established in Paris in 1555.

By 1557–1558, there were large-scale, public displays by Calvinists in a number of cities, including Paris.

In 1559, the death of Henry II, followed by the death of Francis II the following year, left Catherine de Medici as regent, seeking to mediate a tense situation.

After the failure of the Colloquy of Poissy and an edict of toleration, continuing conflicts led to the Massacre of Vassy in March 1562, initiating the French Wars of Religion.

Calvinism grew in the Low Countries between 1555 and 1566, when strained relations boiled over in the Iconoclastic Fury.

The north German city of Emden provided an important refuge and center of printing for Dutch Calvinists.

In 1555, the first organized Calvinist church in the Low Countries was established in Antwerp. Its members were in touch with Calvinists in Emden, Flanders, and Brabant and, after 1559, in London.

The number of Calvinists grew more rapidly in the early 1560s, with more public preaching and acts of anti-Catholic iconoclasm.

By 1564–1565, Calvinists had grown sufficiently strong to force the hand of the regent Margaret of Parma, leading to the Compromise of the Nobility in April 1566.

In contrast to previous years, the suppression of heresy now seemed as disruptive as permitting its proliferation.

Far away in Spain, Philip II refused to moderate the heresy laws despite the pleas of Margaret of Parma in 1564 and 1565.

Coping with what was as much a Spanish/Dutch as a Catholic/Calvinist issue, Margaret was forced temporarily to abolish the laws and Inquisition in the Compromise of the Nobility.

The concessions to Calvinists inspired a mass movement of open- air preaching in the summer of 1566, which led to the Iconoclastic Fury.

Beginning outside a monastery in East Flanders on August 10, the sacking of churches and smashing of ecclesiastical images spread throughout other provinces in August and September.

The Iconoclastic Fury led directly to retaliation by Philip II and to the Dutch Revolt, with 80 years of on-and-off warfare between Spain and the Netherlands.

Partly as a result of these volatile years, Protestant political thought was transformed from the admonition to passive disobedience into the active resistance of an ungodly ruler.

Countervailing tendencies in Calvin’s views helped make possible the emergence of Protestant resistance theory.

Like Luther and other early Protestant reformers, Calvin denounced active resistance of an unjust ruler by individual subjects, although Calvin left room for opposition by lesser magistrates if a ruler prohibited true worship.

At the same time, Protestant leaders railed against Catholic worship and images as rank idolatry, yet insisted that ordinary Protestants could only refuse to participate in it.

In the 1550s, the concrete tensions and persecution endured by Protestants in France and the Low Countries, as well as in Marian England, outstripped Calvin’s prescriptions.

Calvin and other reformers were unable to control the course of events.

Other reformers would develop resistance theory further, eventually arguing that every individual Protestant had the duty actively to oppose sovereigns who opposed Protestantism. 

Christianity in the Reformation Era  -  Class 7 - Spread of Calvinism

              <Home Page>   
 <  Reformation Lessons >