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§ 65. John Calvin compared with the Older Reformers.


We now approach the life and work of John Calvin, who labored more than Farel, Viret, and Froment. He was the chief founder and consolidator of the Reformed Church of France and French Switzerland, and left the impress of his mind upon all other Reformed Churches in Europe and America.

Revolution is followed by reconstruction and consolidation. For this task Calvin was providentially foreordained and equipped by genius, education, and circumstances.

Calvin could not have done the work of Farel; for he was not a missionary, or a popular preacher. Still less could Farel have done the work of Calvin; for he was neither a theologian, nor a statesman. Calvin, the Frenchman, would have been as much out of place in Zürich or Wittenberg, as the Swiss Zwingli and the German Luther would have been out of place and without a popular constituency in French-speaking Geneva. Each stands first and unrivalled in his particular mission and field of labor.

Luther’s public career as a reformer embraced twenty-nine years, from 1517 to 1546; that of Zwingli, only twelve years, from 1519 to 1531 (unless we date it from his preaching at Einsiedeln in 1516); that of Calvin, twenty-eight years, from 1536 to 1564. The first reached an age of sixty-two: the second, of forty-seven; the third, of fifty-four. Calvin was twenty-five years younger than Luther and Zwingli, and had the great advantage of building on their foundation. He had less genius, but more talent. He was inferior to them as a man of action, but superior as a thinker and organizer. They cut the stones in the quarries, he polished them in the workshop. They produced the new ideas, he constructed them into a system. His was the work of Apollos rather than of Paul: to water rather than to plant, God giving the increase.

Calvin’s character is less attractive, and his life less dramatic than Luther’s or Zwingli’s, but he left his Church in a much better condition. He lacked the genial element of humor and pleasantry; he was a Christian stoic: stern, severe, unbending, yet with fires of passion and affection glowing beneath the marble surface. His name will never rouse popular enthusiasm, as Luther’s and Zwingli’s did at the celebration of the fourth centennial of their birth; no statues of marble or bronze have been erected to his memory; even the spot of his grave in the cemetery at Geneva is unknown.358358    A plain stone, with the letters "J. C.," is pointed out to the stranger as marking his resting-place in the cemetery of Plein Palais outside of the city, but it is not known on what authority. He himself especially enjoined that no monument should mark his grave. But he surpassed them in consistency and self-discipline, and by his exegetical, doctrinal, and polemical writings, he has exerted and still exerts more influence than any other Reformer upon the Protestant Churches of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races. He made little Geneva for a hundred years the Protestant Rome and the best-disciplined Church in Christendom. History furnishes no more striking example of a man of so little personal popularity, and yet such great influence upon the people; of such natural timidity and bashfulness combined with such strength of intellect and character, and such control over his and future generations. He was by nature and taste a retiring scholar, but Providence made him an organizer and ruler of churches.

The three leading Reformers were of different nationality and education. Luther, the son of a German peasant, was trained in the school of monasticism and mysticism, under the influence of St. Augustin, Tauler, and Staupitz, and retained strong churchly convictions and prejudices. Zwingli, the son of a Swiss country magistrate, a republican patriot, an admiring student of the ancient classics and of Erasmus, passed through the door of the Renaissance to the Reformation, and broke more completely away from mediaevalism. Calvin, a native Frenchman, a patrician by education and taste, studied law as well as theology, and by his legal and judicial mind was admirably qualified to build up a new Christian commonwealth.

Zwingli and Luther met once face to face at Marburg, but did not understand each other. The Swiss extended to the German the hand of fellowship, notwithstanding their difference of opinion on the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist; but Luther refused it, under the restraint of a narrower dogmatic conscience. Calvin saw neither, but was intimate with Melanchthon, whom he met at the Colloquies of Worms and Regensburg, and with whom he kept up a correspondence till his death. He rightly placed the German Reformer, as to genius and power, above the Swiss, and generously declared that, even if Luther should call him a devil, he would still esteem Luther as a most eminent servant of God. Luther saw, probably, only two books of Calvin, his reply to Sadolet and his tract on the Lord’s Supper; the former he read, as he says, with singular delight ("cum singulari voluptate "). How much more would he have been delighted with his Institutes or Commentaries! He sent respectful greetings to Calvin through Melanchthon, who informed him that he was in high favor with the Wittenberg doctor.

Calvin, in his theology, mediated between Zwingli and Luther. Melanchthon mediated between Luther and Calvin; he was a friend of both, though unlike either in disposition and temper, standing as a man of peace between two men of war. The correspondence between Calvin and Melanchthon, considering their disagreement on the deep questions of predestination and free-will, is highly creditable to their head and heart, and proves that theological differences of opinion need not disturb religious harmony and personal friendship.

The co-operative friendships between Luther and Melanchthon, between Zwingli and Oecolampadius, between Farel and Calvin, between Calvin, Beza, and Bullinger, are among the finest chapters in the history of the Reformation, and reveal the hand of God in that movement.

Widely as these Reformers differed in talent, temperament, and sundry points of doctrine and discipline, they were great and good men, equally honest and earnest, unselfish and unworldly, brave and fearless, ready at any moment to go to the stake for their conviction. They labored for the same end: the renovation of the Catholic Church by leading it back to the pure and perennial fountain of the perfect teaching and example of Christ.



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