John Calvin was endowed with many gifts but his enduring legacy is found in his theology, which has been greatly influential in many Protestant denominations. To date, Calvin remains the single most influential figure in the history of the Reformed faith (McGoldrick, 2001:28). Three key aspects stand out in Calvin’s theology: A belief in the primacy of Scripture as an authority for doctrinal decisions, a belief in predestination, and a belief in salvation wholly accomplished by grace with no influence from works. However, before we delve into that, Calvin’s story would be incomplete without a word on his masterpiece — the Institutes.

The Institutes

At the youthful age of 27, Calvin published the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, a piece of work still acknowledged even by those who disagree with his doctrines to be a theological masterpiece of Reformation literature (Jackson, 1989: 121). One only has to read a single chapter of this book to appreciate why Calvin has been called theologian par excellence. In this must-read book, Calvin has brought together in the most systematic, exhaustive and comprehensive manner, all the key areas of the Christian faith. It is little wonder, therefore, that the “Institutes” (as the book is commonly called) is regarded by many as not only a classic of Christian theology but also a model of Christian devotion (Murray, 2001). The Institutes gives a detailed account of the man, his life and beliefs. They are a goldmine to anyone who wants to have a clear, firm and deep understanding of what the Christian faith is all about. This awesome contribution to the Christian church has taught the church about the comprehensiveness of its nature as well as the thoroughness of its teachings. In this article, therefore, I will concentrate on some key doctrinal issues as taught by Calvin and how this dogmatician and apologist of biblical truth lived these doctrines out. We begin by defining a theologian.

Definition of a Theologian

A theologian is a person who studies “theology.” Owen (cited by Strivens, 2003:8) defines theology as:

…a spiritual gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit on the minds of believers, and believers are, by definition, those born again by the grace of God. Believers are thus made wise, prudent, and capable of understanding the mystery of holiness, of God and his will as revealed in Christ through the gospel.

Therefore, in our definition of theology we are left, then, with a study that is open only to believers. This brings us to consider the conversion of Calvin.

Calvin’s Conversion

The preface to his commentary on the Psalms gives a hint on Calvin’s conversion, and with an indication that it might have been a sudden one. This has been highlighted in the previous article “John Calvin: A Biographical Sketch” by Modester Hakanyanga on page 4.

Once Calvin had been converted, God and his work became the focus of his life. His once admired disciplines of classic humanism and law suddenly took a subordinate role to his newly found vocation—to know more of this God who had intercepted him suddenly and irresistibly, and completely changed his course in life. He thus set his mind on studying Scripture, the one book he believed to be the manual to mankind about God and his creation.

Calvin and Scripture

The Holy Spirit who regenerated and brought Calvin to faith also illumined his mind to accept Scripture as the word straight from heaven. Therefore, Calvin confidently held on to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture as the only meaningful and reasonable thing for any true believer to do. That Calvin held a very high view of Scripture, due to its divine origin, is seen in his remarks:

And let us not take it into our heads either to seek our God anywhere else than his sacred word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that word. (Institutes I, xiii, 21)

It was this high regard for Scripture that led Calvin to become a diligent and faithful student of it.

  1. A Student of Scripture

Calvin set his mind and heart on the truth of Scripture to speak for itself by following all precautions (as far as it is humanly possible) so as not to interfere with what God intended to say in the different situations that Scripture addressed. He declares:

No man can have the least knowledge of true and sound doctrine without having been a disciple of Scripture. Hence originates all true wisdom, when we embrace with reverence the testimony which God hath been pleased therein to deliver concerning himself. For obedience is the source, not only of an absolutely perfect and complete faith, but of all right knowledge of God (Institutes I, vi, 2).

The quest for better understanding of Scripture led him to acquire extra tools.

  1. His Supplementary Studies

Calvin’s father had wanted him to become a priest and therefore at an early age of fourteen he entered the University of Paris to pursue theological studies and emerged with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He then went on to study law and later added ancient classical languages of which Greek and Hebrew were a part. These tools aided him a great deal not only in his firm grasp of the biblical world and its culture but the grammatical-historical learning he acquired further equipped him with the correct usage of words in their original context. However, his profuse learning and genius was never at the expense of his faith, for he strongly held on to sola scriptura—i.e. Scripture alone—in all matters of faith and life.

The moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway and in darkness, and…we must repeatedly wander, slip, and stumble…. When the Lord closes his holy lips… [the Christian] shall at once close the way to inquiry (Klooster, 1977:23).

Therefore, it was out of his study of Scripture, the works of some of his contemporaries (like Martin Luther, Gerard Roussel, Nicholas Cop, Martin Bucer, William Farel, to mention but a few), as well as the works of others before him (like St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and others) that Calvin formulated, propagated and defended the teaching of God’s redemptive plan as being imbedded in the doctrines of election and predestination.

  1. Calvin on Election and Predestination

Convinced by the doctrine of “original sin”, Calvin vigorously refuted the prevalent teachings of his day with their notions of inherent righteousness, meritorious works, freedom of the will, and the role of chance in salvation. Such teachings and beliefs, according to Calvin, defame God by taking salvation out of his hands. His conviction, therefore, was that this total depravity of man can only be reversed by God’s sovereign divine grace. For this reason, Calvin believed strongly that salvation can only be sola gratia, by grace alone, (McGoldrick 2001:24) meaning that God retains the sole right to determine upon whom to bestow this grace. And because God is omniscient (knows the end from the beginning of all things), he knows those he has purposed to bestow such favour upon—his elect.

In this way elect sinners are reconciled to God purely by sola fide (through faith alone) and solus christus (in Christ alone). The ultimate end of all this is soli deo gloria (the glory of God alone). This thought-pattern demonstrates that Calvin believed in double predestination i.e. God has from eternity past chosen some (his elect) to eternal bliss, and others (the reprobates) to eternal damnation—all to his own glory (McGoldrick, 2001:26).

  1. Calvin’s Theology in Practice

To Calvin, believers are not only transformed from worldliness but their world relations are changed too. They assume their proper role in Christ as servant rulers, a position which radically influences their relationship with God, fellow men and nature (Reynolds 2001a:21). Thus, while many criticise Calvin as a man who had a “hot head” but a “cold heart”, a sober look at his practical Christian life reveals a man with both a hot head and a hot heart. He practiced what he believed and taught with the love received from God. 

A Love for God

Calvin believed in a life of gratitude to God by all genuine believers for the free grace they have received from him. This life is characterised by a strong desire for holiness and a burning passion and zeal for God’s service. The high regard for Scripture and the careful instructions Calvin gave in preparing for the Lord’s Supper (Moore 2001:68) show a man whose heart was full of gratitude to his Maker. As for the love towards fellow human beings, Calvin commented: “Since our goodness cannot reach the Lord…we must exercise it towards the saints who are on earth” (McGoldrick, 2001:26). 

A Love for Humanity

His concern for social responsibility as a Christian led Calvin to devise a systematic approach to social problems. This programme saw the civil and ecclesiastical authorities come together in efforts to address social problems in their communities. Under this plan, hospitals, skills training centres, care centres for the vulnerable, and a wide range of educational programmes running up to university level were founded (McGoldrick, 2001:29-30). Through all these Christian endeavours, Calvin practically demonstrated the effectiveness of the theology he advocated, and neither was he found deficient in family matters.

A Love for His Family

Calvin played a loving and caring role to his wife, Idelette de Bure. When their prematurely born son, Jacques, did not make it he grieved for the boy. Even greater was his sorrow when seven years later his own beloved wife, Idelette died (Reynolds 2001:25). But not even this frowned providence changed his biblical concept of the world and nature.

A Love for the World and Nature

Calvin’s theology encouraged believers to enjoy the world as their home in which they must live out their lives to the honour of God. They must, therefore, get involved and improve the various government structures, celebrate their birthdays, enjoy various foods and fruits, flowers, fabrics, metals, music, various crafts and arts, sculpture and painting, for these were all created for man’s usefulness, delight and enjoyment (Reynolds:2001:22–23). Here is a clear demonstration that Calvin’s theology was never meant to make our pleasures less but promoted a joyful living in every sphere of life. 


Calvin may have died many years ago but his theology lives on under the banner of the Reformed faith. If correctly understood and properly adhered to, Calvin’s theology could still be a powerful tool that God might use to bless mankind. Its power and effectiveness lie in its emphasis on making God’s influence pervade all areas of thought and penetrate the total human situation, thereby bringing the whole counsel of God to bear on the whole of human life. Reformed believers must rise above having “hot heads” and “cold hearts” in order to have both “hot heads” and “hot hearts”. Calvin put his theology to work and its influence is with us today. The challenge before us is whether or not “we will continue to advocate and work for Christian civilisation—biblical Christianity as the unifying principle of all of life—individual, family, church, science, arts, media, education, technology and even the state” (Sandlin, 2001:9).


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Jackson, B. (1989) “The Noble Army of Heretics.” Louisville, Kentucky: Colonial Baptist Press.

Calvin, J. Institutes I, vi, 2; Institutes I, xiii, 21

Klooster, H. F. (1977) Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House.

McGoldrick, E. J. (2001) “Introducing John Calvin: The Reformer’s Preparation”. In Reformation and Revival: Illinois Vol. 10:4, Fall, 16-32

Moore, M. T. (2000) “Calvin on the Marks of the Church, Revisited”. In Reformation and Revival: Illinois: Reformation and Revival Ministries. Vol. 10:4, Fall, 61-79

Murray, J. (2001) “Introduction on the Institutes”. (In Christian Classics Christian Ethereal Library, version 4). Calvin College, Burton St. SE: Grand Rapids. CD-ROM.

Reynolds, E. G. (2001) “The Humanity of John Calvin- part 1”. In The Banner of Truth, ed. Roberts Maurice, et al…Issue 448: January,19-23

Rushdoony, R. J.b (2001) ‘The use of Scriptures in the Reformed faith’. In Chalcedon Report. Vallecito, Ca 95251: Ross House Books. Issue 434; October, 2-4, 8

Sandlin, A. P. (2001) ‘The “Two-Kingdom” Lutheran Calvinism’. In Chalcedon Report. Vallecito, Ca 95251: Ross House Books. Issue 426; January 7-9

Strivens, R. (2003) “The Pastor as Theologian.” In Reformation Today. Issue 193, May – June