What’s a Calvinist? That can be a tough question to answer. It’s fair to say there are Reformed people who believe it simply means we’re followers of John Calvin. If a Lutheran follows the teachings of Martin Luther, then a Calvinist must follow the teachings of John Calvin. In a general sense, that’s true. We do follow and share some of the important tenets held by John Calvin – not because he said so, but because the Bible teaches these things. Most importantly of all, with Calvin we maintain the gospel of sovereign grace.
Nevertheless, there are things John Calvin taught or practiced that few, if any, self-identifying Calvinists would hold to today. Let me outline five of them.
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Calvin appears to have believed that Mary remained a virgin after the conception and birth of Jesus. When he discusses Jesus’ “brothers” in Matt. 12:46, Mark 3:31, and Luke 8:19, he follows the old interpretation that sees them as cousins. Elsewhere in his commentaries he chastises those who insisted that Mary had other children after giving birth to Jesus. He maintains that one should not be dogmatic about it one way or another. Yet his comments elsewhere seem to tip off his own conclusion. If so, that wouldn’t be unusual, given that other Reformers, including Guido de Brès (author of the Belgic Confession), did clearly hold to the view.
Instruments in Worship
Some of our Presbyterian brethren are fond of pointing out that Calvin was no fan of instruments in public worship – and they’re right. See, for example, his commentary on Psalm 33:2 or Psalm 71:22. Calvin believed musical instruments were linked to the Old Testament ceremonies fulfilled in Christ. However, what’s often missed is that Calvin wasn’t targeting musical accompaniment. In his day, musical instruments were never used anywhere in public worship to accompany singing. Instead, if they were used, they were used as stand-alone elements in the service. See here for some elaboration on this by my colleague Dean Anderson.
If you have Calvin’s Commentaries, you should check out Genesis 38:10. If your edition is the same as mine (the old Baker reprint set), you’ll notice that this verse is missing, along with a few other lines. The translator or editor decided not to include this, as if Calvin’s views on this are dangerous or troublesome. Well, let’s put out there exactly what Calvin wrote about Onan’s spilling his seed on the ground:
Verse 10: The Jews quite immodestly gabble concerning this thing. It will suffice for me briefly to have touched upon this as much as modesty in speaking permits. The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall to the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born — the hoped for offspring.
This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth with his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth.”
I wonder how many self-proclaimed “Calvinists” would agree with that! Now, I suspect that Calvin held to the view that women don’t contribute anything of substance to the reproductive process – they’re simply the “field” into which the “seed” is sown. In this regard, Calvin may have had more in common with Anabaptist Menno Simons than his fellow Reformer Guido de Brès – see here for more on that.
The Use of God’s Name
A couple of years ago, I read through the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes. One thing that discomforted me was Calvin’s occasional misuse of God’s Name. In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!” (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27). In each context, it’s clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God. The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French. In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations. I’ve encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès. I find it troubling and can’t find a way to excuse it. Perhaps, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror — a blind spot.
Michael Servetus was a notorious Spanish heretic and opponent of Calvin. He was a wanted man throughout Europe, both amongst Protestants and Roman Catholics. Servetus arrived in Geneva in 1553. He was recognized by John Calvin and reported to the city authorities. He faced a trial before the city magistrates for heresy, was found guilty, and burnt at the stake. As I argue here, Calvin’s involvement in the Servetus case is a quite bit more nuanced than is often realized. Nevertheless, in 1554 Calvin wrote a lively defense of the way the Servetus case was handled in Geneva. He believed Servetus received justice for his crimes. Moreover, he argued that the Old Testament penalties for such things ought to be maintained in the present-day: “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his church.”
Still a Calvinist?
I could give several more examples, but the point’s been made. As we reflect on this, it’s important to remember two things. First, the Bible is our infallible standard, not John Calvin. He was a mere man and men can and do err. Second, how we identify ourselves does matter. Rather than identifying ourselves as Calvinists, it’s better to think of ourselves as Reformed Christians. If we’re asked, the word ‘Reformed’ has a whole story behind it. It’s the story of how the authority of the Bible was rediscovered, how the glory of the gospel was regained, and how the church again came to see the praise of God as her be-all and end-all. ‘Reformed’ really means ‘Reformed according to the Scriptures.’ ‘Calvinist’ merely brings us to a man, but ‘Reformed’ brings us to God and his Word. I think Calvin himself would prefer we use the latter.