The Philosophy of John Calvin

Wayne Jackson
John Calvin was a tremendously influential person in Protestant history. But his Institutes reveals his philosophy towards the Holy Scriptures. Is this philosophy worthy of emulation?

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. But 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 eventually died of tuberculosis in 1564 at the age of fifty-five.

Calvin’s Influence

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 Calvin had been significantly influenced by Augustine (354-430). One authority says that he “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 evolved in to the Roman Catholic Church.

Calvin’s Philosophy

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.

A candid admission

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.

In numerous passages (cf. 2 Kgs. 5:14; Lk. 16:24; Jn. 13:26), the translators were not tempted to disguise the original meaning 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.

What the primitive church practiced

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.

Free to innovate

Third, Calvin reveals much when he suggests that churches “should be at liberty” to ignore the meaning of the words of holy scripture, and flout 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.