The period during which John Calvin lived and influenced his followers was 16th century France – the height of the Protestant Reformation. During this time, Martin Luther and other radical thinkers chose to break away from the Catholic Church due to differences in interpretation of Christian dogma, including the healing power of indulgences (which were believed to simply be an effective bribe for the Catholic Church to achieve absolution). Independent of the development of the Protestant Church, however, was John Calvin’s work to create a system of ideology which would be called Calvinism. Because of his radical ideas, and the ways in which he implemented them, John Calvin became an immensely important figure during the Reformation and afterwards, as he was one of the most ardent advocates of Augustinian traditions including God’s absolute sovereignty, and the doctrine of predestination.
Born in Noyon in 1509, John Calvin grew up in a poor family, one of five sons, receiving a private education due to the patronage of a member of a local noble. After finding religion, he had a change of heart given his thoughts toward the actions of the church of Rome, writing Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 as well as several commentaries on the vast majority of the Bible in order to espouse his interpretation of their works. Moving to Geneva, he was met with substantial controversy, as he wrote articles on how best to reorganize the church. His writings caused riots during services in which he did not serve communion, and in the 1540s he incurred the wrath of the Genevan civil magistrates due to his controversial beliefs. Michael Servetus, a critic of Calvin’s work, quickly incurred Calvin’s ire, and his trial for heresy was an attempt by the libertines who hated Calvin to discredit him. Calvin eventually won, and he spend the rest of his days securing the Reformation and deposing the French libertines, dying of a fever in 1564.
During his time as a philosopher and religious scholar, John Calvin made many contributions to theology and worship. Central among these ideas is the notion of Original Sin, in which the fall of Adam began the history of all men and women being born sinners, only finding salvation through Christ:
“We take nothing from the womb but pure filth. The seething spring of sin is so deep and abundant that vices are always bubbling up from it to bespatter and stain what is otherwise pure We should remember that we are not guilty of one offense only but are buried in innumerable impurities all human works, if judged according to their own worth, are nothing but filth and defilement they are always spattered and befouled with many stains it is certain that there is no one who is not covered with infinite filth.”
Original sin comes from Calvin’s notion of Total Depravity; man is not necessarily inclined always towards total evil, rather he may seek quite sincerely to do good, yet always and without exception that good is tainted by the ever present specter of Original Sin. Calvin, unlike many other theologians who took liberties with the Bible, completely believed that we should take all words of the Scripture seriously. Calvin asserted the idea that our lives are predestined by God and set forth according to a plan, and that all aspects of mankind should praise the Lord. Much like Martin Luther, he believed that justification was achieved only through faith.
These contributions have played an integral part in Christianity’s history of worship. Calvinism became an entire religious movement, adopted in the Netherlands and in other parts of Western Europe. Calvin’s work was an integral part of the Protestant Reformation, as ideas of predestination and the sovereignty of the rule of God have remained in the minds of religious followers for centuries afterward. From a perspective of worship, Calvin’s assertion that divine truth was more important than scholastic theology has influenced many religious followers to seek out a more real and lasting union with God, and also favored the freedom of the church to solve its own religious internal affairs. Religious movements such as the Puritans would transfer these Calvinist ideas to America, forming some of the earliest settlements in the New World.
John Calvin’s life and influence can be felt even today in the freedom and diversity of the Christian church. Calvin’s iron-fist rule over the Church in Geneva, while controversial, also cemented the ideas of original sin and the union of God in modern worship. Calvin’s assertion that the Scriptures contain the literal word of God, which should be followed and read to the letter, is an important viewpoint when considering today’s interpretations of the Bible. His influence helped to establish the separation of state affairs from church affairs, having churches work out their own troubles in-house. Because of his complex history and strong beliefs, John Calvin remains a huge influence over the Christian church today.
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