John Calvin’s Doctrine Of The Christian Life -- By: Scott M. Manetsch

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 61:2 (Jun 2018)
Article: John Calvin’s Doctrine Of The Christian Life
Author: Scott M. Manetsch

John Calvin’s Doctrine Of The Christian Life

Scott M. Manetsch*

* Scott Manetsch is Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2065 Half Day Road, Deerfield, IL 60015. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Abstract: The theology of the Genevan reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) has frequently caused misunderstanding and elicited caricature and controversy. This is especially true of Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life, which is often presented as authoritarian, legalistic, and severe. This essay describes prominent features of the reformer’s understanding of the Christian life, drawn from his commentaries, correspondence, and the Institutes of the Christian Religion (especially Book 3), and argues that, for Calvin, the authentic Christian life is patterned after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, made possible by the believer’s union with Christ through faith.

Key words: John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, union with Christ, Christian life, exile, piety, justification, sanctification, self-denial, suffering, vocation

In his survey of the Reformation, Professor Lewis Spitz of Stanford University once stated, “Calvin was one of those strong and consistent men of history who people either liked or disliked, adored or abhorred.”1 Indeed, it is virtually impossible to remain neutral about John Calvin, the reformer of Geneva from 1536–1564. Many people have adored Calvin. The nineteenth-century Scottish theologian William Cunningham stated, “Calvin is the man who, next to St. Paul, has done the most good to mankind.”2 Ernst Renan, a nineteenth-century French historian described Calvin as “the most Christian man of his age.”3 Philip Schaff, the American historian and founder of the American Society of Church History, said of Calvin: “Taking into account all his failings, he must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity.”4 Or again, the famous British preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said of Calvin: “The longer I live the clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s [theological] system is the nearest to perfection.”5

But other people have abhorred John Calvin. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. … If ever a man worshiped a false god, he did. The being described in his five poin...

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