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The Bible and Suicide

John Calvin
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 Related Terms
Reformation
• Reformed Tradition
• Protestant
• Ulrich Zwingli

 

Name:
John Calvin
Jean Cauvin (French)

Dates:
Born: 1509
Died: 1564

Biography:
John Calvin was one of the early leaders of the Protestant Reformation and played an important role in the development of one of the main branches of Protestantism, known as the Reformed Tradition. Calvin has become more widely known because of his uncompromising theological and moral positions and for instituting a harsh, repressive theocratic government in Geneva. Trained in law and never a priest, he nevertheless compiled one of the most systematic Protestant theological systems.

In 1533, John Calvin experienced a powerful religious conversion which convinced him, on the one hand, of the absolute glory and power of God and, on the other hand, of the absolute sinfulness and depravity of human beings. It was in Basel, Switzerland, where he had fled from the Catholic persecution of Evangelicals in France, that he wrote his famous Institutes of Christian Religion, a book which would play an important role not only in the development of religion in France, but also of French language through the 17th century.

While visiting Geneva, he met up with a number of Protestant reformers who were seeking help in implementing their ideas through the town council (which they happened to control). Calvin wrote down a list of strict regulations which required, in part, that all citizens submit to the profession of faith created by the council. This made him very unpopular and he had to flee, but he was invited to return again in 1541.

For Calvin, this return was the opportunity to do what he most wanted: reconstruct the community along the lines of Old Testament social and moral standards. All forms of pleasure, like dancing and gaming, were forbidden and terrible punishments were issued for even minor religious offenses. The most serious religious offenses, however, were those which suggested that a person was "backsliding" into Catholic "superstition."

Of course, it isn't true that Calvin was a "dictator" of Geneva - he never held political office. He himself was always answerable to the city council and it was not unusual for the council to disagree with and oppose him. However, his ideas did have enormous influence and his responsibility for what happened cannot be dismissed.

Not everyone approved of Calvin's changes, but they were tortured and killed if they were caught. One famous dissenter was Michael Servetus (1511-1553), a physician who also wrote about theology and politics. His basic argument was that state and church should not be combined - it was wrong when Constantine originally did it and it was wrong now that Calvin was doing it. He was burned very slowly at a stake and this event has become a symbol for all of the religious repression which occurred.

They first key to understanding Calvin's Reformation theology is his early religious experience: that humans and God are at polar opposites with regards to power and morality. God is absolutely sovereign - nothing can happen without God wanting it to happen and nothing that God wants to happen can fail to be good. God is the absolute standard of everything. Humans, on the other hand, are absolutely powerless - they cannot cause anything to happen out of their own will and desire and they especially cannot cause anything good to happen because, in addition to being powerless, they are also completely depraved and sinful.

So why does sin exist? Calvin taught that, it exists because God wants it to exist - but for the purpose of achieving some greater good. This led Calvin to develop the idea of predestination: some people are predestined to be saved while others are predestined to be damned. No one can cause themselves to be saved or damned, only God can do that. All Christian theologians, from Paul through Augustine and Aquinas, had taught some form of predestination - but Calvin took the idea to its logical conclusion and made it an important centerpiece of his theology.

We cannot understand why God does such a thing, but we must trust that God has a good reason and we must remember that God, being absolutely sovereign, should not be questioned. Indeed, because all humans are sinful and deserve damnation in hell, the fact that any humans are chosen by God to be saved should be treated as a reason to rejoice and praise God's mercy. God does not have to save anyone, but chooses to do so. Instead of questioning how or why God makes such decisions, we should be thankful that we might have some chance at heaven.

According to Calvin, hose who are fortunate enough to be chosen were called the elect by Calvin. They have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ and benefits of this state are created by the inner working of the Holy Spirit which provide faith in Christ (no person can have faith on their own). Calvin also differentiated between the visible church, which consisted of the physical church institutions and included by the elect and the unelect, and the invisible church, which was the "real church" and included only the elect.

Select Quotes

Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit? [John Calvin, citing Ps. 93:1 in his Commentary on Genesis]

God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Faith]

We are all made of mud, and as this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole our boots, or in our shoes. We are full of it, we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and outside. [source unknown]

We may rest assured that God would never have suffered any infants to be slain except those who were already damned and predestined for eternal death. [source unknown]

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