Born at Noyon in Picardy, John Calvin (1509-64) was  a theologian and lawyer with a passion for tidiness in writing and life. He was the first systematic theologian of the Reformation, first publishing his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 and then revising it for the rest of his life. In Geneva where he stayed from 1541 to his death, he never achieved the degree of tidiness he craved. Luther had emphasised at least in theory the priesthood of the people but Calvin, a generation later, emphasised a rightly called and purified ministry. The church, in imitation of apostolic times, must rely upon the integrity and independence of its ministers and not on secular rulers. Pastors were a self perpetuating oligarchy - only ratified by the Council - which chose all teachers. Together, pastors and Council chose the Elders who supervised morals. The consistory was jointly chosen but was a source of perennial manoeuvre.

Calvin's central doctrine was that of faith in God's particular intervention in human lives. We are not to be fatalist or believe in a mechanical universe but in our subjection to God's personal decrees. As Owen Chadwick notes: Luther's ultimate text was "The just shall live by faith" whereas Calvin's was "Thy will be done". The problem, in the absence of a universally recognised authority, was how to know God's will.

The classical Calvinist doctrine is predestination: if people could not deserve heaven, God must choose some and not others; Christ had not died for all but only for some; from eternity some were predestined for heaven and others not. This doctrine was Pauline and Augustinian, Thomist and Calvinist, but in Calvin it was given awesome prominence. The Christian's assurance in salvation was the source of his confidence. Underlying this there was the assumption that those who followed Calvin were the elect of God. This required an extreme discipline rooted more in fear than love and although it survived in Geneva for a time and flourished in Holland in the 17th Century, it only took deep root in Scotland and New England. The paradox of Calvinist discipline was that it drove adherents to unremitting labour, creating the wealth which led them astray.

What began as the result of tidiness and predestination became known as Puritanism. In spite of its long-term weaknesses, it was to have a critical impact in many countries, not least England.

KC X/06

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