Tributes of Contemporaries (Sixteenth Century)
“Calvin justly enjoyed a great reputation — a literary man of the first rank (homme de lettre du premier ordre) — writing in Latin as well as one could do in a dead language, and in French with singular purity for his time (avec une pureté singulière pour son temps). This purity, which our able grammarians admire even at this day, renders his writings far superior to almost all those of the same age, as the works of the Port-Royalists are distinguished even at the present day, for the same reason, from the barbarous rhapsodies of their opponents and contemporaries.
Frederic Ancillon (1767-1837)
Tableau des Révolutions du Système Politique de l’Europe.
“Calvin was not only a profound theologian, but likewise an able legislator; the share which he had in the framing of the civil and religious laws which have produced for several centuries the happiness of the Genevan republic, is perhaps a fairer title to renown than his theological works; and this republic, celebrated notwithstanding its small size, and which knew how to unite morals with intellect, riches with simplicity, simplicity with taste, liberty with order, and which has been a focus of talents and virtues, has proved that Calvin knew men, and knew how to govern them.”
Fr. Pierre Guillaume Guizot (1787-1874)
Celebrated French historian and statesman, of Huguenot descent.
From St. Louis et Calvin, pp. 361 sqq.
“Calvin is great by reason of his marvellous powers, his lasting labors, and the moral height and purity of his character…. Earnest in faith, pure in motive, austere in his life, and mighty in his works, Calvin is one of those who deserve their great fame. Three centuries separate us from him, but it is impossible to examine his character and history without feeling, if not affection and sympathy, at least profound respect and admiration for one of the great Reformers of Europe and of the great Christians of France.”
By the same (1787-1874).
From Musée des protestants célèbres.
“Luther vint pour détruire, Calvin pour fonder, par des nécessités égales, mais differentes…. Calvin fut l’homme de cette seconde époque de toutes les grandes révolutions sociales, où, après avoir conquis par la guerre le terrain qui doit leur appartenir, elles travaillent à s’y établir par la paix, selon des principes et sous les formes qui conviennent à leur nature…. L’idée générale selon laquelle Calvin agit en brûlant Servet était de son siècle, et an a tort de la lui imputer.”
François Aug. Marie Mignet (1796-1884)
Celebrated French historian and academician.
From his Mémoire sur l’établissement de la Réforme à Genève.
“Calvin fut, dans le protestantisme, après Luther, ce qu’est la conséquance après le principe; dans la Suisse, ce qu’est la règle après une révolution…. Calvin, s’il n’avait ni le génie de l’invention ni celui de la conquète; s’il n’était ni un révolutionnaire comme Luther ni un missionaire comme Farel, il avait une force de logique qui devait pousser plus loin la réforme du premier, et une faculté d’organisation qui devait achever l’oeuvre du second. C’est par là qu’il renouvela la face du protestantisme at qu’il constitua Genève.”
Jules Michelet (1798-1874)
Histoire de France, vol. XI. (Les Guerres De Religion), Paris, 1884, pp. 88, 89, 92.
“C’était un travailleur terrible, avec un air souffrant, une constitution misérable et débile, veillant, s’usant, se consumant, ne distinguant ni nuit ni jour….
“C’était une langue inouïe [Calvin’s French style], la nouvelle langue française. Vingte ans après Commines, trente ans avant Montaigne, dejà la langue de Rousseau…. Son plus redoutable attribut, c’est sa pénétrante clarté, son extrême lumière d’argent, plutôt d’acier, d’une lame qui brille, mais qui tranche. On sent que cette lumière vient du dedans, du fond de la conscience, d’un coeur âprement convaincu, dont la logique est l’aliment….
“Le fond de ce grand et puissant théologien était d’être un légiste. Il l’était de culture, d’esprit, de caractère. Il en avait les deux tendances: l’appel au juste, au vrai, un àpre besoin de justice; mais, d’autre part aussi, l’esprit dur, absolu, des tribunaux d’alors, et it le porta dans la théologie…. La prédestination de Calvin se trouva, en pratique, une machine a faire des martyrs.”
Bon Louis Henri Martin (1810-1883)
Histoire de France depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’en 1789, Tom. VIII. p. 325, of the fourth edition, Paris, 1860. Crowned by the French Academy.
Martin, in his standard work, thus describes the influence of Calvin upon the city of Geneva: “Calvin ne la sauve pas seulement, mais conquiert â cette petite ville une grandeur, une puissance morale immense. Il en fait la capitale de la Réforme, autant que la Réforme peut avoir une capitale, pour la moitié du monde protestant, avec une vaste influence, acceptée ou subie, sur l’autre moitié. Genève n’est rien par la population, par les armes, par le territoire: elle est tout par l’esprit. Un seul avantage matériel lui garantit tons ses avantages moraux: son admirable position, qui fait d’elle une petite France républicaine et protestante, indépendante de la monarchie catholique de France et â l’abri de l’absorp-tion monarchique et catholique; la Suisse protestante, alliée nécessaire de la royauté française contre l’empereur, couvre Genève par la politique vis-à-vis du roi et par l’épée contra les maisons d’Autriche et de Savoie.”
Ernest Renan (1823-1892)
Renan, a member of the French Academy, a brilliant genius, and one of the first historians of France, was educated for the Roman Catholic priesthood, but became a skeptic. This makes his striking tribute all the more significant.
From his article on John Calvin in his Études d’histoire religieuse, 7th ed. Paris, 1880, pp. 337-367.
“Calvin was one of those absolute men, cast complete in one mould, who is taken in wholly at a single glance: one letter, one action suffices for a judgment of him. There were no folds in that inflexible soul, which never knew doubt or hesitation…. Careless of wealth, of titles, of honors, indifferent to pomp, modest in his life, apparently humble, sacrificing everything to the desire of making others like himself, I hardly know of a man, save Ignatius Loyola, who could match him in those terrible transports…. It is surprising that a man who appears to us in his life and writings so unsympathetic should have been the centre of an immense movement in his generation, and that this harsh and severe tone should have exerted so great an influence on the minds of his contemporaries. How was it, for example, that one of the most distinguished women of her time, Renée of France, in her court at Ferrara, surrounded by the flower of European wits, was captivated by that stern master, and by him drawn into a course that must have been so thickly strewn with thorns? This kind of austere seduction is exercised by those only who work with real conviction. Lacking that vivid, deep, sympathetic ardor which was one of the secrets of Luther’s success, lacking the charm, the perilous, languishing tenderness of Francis of Sales, Calvin succeeded more than all, in an age and in a country which called for a reaction towards Christianity, simply because he was the most Christian man of his century (l’homme le plus chrétien de son siècle, p. 342).”
Felix Bungener (1814-1874)
Pastor of the national Church of Geneva, and author of several historical works.
From Calvin, sa vie, son oeuvre et ses écrits, Paris, 1862; English translation (Edinburgh, 1863), pp. 338, 349.
“Let us not give him praise which he would not have accepted. God alone creates; a man is great only because God thinks fit to accomplish great things by his instrumentality. Never did any great man understand this better than Calvin. It cost him no effort to refer all the glory to God; nothing indicates that he was ever tempted to appropriate to himself the smallest portion of it. Luther, in many a passage, complacently dwells on the thought that a petty monk, as he says, has so well made the Pope to tremble, and so well stirred the whole world. Calvin will never say any such thing; he never even seems to say it, even in the deepest recesses of his heart; everywhere you perceive the man, who applies to all things — to the smallest as to the greatest — the idea that it is God who does all and is all. Read again, from this point of view, the very pages in which he appeared to you the haughtiest and most despotic, and see if, even there, he is anything other than the workman referring all, and in all sincerity, to his master…. But the man, in spite of all his faults, has not the less remained one of the fairest types of faith, of earnest piety, of devotedness, and of courage. Amid modern laxity, there is no character of whom the contemplation is more instructive; for there is no man of whom it has been said with greater justice, in the words of an apostle, ‘he endured as seeing him who is invisible.’”
From Dutch Scholars
James Arminius (1560-1609)
The founder of Arminianism.
“Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551-1608]; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison (incomparabilem esse) in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy (spiritum aliquem prophetiae eximium). His Institutes ought to be studied after the [Heidelberg] Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination (cum delectu), like the writings of all men.”
Dan. Gerdes (1698-1767)
Historia Evangelii Renovati, IV. 41 sq. (Groningae, 1752).
“Calvin’s labors were so highly useful to the Church of Christ, that there is hardly any department of the Christian world to be found that is not full of them, — hardly any heresy that has arisen which he has not successfully encountered with that two-edged sword, the Word of God, or a portion of Christian doctrine which he has not illustrated in a remarkable manner. Certainly his commentaries on the Old and New Testaments are all that could be desired; every one of his sermons is full of unction; his Institutes bear the most complete and finished execution; his doctrinal treatises are distinguished by solidity; his critical works by warmth and fervor; his practical writings by virtue and piety; and his letters by mildness, prudence, gravity, and wisdom.”
Judgments of German Scholars
John Lawrence Mosheim (1695-1755)
From the English translation of his Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, by James Murdock, D. D., New York, 1854, vol. III. 163, 167, 192.
“Calvin was venerated, even by his enemies, for his genius, learning, eloquence, and other endowments, and moreover was the friend of Melanchthon.
“Few persons of his age will bear any comparison with Calvin for patient industry, resolution, hatred of the Roman superstition, eloquence, and genius. Possessing a most capacious mind, he endeavored not only to establish and bless his beloved Geneva with the best regulations and institutions, but also to make it the mother and the focus of light and influence to the whole Reformed Church, just as Wittenberg was to the Lutheran community.
“The first rank among the interpreters of the age is deservedly assigned to John Calvin, who endeavored to expound nearly the whole of the sacred volume.
“His Institutes are written in a perspicuous and elegant style, and have nothing abstruse and difficult to be comprehended in the arguments or mode of reasoning.”
Johannes Von Mueller (1752-1809)
The great historian of Switzerland, called “the German Tacitus.”
Allgemeine Geschichte, bk. III.
“John Calvin had the spirit of an ancient lawgiver, a genius and characteristic which gave him in part unmistakable advantages, and failings which were only the excess of vir-tues, by the assistance of which he carried through his objects. He had also, like other Reformers, an indefatigable industry, with a fixed regard to a certain end, an invincible perseverance in principles and duty during his life, and at his death the courage and dignity of an ancient Roman censor. He contributed greatly to the development and advance of the human intellect, and more, indeed, than he himself foresaw. For among the Genevese and in France, the principle of free inquiry, on which he was obliged at first to found his system, and to curb which he afterwards strove in vain, became more fruitful in consequences than among nations which are less inquisitive than the Genevese, and less daring than the French. From this source were developed gradually philosophical ideas, which, though they are not yet purified sufficiently from the passions and views of their founders, have yet banished a great number of gloomy and pernicious prejudices, and have opened us prospects of a pure practical wisdom and better success for the future.”
Fr. August Tholuck (1799-1877)
Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 3d ed. 1831, p. 19.
“In his [Calvin’s] Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans are united pure Latinity, a solid method of unfolding and interpreting, founded on the principles of grammatical science and historical knowledge, a deeply penetrating faculty of mind, and vital piety.”
Dr. Twesten (1789-1876)
The successor of Schleiermacher in the chair of systematic theology at Berlin, and an orthodox Lutheran in the United Evangelical Church of Prussia.
From his Dogmatik der evangelisch Lutherischen Kirche, I. 216 (4th ed. Hamburg, 1838).
After speaking very highly and justly of Melanchthon and John Gerhard, Twesten thus characterizes Calvin’s Institutes: —
“Mehr Aus Einem Gusz, Als Melanchthon’s Loci, Die Reife Frucht Eines Tief Religiösen Und Aecht Wissenschaftlichen Geistes, Mit Groszer Klarheit, Kraft Und Schönheit Der Darstellung Geschrieben, Einfach In Der Anlage, Reich Und Gründlich In Der Ausführung, Verdient Es Neben Jenen Auch In Unserer Kirche Als Eins Der Vorzüglichsten Werke Auf Dem Gebiete Der Dogmatischen Literatur Ueberhaupt Studirt Zu Werden.”
Doctor of theology and pastor of a French Reformed Church in Berlin, author of two learned biographies of Calvin: a large one, in 3 vols. (1833-1844), which is chiefly valuable as a collection of documents, and a popular one in 1 vol.
From Das Leben Johann Calvins (Hamburg and Gotha, 1846), pp. 443 sqq.
“The whole tendency of Calvin was practical; learning was subordinate; the salvation of the world, the truth was to him the main thing. His spiritual tendency was not philosophical, but his dialectical bent ran principles to their utmost consequences. He had an eye to the minutest details. His former study of law had trained him for business…. He was a watchman over the whole Church…. All his theological writings excel in acuteness, dialectics, and warmth of conviction. He had great eloquence at command, but despised the art of rhetoric…. Day and night he was occupied with the work of the Lord. He disliked the daily entreaties of his colleagues to grant himself some rest. He continued to labor through his last sicknesses, and only stopped dictating a week before his death, when his voice gave out…. All sought his counsel; for God endowed him with such a happy spirit of wisdom that no one regretted to have followed his advice. How great was his erudition! How marvellous his judgment! How peculiar his kindness, which came to the aid even of the smallest and lowliest, if necessary, and his meekness and patient forbearance with the imperfections of others!”
Dr. L. Staehelin
Johannes Calvin. Leben und ausgewaehlte Schriften. Elberfeld, 1863. Vol. II. pp. 365-393.
This description of Calvin’s character as a man and as a Christian is faithful in praise and censure, but too profuse to be inserted. Dr. Staehelin emphasizes the logic of his intellect and conscience, his firm assurance of eternal election, his constant sense of the nearness of God, “the majesty” of his character, the predominance of the Old Testament feature, his resemblance to Moses and the Hebrew Prophets, his irritability, anger, and contemptuousness, relieved by genuine humility before God, his faithful-ness to friends, his life of unceasing prayer, his absolute disinterestedness and consecration to God. He also quotes the remarkable testimony of Renan, that Calvin was “the most Christian man in Christendom.”
Dr. Friedrich Trechsel (1805-1885)
Die Protestantischen Antitrinitarier. Heidelberg, 1839-1844 (I. 177).
“People have often supposed that they were insulting Calvin’s memory by calling him the Pope of Protestantism! He was so, but in the noblest sense of the expression, through the spiritual and moral superiority with which the Lord of the Church had endowed him for its deliverance; through his unwearied, universal zeal for God’s honor; through his wise care for the edifying of the kingdom of Christ; in a word, through all which can be comprehended in the idea of the papacy, of truth and honor.”
Ludwig Haeusser (1818-1867)
Professor of history at Heidelberg.
The Period of the Reformation, edited by Oncken (1868, 2d ed. 1880), translated by Mrs. Sturge, New York, 1874 (pp. 241 and 244).
“As the German Reformation is connected with Martin Luther, and the Swiss with Ulrich Zwingli, that of the Romanic and Western European nations is connected with John Calvin, the most remarkable personage of the time. He was not equal either to Luther or Zwingli in general talent, mental vigor, or tranquility of soul; but in logical acuteness and talent for organization he was at least equal, if not superior, to either. He settled the basis for the development of many states and churches. He stamped the form of the Reformation in countries to which he was a stranger. The French date the beginnings of their literary development from him, and his influence was not restricted to the sphere of religion, but embraced their intellectual life in general; no one else has so permanently influenced the spirit and form of their written language as he.
“At a time when Europe had no solid results of reform to allow, this little State of Geneva stood up as a great power; year by year it sent forth apostles into the world, who preached its doctrines everywhere, and it became the most dreaded counterpoise to Rome, when Rome no longer had any bulwark to defend her. The missionaries from this little community displayed the lofty and dauntless spirit which results from stoical education and training; they bore the stamp of a self-renouncing heroism which was elsewhere swallowed up in theological narrowness. They were a race with vigorous bones and sinews, for whom nothing was too daring, and who gave a new direction to Protestantism by causing it to separate itself from the old traditional monarchical authority, and to adopt the gospel of democracy as part of its creed. It formed a weighty counterpoise to the desperate efforts which the ancient Church and monarchical power were making to crush the spirit of the Reformation.
“It was impossible to oppose Caraffa, Philip II., and the Stuarts, with Luther’s passive resistance; men were wanted who were ready to wage war to the knife, and such was the Calvinistic school. It everywhere accepted the challenge; throughout all the conflicts for political and religious liberty, up to the time of the first emigration to America, in France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland, we recognize the Genevan school.”
Dr. Karl Rudolf Hagenbach (1801-1874)
Swiss Reformed, of Basel.
Geschichte des Reformation, 5th ed. edited by Nippold, Leipzig, 1887, p. 605.
“Calvin hatte so zu sagen kein irdisches Vaterland, dessen Freiheit er, wie Zwingli, zu wahren sich bewogen fand. Das himmlische Vaterland, die Stadt Gottes war es, in welche er alle zu sammeln sich berufen sah. Ihm galt nicht Grieehe, nicht Skythe, nicht Franzose, nicht Deutscher, nicht Eidgenosz, sondern einzig und allein die neü Kreatur in Christo. Es ware thöricht, ihm solches zum Vorwurf zu machen. Es ist vielmehr richtig bemerkt worden, wie Calvin, obgleich er nicht die Grösze Genfs als solche gesucht, dennoch dieser Stadt zu einer weltgeschichtlichen Grösze verholfen, die sie ohne ihn niemals erreicht haben würde. Aber so viel ist richtig, dasz das Reinmenschliche, das im Familien- und Volksleben seine Wurzel hat, und das durch das Christenthum nicht verdrängt, aber wohl veredelt werden soll, bei Calvin weniger zur Entwickelung kam. Männer des strengen Gedankens und einer rigiden Gesetzlichkeit werden geneigt sein, Calvin über Luther und Zwingli zu erheben. Und er hat auch seine unbestreitbaren Vorzüge. Pötisch angelegte Gemütsmenschen aber werden anfänglich Calvin und seiner vom Naturboden losgelösten, abstrakten Frömmigkeit gegenüber sich eines gewissen Fröstelns nicht erwehren können und einige Zeit brauchen, bis sie es überwunden haben; während sie sich zu dem herzgewinnenden Luther sogleich und auch dann noch hingezogen fühlen, wenn er schäumt und vor Zorn übersprudelt.”
Dr. Is. Dorner (1809-1884)
Geschichte der Protestantischen Theologie. München, 1867, pp. 374, 376.
“Calvin was equally great in intellect and character, lovely in social life, full of tender sympathy and faithfulness to friends, yielding and forgiving towards personal offences, but inexorably severe when he saw the honor of God obstinately and malignantly attacked. He combined French fire and practical good sense with German depth and soberness. He moved as freely in the world of ideas as in the business of Church government. He was an architectonic genius in science and practical life, always with an eye to the holiness and majesty of God.” (Condensed translation.)
Dr. Kahnis (Lutheran, 1814-1888)
Die Lutherische Dogmatik. Leipzig, 1861, vol. II. p. 490 sq.
“The fear of God was the soul of his piety, the rock-like certainty of his election before the foundation of the world was his power, and the doing of the will of God his single aim, which he pursued with trembling and fear…. No other Reformer has so well demonstrated the truth of Christ’s word that, in the kingdom of God, dominion is service. No other had such an energy of self-sacrifice, such an irrefragable conscientiousness in the greatest as well as the smallest things, such a disciplined power. This man, whose dying body was only held together by the will flaming from his eyes, had a majesty of character which commanded the veneration of his contemporaries.”
F. W. Kampschulte (1831-1872)
Catholic Professor of History in the University of Bonn from 1860 to 1872, and author of an able and impartial work on Calvin, which was interrupted by his death. Vols. II. and III. were never published. He protested against the Vatican decrees of 1870.
Johann Calvin. Seine Kirche und sein Staat in Genf. Erster Band, Leipzig, 1869, p. 274 sq.
“Calvin’s Lehrbuch der christlichen Religion ist ohne Frage das hervorr-agendste und bedeutendste Erzeugniss, welches die reformatorische Literatur des sechszehnten Jahrhunderts auf dem Gebiete der Dogmatik aufzuweisen hat. Schon ein oberflächlicher Vergleich lässt uns den gewal-tigen Fortschritt erkennen, den es gegenüber den bisherigen Leistungen auf diesem Gebiete bezeichnet. Statt der unvollkommenen, nach der einen oder andern Seite unzulänglichen Versuche Melanchthon’s, Zwingli’s, Farel’s erhalten wir aus Calvin’s Hand das Kunstwerk eines, wenn auch nicht harmonisch in sich abgeschlossenen, so doch wohl-gegliederten, durchgebildeten Systems, das in allen seinen Theilen die leitenden Grundgedanken widerspiegelt und von vollständiger Beherrschung des Stoffes zeugt. Es hatte eine unverkennbare Berechtigung, wenn man den Verfasser der Institution als den Aristoteles der Reformation bezeichnete. Die ausserordentliche Belesenheit in der biblischen und patristischen Literatur, wie sie schon in den früheren Ausgaben des Werkes hervortritt, setzt in Erstaunen. Die Methode ist lichtvoll und klar, der Gedankengang streng logisch, überall durchsicktig, die Eintheilung und Ordnung des Stoffes dem leitenden Grundgedanken entsprechend; die Darstellung schreitet ernst und gemessen vor und nimmt, obschon in den späteren Ausgaben mehr gelehrt als anziehend, mehr auf den Verstand als auf das Gemüth berechnet, doch zuweilen einen höheren Schwung an. Calvin’s Institution enthält Abschnitte, die dem Schönsten, was von Pascal und Bossüt geschrieben worden ist, an die Seite gestellt werden können: Stellen, wie jene fiber die Erhabenheit der heiligen Schrift, aber das Elend des gefallenen Menschen, über die Bedeutung des Gebetes, werden nie verfehlen, ait den Leser einen tiefen Eindruck zu machen. Auch von den katholischen Gegnern Calvin’s sind diese Vorzüge anerkannt und manche Abschnitte seines Werkes sogar benutzt worden. Man begreift es voll-kommen, wenn er selbst mit dem Gefühl der Befriedigung und des Stolzes auf sein Werk blickt und in seinen übrigen Schriften gern auf das ‘Lehrbuch’ zurückverweist.”
“Und doch beschleicht uns, trotz aller Bewunderung, zu der uns der Verfasser nöthigt, bei dem Durchlesen seines Werkes ein unheimliches Gefühl. Ein System, das von dem furchtbaren Gedanken der doppelten Prädestination ausgeht, welches die Menschen ohne jede Rücksicht auf das eigene Verhalten in Erwählte und Verworfene scheidet und die Einen wie die Anderen zu blossen Werkzeugen zur Verherrlichung der göttlichen Majestät macht … ein solches System kann unmöglich dem deukenden, Belehrung und Trost suchenden Menschengeist innere Ruhe und Befriedigung gewähren.”
Baum, Cunitz, and Reuss
Joh. Calvini Opera, vol. I. p. ix.
The Strassburg editors of Calvin’s Works belong to the modern liberal school of theology.
“Si Lutherum virum maximum, si Zwinglium civem Christianum nulli secundum, si Melanthonem praeceptorem doctissimum merito appellaris, Calvinum jure vocaris theologorum principem et antesignanum. In hoc enim quis linguarum et literarum praesidia, quis disciplinarum fere omnium non miretur orbem? De cujus copia doctrinae, rerumque dispositions aptissime concinnata, et argumentorum vi ac validitate in dogmaticis; de ingenii acumine et subtilitate, atque nunc festiva nunc mordaci salsedine in polemicis, de felicissima perspicuitate, sobrietate ac sagacitate in exegeticis, de nervosa eloquentia et libertate in paraeneticis; de prudentia sapientiaque legislatoria in ecclesiis constituendis, ordinandis ac regendis incomparabile, inter omnes viros doctos et de rebus evangelicis libere sentientes jam abunde constat. Imo inter ipsos adversarios romanos nullus hodie est, vel mediocri harum rerum cognitione imbutus vel tantilla judicii praeditus aequitate, qui argumentorum et sententiarum ubertatem, proprietatem verborum sermonemque castigatum, stili denique, tam latini quam gallici, gravitatem et luciditatem non admiretur. Quae cuncta quum in singulis fere scriptis, tum praecipue relucent in immortali illa Institutione religionis Christianae, quae omnes ejusdem generis expositiones inde ab apostolorum temporibus conscriptas, adeoque ipsos Melanthonis Locos theologicos, absque omni controversia longe antecellit atque eruditum et ingenuum lectorem, etiamsi alicubi secus senserit, hodieque quasi vinctum trahit et vel invitum rapit in admirationem.”
Tributes from English Writers (Mostly Episcopal)
Richard Hooker (1553-1600)
From his Preface to the Ecclesiastical Polity (Keble’s ed. vol. I. p. 158).
“Whom [Calvin], for my own part, I think incomparably the wisest man that ever the French Church did enjoy since the hour it enjoyed him. His bringing up was in the study of the civil law. Divine knowledge he gathered not by hearing or reading so much as by teaching others. For, though thousands were debtors to him, as touching knowledge of this kind, yet he to none, but only to God, the Author of that most blessed fountain, the Book of Life, and of the admirable dexterity of wit, together with the helps of other learning, which were his guides. — We should be injurious unto virtue itself, if we did derogate from them whom their industry hath made great. Two things of principal moment there are, which have deservedly procured him honor throughout the world: the one, his exceeding pains in composing the Institutions of the Christian Religion; the other, his no less industrious travails for exposition of Holy Scripture, according unto the same Institutions….
“Of what account the Master of Sentences [Peter Lombard] was in the Church of Rome; the same and more, among the preachers of Reformed Churches, Calvin had purchased; so that the perfectest divines were judged they which were skilfullest in Calvin’s writings; his books almost the very canon to judge both doctrine and discipline by.”
Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626)
“Calvin was an illustrious person, and never to be mentioned without a preface of the highest honor.”
Dr. John Donne (1573-1631)
Royal Chaplain and Dean of St. Paul’s, London; distinguished as a poet and divine.
“St. Augustin, for sharp insight and conclusive judgment in exposition of places of Scripture, which he always makes so liquid and pervious, hath scarce been equalled therein by any of all the writers in the Church of God, except Calvin may have that honor, for whom (when it concerns not points of controversy) I see the Jesuits themselves, though they dare not name him, have a high degree of reverence.”
Bishop Hall (1574-1656)
Works, III. 516.
“Reverend Calvin, whose judgment I so much honor, that I reckon him among the best interpreters of Scripture since the Apostles left the earth.”
Bishop Sanderson (1587-1663)
“When I began to set myself to the study of Divinity as my proper business, Calvin’s Institutions were recommended to me, as they generally were to all young scholars in those times, as the best and most perfect system of Divinity, and the fittest to be laid as a groundwork in the study of the profession. And, indeed, my expectation was not at all ill-deemed in the study of those Institutions.”
Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
“I know no man, since the Apostles’ days, whom I value and honor more than Calvin, and whose judgment in all things, one with another, I more esteem and come nearer to.”
Bishop Wilson of Calcutta
From Sermon preached on the death of the Rev. Basil Wood.
“Calvin’s Commentaries remain, after three centuries, unparalleled for force of mind, justness of exposition, and practical views of Christianity.”
From his Bampton Lectures.
“Calvin was both a wise and a good man, inferior to none of his contemporaries in general ability, and superior to almost all in the art, as well as elegance, of composition, in the perspicuity and arrangement of his ideas, the structure of his periods, and the Latinity of his diction.”
Archdeacon Julius Charles Hare (1795-1855)
He had, of all Englishmen, the best knowledge and highest appreciation of Luther.
From his Mission of the Comforter, II. 449.
“Calvin’s Commentaries, although they too are almost entirely doctrinal and practical, taking little note of critical and philosophical questions, keep much closer to the text [than Luther’s], and make it their one business to bring out the meaning of the words of Scripture with fulness and precision. This they do with the excellence of a master richly endowed with the word of wisdom and with the word of knowledge, and from the exemplary union of a severe masculine understanding with a profound insight into the spiritual depths of the Scriptures, they are especially calculated to be useful in counteracting the erroneous tendencies of an age, when we seem about to be inundated with all that was fantastical and irrational in the exegetical mysticism of the Fathers, and are bid to see divine power in all allegorical cobwebs, and heavenly life in artificial flowers. I do not mean to imply an adoption or approval of all Calvin’s views, whether on doctrinal or other questions. But we may happily owe much gratitude and love, and the deepest intellectual obligations, to those whom at the same time we may, deem to be mistaken on certain points.”
Thomas H. Dyer
The Life of John Calvin. London, 1850, p. 533 sq.
“That Calvin was in some respects a really great man, and that the eloquent panegyric of his friend and disciple Beza contains much that is true, will hardly be denied. In any circumstances his wonderful abilities and extensive learning would have made him a shining light among the doctors of the Reformation; an accidental, or, as his friends and followers would say, a providential and predestinated visit to Geneva, made him the head of a numerous and powerful sect. Naturally deficient in that courage which forms so prominent a trait in Luther’s character, and which prompted him to beard kings and emperors face to face, Calvin arrived at Geneva at a time when the rough and initiatory work of Reform had already been accomplished by his bolder and more active friend Farel. Some peculiar circumstances in the political condition of that place favored the views which he seems to have formed very shortly after his arrival….
“The preceding narrative has already shown how, from that time to the hour of his death, his care and labor were constantly directed to the consolidation of his power, and to the development of his scheme of ecclesiastical polity. In these objects he was so successful that it may be safely affirmed that none of the Reformers, not even Luther himself, attained to so absolute and extensive an influence.”
Archdeacon Frederic W. Farrar, D. D., F. R. S
History of Interpretation. London, 1886, pp. 342-344.
“The greatest exegete and theologian of the Reformation was undoubtedly Calvin. He is not an attractive figure in the history of that great movement. The mass of mankind revolt against the ruthless logical rigidity of his ‘horrible decree.’ They fling it from their belief with the eternal ‘God forbid!’ of an inspired natural horror. They dislike the tyranny of theocratic sacerdotalism [?] which be established at Geneva. Neverthe-less his Commentaries, almost alone among those of his epoch, are still a living force. They are far more profound than those of Zwingli, more thorough and scientific, if less original and less spiritual, than those of Luther. In spite of his many defects — the inequality of his works, his masterful arrogance of tone, his inconsequent and in part retrogressive view of inspiration, the manner in which he explains away every passage which runs counter to his dogmatic prepossessions — in spite, too, of his ‘hard expressions and injurious declamations’ — he is one of the greatest interpreters of Scripture who ever lived. He owes that position to a combination of merits. He had a vigorous intellect, a dauntless spirit, a logical mind, a quick insight, a thorough knowledge of the human heart, quickened by rich and strange experience; above all, a manly and glowing sense of the grandeur of the Divine. The neatness, precision, and lucidity of his style, his classic training and wide knowledge, his methodical accuracy of procedure, his manly independence, his avoidance of needless and commonplace homiletics, his deep religious feeling, his careful attention to the entire scope and context of every passage, and the fact that he has commented on almost the whole of the Bible, make him tower above the great majority of those who have written on Holy Scripture. Nothing can furnish a greater contrast to many helpless commentaries, with their congeries of vacillating variorum annotations heaped together in aimless multiplicity, than the terse and decisive notes of the great Genevan theologian…. A characteristic feature of Calvin’s exegesis is its abhorrence of hollow orthodoxy. He regarded it as a disgraceful offering to a God of truth. He did not hold the theory of verbal dictation. He will never defend or harmonize what he regards as an oversight or mistake in the Sacred writers. He scorns to support a good cause by bad reasoning…. But the most characteristic and original feature of his Commentaries is his anticipation of modern criticism in his views about the Messianic prophecies. He saw that the words of psalmists and prophets, while they not only admit of but demand ‘germinant and springing developments,’ were yet primarily applicable to the events and circumstances of their own days.”
ln Scotland, the land of John Knox, who studied at the feet of Calvin, his principles were most highly appreciated and most fully carried out.
Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856)
“Looking merely to his learning and ability, Calvin was superior to all modern, perhaps to all ancient, divines. Succeeding ages have certainly not exhibited his equal. To find his peer we must ascend at least to Aquinas or Augustin.”
Dr. William Cunningham (1805-1861)
Principal of the New College and Professor of Church History in Edinburgh. Presbyterian of the Free Church.
Reformers, and the Theology of the Reformation. Edinburgh, 1866, pp. 292, 294, 299.
“John Calvin was by far the greatest of the Reformers with respect to the talents he possessed, the influence he exerted, and the service he rendered to the establishment and diffusion of important truth….
“The systematizing of divine truth, and the full organization of the Christian Church according to the word of God, are the great peculiar achievements of Calvin. For this work God eminently qualified him, by bestowing upon him the highest gifts both of nature and of grace; and this work he was enabled to accomplish in such a way as to confer the greatest and most lasting benefits upon the Church of Christ, and to entitle him to the commendation and the gratitude of all succeeding ages….
“Calvin certainly was not free from the infirmities which are always found in some form or degree even in the best men; and in particular, he occasionally exhibited an angry impatience of contradiction and opposition, and sometimes assailed and treated the opponents of the truth and cause of God with a violence and invective which cannot be defended, and should certainly not be imitated. He was not free from error, and is not to be implicitly followed in his interpretation of Scripture, or in his exposition of doctrine. But whether we look to the powers and capacities with which God endowed him, the manner in which he employed them, and the results by which his labors have been followed, — or to the Christian wisdom, magnanimity, and devotedness which marked his character and generally regulated his conduct, there is probably not one among the sons of men, beyond the range of those whom God miraculously inspired by his Spirit, who has stronger claims upon our veneration and gratitude.”
In another place which I cannot refer to, Cunningham, the successor of Chalmers, says: “Calvin is the man who, next to St. Paul, has done most good to mankind.”
Dr. John Tulloch (1823-1886)
Principal of St. Mary’s College in the University of St. Andrews, of the Established Church of Scotland.
Luther and other Leaders of the Reformation. Edinburgh and London, 3d ed. 1883, pp. 234-237, 243, 245.
“Thus lived and died Calvin, a great, intense, and energetic character, who, more than any other of that great age, has left his impress upon the history of Protestantism. Nothing, perhaps, more strikes us than the contrast between the single naked energy which his character presents and of which his name has become symbolical, and the grand issues which have gone forth from it. Scarcely anywhere else can we trace such an impervious potency of intellectual and moral influence emanating from so narrow a centre.
“There is in almost every respect a singular dissimilarity between the Genevan and the Wittenberg reformer. In personal, moral, and intellectual features, they stand contrasted — Luther with his massive frame and full big face and deep melancholy eyes; Calvin, of moderate stature, pale and dark complexion, and sparkling eyes, that burned nearly to the moment of his death (Beza: Vita Calv.). Luther, fond and jovial, relishing his beer and hearty family repasts with his wife and children; Calvin, spare and frugal, for many years taking only one meal a day, and scarcely needing sleep. In the one, we see a rich and complex and buoyant and affectionate nature touching humanity at every point, in the other, a stern and grave unity of moral character. Both were naturally of a somewhat proud and imperious temper, but the violence of Luther is warm and boisterous, that of Calvin is keen and zealous. It might have been a very uncomfortable thing, as Melanchthon felt, to be exposed to Luther’s occasional storms; but after the storm was over, it was pleasant to be folded once more to the great heart that was sorry for its excesses. To be the object of Calvin’s dislike and anger was something to fill one with dread, not only for the moment, but long afterwards, and at a distance, as poor Castellio felt when he gathered the pieces of driftwood on the banks of the Rhine at Basel.
“In intellect, as in personal features, the one was grand, massive, and powerful, through depth and comprehension of feeling, a profound but exaggerated insight, and a soaring eloquence; the other was no less grand and powerful, through clearness and correctness of judgment, vigor and consistency of reasoning, and weightiness of expression. Both are alike memorable in the service which they rendered to their native tongue — in the increased compass, flexibility, and felicitous mastery which they imparted to it. The Latin works of Calvin are greatly superior in elegance of style, symmetry of method, and proportionate vigor of argument. He maintains an academic elevation of tone, even when keenly agitated in temper; while Luther, as Mr. Hallam has it, sometimes descends to mere ‘bellowing in bad Latin.’ Yet there is a coldness in the elevation of Calvin, and in his correct and well-balanced sentences, for which we should like ill to exchange the kindling though rugged paradoxes of Luther. The German had the more rich and teeming — the Genevan the harder, more serviceable, and enduring mind. When interrupted in dictating for several hours, Beza tells us that he could return and commence where he had left off; and that amidst all the multiplicity of his engagements, he never forgot what he required to know for the performance of any duty.
“As preachers, Calvin seems to have commanded a scarcely less powerful success than Luther, although of a different character — the one stimulating and rousing, ‘boiling over in every direction’ — the other instructive, argumentative, and calm in the midst of his vehemence (Beza: Vita Calv.). Luther flashed forth his feelings at the moment, never being able to compose what might be called a regular sermon, but seizing the principal subject, and turning all his attention to that alone. Calvin was elaborate and careful in his sermons as in everything else. The one thundered and lightened, filling the souls of his hearers now with shadowy awe, and now with an intense glow of spiritual excitement; the other, like the broad daylight, filled them with a more diffusive though less exhilarating clearness….
“An impression of majesty and yet of sadness must ever linger around the name of Calvin. He was great and we admire him. The world needed him and we honor him; but we cannot love him. He repels our affections while he extorts our admiration; and while we recognize the worth, and the divine necessity, of his life and work, we are thankful to survey them at a distance, and to believe that there are also other modes of divinely govern-ing the world, and advancing the kingdom of righteousness and truth.
“Limited, as compared with Luther, in his personal influence, apparently less the man of the hour in a great crisis of human progress, Calvin towers far above Luther in the general influence over the world of thought and the course of history, which a mighty intellect, inflexible in its convictions and constructive in its genius, never fails to exercise.”
William Lindsay Alexander, D. D., F. R. S. E. (1808-1884)
Professor of Theology and one of the Bible Revisers. Congregationalist.
From Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed. vol. IV. (1878) p. 721.
“Calvin was of middle stature; his complexion was somewhat pallid and dark; his eyes, to the latest clear and lustrous, bespoke the acumen of his genius. He was sparing in his food and simple in his dress; he took but little sleep, and was capable of extraordinary efforts of intellectual toil. His memory was prodigious, but he used it only as the servant of his higher faculties. As a reasoner he has seldom been equalled, and the soundness and penetration of his judgment were such as to give to his conclusions in practical questions almost the appearance of predictions, and inspire in all his friends the utmost confidence in the wisdom of his counsels. As a theologian he stands on an eminence which only Augustin has surpassed; whilst in his skill as an expounder of Scripture, and his terse and elegant style, he possessed advantages to which Augustin was a stranger. His private character was in harmony with his public reputation and position. If somewhat severe and irritable, he was at the same time scrupulously just, truthful, and steadfast; he never deserted a friend or took an unfair advantage of an antagonist; and on befitting occasions he could be cheerful and even facetious among his intimates.”
Testimonies of American Divines
Dr. Henry B. Smith (1815-1877)
Professor of Theology in the Union Theological Seminary, New York. Presbyterian.
From his Address before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, 1855, delivered by request of the Presbyterian Historical Society. See Faith and Philosophy, pp. 98 and 99.
“Though the Reformation, under God, began with Luther in the power of faith, it was carried on by Calvin with greater energy, and with a more constructive genius, both in theology and in church polity, as he also had a more open field. The Lutheran movement affected chiefly the centre and the north of Europe; the Reformed Churches were planted in the west of Europe, all around the ocean, in the British Isles, and by their very geographical site were prepared to act the most efficient part, and to leap the walls of the old world, and colonize our shores.
“Nothing is more striking in a general view of the history of the Reformed Churches than the variety of countries into which we find their characteristic spirit, both in doctrine and polity, penetrating. Throughout Switzerland it was a grand popular movement. There is first of all, Zwingli, the hero of Zurich, already in 1516 preaching against the idolatrous veneration of Mary, a man of generous culture and intrepid spirit, who at last laid down his life upon the field of battle. In Basle we find Oecolampadius, and also Bullinger [in Zurich], the chronicler of the Swiss reform. Farel aroused Geneva to iconoclasm by his inspiring eloquence.
“Thither comes in 1536, from the France which disowned him, Calvin, the mighty law-giver, great as a preacher, an expositor, a teacher and a ruler; cold in exterior, but burning with internal fire; who produced at twenty-six years of age his unmatched Institutes, and at thirty-five had made Geneva, under an almost theocratic government, the model city of Europe, with its inspiring motto, ‘post tenebras lux.’ He was feared and opposed by the libertines of his day, as he is in our own. His errors were those of his own times: his greatness is of all times. Hooker calls him ‘incomparably the wisest man of the French Church;’ he compares him to the ‘Master of Sentences,’ and says, ‘that though thousands were debtors to him as touching divine knowledge, yet he was to none, only to God.’ Montesquieu declares that ‘the Genevese should ever bless the day of his birth.’ Jewel terms him ‘a reverend Father, and worthy ornament of the Church of God.’ ‘He that will not honor the memory of Calvin,’ says Mr. Bancroft, ‘knows but little of the origin of American liberty.’ Under his influence Geneva became the ‘fertile seed-plot’ of reform for all Europe; with Zurich and Strassburg, it was the refuge of the oppressed from the British Isles, and thus indoctrinated England and ourselves with its own spirit.”
From Dr. Smith’s article “Calvin” in Appleton’s American Cyclopaedia.
“Calvin’s system of doctrine and polity has shaped more minds and entered into more nations than that of any other Reformer. In every land it made men strong against the attempted interference of the secular power with the rights of Christians. It gave courage to the Huguenots; it shaped the theology of the Palatinate; it prepared the Dutch for the heroic defence of their national rights; it has controlled Scotland to the present hour; it formed the Puritanism of England; it has been the basis of the New England character; and everywhere it has led the way in practical reforms. His theology assumed different types in the various countries into which it penetrated, while retaining its fundamental traits.”
Dr. George P. Fisher (B. 1827)
Professor of Church History in Yale Divinity School, New Haven. Congregationalist.
From his History of the Reformation. New York, 1873, pp. 206 and 238.
When we look at his extraordinary intellect, at his culture — which opponents, like Bossuet, have been forced to commend — at the invincible energy which made him endure with more than stoical fortitude infirmities of body under which most men would have sunk, and to perform, in the midst of them, an incredible amount of mental labor; when we see him, a scholar naturally fond of seclusion, physically timid, and recoiling from notoriety and strife, abjuring the career that was most to his taste, and plunging, with a single-hearted, disinterested zeal and an indomitable will, into a hard, protracted contest; and when we follow his steps, and see what things he effected, we cannot deny him the attributes of greatness….
“His last days were of a piece with his life. His whole course has been compared by Vinet to the growth of one rind of a tree from another, or to a chain of logical sequences. He was endued with a marvellous power of understanding, although the imagination and sentiments were less roundly developed. His systematic spirit fitted him to be the founder of an enduring school of thought. In this characteristic he may be compared with Aquinas. He has been appropriately styled the Aristotle of the Reformation. He was a perfectly honest man. He subjected his will to the eternal rule of right, as far as he could discover it. His motives were pure. He felt that God was near him, and sacrificed everything to obey the direction of Providence. The fear of God ruled in his soul; not a slavish fear, but a principle such as animated the prophets of the Old Covenant. The combination of his qualities was such that he could not fail to attract profound admiration and reverence from one class of minds, and excite intense antipathy in another. There is no one of the Reformers who is spoken of, at this late day, with so much personal feeling, either of regard or aversion. But whoever studies his life and writings, especially the few passages in which he lets us into his confidence and appears to invite our sympathy, will acquire a growing sense of his intellectual and moral greatness, and a tender consideration for his errors.’
G. G. Herrick, D. D
Congregational Minister of Mount Vernon Church, Boston.
From Some Heretics of Yesterday. Boston, 1890, pp. 210 sqq.
“Calvin gathered up the spiritual and intellectual forces that had been started by the Reformation movement, and marshalled and systematized them, and bound them into unity by the mastery of his logical thought, as the river gathers cloud and rill, and snow-drift and dew-fall, and constrains them through its own channel into the unity and directness of a powerful current. The action of Luther was impulsive, magnetic, popular, appealing to sentiment and feeling, that of Calvin was logical and constructive, appealing to understanding and reason. He was the systematizer of the Reformation….
“Calvin’s work was national, and more; he gave to the Reformation a universality like that of the gigantic system with which they [the Reformers] all were at war. Calvin, more than any other man that has ever lived, deserves to be called the Pope of Protestantism. While he was still living his opinions were deferred to by kings and prelates, and even after he was dead his power was confessed by his enemies. The papists called his Institutes The Heretics’ Koran…. He set up authority against authority, and maintained and perpetuated what he set up by the inherent clearness and energy and vigor of his own mental conceptions. The authority of the Romish Pope was based upon the venerable tradition of the past that had grown up by the accretion of ages; the authority of the Protestant Pope rested upon a logical structure which he himself built up, out of blocks hewn from alleged Scripture assertion and legitimate inferences therefrom….
“The man himself is one of the wonders of all time, and his work was admirable, beyond any words of appreciation that it is possible for me to utter. For while he himself tolerated no differences of theological opinion, and would have bound all thought by his own logical chain, this nineteenth century is as much indebted to his work as it is to that of Luther. That work constituted the world’s largest step towards democratic freedom. It set the individual man in the presence of the living God, and made the solitary soul, whether of prince or pauper, to feel its responsibility to, and dependence upon, Him alone who from eternity has decreed the sparrow’s flight or fall. Out of this logical conception of the equality of all men in the presence of Jehovah, he deduced the true republican character of the Church; a theory to which all Americans, and especially we of New England, owe our rich inheritance. He gave to the world, what it had not before, a majestic and consistent conception of a kingdom of God ruling in the affairs of men; of the beauty and the blessedness of a true Christian state; of the possibility of the city of God being one day realized in the universal subordination of human souls to divine authority….”
For testimonies bearing upon Calvin’s system of discipline, see below, § 110.