John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin is generally acknowledged to be the most influential protestant reformer and thinker after Martin Luther. He is also one of the most important interpreters of Protestant Christianity. His influence has been so widespread that not only the Reformed/ Presbyterian Churches but almost all the protestant ecclesial and theological traditions have been affected by his thought.

It is also interesting to note that many of the well-known theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner were strongly influenced by Calvin. In fact, Calvin has enriched both the theological and ecclesiastical traditions of Protestant Christianity. Though Calvin has contributed many significant things, his contribution and works cannot be done on one paper, this paper will mainly focus on Calvin’s thought about Christology.

John Calvin’ Christology

Calvin’s teaching on the person and work of Christ is both catholic and reformed. He adopts the orthodoxy of the early Church Fathers and the councils concisely. At the same time, he develops his Christology in opposition to the teaching of Andreas Osiander who taught that if Adam had not fallen, Christ would still have to become incarnate in fulfillment of creation. In response to Osiander, Calvin teaches that Christ has come for our redemption. His incarnation has no other purpose than our redemption.

            In regards to the nature of Christ, Calvin adopted the Chalcedonian doctrine of the union of the two natures of Christ. Christ is God incarnate. He is truly God and truly man. The union of the two nature of Christ that is humanity and divinity is not the result of the confusion of substance but the unity of person. Calvin writes, ‘that he who was to be our mediator should be true God and man.’

John Calvin

Calvin follows traditional orthodoxy when he discusses the person of Christ and his work. In Christ, there are two natures in a single person, so that “he who was the Son of God became the Son of man- not by confusion of substances, but by unity of person.” Although councils may err- and in fact have erred- the first ecumenical councils correctly represented the biblical testimony regarding the person of Christ.

There are three points at which the study of Calvin’ Christology may prove significant. The first concerns his attempts to defend the traditional dogma against its detractors. This is significant, both because it forced Calvin to spell out his own Christology and because it serves to illustrate some of the unorthodox ideas held by rationalists and others.

Second, Calvin’ description of the work of Christ in terms of the triple office of king, prophet, and priest- usually called the triple munus- became common in Reformed theology. Third, his understanding of the hypostatic union is closely connected with his position on the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

First point

The first point at which contemporary controversies forced Calvin to develop his theology was the reason for the incarnation. Calvin regards that the purpose of the incarnation is for our redemption. This controversy is significant, for it tended to ground Calvin’ Christology on soteriology.

Second point

Another point at which the controversies of his time helped Calvin develops his christology had to do with the human nature of Christ. The new ‘Marcionites’, (who taught that Christ did not have an earthly flesh) forced Calvin to insist on the humanity of Christ, and on his physical descent from Adam.

What is significant is that in this discussion Calvin developed a Christology that, while remaining orthodox, tended to emphasize the distinction between the two natures in Christ rather than the unity of the person and the communicatio idiomatum. This is fully consistent with Calvin’ opinions regarding the value of humanity before God as well as with his theory of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Final point

Finally, another opponent who helped shape Calvin’ Christology was Franceso Stancaro, who held that Christ is our mediator only through his human nature. Against this Calvin asserted that because the work of redemption took place through the hypostatic union, everything in Christ that has to do with redemption is to be ascribed to the unity of the person, and not to one nature or another. The significance of this is that toward the end of his life Calvin came to emphasize the communicatio idiomatum to a greater degree than he had before.

Calvin discussion of Christ

Calvin discusses the work of Christ in terms of three offices-triplex munus. Christ is at once prophet, king and priest.  The very title ‘Christ’ signifies this triple office, for it means ‘anointed’ and in the OT kings, prophets and priests were anointed. Christ is the prophet par excellence, because in him all prophecies are fulfilled.

The prophecies of the OT had no other content than Christ himself. This prophetic office of Christ is extended not only to his mouth, so that his words are prophetic, but also to his entire body. So that in each of his actions, as well as in the present preaching of the gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit can be seen. Christ is the king of the church as well as the individual believers. As such, he rules over us.

But his rule is such that he shares with his subjects all that he has received. The kings of the OT like the prophet’s point to this supreme and unique king. As a priest, Christ has come before God to present himself in sacrifice.

In so doing he fulfilled all the ancient sacrifices, which had no validity other than in him. And he has also made his followers priest, for he has now enabled them to present themselves before God as a living sacrifice.

Characteristic of Calvin’ Christology

The third main characteristic of Calvin’ Christology is his constant concern to avoid any confusion between humanity and divinity in Christ. In this, he tended to agree with Zwingli against Luther, who emphasized the unity of the person above the distinction of the two natures. He pointed out that although his divinity of the Second Person was fully present in Jesus.

It was not circumscribed by his humanity. His wondrous descent was such that he was still in heaven while he was also in Jesus; and when he was being born from the Virgin’s womb he was still filling the entire universe. This is what later theologians came to call the extra calvinisticum, and it became a characteristic emphasis of Reformed Christology.

 If one were to attempt to characterize Calvin’ Christology in a few sentences, one could say that while strictly orthodox, that Christology leans more toward the ancient Antiochenes than toward the Alexandrians and also that it has a very strong soteriological rather than metaphysical emphasis.

 Calvin understands the work of Christ in terms of satisfaction. Through his obedience unto death, Christ has merited for us the forgiveness of sins. In this manner, God’s justice and love have been satisfied.

Humanity of Christ

Calvin developed his Christology in opposition not only to the teachings of Osiander but also to those of Menno Simons and Michael Servetus. Those teachings forced Calvin to insist on the humanity of Christ and on His physical descent from Adam. Calvin willingly acknowledges that the woman’s seed could not be exempted from corruption. It was from the fallen human nature.

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But Christ was free of all stain because He was sanctified by the Holy Spirit. It is through the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the miraculous conception that the sinful substance of the woman is cleansed from every taint of corruption.

Jesus was fully man and nothing inhuman was unknown to him excepting sin (Hebrew 4:15). He was not the only man to his body but even to his soul. He was subject to passions, fears, and sorrows. The sacrifice Jesus undertook was for the purpose of enabling us to have access to him, ‘so that we might communicate his benefits to all’. That Christ was truly man was moreover an indispensable condition for our salvation.

Divinity of Christ

One of Calvin’s concerns was to avoid any confusion of humanity and divinity in Christ. Like Zwingli, Calvin argued that the ubiquity of the divine had not been communicated to the body of Christ and that he could not, therefore, be present in heaven and on several altars at the same time.

With this context, he pointed out that although the divinity of the second person was fully present in Jesus, it was not restricted by His humanity, His wondrous descent was such that He was still in heaven while He was also in Jesus; and when He was being born from the virgin’s womb He was still filling the entire universe.

Unity but not Fusion

Calvin is strongly against dualism into the person of Christ-true God and true man.  He opposed sharply Nestorius. Calvin explains the two natures of Christ that, “the two natures are closely bound up together that Christ is one Person only.” It was one of his concerns to avoid any confusion of divinity and humanity of Christ. Following the patristic orthodoxy, he stressed the oneness of God-man. But at the same time, he rejected the monophysite commingling of the two natures.

 The humanity of Christ would no longer be true humanity if it participated in the characteristics of his divinity. Calvin sees that our salvation is jeopardized if Jesus Christ had not been truly man such a man as we are. So far as we are concerned, everything depends on the true manhood of Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, by a fusion of divinity and humanity in Christ, the Godhead would similarly be threatened. It would then be a question of whether God Himself was to be found in Christ or only divine powers. In that way, our salvation would imperiled.

Sinlessness of Christ

Calvin maintains the sinlessness of Christ. His infirmities were voluntarily borne and he could have been exempted from them without detriment to his humanity. We do not hold Christ to be free from all taint merely because He was born of a woman unconnected with a man, but because He was sanctified by the Spirit, so that the generation was pure and spotless, as it would have been before Adam’s fall.

The Work of Christ

The work of Christ consists of reconciliation and redemption. It is carried out in terms of his threefold office- prophet, priest, and king. This is regarded as Calvin’s contribution to our understanding of the uniqueness and significance of Jesus. As a prophet, Christ is the herald of and witness to the Father’s grace.

He is also the prophet par excellence because in him all prophecies are fulfilled. Christ is the king who rules over a spiritual reign of God, which is eternal. He is the King of the Church as well as of individual believers.

As a priest, Christ acts as a pure and spotless mediator to reconcile human beings to God. He pleads for us as the everlasting intercessor. It is not only his death but also his life, which has affected salvation throughout the whole course of obedience.

True God

Calvin stated that unless God came down to us, human beings are not in a position to reach upwards. “Man in innocence could not penetrate to God without a mediator, much less could he after the fall.” If Jesus Christ is mean anything decisive to us, we must encounter in Him the majesty of God and find in Him the One who is truly our God.

 Calvin emphasized the majesty of God such that it is impossible for human beings to have fellowship with Him unless He Himself comes down to the level of human beings. “The majesty of God is too high to be scaled up to by mortals, who creep, requires to be received with some modification.

When Christ is called the image of the visible God, the expression is not used without cause but is designed to remind us that we can have no knowledge of our salvation, until we behold God in Christ. The intention of emphasis about the majesty of God is that it is impossible for a man to reach God.

So as to bridge the gap between God and human beings, no man is fit to do so. It is Christ who is true God; divine who can be the mediator between the Creator and the creation.

Reflection

 Rev. H. Vanlalauva commented on the Christology of Calvin that it is Orthodox and leans more towards the Antiochene than towards the Alexandrian position of Christ. It has a strong soteriological rather than metaphysical emphasis.

The Christological emphasis gave importance to the saving work of Christ. As mention earlier, Calvin tends to lean more towards the Antiochene School of Thought. It can be drawn from this that Christ is the center of Calvin’s theology. He gave importance to the person and works of Christ.

Conclusion

As mentioned above, we cannot deny that John Calvin is one of the most influential theologians and writers; John Calvin systematized theology and he is also the most important person who defends the faith from the false doctrines and teachings. Though many unsound teachings on Christology like Andreas Osiander, Menno Simons, and Michael Servetus influenced many people.

John Calvin was the very significant person who could prevent the Church from false teaching. In his final illness, Calvin commented on his own life: “while I am nothing, yet I know that I have prevented many disturbances…God has given me the power to write… I have written nothing in hatred… but always I have faithfully attempted what I believed to be for the glory of God”