Articles on Soteriology, Grace and even John Calvin

An Estimate of Calvin’s Character by William Wileman


THIS chapter has not been prepared without a perusal of those estimates of Calvin that have been written by his avowed enemies and opponents. It is of immense importance to any public man to know what his enemies say of him. It is highly desirable to know both sides of any case of controversy; for the simple reason that the man who knows nothing of the other side knows very little of his own.

Dr. J. M. Mason writes: “Had anything been wanting in his own writings to evince the greatness of this extraordinary man, it would have been supplied by the rancorous malignity which assailed him during his life, and which has been hardly, if at all, abated by his death.”

When, therefore, biographers make use of such terms as they are not ashamed of coining in order to blacken the name of Calvin, we need not hesitate to appraise them at their true value. There were several defects in the character of Calvin; and these were just the excesses of his virtues. To illustrate this, we may quote that Bucer wrote to blame the Reformer for his extreme vehemence. To this complaint Calvin replied: “My struggles are not greater against my vices, which are very great and numerous, than against my impatience; and my efforts are not wholly useless. I have not, however, been able yet to conquer that ferocious animal.”

No one can read the letters written by Calvin without feeling that he was a most tender-hearted man. I place this feature of his character first because the contrary has been assumed by ill-informed persons. Take the following extract from a letter written to Knox on the occasion of the death of his wife: “Your loss is a deep and bitter affliction to me. You had a wife to whom few could be compared; but you know well where to find consolation, and I doubt not that you will bear this great sorrow with patience. Greet the faithful brethren in my name.” Here is an extract from a letter to Goodman on the same: “I grieve not a little that our brother Knox has been deprived of his most sweet (suavissima) wife. But I rejoice that, afflicted as he has been, he has continued to labor strenuously for Christ and the church.”

In the light of such letters, those who speak of the “ferocity” of Calvin simply proclaim their utter ignorance of the man. A hundred extracts could be given.

The Reformer’s character was also marked by a straightforward honest decision. It is well-known that he loved Philip Melancthon, and that on more than one occasion he conceded to Philip as much as his conscience permitted. But he well knew where to draw the line, as the following will show. I extract it from a letter from Calvin to Melancthon, dated June 18th, 1550: “Several things which you think indifferent are obviously repugnant to the Word of God. Truly, if I have any understanding in divine things, you ought not to have made such large concessions to the papists; partly because you have loosed what the Lord has bound in His Word, and partly because you have afforded occasion for bringing insult upon the gospel. Lest you may perhaps have forgotten what I once said to you, I now remind you of it: namely, that we consider our ink too precious if we hesitate to bear our testimony in writing to those things which so many of the flock are daily sealing with their blood. Although I am fully persuaded that the fear of death never compelled you in the very least to swerve from the right path, yet I am apprehensive that it is just possible that another species of fear may have proved too much for your courage; for I know how greatly you are horrified at the charge of rude severity.”

This letter is so admirably worded that we must marvel at its almost severe faithfulness and its tender love. To give any real “occasion for bringing insult upon the gospel” was abhorrent to Calvin, even in so dear a friend as Melancthon; and therefore it called for this sharp reproof. And the sentence in which “our ink” is placed in apposition to “their blood “is worthy of the noblest pen that ever wrote.

Perhaps the most prominent feature in Calvin’s character was his love of work. He could not bear to be idle for a moment. Of this Dr. Hoyle writes: “What shall I say of his indefatigable industry, almost beyond the power of nature; which, set against our loitering will, I fear, exceed all credit? It may be the truest object of admiration, how one lean, worn, spent, and wearied body could hold out. He gave, every week of the year through, three divinity lectures. Every other week, over and above, he preached every day; so that I know not whether more to admire his constancy or theirs that heard him. Some have reckoned that his yearly lectures were one hundred and eighty-six, and his yearly sermons two hundred and eighty-six. Every Thursday he sat in the presbytery. Every Friday, when the ministers met to consult upon difficult texts, he made as good as a lecture. Besides all this, there was scarce a day that exercised him not in answering the doubts and questions of different churches and pastors. Scarcely a year passed wherein some volume came not forth.”

Let us hear what Beza says of his untiring diligence:

“In the year 1562 it might already be seen that Calvin was hastening with rapid strides to a better world. He ceased not, however, to comfort the afflicted, to exhort, even to preach, and to give lectures. The following year his sufferings so increased that it was difficult to conceive how so weak a body, and exhausted as it had been by labor and sickness, could retain so strong and mighty a spirit. But even now he could not be induced to spare himself; for when he was obliged, against his will, to leave the public duties of his office unfulfilled, he was employed at home, giving advice to those who sought him, or wearing out his amanuenses by dictating to them his works and letters. When we besought him to refrain at least during his sickness from dictating and writing, he answered, ‘Would you that the Lord should find me idle when He comes?’ The year 1564 was the first of his eternal rest, and the beginning for us of a long and justifiable grief.”

Calvin was also not without meekness and humility. I have only space for two instances. A good deal of trouble had been given in Geneva by Troillet, who was unworthy of the position to which he aspired. But when death laid his finger on this man, he sent for the pastor he had so abused and wronged. Calvin hastened to the dying man, forgave him, and comforted him.

He has been charged with fierceness and bigotry. The charge comes with ill grace from the lips that speak it. When disputes ran high between Luther and some other Reformers concerning the manner of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine, Luther, whose temper was naturally warm, heaped many hard names upon those who differed from him. Calvin came in for his share of this. In a letter to Henry Bullinger he says:–

“I hear that Luther has at length published an atrocious invective, not so much against you as against us all. In these circumstances I can scarcely venture to ask for your silence; since it is unjust that the innocent should be thus attacked without having an opportunity to clear themselves; although it is at the same time difficult to decide whether that would be expedient.

“But I hope you will remember in the first place how great a man Luther is, and in how many excellent endowments he excels; with what fortitude and constancy, with what dexterity and efficacious learning, he has hitherto applied himself, both to overthrow the kingdom of Antichrist, and to spread the doctrine of salvation. It is a frequent saying with me that, if Luther should even call me a devil, my veneration for him is notwithstanding so great that I shall ever acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God, who, though he abounds in extraordinary virtues, yet labors under great imperfections. I wish he would endeavor to restrain the violence with which he boils over on all occasions; and that he would always direct the vehemence which is natural to him against the enemies of truth, and not brandish it also against the servants of the Lord. I should be glad if he took more pains in searching out his own defects. Flatterers have done him much harm, especially as he is by nature too much inclined to self-indulgence; but it is our duty, whilst we reprehend what is bad in him, to make due allowance for his excellent qualities.

“I beg therefore of you and your colleagues, in the first place to consider that you have to deal with a distinguished servant of Christ, to whom we are all much indebted; and in the next, that all you will obtain by a conflict will be to afford sport to the ungodly, and a triumph over ourselves as well as over the gospel; for if we indulge in mutual abuse, they will be but too ready to believe both sides.”

This admirable letter reveals much good sense. How true his remarks are with regard to controversy, experience and observation agree to prove. In most controversies, even in the case of those who contend for truth, self-opinion takes the place of self-judgment, and natural heat and vindictiveness occupy the throne instead of the Word of God.

Let not mortal praise be given to any man above his desert, or even beyond what he would accept. God alone can create; a man is only great when God sees fit to accomplish anything great by his instrumentality. Never did any man understand this better than Calvin. It seemed natural to him, and was certainly no effort to him, to refer all back to God. There is absolutely nothing in all his two thousand and seventy letters to indicate that he was ever tempted to appropriate the smallest portion of human praise to himself. Luther, in more than one place, complacently dwells on the thought that he, a little monk, has made the papal throne to tremble and so well stirred the whole papal system. But Calvin never says anything like this; he never even seems to have the thought of it occur to him. Everywhere we find underlying all he wrote the thought that God alone is all and does all, “It was more God’s work than mine,” he says of the birth of his “Institutes.”

Ernest Renan, educated for the Romish priesthood, but later a sceptic, pays this striking tribute to Calvin’s character:–

“Calvin was one of those absolute men, cast complete in one mold, 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, transparently humble, sacrificing everything to the desire of making others like himself, I hardly know of a man, save Ignatius Loyola, who could match him. . . . Lacking that vivid, deep, sympathetic ardor which was one of the secrets of Luther’s success, lacking the charm, the languishing tenderness of Francis of Sales, Calvin succeeded, in an age and in a country which called for a reaction towards Christianity, simply because he was the most Christian man of his generation.”

Guizot, the French historian, thus concludes his biography: “Calvin is great by reason of his marvelous powers, his enduring 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 one of the great Christians of France.”

It will now be desirable to give the rapid sketch of Calvin’s character written by his intimate friend and successor, Theodore Beza. It is hardly possible to curtail it.

“Calvin was not of large stature: his complexion was pale, and rather brown: even to his last moments his eyes were peculiarly bright, and indicative of his penetrating genius. He knew nothing of luxury in his outward life, but was fond of the greatest neatness, as became his thorough simplicity. His manner of living was so arranged that he showed himself equally averse to extravagance and meanness. He took so little nourishment, such being the weakness of his stomach, that for many years he contented himself with one meal a day. Of sleep he had almost none. His memory was incredible; he immediately recognized, after many years, those whom he had once seen; and when he had been interrupted for several hours, in some work about which he was employed, he could immediately resume and continue it, without reading again what he had written. Of the numerous details connected with the business of his office, he never forgot even the most trifling, and this notwithstanding the multitude of his affairs. “His judgment was so acute and correct in regard to the most opposite concerns about which his advice was asked, that he often seemed to possess the gift of looking into the future. I never remember to have heard that anyone who followed his counsel went wrong. He despised fine speaking, and was rather abrupt in his language; but he wrote admirably, and no theologian of his time expressed himself so clearly, so impressively and acutely as he; and yet he labored as much as any one of his contemporaries, or of the fathers. For this fluency he was indebted to the several studies of his youth, and to the natural acuteness of his genius, which had been still further increased by the practice of dictation, so that proper and dignified expressions never failed him, whether he was writing or speaking. He never, in any wise, altered the doctrine which he first adopted, but remained true to it to the last.

“Although nature had endowed Calvin with a dignified seriousness, both in manner and character, no one was more agreeable than he in ordinary conversation. He could bear, in a wonderful manner, with the failings of others, when they sprang from mere weakness. Thus he never shamed anyone by ill-timed reproofs, or discouraged a weak brother; while, on the other hand, he never spared or overlooked willful sin. An enemy to all flattery, he hated dissimulation, especially every dishonest sentiment in reference to religion. He was therefore as powerful and strong an enemy to vices of this kind as he was a devoted friend to truth, simplicity and uprightness. His temperament was naturally choleric, and his active public life had tended greatly to increase this failing; but the Spirit of God had so taught him to moderate his anger, that no word ever escaped him unworthy of a righteous man. Still less did he ever commit aught unjust towards others. It was then only, indeed, when the question concerned religion, and when he had to contend against hardened sinners, that he allowed himself to be moved and excited beyond the bounds of moderation.

“Let us take but a single glance at the history of those men who, in any part of the world, have been distinguished for their virtues, and no one will be surprised at finding that the great and noble qualities which Calvin exhibited, both in his private and public life, excited against him a host of enemies. We ought not indeed to feel any wonder that so powerful a champion of pure doctrine, and so stern a teacher of sound morals, as well at home as in the world, should be so fiercely assailed. Rather ought we to let our admiration dwell on the fact that, standing alone as he did, he was sufficiently mighty to avail himself of that strongest of weapons, the Word of God. Thus, however numerous the adversaries which Satan excited against him (for he never had any but such as had declared war against piety and virtue), the Lord gave His servant sufficient strength to gain the victory over all.

“Having been for sixteen years a witness of his labors, I have pursued the history of his life and death with all fidelity; and I now unhesitatingly testify that every true Christian may find in this man the noble pattern of a truly Christian life and Christian death; a pattern, however, which it is as easy to calumniate as it would be difficult to follow.”

It may be asked whether we should consider the aims of a man who wielded power so great and exerted an influence so powerful were dictated by personal ambition, or inspired by zeal for the honor and glory of God. There can be but one answer to such a question. Though the charge of ambition was brought against him, and is still believed by some, it cannot bear the light of historic facts. His “ambition” was that of the apostle who labored so that he might be approved of his Master, and accepted of Him.

To these testimonials only one more must be selected,–from the pen of Professor Dorner, of Berlin:

“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 offenses, 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.”


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