Timothy George seeks to detail the lives and beliefs of the Reformers in his book Theology of the Reformers. Two of the Reformers he examines are John Calvin and Martin Luther. This article will seek to critique and examine the clear similarities and differences between John Calvin vs. Martin Luther specifically mentioned by George. According to George’s distinctions between these two men concerning the essentials of the Reformation, their similarities in life and theology far outweighed their differences.
Similarities in Life and Theology
Unlike Luther, Calvin was born into the church. His father was an administrative assistant for the Bishop of Noyon. His mother also was considered a very pious woman (168). Both these men however studied law, with Calvin graduating, and Luther foregoing finishing law school to become a monk, and eventually a Doctor of Theology. Calvin, however, was not a novice in the biblical languages, but was not formally theologically trained like Luther.
Although their upbringing and education were similar, their personalities were different. Calvin was shy to the point of being unsociable. Luther however was a man of action, and is described by George as having a “volcano of a personality” (175). In spite of these differences in personality, both Calvin and Luther were reluctant to fight the opposition, but Calvin was more reluctant than Luther. Both men, however, were brought into the fight by the encouragement of those who surrounded them.
With their understanding of the biblical languages came an emphasis upon the authority of the Scriptures. George indicates that Luther and Calvin both affirmed that the church was born from the womb of the Scriptures, instead of the Scriptures being produced by the church (197). This is one of the main “flags” of the Reformation. The Scriptures alone are authoritative. This emphasis on the Scriptures alone was direct rebellion against the current thought and government of the day. It was a capital offense to usurp the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and the pope. Calvin and Luther, however, sought to please God rather than men.
Seeking to please God rather than men led Luther and Calvin to submit to and emphasize the sovereignty of God. George revealed that these men agreed that God’s will, although singular, carries a multiple meaning (208). George showed this similarity through emphasizing Luther’s writing on God’s revealed will and concealed will. God’s revealed will is that part of His will which He has revealed in His Word. His concealed will is that aspect of His will that He has withheld from the understanding of His people. Neither Calvin nor Luther believed God to be the author of sin; this also means that they argued that even evil was willed by God indirectly to accomplish His will. Even the Devil is used by God to accomplish His will, even though every decision he makes is his decision alone (209). God’s overarching will was determined by Him before the foundation of the world.
In line with God’s providence is God’s sovereign foreordination of Christ as the foundation for all of life, whether spiritual or physical. George argues that both Luther’s and Calvin’s theologies were completely Christ-centered (216). They emphasized salvation existing in Christ alone. This theology was another flag of the Reformation. They both believed in the imputed righteousness of Christ being credited through sinners being justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Sinners are saved by Christ’s righteousness and obedience credited to them; instead of being saved through their own obedience. To these men, righteousness was declarative instead of infused–as the Catholics believed. Due to man’s total depravity, he cannot save himself. Thus, this imputed righteousness being found objectively in Christ alone was good news indeed.
Concerning this good news and man’s assurance of salvation, George argues that Luther was preoccupied with guilt, and Calvin struggled with the meaninglessness of existence. They both were assured of their salvation, and yet admitted the doubt that existed because the flesh was still present with the believer (pg. 204). This continual depravity of the flesh furthermore means that not only is salvation a gift at the beginning and end, but faith and repentance are gifts continually as well. Furthermore, where repentance is present, faith is present as well; for one cannot exist without the other.
On top of the necessity of Christ alone and the depravity of man, these two Reformers also emphasized the importance of faith alone. George points to the type of faith these men believed individuals must possess in order to be saved (224-225). Sinners had to trust in the finished work of Christ for salvation; for acknowledging the historicity of Christ was not enough. Even the demons were capable of acknowledging the historical existence of Christ. To Luther and Calvin, this historical acknowledgment alone was not saving faith. In order to be saved from the wrath of God, sinners must not only believe the historical work of Christ, but also repent and trust in Him for their salvation.
Due to God’s providence in saving through Christ alone by faith alone, Calvin and Luther were naturally led to affirm the perseverance of the saints (226). George purports that Calvin however emphasized the necessity of continual repentance, and the gradual growth in Christ through sanctification. Although Christians pursue perfection, it always escapes them. Thus, Christians are always in need of repentance and the continual application of the blood of Christ to their lives. Their good works then, although empowered by Christ, must be cleansed by Christ’s blood as well before they are acceptable to God. Christians therefore live by faith, not by sight, according to the theology of these two men.
Differences in Life and Theology
Although Luther’s and Calvin’s lives and theology were mostly similar in the essentials, there were differences between the two men. Calvin, although younger than Luther, knew him and his work. He sang Luther’s praises in restoring the gospel in their historical time period. Some even thought of Calvin as Luther’s greatest disciple. George argues that where Calvin surpassed Luther was in his ability to communicate the great insights of the reformation (God’s grace alone, faith alone, and the Scriptures alone), and in his systematic application of these insights to the civic life of Geneva. Luther and Zwingli did not do this (166). Calvin set himself apart from Luther is his ability to communicate and apply difficult truths. George argues that from this theocracy in Geneva, the solas of the Reformation traveled internationally, taking on a life of their own as various Christians fleshed them out in many cultural and civic settings (166).
George writes that one of these difficult truths Calvin helped to communicate, that was doctrinally minor, was his belief that every time a baby was created at conception, God created its soul out of nothing. Calvin emphasized God’s direct involvement in the world, and this belief led him to favor God’s direct involvement in procreation. This caused him to reject the traducianist theory, which Luther held. George shows that in this view, the soul is transferred from generation to generation through procreation (206-207). This view naturally follows then that humans are involved in the creation of babies apart from God’s extra intervention. In other areas, Calvin did scripturally deduce that God allowed indirect individuals and circumstances to accomplish His will. Creating however must have been too holy a thing for humanity to solely participate. Calvin obviously saw this creating act as flowing from God’s nature. This creating act of the soul must then be “good” for only goodness can come from God, and thus, the depravity of humanity would not allow them to participate in this divine act.
Part of God’s goodness furthermore is exhibited in His church. George details how these men did not believe the church was a building or simply those who claim the title. To Luther and Calvin, the church was the local body of believers, as well as, the universal church or invisible church. Furthermore, for Calvin the marks of a church actually formed a church; this surpassed Luther’s use of these marks. The two marks they used were the Word rightly preached and the sacraments correctly administered (235). There were other Reformers who added church discipline to these marks, but Calvin and Luther did not go this far. Calvin however viewed discipline as part of the constitution and organization of a congregation, instead of as part of the definition of a true congregation (235-236).
In conclusion, with brevity, George succeeds in detailing the similarities and differences between the lives and theologies of Luther and Calvin. As shown above, George believes their similarities in the Reformation essentials are greater than their differences. He argues that Calvin received the Reforming baton from Luther, and fleshed out Reformation theology more than his predecessor (166). Calvin however built upon a foundation laid by Luther. According to George, both of these men were used by God to restore the gospel to His church (166).