John Calvin Was Not A Calvinist

In Book IV, Chapter XIII, Section 14 of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, there is a small, seemingly insignificant blast of monastic sectarianism (infighting between tribes of Catholic monks). Hastily plowing through this section, however, would be a great tragedy as there is one comment Calvin makes that is especially timely for what we are experiencing today in the realm of Christendom. While I realize this may not be your preferred reading option, I ask that you ruminate on the critique and the profound irony that abounds from its conclusion.

“For every monastery existing today, I say, is a conventicle of schismatics, disturbing the order of the church and cut off from the lawful society of believers. And that this separation should not be obscure, they have taken upon themselves various names of sects. And they have not been ashamed to boast of what Paul cannot sufficiently execrate [1 Cor. 1:12-13; 3:4]. Unless we are to suppose that Christ was divided by the Corinthians, when one boasted of one teacher, another of another! And that it is not an injustice to Christ when some call themselves Benedictines instead of Christians, some Franciscans, some Dominicans; and when they haughtily take to themselves these titles as their profession of religion, while affecting to be different from ordinary Christians!”

A spirit of division was at work in the church at Corinth which begat a declaration of branding: “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas.” Calvin notes that the hubris of these monks not only brought them to repeat the same sin, but they presumed to have avoided Paul’s warning of schism in the body of Christ and boasted about it.

What about us? Are we untouched by this sectarianism? We ought not fall prey to the charge of chronological snobbery and assume we’ve progressed past this petty fault, thereby missing the obvious plank in our own eye.

John Calvin feared that some might visit his grave in order to venerate him, which in his mind was akin to idolatry. To prevent this from happening, Calvin requested to be buried in an unmarked grave. Do you see the great irony that the man whom many parade as their teacher desperately tried to have his name forgotten so that the name of Christ alone would be exalted?

If I seem particularly harsh on one tribe, it’s only because it is the camp to which I most relate in terms of doctrine. This problem, however, is not reserved for Calvinists. We have ceased to identify ourselves as Christians and have opted instead to identify ourselves by our doctrinal stances, denominational affiliations, ecclesiological sympathies, and  favorite teachers.

I understand the convenience of saying, “I am an Arminian,” or “I am a Molinist.” It ostensibly saves time, though not actually, since we then have to distance ourselves from others who purport the same title but mean something different by it. Regardless, this reasoning misses the point altogether. God did not leave us here to sort out our doctrine, though we ought to commit ourselves to studying the deep things of God. He left us to make His name known among the nations and to share with them His gospel.

Here’s a sobering thought: Our unity gives witness to the fact that the Father sent the Son (John 17:21). If we are in Christ then our identity ought to be tied to His. It is only fitting, then, that we would go by the name by which we are saved: Christian.