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31 October, Reformation Day. Learn more about two of the most influential Reformers in 16th century Europe.
It’s Reformation time again, folks! As we Protestants love to recall, it was around this very date on 31st October 1517 when an insignificant Augustinian monk revolutionized European history by nailing his 95 theses to the door of a castle church.
That castle church was in Wittenberg (Germany) and the monk was none other than the critically-acclaimed Martin Luther.
Thanks to Luther’s bold exploits, he unwittingly gave birth to the Protestant Reformation (although the term Protestant didn’t come into household use until some twelve years later). His Scriptural zeal brought forth a host of pro-Reformation theologians in the shape of Matthias Flacius, Urbanus Rhegius, Johannes Brenz and Martin Chemnitz –“the second Martin”- within the Lutheran camp. And of course, how can we not mention Luther’s trusty sidekick Philip Melanchthon? The two were perfectly suited to minister together. Dr. Martin once commented: “I am rough, boisterous, stormy and belligerent. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles and thorns, and clear wild forests; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sowing water with joy according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him”.
Luther also inadvertently paved the way for a more Reformed camp with Protestantism with giants such as Martin Bucer, Huldrych Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger and Theodore Beza.
However, towering far above all of the aforementioned thinkers is another Reformed theologian whose fame equals –and, in some quarters, surpasses- that of Martin Luther. Born in France in 1509, he spent most of his ministerial life in Geneva (Switzerland) developing what the Scottish Reformer John Knox would later designate as, “The most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so seriously reformed, I have not yet seen in many places besides”. Pretty impressive stuff from the lips of a Scot not exactly known for his flattery! To whom are we alluding? To John Calvin of course!
So here we have the two real champions of the Protestant faith: Martin Luther and John Calvin. How can we differentiate between them? What are the differences between the two? Let’s find out.
Here are ten reasons.
01.- First Luther Then Calvin
The first thing we should take into account is that Calvin was a lot younger than Luther, 26 years to be precise. When Luther put his nails into the church door, little John was a tender eight years old. Luther belonged to the first generation of the Protestant Reformation whereas Calvin was a second generation Reformer. Thanks to the sweat, blood and tears of Luther, Calvin inherited a rich theological legacy which he was able to cultivate.
02.- A Prophet and a Systematician
Although it’s true that both men are well-known for being great teachers of the Christian faith, their different contexts conditioned them in distinct ways. Luther was the great prophet of a new movement going before his followers opening up new paths for his Protestant successors. It was only natural that he was characterized by such fire and irresistible tenacity. Calvin, however, came later and thus was afforded much needed breathing space to reflect methodically upon the insights granted to the Christian church by Luther. Any superficial reader can tell that Calvin is much more systematic in thought than Dr. Martin. As Reformation expert, Dr. R. Scott Clark recently told me: “Calvin and the Reformed orthodox did a marvellous job of helping to put Luther’s great Reformation insights into a more comprehensive and covenantal context”.
03.- Extroverts and Introverts
With regards to personality, Luther was extremely outgoing. He always had guests at home and he absolutely loved being with people. He conversed and joked and laughed with his friends. Calvin, on the other hand, never really felt comfortable in the public ministry. It wasn’t so much his love for his flock that urged him into his pastoral work at Geneva but rather a compelling sense of duty that stemmed from William Farel’s terrifying prophecy cum curse: “May God curse your studies if now, in her time of need, you refuse to lend your help to His church”. Without Farel’s word of warning, Calvin would probably never have thought about taking up pastoral work.
04.- Luther the Pastor and Calvin the Professor
Another difference, linked to their personalities, was how they gained favour amongst people. Run of the mill folk felt overwhelmed by Luther’s larger-than-life character. He had a huge presence and was certainly what we would now call a ‘charismatic’ or ‘dynamic’ figure. Multitudes flocked to him due to his zing. But Calvin’s admirers were much more prone to praise his intellect than his personal punch. He won followers because his mind was solely concentrated upon the glory of God. As we read the sermons of the two men, Calvin’s musings are directed much more to the intellect and to sound reason than Luther’s. Even in the pulpit, Luther was always something of a ‘heart’ man, more concerned about the maids and the children than about the doctors in his congregation.
In the portraits that have been handed down to us, there is a clear divergence when we come to talk about the physical appearance of Luther and Calvin. Luther, at least in the paintings of his more mature years, is corpulent and plump with a wide chest. He seems to have been a ‘big man’ both in and out of the pulpit, much like George Whitefield. There is always a spark of vitality about him. Conversely, Calvin’s life was plagued with continual stomach problems as well as a host of other physical ailments. He appears to us as a rather frail man, extremely thin and almost corpse-like (to use Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ description). Indeed, he only ate a solitary meal per day. The expression on Calvin’s face is continually sombre, at least when compared to Luther.
06.- Justification or the Glory of God?
It is true that both men were passionate about the recovery of the biblical Gospel. Nevertheless, the prism through which they interpreted the Evangel was not exactly identical. Luther laid most of his stress upon the glorious truth of the justification of the believer. His soteriological approach honed in upon the subjective need of saving faith and the sweet joys of trusting Christ. Calvin certainly believed this just as much as Luther; but he was at pains to emphasize that justification of faith can only take second place. In pole position was the glory of God. The real marvel of justification in Calvin’s thought was not that a sinner found himself (herself) pardoned from all iniquity but rather that God was being glorified through the salvation of such a transgressor. While Luther’s starting point was faith; Calvin’s was most certainly the grace of the Creator/ Redeemer.
07.- The Lord’s Supper
One of the key topics during the early years of the Reformation was the Lord’s Supper. In 1529 Luther and Zwingli split over the issue. In spite of Luther’s breaking with the Roman interpretation of the Mass he did hold a sacramental view of the bread and wine which entirely absent in Zwingli’s thought. Where Luther saw Christ miraculously and really present “in, with and under” the forms of the elements; Zwingli said the Lord’s Supper was nothing more than a sign or a symbol to edify saints. In no way was Jesus physically present. It was simply a memorial. So with whom would Calvin side: Luther or Zwingli? Answer: with both and neither. He mediated between the two by accepting that Christ was spiritually present at the Lord’s Supper. What Luther interpreted as physical; Calvin saw as spiritual in the hearts of believers.
08.- Church and State
There is an important disagreement between Luther and Calvin regarding the relationship between Church and State. This was no doubt due to their peculiar socio-political contexts. Living in Medieval Germany where each state was under the power of a given prince, Luther –as a general rule- was quite happy to allow the government to supervise the administration of church affairs. John Calvin, however, a former law graduate settled within the freer canton-system of Switzerland opposed any interference from the state. It is the church and the church alone that must administer its internal and external affairs. Both the church and the state must remain wholly autonomous from one another. Calvin was also more open to the idea of believers transforming all of society with the values of Scripture whereas Luther always stuck to his entirely religious, spiritual calling.
Even though it’s true that both Luther and Calvin both believed in infant baptism, their understandings regarding its efficacy were slightly different. Luther’s view on baptism is that it is an event, a sacrament, which truly saves the one baptized –be it an adult or an infant. The Holy Spirit is given to such a person in baptism so that they possess true faith in Christ. Sin is forgiven, death and the devil are conquered and eternal life is granted (Smaller Catechism IV). Calvin, in spite of appreciating Luther’s insights, saw baptism as a mere external sign whereby one was grafted into the visible church. This entrance the blessed society of God’s people was a manifest gift of grace. Baptism, for him, did not effectually save anyone.
10.- Law and Gospel
The final of our ten differences between Martin Luther and John Calvin has to do with the hot topics of the Law and the Gospel of Christ. The discrepancy was not so much a matter of content as it was of emphasis. Both believed in the civil, pedagogical and normative use of the Law; notwithstanding Luther’s whole approach towards the Law was a lot more negative than Calvin’s. He divided much more sharply between them than his French counterpart did. Why? Because Luther lay his greatest stress upon the Law as a means of misery, condemnation and a ministry of death from which humanity needed Gospel deliverance. If truth be told, Calvin was just as convinced as Luther of this truth; nevertheless, he was a lot more willing to underline the positive aspect of the Law with respect to the believer’s sanctification. Since the Law is a perfect expression of God’s blessed will, it is only correct that the saints should rejoice in the Law of the Lord.
So there you have ten differences between the two giants of Protestantism. It only remains for me to wish you all a very Happy Reformation Day!