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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther and John Calvin

Summary and Keywords

It has long been recognized that John Calvin admired Martin Luther and that the Frenchman’s theology at various moments approached the teaching of Wittenberg. This relationship, however, was always mediated, particularly through the work of Philip Melanchthon. The literature on Calvin has not fully appreciated the manner in which his epistolary and literary references to Luther formed part of the French reformer’s rhetorical strategies for forging unity among the churches of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed that the divide between Wittenberg and Zurich formed the central stumbling block to a full reform of the church, and saw himself, as an outsider, as uniquely placed to break the impasse. How the reformers understood the catholicity of the churches extended well beyond the localities in which they found themselves. Their interpretations of unity were closely related to readings of ecclesiastical and doctrinal history, and the manner in which they understood the Reformation to stand in continuity with apostolic traditions. Reform, catholicity, and tradition were essential components of the reformers’ thought that need to be investigated through a more organic approach that takes into account the ways in which they were interwoven, while at the same time recognizing how they exposed conundrums that often served to expose divisions within the movement.

Keywords: Martin Luther, correspondence, John Calvin, Lord’s Supper, Philip Melanchthon, religious colloquies, sacraments, theology, Huldrych Zwingli

Setting a Relationship

The title of this article is in some respects rather old fashioned and out of step with current perspectives on the relationships between the Protestant reformers of the Reformation.1 Putting Martin Luther and John Calvin alongside one another, however significant they were as leaders of the Reformation, offers an insufficient framework for understanding the communal world in which the reformers lived, wrote, and pastored.2 The story of Martin Luther and John Calvin is not limited to two men, for it engaged a cast of characters that included, among others, Philip Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, and Martin Bucer, all of whom belonged to networks through which ideas, news, and rumors were spread.3 Likewise, key theological texts of the Reformation, some of which became canonical, were not stand-alone works prepared in isolation, although they are often read that way today.4 Major writings such as Luther’s biblical commentaries or Calvin’s Institutes were never intended to be studied and considered independently of lesser-known works by the authors and their colleagues. Indeed, theological texts of the Reformation, which were rapidly disseminated by the printing press, existed in conversation and contention with a broad spectrum of writings and shared their fundamental assumptions. We need to remind ourselves that the reformers regularly exchanged manuscripts and that this commerce of ideas formed a textual community that extended across Europe. In this short article, while I focus on Martin Luther and John Calvin, considering primarily the Frenchman’s perceptions of the German’s, my approach is shaped by a concern for examining their relationship in the wider context of contemporary reformers. Toward the end, I offer some brief remarks on comparison of their thought.

John Calvin never met Martin Luther; indeed, they never communicated directly.5 It is not clear what Luther actually thought of Calvin, as the young Frenchman hardly appears in the German’s correspondence,6 although by the end of his life, Luther had placed Calvin among the reviled “sacramentarians” of Zurich.7 Given the one-sidedness of the evidence, this article is necessarily about Calvin’s relationship to Luther, and not the other way around. The Frenchman, who was more than twenty-five years younger than the Wittenberg reformer, harbored hopes of making contact with a man he held to be God’s prophet. During the middle decades of the 16th century, when the Protestant cause in the empire seemed on the verge of crumbling, Calvin was drawn to Luther in the hope of finding confessional unity.8 In the end, there was only bitter disappointment.

At one time, there had been reason for optimism. While in Strasbourg after his expulsion from Geneva, Calvin had experienced tremendous joy when informed that Luther had expressed in a letter to Martin Bucer his approbation of the young Frenchman’s writing against Cardinal Sadoleto.9 Later, when his own brief to the German reformer was discreetly put aside by Philip Melanchthon because of Luther’s anticipated response, Calvin was devastated.10 Two letters over less than seven years hardly speaks for a robust relationship. Nevertheless, from a distance, Luther played a towering role in Calvin’s life during the crucial years when the young man transformed into a leading reformer.

The references to Luther in Calvin’s correspondence and writing are generally known, but that makes them no less fascinating.11 Calvin’s mentions of Luther, however, were by no means monolithic in nature and ranged from unfettered admiration to sharp criticism. The evidence from the letters must be read in the wider context of Reformation events of the middle decades of the 16th century. Most significantly, the Luther references form part of Calvin’s strategy for church union and were, I suggest, carefully chosen and placed depending on his addressee. In other words, they are by no means random or casual. They have a multivalent quality, representing on the one hand varnished admiration for the Wittenberg reformer, while, on the other, they are part of a canny interpretation of contemporary ecclesiastical and political events in an attempt to mend the broken Reformation.

Following his disastrous stay in Geneva, from 1536 to 1538, Calvin, under the tutelage of Martin Bucer, entered the world of Reformation politics at the imperial colloquies at Hagenau (1540), Worms (1541), and Regensburg (1541).12 Initially, as a novice with little grasp of imperial politics and no command of the German language, Calvin had to move quickly to develop the skills of inter-confessional negotiation. He was also learning what it meant to be part of the wider Reformation church. It was in these years that he made the acquaintance of Philip Melanchthon, developing what would in time emerge as a close, if at times troubled, friendship.13 In the midst of the negotiations, Calvin had managed a return to Geneva and had begun the work of rebuilding a church that had fallen into chaos. He had been dismissed in 1538 as a troublemaker and returned in 1541 as a leader of the Reformation.

During the religious colloquies, the auguries were not favorable. Calvin learned firsthand how divided the Protestant churches were. Above the conflict and negotiation loomed the figure of Martin Luther, who was not able to attend in person.14 By the early 1540s, the skies had darkened for German Protestants, who were more estranged from one another than ever. The Schmalkaldic League was riven by disagreement and heavily in debt; Charles had concluded the Treaty of Crépy in 1544 with Francis I, essentially ending their long feud; and the stirrings of Catholic reform were evident in Italian lands.15 Following his time in Strasbourg and while working with the German reformers at the religious colloquies, Calvin had acquired a good knowledge of Reformation affairs and had come to believe that unity among the Protestants was not only desirable but essential for survival. His horizons were expanding, his sense of self as a European reformer growing. In his own work, Calvin saw his new friend Melanchthon as the crucial conversation partner, and the Frenchman worked hard to create the sense that Geneva and Wittenberg were in step. Such a move, Calvin rapidly discovered, enraged his neighbors, the Swiss Protestants, who were wholly alienated from Luther. The Wittenberg reformer had by the early 1540s intensified his attacks on the “Zwinglians,” repudiating any suggestion of reconciliation on any terms other than full acceptance of his position on the Lord’s Supper. In 1543, Luther rejected the gift of a Bible from Zurich.16

Calvin Names Luther

Without doubt, Calvin’s performance at the religious colloquies, his aggressive networking, and his confident return to Geneva contributed to the rising of his star. Confirmation of the esteem and respect of others came in 1543 when the Frenchman was engaged by Martin Bucer on behalf of the reformers to present Charles V with an apology for the Reformation. Calvin understood well enough that his brief was not to change the emperor’s mind about anything, but to articulate the principle of ecclesial unity within the Reformation. On Necessity of Reforming the Church17 is one of Calvin’s greatest works, beautifully composed, confidently argued, and non-polemical. The text readily reveals Calvin’s admiration of Luther’s achievements and his acceptance of the Wittenberger’s domination and preeminence in the Reformation.

The work provides insight into Calvin’s understanding of the Reformation as a theological and historical event, and it is here that we find his fullest portrait of Martin Luther. Throughout On Necessity of Reforming the Church, Luther figured prominently, but in a manner that requires careful exegesis.

Calvin honored the Wittenberg professor as the first and preeminent reformer chosen by God. “We maintain,” Calvin wrote,

that at the commencement—when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and who, by their ministry, founded and reared our churches—those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete.18

Calvin’s praise of Luther is hardly unexpected. But far more striking is the key use of the seemingly harmless word “others.” Luther was both singled out and placed in the company of other unnamed reformers, and Calvin continued to reference a plurality of voices. It is tempting, and no doubt correct, to read “others” to include the Swiss reformers Huldrych Zwingli and Johnannes Oecolampadius, as well as Calvin’s beloved mentor Martin Bucer. All of these figures—the first two dead by 1543—were esteemed by the Frenchman. Luther was to be acknowledged as first, and indeed preeminent, but he was never to be placed alone on the pedestal. The language of the text addressed the unity of the visible church, and while Calvin knew it was not possible to name the “others” without causing outrage, he was determined at least to indicate that Luther was not alone among the prophets.

In his account of what happened with the origins of the Reformation, a similar formulation is found:

Then Luther arose and after him others, who with united counsels sought out means and methods by which religion might be purged from all these defilements, the doctrine of godliness restored to its integrity, and the church raised out of its calamitous into somewhat of a tolerable condition. The same course we are still pursuing in the present day.19

Again Calvin carefully acknowledged Luther’s preeminence while placing the reformer in a community of likeminded who undertook God’s calling to reform the church.

In the passage most directly on Luther, Calvin provided a picture of a moderate, godly man, very much the embodiment of the ideals of the Reformation.

When Luther at first appeared, he merely touched, with a gentle hand, a few abuses of the grossest description, now grown intolerable. And he did it with a modesty which intimated that he had more desire to see them corrected, than determination to correct them himself.20


[a]ny man who considers how Luther and the other reformers acted at the outset, and how they afterwards proceeded, will deem it unnecessary to call upon us for any defense. When matters were still entire, Luther himself humbly besought the pontiff that he would be pleased to cure the very grievous disorders of the church. Did his supplication succeed? The evils having still increased, the necessity of the case, even had Luther been silent, should have been stimulus enough to urge the pope to delay no longer.21

The virtues are evident. Luther acted not of out turn, but in complete obedience to authority. The pope’s failure to fulfil his responsibilities forced Luther to protest. In Calvin’s hands, Luther was very much representative of the Protestant position vis-à-vis Charles V in 1543. Luther in the early years of the Reformation represented the best qualities of the Protestant case. Calvin, however, knew he was not really addressing Charles; his audience was his coreligionists, and his treatment of Luther was to remind them of the foundational principles of the Reformation.

On Necessity of Reforming the Church was a triumph for Calvin, and along with his revised Institutes of the Christian Religion, it established him as a leading voice of the Reformation, one of the few who could speak across language barriers. But in the 1540s, Calvin faced formidable obstacles to any aspiration for Protestant unity. Relations between Wittenberg and Zurich had collapsed, and while Luther lived, there was no hope for rapprochement. The Zurichers, for their part, were isolated and bled with every cut from the Lutherans.

There can be no doubt that as result of his time at Strasbourg, Calvin harbored considerable sympathy for the Lutherans. Additionally, he believed that his position as a Frenchman and a member of neither party, neither Lutheran nor Zwinglian, meant that he was uniquely situated to stanch the bleeding. Escaping the polemical mudslinging, however, proved beyond Calvin’s talents, and internecine struggle increased. The Frenchman underestimated the degree to which his actions and statements were carefully scrutinized by both sides, friends and opponents, and that he was quickly found at fault, accused by each side of sympathies for the other; the rest of his life was marked by suspicions that his true interests were concealed. Reconciliation of the battle over the Lord’s Supper eluded Calvin. It was a bitter harvest after years of strenuous effort that had begun in the early 1540s. Calvin’s failure to unite the Lutherans and the Swiss was hardly his fault, but it formed one act in the tragedy of the Reformation.

Explaining Luther in the Context of Battle

In the years of the religious colloquies, Calvin’s search for unity and the vicious quarrel between Wittenberg and Zurich formed the essential background for reading Calvin’s deeply intriguing treatment of Luther in his correspondence. We must begin by recognizing that Calvin only wrote about Luther on a handful of occasions, which might at first be surprising. Calvin’s epistolary relationship with Luther was one of silence rather than direct reference. That absence did not underplay the importance of Calvin’s reverence for Luther, which was real and unstinting, but it revealed the volatile contexts in which Calvin wrote. His silence about Luther was accompanied by an almost total unwillingness to say anything about Zwingli, the fallen reformer of Zurich. The reasons are clear. Hoping to find accord between the Reformed and Lutheran parties, Calvin fully understood that he could not put his hand into troubled waters by returning to the original hostilities between Luther and Zwingli. The matter was too raw and the wounds too unhealed. In Calvin’s mind, both men had to be discreetly confined to the periphery in order for progress in matters relating to the age-old doctrinal strife to be possible.

That approach was not just a matter of convenience or politics; it had serious theological import. Calvin understood that the names of Luther and Zwingli were incendiary for any public discourse among the parties. The differences were far too significant for superficial appeasement, as Marburg had shown in 1529. On the one hand, by the early 1540s, Luther was once more casting thunderbolts from Mount Olympus and was in no mood to be assuaged, certainly not by those whom he had named as heretics for two decades, even Nestorians. On the other hand, although Zwingli had died badly in 1531, the Zurich church continued to venerate his memory. In the Swiss narrative, Zwingli had been unjustly traduced by Luther, becoming a martyr for the true interpretation of scripture. In the face of this intractable mutual hostility, Calvin’s strategy was to build upon the friendships he made during the early 1540s. With men such as Melanchthon and Bullinger, Calvin sought to cut a new path toward reconciliation that led away from Luther and Zwingli, whose symbolic roles in the dispute over the Lord’s Supper were deeply damaging.

Calvin’s first recorded mention of Luther comes from the New Year of 1538, before the colloquies, and appears in a letter written to Bucer in Strasbourg. In the midst of rebuking Bucer for his conduct in the disputes in Bern, Calvin expressed his ambiguous thoughts. Luther, he wrote, should not be treated as being alone in the house of God, for one should not be so foolish as to overlook the accomplishments of others. “What I should make of Luther, I do not know,” Calvin wrote, although he added that he was much moved by the German’s piety.22 For this suspicion, Calvin added, Luther himself provided evidence. Calvin reported to Bucer that he had recently heard that a rumor had run through the Wittenberg churches suggesting that almost all the churches had been brought from error. Doubtless that rumor was a reference to the willingness of the German cities to sign the Wittenberg Concord. What vanity it would be were the rumor true, Calvin reflected, and he named it as evidence of a sickening ambition among churches not content with the light of Christ. There can be no good, Calvin continued, as long as this ambition prevails among the churches, for it was crucial on both sides that the memory of the past be forgotten in order for there to be an enduring peace.23

In 1538, Calvin, who had had no direct contact with Luther, was taking a serious risk in chastising the Wittenberg reformer. He did not demur, however, and continued without mincing his words in this early epistle, written in the year he was expelled from Geneva. In the young Frenchman’s mind, the battle was too fierce and bitter. With Luther so set on victory over his opponents, there could be no possibility of a pure peace of God. How foolish Luther was, Calvin wrote, when he maintained “the bread is the body of Christ itself,” and added, “His error is not only his arrogant vilifying, but his lack of wisdom and great self deception.”24 For Calvin, Luther’s position on the Lord’s Supper was a “hateful error.” The response of the Swiss, Calvin added, was likewise unhelpful and would not lead to unity, but the principal antagonist remained Luther, who took any apparent departure from his position to be an attack on Christ or himself; Luther was absolutely certain, Calvin opined, that he had right on his side. Calvin admonished Bucer to strive to make the Swiss and Luther surrender their animosity and refusal to compromise.

By 1540, when Calvin was in Strasbourg, the dispute between the Lutherans and Zwinglians was in full eruption, and Calvin complained to Farel about the machinations of the Frenchman’s “friends” in Zurich, referring to Bullinger and his company. A major part of the problem was the sensitivity of the Zurichers to any perceived insult, with any positive reference to Luther understood as concomitantly diminishing Zwingli. Calvin reported that the good people in Zurich were enraged at any suggestion of a preference for Luther.25 He was greatly perturbed by the mutual animosity between supporters of Luther and Zwingli, yet he was clear in his preference for the German. But he still expressed his annoyance at a poem that he believed insulted the memory of Zwingli, a poem that spoke of ashes and a dead shadow. That Zwingli should not be spoken of in any terms other than reverence was a statement, Calvin wrote, that he would whisper in the ear of his friend.26

We again encounter Calvin’s tempered praise for Luther in a letter to Pierre Viret dated two months later, when its author came to the subject of Wolfgang Capito’s lectures on Isaiah. Calvin reviewed the work of other reformers on the prophet, finding Zwingli’s interpretation elegant but departing too far from the text. Of Luther he was far more positive, but the first prize went to Oecolampadius.27 Luther was by no means self-evidently the prince of interpreters of the Bible.

In 1544, Calvin expressed his horror about the ongoing dispute between Zurich and Wittenberg after Luther had rejected the gift of the Bible from the Swiss. “I hear,” Calvin wrote to Bullinger,

[t]hat Luther has at length broken forth in fierce invective, not so much against you as against the whole of us. On the present occasion, I dare scarce venture to ask you to keep silence, because it is neither just the innocent persons should thus be harassed, nor that they should be denied the opportunity of clearing themselves: neither, on the other hand, is it easy to determine whether it would be prudent for them to do so.28

Calvin reminded Bullinger of Luther’s stature in the Reformation:

But I earnestly desire to put you in mind, in the first place, that you would consider what an eminent man Luther is, and the excellent endowments wherewith he is gifted, with what strength of mind and resolute constancy, with how great skill, what efficiency and power of doctrinal statement he has devoted his whole energy to overthrow of the reign of Antichrist, and at the same time to diffuse far and near the doctrine of salvation.29

Calvin noted that he had often remarked that he would continue to esteem Luther even if the Wittenberg reformer were to call him a devil (which is pretty much what happened). For Calvin, Luther was above all an “illustrious servant of God,” but he was not without flaw. “But while he is endued with rare and excellent virtues,” Calvin lamented,

he labours at the same time under serious faults. Would that he had rather studied to curb this restless, uneasy temperament which is so apt to boil over in every direction. I wish, moreover, that he had always bestowed the fruits of that vehemence of natural temperament upon the enemies of the truth, and that he had not flashed his lightening sometimes also upon the servants of the Lord.30

Calvin’s reflections on Luther for Bullinger sketched a portrait of a man unable to control his passions, too easily flattered by others, and in general self-indulgent by disposition. The burden that fell on the other reformers, the Frenchman continued, was to correct in Luther what was wrong and offensive while cultivating the great, God-given gifts of an extraordinary man. Such was his counsel to Bullinger, who should “consider first of all, along with your colleagues, that you have to do with a most distinguished servant of Christ, to whom we are all of us largely indebted.”31

Not unreasonably, Calvin warned the Zurichers against the damage wrought by bitterness and strife, however unjust. “I wish,” he wrote, “that you would consider and reflect on this thing rather than on what Luther has deserved by his violence; lest that may happen to you which Paul threatens, that by biting and devouring one another, you may be consumed one of another.”32

It was in 1544 that Calvin sought peace with Wittenberg. The crucial letter, dated January 25, was addressed to Melanchthon. Calvin spoke openly about his relationship with his addressee and how they might settle differences:

Neither, truly, do I ask you to agree with me in all things, which should certainly be impertinent: or that on my account that you should turn aside from the free and simple statement of your own opinion, but merely that you should not refuse the trouble of a perusal. Certainly I do desire that were so entirely agreed, that not even in the most trifling expressions there may be any disagreement.33

The major obstacle, as Calvin and Melanchthon well knew, was Luther, and Calvin named the issue. “With regard to Dr Luther,” he observed, “there will be somewhat more of difficulty. For so far as I could understand by report, and by letters from different persons, the scarcely pacified temper of the man might, on very slight occasion, break out into a sore.”34

This fear of a volcanic eruption brought Calvin to his purpose, to have Melanchthon present to Luther the letter the Frenchman had written. Calvin expressed his gratitude along with his desire that Melanchthon carry out the delicate task in a manner that was “seeming and befitting.” While terrified that further strife would break out, Calvin was also no longer willing to be the object of endless insults and accusations. He posed a question to Melanchthon, using the crucial “we” pronoun.

But what else can we expect, when they [the Swiss] are provoked to such a degree? When I reflect how much, at so an unseasonable time, these intestine quarrels divide and tear us asunder, I almost lose courage.35

The letter is a powerful exposition of Calvin’s deep reverence for Luther; he had opened the epistle by referring to Luther as his “much respected father.” The Frenchman’s purpose, however, was not merely to ingratiate. He was seeking Luther’s judgment on the issue of Nicodemism, on those French men and women whom Calvin decried for making an outward profession of faith with breaking from the Roman rites.36 Calvin’s questions to Luther were: How could a faith that was buried in the breast not break forward into a full confession? What kind of religion lies hidden by the observance of idolatrous rites?

Calvin addressed Luther as a supplicant. He asked the German to look at his tracts on Nicodemism and sought from Luther a pronouncement on the subject that could be conveyed to the faithful in France, “because I thought it was of very great consequence for them to have the benefit of your authority, that they might not fluctuate continually, and I myself stood besides in need of it, I was unwilling to refuse what they required.”37 Calvin’s ruse in claiming to write on behalf of others in order to draw nearer to Luther and in choosing not to address the controversial issue of the Lord’s Supper was a calculated move intended to find a way to Luther that obviated any association with the Swiss reformers so reviled in Wittenberg. Calvin appealed to Luther’s authority and preeminence.

The somewhat unctuous tone of the letter continued to the end, when Calvin wrote that he would travel to Wittenberg, “that I might even for a few hours enjoy the happiness of your society; but I would prefer, and it would be far better, not only upon this question, but also about others to converse personally with you. But seeing that it is not granted to us on earth, I hope that shortly it will come to pass in the kingdom of God.”38

Melanchthon never presented Calvin’s letter to Luther, fearing, quite shrewdly, a bad response from the Wittenberg professor, who saw Calvin as one of the “sacramentarians.”

Swiss hostility to Luther, even long after the Wittenberg reformer was dead, became an enduring problem for Calvin. Following the Consensus Tigurinus of 1549, the Reformed party was fiercely attacked by Lutherans like Joachim Westphal. Under the leadership of Heinrich Bullinger, the Zurich church suspected, not without cause, that Calvin was altering the tone of the agreement in a direction more congenial to the Lutherans. Calvin had to work very hard to persuade the Swiss of his fidelity to their shared cause, and the question of Luther continued to surface. The Swiss believed that Calvin was reluctant to condemn Luther. While Calvin was eager to placate his allies, he was not prepared to roundly reject the life and work of Martin Luther.

“I am not ignorant of the frenzy he broke out on us,” Calvin wrote to the Swiss pastors in 1554, “nor have the things that I read in our apology dropped from my memory. I knew also his wild notion about consecrating the altar as an object of religious veneration.”39 Nevertheless, he offered something of a defense of Luther: “But when I see often from the violence of his temper he hurled invectives on friend and foe, as if in these contests I deemed less a free agent than the mouthpiece of ill humour, I seek to cast a veil over them, in my desire to promote what may best secure peace.”40 Calvin then spelled out his reasons for departing from the Swiss by agreeing with a good deal of the revised Augsburg Confession, which he had signed.

Influences and Differences

For polemical reasons, Luther and Calvin have long been viewed as polar opposites by their supporters and opponents, who had many reasons for ensuring that the two great theologians remained markers for distinctively different traditions.41 Here we encounter a problem of a confessional historiography that is reluctant to acknowledge the degree to which reformers read each other’s work and deeply influenced one another. It also ignores the extent to which assumptions were shared by Protestants. When we consider the place of Luther in the life and thought of John Calvin, even a brief summary reveals striking similarities in their thought, even as significant differences remain. Calvin drew heavily from Luther’s teaching on sola scriptura, sola fide, and justification by faith alone, although that influence is finely textured. Much of Luther’s theology was mediated to Calvin through other writers, taking us back to the point that the reformers thought within a textual community. And while we can certainly speak of Luther, Melanchthon was the more significant Wittenberg influence on Calvin’s emerging theology.

We usefully begin our brief comparative sketch of their thought with Luther and Calvin’s doctrines of God, where both assert a position of absolute sovereignty; the authority of the divine is unequivocal. Yet within that framework, different tendencies are evident. For Luther, God’s natural work is love, but

God’s “alien” works are these: to judge, to condemn, and to punish those who are impenitent and do not believe. . . . He does not want us to follow the example of the Manichaeans and imagine that there are several gods: one, the source of all good; the other, the source of all evil. God wants us to regard the evils that we experience as coming to us with His permission. . . . Moses’ meaning, therefore is, “May Thy work become evident: that is, restore us, who were chastened, to life; justify those who were plagued by sin, and so show us Thy ‘natural’ work, life and righteousness.”42

Calvin shared Luther’s adamancy that it is not for men and women to speculate about God, because it is God’s revelation that is the foundation of all theology. Where the Frenchman departs in emphasis is with his stress on the will of God as determinative of all that is good.

Both theologians held that, in Christ, God took flesh and the supreme moment of that incarnation was the cross on Calvary. His “theology of the cross” was distinctive from Luther’s, but Calvin did not depart significantly on the centrality of the crucifixion. Once again, it was a matter of emphasis: Calvin’s attention fell more directly on the redeemed life, the doctrine of sanctification. Efforts to separate Luther and Calvin based on their teachings on justification have not proved convincing. As John Fesko recently argued, “there are significant similarities between Luther and Calvin and the relationship between justification, sanctification, and union with Christ to the point that the line of division cannot be easily drawn between Luther and Calvin on these doctrines.”43

On the issue of law and gospel, Calvin followed Luther closely, rejecting the medieval teaching of the gospel as “New Law.” Law and gospel are not to be equated with the Old and New Testaments. For both Luther and the Reformed tradition of the 16th century, law commands punishment while gospel frees the sinner through faith alone. While Luther’s teaching on law and gospel is often contrasted with what is presented as the more positive view of Calvin, the question once more is a matter of emphasis rather than a firm theological distinction. Additionally, the use of the law as a pedagogical tool was already present in Luther, and through Melanchthon’s influence became prominent in the thought of Calvin and other Reformed churchmen.

From their teaching on God, it follows that both Luther and Calvin held to strict doctrines of predestination. Like Augustine, both men were clear that God elects some men and women to eternal bliss, while the remainder of humanity is condemned to perdition. Yet within this broader framework, considerable differences existed. For Calvin, God did not simply foresee the fall of man, but caused it happen, a distinction that points us to a way of thinking about the difference in emphasis of Luther and Calvin on the doctrine of God. For the Wittenberg reformer, God is love. While the Genevan reformer would never deny that statement, his emphasis was on God’s sovereignty and will.

Both Luther and Calvin accepted the creedal statements about the nature of Christ. Distinctive of Luther was his intense Christological position that found expression in the “theology of the cross,” as we noted. In the dispute over the Eucharist, Luther had accused the Zwinglians of Nestorianism; they in return charged Wittenberg with confusing the natures of Christ. Luther spoke of the communicatio idiomatum, by which through the interchange of attributes, Christ could be born a baby, suffer on the cross, and be present in the Eucharist. Calvin, following Zwingli and others, roundly rejected this explanation, as he stated in the Institutes:

Choosing from the womb of the Virgin a temple for his residence, he who was the Son of God, became also the Son of man, not by a confusion of substance, but by a unity of person. For we assert such a connection and union of the Divinity with the humanity, that each nature retains its properties entire, and yet both together constitute one Christ.44

Without doubt, Calvin was influenced by Luther in his understanding of the prophetic voice in scripture, with Luther teaching that the prophets were instruments of the Holy Spirit, although they were often rejected by the people to whom they spoke.45 Both men held the prophets to be declarers of God’s word who called the people to repentance, and both argued that the prophets spoke in a mixture of threats and promises in order to cajole a people made up of the faithful and the reprobate.

Luther held that the books of the prophets had been compiled over a period of time and put into literary form, a position also adopted by Calvin. For both men, the rhetorical qualities of the language of the prophets, full of metaphors and figures intended to persuade or move people, were inspired by the Holy Spirit.46 Both reformers pointed to the necessity of understanding the original language if the prophets were to be fully understood, and they also shared a conviction that central to the teaching of the prophets was the call to true worship and avoidance of idolatry, with the latter theme particularly prominent in Calvin. Such differences of emphasis can also be found elsewhere in their engagement with the prophets. Thus, while the Wittenberg reformer spoke in the language of “faith” and “works,” Calvin was more inclined to rail against superstition, corruption, and pollution.47 In his lectures on Joel, Luther stated, “All the prophets have one and the same message, for this is their one aim: they are looking toward the coming of Christ and we must relate them to nothing else”48; Calvin in contrast saw the prophets as interpreting the law and calling the people back to its obedience. On Hosea, he wrote, “But with respect to the prophets, this is true of them all . . . that they are interpreters of the Law. And this is the sum of the Law, that God designs to rule by his own authority the people he has adopted.”49 Within the context of their shared understanding of prophecy, further distinctions can be found between Luther and Calvin. The former saw the prophets as preachers of the gospel, while for Calvin the primary role of the prophets was to interpret the law.


Calvin’s relative silence about Luther and Zwingli in the 16th century requires careful interpretation. When the Frenchman praised Luther, it was as God’s servant, a herald of the Reformation. Without doubt, he would have delighted in having the German reformer’s approbation for his efforts to restore unity to the Protestant cause, but such affirmation never came. Although he was not fully in agreement with his allies in Zurich, Calvin’s position on the Lord’s Supper put him squarely among the Reformed, creating estrangement from the Lutherans.

An examination of Luther through the eyes of Calvin throws light on the shifting world of the second-generation reformers and the formidable obstacles to meaningful unity they faced. The legacies of the 1520s and 1530s put Calvin in an impossible situation, between two parties locked in intractable hostility. The Reformation in German-speaking lands was paralyzed by division, although Calvinism would make significant gains in the empire. Having failed to bring about the unity he so desired, Calvin turned his gaze to other lands, including England, Scotland, and his native France.

Review of Literature

The literature on the topic of Luther and Calvin is not extensive. The recent biographies of Luther by Scott Hendrix and Heinz Schilling make virtually no mention of the topic. The key works remain Alexandre Ganoczy’s The Young Calvin and W. H. Neuswer’s “Calvin and Luther: Their Personal and Theological Relationship”.50 The Calvin Handbook (2009), edited by Herman J. Selderhuis, has an article by Selderhuis on the subject.51 For a discussion similar to this article, see Bruce Gordon’s Calvin.52 A recent contribution is the volume edited by R. Ward Holder, but little of the book treats Luther and Calvin directly; it is mostly concerned with later questions.53

Further Reading

Balserak, Jon. Establishing the Remnant Church in France: Calvin’s Lectures on the Minor Prophets, 1556–1559. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.Find this resource:

Bornkamm, Heinrich. Luther and the Old Testament. 2d ed. Translated by Eric Gritsch and Ruth Gritsch. Mifflintown, PA: Sigler, 1997.Find this resource:

Edwards, Mark U., Jr.Luther and the False Brethren. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

Edwards, Mark U., Jr.Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics, 1531–46. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Engammare, Max. Calvin: A Prophet without a Prophecy. Church History 67 (1998): 643–661.Find this resource:

Fesko, J. V.Beyond Calvin. Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517–1700). Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012.Find this resource:

Ganoczy, Alexandre. The Young Calvin. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988.Find this resource:

Gordon, Bruce. Calvin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Holder, R. Ward, ed. Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, and Hero: Images of the Reformer, 1520–1620. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999.Find this resource:

Oberman, Heiko A.Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Zachman, Randall, C.The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.Find this resource:


(1.) For an excellent study, see Christopher W. Close, The Negotiated Reformation: Imperial Cities and the Politics of Urban Reform, 1525–1550 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

(2.) On networks of reformers and political leaders, see Thomas A. Brady Jr., Protestant Politics: Jacob Sturm (1489–1553) and the German Reformation (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995).

(3.) For the relationships between the reformers, see the articles in Herman J. Selderhuis, ed., The Calvin Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009).

(4.) This argument has been made by Richard A. Muller; see his The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(5.) For different perspectives, see Jacques Blandenier, Martin Luther & Jean Calvin: contrastes et ressemblances (St-Prex, Switzerland: Éditions Je sème, 2008); and Charles Boyer, Calvin et Luther. Accords et différences (Rome: Università gregoriana, 1973).

(6.) Luther’s recent biographers Hendrix and Schilling make nothing of Calvin’s perceptions of the Wittenberg reformer. The most significant work on Calvin’s relationship with Luther remains Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988).

(7.) On Luther’s late attacks on the Swiss, see Mark U. Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics, 1531–46 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983).

(8.) Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 122. See also Randall C. Zachman, “The Conciliating Theology of John Calvin: Dialogue among Friends,” in Conciliation and Confession: The Struggle for Unity in the Age of Reform, 1415–1648, eds. Howard Louthan and Randall C. Zachman (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2004), 96–97.

(9.) Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin. A Pilgrim’s Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 105–106.

(10.) Gordon, Calvin, 169–170.

(11.) See the articles on the reformers in Selderhuis, ed., Calvin Handbook.

(12.) Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times, trans. Stephen E. Buckwalter (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004).

(13.) Timothy Wengart, “‘We Will Feast Together in Heaven Forever’: The Epistolary Friendship of John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon,” in Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence Beyond Wittenberg, ed. Karin Maag (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 19–44.

(14.) Cf. I. W. C. van Wyk, “Calvin, Luther and Church Unity,” In die skriflig: tydskrif van die Gereformeerde Teologiese Vereniging 44 (2010): 215–232.

(15.) Cf. Gabriele Haug-Moritz, Der Schmalkaldische Bund, 1530–1541/42: eine Studie zu den genossenschaftlichen Strukturelementen der politischen Ordnung des Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation (Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Germany: DRW-Verlag, 2002).

(16.) Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles.

(17.) John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, eds. H. Beveridge and J. Bonnet, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1958).

(18.) On Necessity, 125.

(19.) Ibid., 145.

(20.) Ibid., 183.

(21.) Ibid., 220.

(22.) Johannes Calvins Lebenswerk in seinen Briefen. Eine Auswahl von Briefen Calvins in deutscher Übersetzung, trans. Rudolf Schwarz, 2 vols. (Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1909), 1:27.

(25.) Johannes Calvins Lebenswerk, 89.

(27.) Ibid., 92.

(28.) The Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet, 4 vols. (New York: Franklin, 1972), 1:432–433.

(29.) Letters of John Calvin, 1:433.

(31.) Ibid., 1:434.

(33.) Ibid., 1:436.

(35.) Ibid., 1:437.

(36.) On Calvin and the Nicodemites, see Jon Balserak, Establishing the Remnant Church in France: Calvin’s Lectures on the Minor Prophets, 1556–1559 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011).

(37.) Letters of John Calvin, 1:441.

(38.) Ibid., 1:442.

(39.) Ibid., 3:91.

(41.) On the historical memory of Luther and Calvin, see Robert Kolb, Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, Hero: Images of the Reformer, 1520–1620 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999); and the essays in Sober, Strict, and Scriptural: Collective Memories of John Calvin 1800–2000, eds. Johan de Niet, Herman Paul, and Bart Wallet (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009).

(42.) LW 13:135–136.

(43.) J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed theology (1517–1700) (Bristol, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), 122.

(44.) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2:14.2.

(45.) G. Sujin Pak, “Luther and Calvin on the Nature and Function of Prophecy: The Case of the Minor Prophets,” in Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship, ed. R. Ward Holder (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 15.

(46.) Ibid., 17.

(47.) Ibid., 19.

(48.) LW 18:79, quoted in Pak, “Luther and Calvin,” 21.

(49.) Pak, “Luther and Calvin,” 22.

(50.) Ganoczy, The Young Calvin; and W. H. Neuswer, “Calvin and Luther: Their Personal and Theological Relationship,” Hervormde teologiese studies 38 (1982): 89–103.

(51.) Herman J. Selderhuis, “Historical Connections: Calvin and Wittenberg,” in The Calvin Handbook, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 57–60.

(52.) Gordon, Calvin, especially pages 160–164.

(53.) Holder, Calvin and Luther.