The year 1959 marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin and the 400th anniversary of the third and final edition of his Institutes. In a day when the “social gospel” has been placarded before the world, it is perhaps pertinent to stress that there is but one Gospel and this Gospel has its social implications. Fallen man is essentially a sinner, and any “social gospel” which does not deal in a radical manner with his sin is no gospel at all—it is “good advice” rather than “good news.” On the other hand, if the Gospel is preached without any reference to its clear social implications, then it is not being proclaimed in all its fullness. Man is a social being, and the Gospel, which is addressed to the totality of his being, has its social dimension.

Misappropriating Calvin

Frequently we witness complete misunderstandings of the Reformed faith in relation to the social needs of man. Trevor Huddleston, in his disturbing and challenging book, Naught for Your Comfort, writes:

The truth is that the Calvinistic doctrines upon which the faith of the Afrikaner is nourished contain within themselves—like all heresies and deviations from Catholic truth—exaggerations so distorting and so powerful that it is very hard indeed to recognise the Christian faith they are supposed to enshrine. Here, in this fantastic notion of the immutability of race, is present in a different form the predestination idea: the concept of an elect people of God, characteristic above all else of John Calvin.

Huddleston goes on to argue that this idea has been transplanted from its European context, and subconsciously “narrowed still further to meet South African preconceptions and prejudices.” “Calvinism,” he says, “with its great insistence on ‘election,’ is the ideally suitable religious doctrine for white South Africa” (pp. 63 f). Here is a serious accusation which cannot be lightly dismissed. The present writer does not agree that the doctrine of election is the ideological root of the unchristian treatment of blacks anywhere: whites who hold Arminian doctrines would be prone to racial prejudice, too. And if Calvinistic whites have tried to justify their anti-black policy by hiding behind election, that is neither the fault nor the consequence of the doctrine. In Britain we sometimes hear the criticism that extreme individualism, with the tenet that “a man’s home in his castle,” is really a fruit of Calvinism, which is thus virtually represented as being anti-social—to that we shall return.

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John Calvin was too big a man for any ism: he knew that Truth could not be dissected, or contained by any man-made filing system. When we turn to the man himself, what do we find? We discover a remarkable social consciousness which can be easily detected in at least three spheres.

Social Consciousness In Theology

In the last chapter of the Institutes, Calvin considers the question of civil government and maintains that “the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated.” This does not mean that “the whole scheme of civil government is matter of pollution, with which Christian men have nothing to do,” and we must remember that the State has the same Lord as the Church. The Christ who is Head of the Church is Lord of this world. This point in Calvin’s theology has been well stressed by Dr. Wilhelm Niesel (The Theology of Calvin, pp. 229 f). Calvin saw all things under Christ for the well-being of the Church. His view of the State, as a divine institution, was the highest possible and he quotes such passages as “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice” (Prov. 8:15). Magistrates, in Calvin’s view, “have a commission from God” and “are invested with divine authority” (Institutes, IV, 20, 4). Here Calvin’s argument, as always, is well buttressed with Scripture.

The implications of this doctrine for today are as vital as they are relevant. First, the Communist doctrine of the State is immoral in that (a) it makes the State exist for its own sake and (b) it has no conception of serving in any way whatever the well-being of Christ’s Church. Second, the same ideology is anti-social because it makes the State absolutely sovereign. Calvin really taught what Abraham Kuyper termed “sphere sovereignty”—i.e., family, Church and State are sovereign in their own sphere and while bound to respect and help each other must not encroach on each other’s sanctity—but all are equally subject to the sovereignty of Christ. Thus the sovereignty of Christ is the only safeguard against tyranny, and Calvin declares: “The Lord, therefore, is the King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it …” (Institutes, IV, 20, 32). The Gospel in the hands of Calvin was, among other things, social dynamite.

Heinrich Quistorp has drawn attention to the social implications of Calvin’s eschatology (Calvin’s Doctrine of Last Things, pp. 162 f.). He shows clearly that Calvin viewed earthly government as only a temporary arrangement. The consummation of the reign of Christ will mean the end of all other rule and authority, including rule which at present is based on divine authority. Thus Calvin’s social application of the Gospel could never be called a “social gospel.” Its ultimate orientation was indisputably eschatological.

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Preaching And The Social Thrust

Calvin’s preaching was expositional, and it impinged upon the lives of the people; in a word, it was relevant, and consequently effective. “Calvin’s preaching,” writes Leroy Nixon, “was a big factor in changing the character of the city of Geneva from a city of doubtful moral standing to one of the cleanest, most moral and most intellectual cities of Europe” (John Calvin—Expository Preacher, p. 66).

It is sometimes said that Calvin is responsible for much of today’s “isolationism” in society—men living selfishly in their own homes, neglecting their fellow-men. Well, listen to this:

He has joined us together and united us in order that we may have a community; for men ought not to entirely separate themselves. It is true that our Lord has appointed the policy that each one shall have his house, that he shall have his household, his wife, his children, each one will be in his place; yet no one ought to except himself from the common life by saying, “I shall live to myself alone.” This would be to live worse than as a brute beast (Sermon on Job 19:17–25).

In the same sermon Calvin says: “God has joined them all together (as we have said) and they ought not to separate themselves from each other.…”

If we turn to Calvin’s commentaries on the Hebrew prophets, we again see his insight into the historical setting of their ministry, and his own social consciousness is thus revealed. Joel is a good example of this, so is Isaiah. In Isaiah, chapter one, we read of a people who were orthodox and most religious, but because of their social sins their very prayers wearied God. Calvin comes to this passage with piercing insight and lays bare the burden of Isaiah.

Social Impact Of His Life

Calvin’s own life was a witness to the sincerity of his social concern. He himself was a poor man. In the Rue des Chanoines the great preacher of God’s Word lived in the utmost simplicity. T. H. L. Parker well says that Calvin “lived without financial worry, but he did not get rich at Geneva’s expense” (Portrait of Calvin, p. 69). His fearless devotion in visiting the diseased when the plague struck Geneva in 1542, and despite the Council’s prohibition, again reveals the love and unselfishness of the man. He did not belong to the Dives class of men.

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Whatever men may say of Calvin’s attempted theocracy, it cannot seriously be denied that ere he died Geneva was, to quote James Orr, “the astonishment of Christendom for civil order, administration of justice, pure morals, liberal learning, generous hospitality and the flourishing state of its arts and industries” (The Reformers, p. 260). Calvin aimed at making Geneva a city of God, and of that city John Knox declared: “In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so sincerely reformed I have not yet seen in any other place beside” (McCrie, Life of Knox). In Geneva, Calvin had to grapple with sexual immorality which was rampant and open, widespread drunkenness and gambling. Calvin has been wrongly blamed for harsh measures: the truth is that he found a fairly severe form of legislation in existence—and little wonder—and he brought to bear upon it his own high ideals and convictions regarding a godly and sober life for the individual and nation. Those who pour calumny on Calvin, or “frame” his faults, do not always admit that this man made Geneva a model township with clean streets, proper drainage, health regulations, hospitals and schools. Distressed to see little children falling out of windows, he had the herald proclaim that houses should have rails and shutters. Industries such as silk, velvet and wool owed their foundation in Geneva to him.

Moral Influence Survives

We might, in conclusion, note that Calvinism in history, active in the Huguenots, Puritans, Covenanters and others, has maintained its moral influence. N. S. McFetridge’s Calvinism in History (Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, 1882) is still an invaluable aid to this side of our subject; it needs to be read again today.

The principles manifest in Calvin’s Geneva would take definite issue with unworthy facets of modern capitalism and labor, and with Apartheid, and the unbiblical otherworldliness of “fundamentalism.” Whatever mistakes Calvin may have made, he seriously endeavored to apply biblical principles to contemporary society, and he achieved, under God, remarkable success. Are we as frank and courageous to acknowledge the social implications of the Gospel and to grapple with current evils? We need not turn to the “social gospel”—indeed we dare not—but we must return to the full Gospel that was preached and applied by Calvin. And as, in imagination, we hear the bells of St. Pierre peal over the waters of Lake Léman, while the herald recites the official proclamation of the reign of God in the city of Geneva to the great multitude standing in Molard Square, do the portentous words not find at least a prayer in the hearts of evangelical Christians in our modern times?:

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In the name of Almighty God. That whereas the preservation of the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ in all its purity is the highest of human actions, we, the Syndics and the Councils, greater and lesser, of the city of Geneva ordain as follows: There shall be established in our city a government in accord with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Frederick S. Leahy is an alumnus of Free Church College, Edinburgh, and minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland—a church which inherits the ideals of the Scottish Covenanters and insists on the Crown Rights of Christ in civil as well as ecclesiastical causes. For several years he was editor of The Protestant. His present charge is in Belfast.

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