When you hear a number that sounds improbable, what do you do? Ignore it? Or check it out, maybe? Seven years ago I heard a number that intrigued me. Historian Herman Selderhuis was asking how John Calvin’s influence has grown so far and so fast, since the 1500s. Here’s what I heard: “in fifty years, the Reformed faith grew from a half million, to 1.1 million people.” That number was surprising, and it stuck with me, so I went back to his lecture. Yes, I got it wrong.
In 1554 there were about half a million Reformed Protestants. By 1600 there were already ten million. This expansion, which Philip Benedict in his overview calls ‘nothing short of remarkable’ is all the more striking in that it occurred in the face of harsh persecution…in France, Italy, Spain, and the Low Countries, as well as the political and military pressure to which they were exposed…1
Not 1.1 million, but ten million, in forty-six years. (If you want to say, “They were not all converted,” or “many were Reformed in name only,” I accept those qualifications.) How did the Reformed church grow 2000% in less than three generations? On any reckoning this is remarkable. It certainly inspires hope.
In fact, the Reformed faith has spread around the globe in since the 1500s. Why was Calvin’s teaching so effective? Dr. Selderhuis did not credit all this to John Calvin. There were many, many people involved at many levels, some who did not even identify with Calvin. (In fact, Calvin was the last person to take any credit. He abhorred the term “Calvinism,” and demanded that his body be buried, as it later was, in an unmarked grave.) However, Selderhuis explored a number of factors that made Calvin’s ideas so powerful. Calvin preached the Scriptures incessantly. He began a school that trained and sent pastors. He wrote commentaries on most Bible books in brief, clear and beautiful Latin and French. He corresponded with friends and foes all across Europe, writing roughly eight thousand letters during his ministry. He published Psalm-books and taught the church to sing. His big book, the Institutes—was reprinted in sixteen editions by the year 1600. All this is well known. But why were his ideas so popular? Selderhuis gave several reasons that impressed me.
First, Calvin’s theology was not just his. He wrote in the second generation of the Reformation, and that meant his theology gathered the fruit others had grown, e.g., on the Lord’s Supper, the value of the Old Testament, and the covenant. Because he was trained as a “humanist” (a student of original sources and texts), Calvin tried to make his writing as simple and understandable as possible.
Second, for Calvin, “doctrine” always meant biblical teaching that enables us live for God. It makes us wise and touches the heart. People were hungry for this kind of teaching.
Third (this may surprise), his theology was “migratory”: it could be adapted to different places and situations. In worship, for example, there was room for flexibility. Likewise in church order: unlike a battleship, a fleet can change direction quickly. It has a solid core, but it can respond to different needs. The Church did not depend on civil authority in order to flourish. And for Calvin, every member of the church had work to do. Not just hearing the doctrine, but passing it on was each believer’s task. Combined with Calvin’s idea of “calling” (all of life is lived with heaven in view), this meant that Reformed believers were much more active in public life. Because they could be called anywhere by God, this insured wide geographical impact.
Fourth, building on Luther, and responding to Rome, Calvin stressed that there is no justification without sanctification. Human beings were on earth to serve God and neighbor, so Calvin urged fighting against sin as well as living a holy life. God’s law is a guideline for living his gospel. Magistrates were interested in restoring public morals and preserving social peace, so they appreciated this teaching. Knowing God and oneself were inter-related (the idea of the covenant), so individuals were important without taking away from God’s glory.
Selderhuis also mentioned Calvin’s stress on science as a gift of God. Creation is good, and the Holy Spirit is the real source of knowledge of the natural world. At a time when knowledge of nature was growing fast, Calvinists became leaders.
This brief lecture challenged my thinking. These surprising facts inspire hope. We know that human factors cannot account for God’s work. But neither are they irrelevant. God works by and with his Word, in his world, where Christ is Lord. We are tasked to spread that Word by every means available to us. We long for the further coming of his Kingdom. Is there opposition? Yes. So let’s get to work.
1. “John Calvin, 1509-2009” in I. Backus and P. Benedict, eds., Calvin and His Influence, 1509-2009 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 150. Selderhuis quotes Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 281.
Howard Griffith, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.