Gregory Brown
513 Agnes Arnold Hall
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3004


In Protestant Christianity the theology advanced by John Calvin (1509-1564) and its development by his followers. The term also refers to doctrines and practices derived from the works of Calvin and his followers that became the distinguishing characteristics of the Reformed churches.

While Lutheranism was largely confined to parts of Germany and to Scandinavia, Calvinism spread into England, Scotland, the English-speaking colonies in North America, France, the Netherlands, much of Germany, and parts of central Europe. This expansion began during Calvin's lifetime and was encouraged by him. Religious refugees had poured into Geneva, especially from France during the 1550s as the French government became increasingly intolerant but also from England, Scotland, Italy, and other parts of Europe into which Calvinism had spread. Calvin welcomed them, trained many of them as ministers, sent them back to their countries of origin to spread the Gospel, and then supported them with letters of encouragement and advice. Geneva thus became the centre of an international movement and a model for churches elsewhere. John Knox, the Calvinist leader of Scotland, described Geneva as “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles.?

Efforts to explain the appeal of Calvinism in social terms have had only limited success. In France it may have been primarily attractive to the nobility and the urban upper classes, in Germany it found adherents among both townsmen and princes, but in England and the Netherlands it made converts in every social group. It seems likely, therefore, that its appeal was based on its ability to explain disorders of the age afflicting all classes as well as on the remedies and comfort provided both by its activism and by its doctrine.

Having said this much, however, it is important to observe that the later history of Calvinism has often been obscured by a failure to distinguish between (1) Calvinism as the beliefs of Calvin himself, (2) the beliefs of his followers, who, though striving to be faithful to Calvin, modified his teachings to meet their own needs, and (3) more loosely, the beliefs of the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, in which Calvinism proper was only one, if historically the most prominent, strand. The Reformed churches—in the 16th century referred to in the plural to indicate, along with what they had in common, their individual autonomy and variety—consisted originally of a group of non-Lutheran Protestant churches based in towns in Switzerland and southern Germany. These churches have always been jealous of their autonomy, and Geneva was not alone among them in having distinguished theological leadership. Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg also had a European influence, which combined with that of Calvin, especially in England, to shape what came to be called Calvinism.

The church in Geneva continued to venerate Calvin and aimed to be faithful to his teaching under his successors, first among them Theodore Beza, Calvin's chief lieutenant during the latter part of his life. But in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, in the atmosphere of what can be appropriately described as a Protestant “Counter-Reformation,? Calvinism in Geneva underwent a change. Abandoning Calvin's more humanistic tendencies and drawing more on other aspects of his thought, Calvinism was increasingly intellectualized and came more and more to resemble the Scholasticism that Calvin had abhorred.

Under the influence of Aristotle the theology of Geneva became increasingly systematic. Faith, in this new atmosphere, was less a lively trust in God's promises than assent to a body of theological propositions. Especially the doctrine of predestination began to assume an importance such as had not been attributed to it before. Whereas Calvin had been led by personal faith to an awed belief in predestination, it now, considered an “eternal decree? of God and a metaphysical necessity, became the basis of faith.

Developments in Geneva illustrate what happened to Calvinism elsewhere. In 1619 they reached a climax at the Synod of Dort in the Netherlands, which spelled out various corollaries of predestination, as Calvin had never done, and made the doctrine central to Calvinism. Although the controversy that provoked this formulation was local, the synod was attended by representatives of Reformed churches elsewhere and assumed somewhat the same importance for them as the Council of Trent did for Roman Catholics.

In keeping with these developments Calvinist theologians, apparently finding Calvin's loose rhetorical style of expression unsatisfactory, began deliberately to write like Scholastic theologians, in Latin, and even appealed to medieval Scholastic authorities. The major Calvinist theological statement of the 17th century was the Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (1688) of François Turretin, chief pastor of Geneva. Although the title of his work recalled Calvin's masterpiece, the work itself bore little resemblance to the Institutes; it was not published in the vernacular, its dialectical structure followed the model of the great Summae of Thomas Aquinas, and it suggested Thomas' confidence in the value of human reason. The lasting significance of this shift is suggested by the fact that Turretin, in Latin, was the basic textbook in theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, the most distinguished intellectual centre of American Calvinism, until the middle of the 19th century.

Historians of Calvinism have continued to debate whether these developments were essentially faithful to the beliefs of Calvin or deviations from them. In some sense they were both. Later Calvinism, though abandoning Calvin's more humanistic tendencies, found precedents for these changes in the contrary aspects of his thought. They were untrue to Calvin, however, in rejecting his typically Renaissance concern to balance contrary impulses. These changes, moreover, suggest the stage in the development of a movement that Max Weber called “routinization.? It is the stage that comes after a movement's creative beginnings and, as a kind of reaction against the disorderly freedom of individual creativity, represents the quite different values of order and regularity. It is also relevant to explaining these changes in Calvinism that they occurred during a period of singular disorder, caused among other things by a century of religious warfare, which generally produced a longing for certainty, security, and peace.

Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


  • Encylopedia Britannica 2002, Expanded Edition DVD