John Calvin & Me

I came to read about John Calvin around 15 years ago as a result of an unusual incident....

I was remodeling a kitchen. The man I was working for had an art print nicely framed on one of the walls inside his home. The painting was of a nude woman and looked to be the work of some “old master.”

The man was clearly proud of his painting. He drew my attention to it and asked me what I thought of it. I responded honestly: “It looks like pornography to me.”

After a momentary pause, he chuckled and said: “You must be a Calvinist like my wife.”

I must be a Calvinist? That comment raised my curiosity. I looked up what a Calvinist was in the dictionary (an old Merriam Webster). There I found that a Calvinist is “an adherent of Calvinism.” Under Calvinism, I found this:
The doctrines of the French theologian John Calvin (1509-64), including election or predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistibility of grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Calvinism especially emphasis the sovereignty of God in the bestowal of grace.
Frankly, I didn’t understand all of that. Those phrases were not typically used within the fundamentalist circles I was familiar with. But I was drawn to better understand this theologian because I knew he was from the Reformation, and that the Reformation was a movement that birthed Protestantism, and I am a Protestant. But more than that, it was Reformation theology that motivated the Mayflower Pilgrims of America’s early history.

I’ve had an affinity and respect for the Pilgrims for a long time. It began when I visited Plymouth, Massachusetts, as a teenager. Then, in my early 20s, at my mother’s urging, I went to hear Peter Marshall speak at a local church for several nights. Marshall is co-author of the book, The Light and The Glory, which tells the absolutely amazing story of God’s hand in the founding of this country. It was history that recognized and glorified God. I had never heard anything like that in my 12 years of government schooling.

In recent months I have felt my interests drawn back to the Reformation. I have tried to better to understand the theology of the Reformers, the history of that time, and the people who God used in this movement.

I find it so odd that my Christian experience has been centered, for the most part, within fundamental Baptist circles, which are clearly Protestant, yet the Baptists rarely mention much about the Reformation that produced their denomination.

After some time, it became clear to me that the typical Baptist does not like the predestinarian doctrines that John Calvin espoused. And since most of the Reformers held predestinarian views, the whole matter of Reformation history is only mentioned parenthetically in fundamentalist circles, if at all. At least that has been my experience.

This is a sorry state of affairs. I dare say it is a tragedy. The history of the Reformation is horrible and beautiful and inspiring and instructional. It is nothing short of fascinating. There was incredible hardship and persecution. Many people died as martyrs for their faith. In the case of the Reformers, they died because they took very seriously God’s call to purity and separation from apostasy.

This understanding of God’s calling, the purity of faith, and the steadfastness of witness is something we who call ourselves Christians should really understand.

Many of you who are reading this now are fully aware of what I’m only just beginning to understand about Reformation history. You know all about men like Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and all the others. But there are scores of you who are like I was (or am)—mostly unaware or even pitifully ignorant. If you fall into that category, I invite you to take a little tour through the Reformation by way of a book titled, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, by Stephen J. Nichols.

it is not a big book, and it is not an expensive book, and it is not a hard book to read. Fact is, the book reads very easily and Mr. Nichols does an excellent job of introducing readers to several of the fallible but faithful people who, for the glory of god, changed the world by putting their faith into action. The Reformation was a remarkable period in the history of the world. In many respects, we could say that the religious and philosophical foundations of America were laid in the Reformation.

One of my favorite stories in the book happens to be one of the smaller incidents of Reformation history. It centers around a young woman named Lady Jane Grey who was Queen of England in 1553. Her reign lasted nine days. She was 16 years old. She would die for her faith.

Prior to Lady Jane Grey, Edward VI ruled England. Edward carried on the Protestant reforms of his father, King Henry VIII. Heir to the throne after Edward VI was Mary I, a Roman Catholic. Edward knew that Mary would restore Catholicism to England and undo his reforms. So, before he died, he disinherited her. After his death, Edward’s advisors and Protestant supporters put Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, on the throne. As I said, she remained Queen only nine days before Mary I’s forces took control.

Mary would become known as “Bloody Mary” for her reign of terror and revenge on the Protestant church in England. But she offered to spare Lady Jane Grey’s life, if she would but take the Roman Mass. Here is an excerpt from the book. Remember, Jane Grey is 16 years old.
After her arrest, Lady Jane was quizzed by Mary’s archbishop, Feckenham, in the chapel at the tower of London before an audience of Mary’s supporters, which is to say before a Roman Catholic audience. Jane Grey withstood Feckenham’s challenges to her rejection of the Roman view of the Lord’s Supper, outfoxed him in arguing for the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), and got the upper hand on the issue of justification and our standing before God.

In the exchange over justification, Feckenham tried to trip her up by accusing her of rejecting good works, so clearly required of the Christian. “It is necessary unto salvation to do good works also; it is not sufficient only to believe.” he told her. She returned, “I deny that, and I affirm that faith only saves; but it is meet for a Christian to do good works, in token that he follows the steps of his Master, Christ, yet may we not say that we profit to our salvation; for when we have done all, we are unprofitable servants, and faith only in Christ’s blood saves us.” Luther could scarcely have put the doctrine of justification by faith better. On February 12, 1554, two days after her interview with Feckenham, Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen was martyred for her beliefs. Her last words upon the scaffold were, “I here die a true Christian woman and I trust to be saved by the blood of Christ, and by none other means.”
Jane Grey, at 16 years of age, chose to die for what most Christians today would say is a minor theological difference.

In light of the world we now live in, I find this young woman, her knowledge of scripture, her steadfast faith, and her example, to be amazing. Here is another excerpt from the book:
So adamant was she in her beliefs that she chastised her family’s chaplain for conveniently converting to Catholicism when Mary came to power. “Will thou refuse the true God, and worship the invention of man, the golden calf, the whore of Babylon, the Romish religion, the abominable idol, the most wicked mass?” she wrote. Jane Grey took theology seriously. Imagine if she had a pulpit.
I encourage you to read the book and begin to learn more about the Reformation.


As a footnote to this essay, I would like to say that it is not intended as an affront to any Roman Catholic readers. Though I happen to agree with Jane Grey, my objective here is to point out that there is a rich heritage of Christian conviction and faith within the history of the Reformation. Different groups will take different things from this history, but I think we can all benefit if we will take the time to understand it.


Brenda said...

I was preparing to comment on your post, but it was becoming an essay, so I'll just share a bit...I started reading about the Reformation only a couple of years ago. I spent most of my Christian life in Pentecostal churches and came out with a lack of solid doctrine, and no knowledge of Church history.

Although I don't label myself a Calvinist per se, I do believe the grace doctrine. The opposite camp--the Arminians-- argue that Calvinist doctrine leads to cheap grace or Antinomianism. But any true Christian would not want to live a loose life! Any sin would cause a true believer much grief, since the Holy Spirit would be working on their conscience.

I loved the quote by Jane Grey: “Will thou refuse the true God, and worship the invention of man, the golden calf, the whore of Babylon, the Romish religion, the abominable idol, the most wicked mass?” I never knew much about her, but I can see she was a very strong Christian, and full of boldness for the Lord's cause!

Ralph said...

Thank you for the footnote. I am a Catholic reader, but take no offence.

Please read the life of Sir Thomas More. They made a movie about him, "A Man Of All Seasons".

Christians off all stripes were, frankly, beastly during this time. (in fact, I think if you spend some time reading about Calvin, his behavior might shock you) I am thankful that, for the most part, our interactions now are more civil.

I am a convert from Calvinism to Catholicism, so I have seen it from both sides.

Happy Thanksgiving and good writing on your new book.

C. Hays said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Herrick, to you and Marlene and the boys! Merry Christmas too, since you won't be blogging till January. I, too, read "The Light and the Glory" many years ago, and it still sits on my shelf, and I look through it occasionally. It's a fascinating viewpoint on the founding of our country. God willing, we'll see you in January.

Carla Hays

Rev. Brian Carpenter said...


Happy Thanksgiving. Still a fan of your blog.

Most Baptists don't know it, but all Baptists were Calvinistic at one time.

Anonymous said...

May I add Hillaire Belloc's book "How The Reformation Happened" as a counter-point to the Protestant view. I bring up Belloc because he also championed Distributism, which is rooted in the Agrarian movement. You have written about the Catholic Agrarian Movement in the past, and there is much in common with this movement and your views. Fr. Vincent McNabb is another person to dive deeper into - his writings on Industrialism, Capitalism/Socialism... and the destruction of the Family unit. Finally... as a Traditional Catholic who reads your blog daily... I respect you, and your families decision to "Flee to the Fields". I also respect you. God Bless Always!

Jennie said...

I've been reading and enjoying your blog for some time but have never commented. It's funny you wrote about this subject now because I've been reading alot about protestantism vs. catholicism lately. My heroes are the Pilgrims, Tyndale, Bunyan, the Vaudois (or Waldenses), Lady Jane Grey and others. Also I've been reading some histories about the earlier centuries showing how there have been protestants, or 'cathari' which means 'puritan,' since the beginning of the catholic church.
I'm a baptist, but not a Calvinist; nor am I an arminian. I just read the Bible and trust God to sort out the question of predestination:) On my new blog I have several posts with links to info I've read lately.
God Bless You!

Zach said...


May I gently suggest that the reason why Mary I is known as "Bloody Mary" and Elizabeth I is not known as "Bloody Bess" is because the Protestant side won in England and got to write the history books for the last 500 years?

Even Anglicans are admitting these days that the Protestant reformation in England was effected through government tyranny and bloody suppression, and wasn't the peaceful, beatific reign that hagiographers of Elizabeth portray.

This is not to discount the valor of the Protestant martyrs of the English reformation -- it's just that it took me some years to even learn that there were also Catholic martyrs in that conflict.


Matt said...

Hi Herrick,

my brother-in-law keeps referring me to your blog, and I keep enjoying it! I share a lot in common with you, especially as regards to living the agrarian life and also a commitment to Reformation theology.

I am a dairy farmer (milk around 45 cows), love raising my 3 little ones (3, 19 mos, and 3 mos) in the country with my good wife, and am a fairly recent convert to Calvinism. I grew up Mennonite and belong to an evangelical Mennonite church which doesn't have an official stance on Calvinism and Arminianism. That's too bad, especially considering what the Reformers (including Menno Simons) lived and died for.

The gospel is Calvinism. Thanks for what you do. I really enjoyed reading the excerpt about Lady Jane Grey.

And to all the Arminians, free-willers, and Roman Catholics, I am very grateful that we all discuss our differences without violence nowadays!

Grace and peace,

Allena said...

I think to really understand historical movements such as the reformation it is important to read both sides of the story.

Protestant books rarely discuss the horrors that men like Calvin and Luther were part of..

I agree with the previous poster that it was a beastly time. I think that God let this happen for a reason, and I don't really know how to explain it.

What is important now to recognize the faults in BOTH religions MEN/Women.

I don't think "the Church" is manmade, and scripture tells us differently. Certainly Catholics do not worship the mass. But we do recognize that the mass is a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ.

Furthermore, when God placed Peter as the leader of the Church and said he could have the keys of heaven, and that what those MEN bound on Earth would be bound in gets complicated.

I'm just saying that there are two sides of the story. As a Catholic convert from Protestantism, the history of the Churches is what converted me.

Now, I don't know if it is so vital to be one flavor instead of another, but I do see that the Catholic Church has upheld much of the Laws of God that others are letting slide by the wayside. That is sad and another testement of the failings of Men.

That doesn't make those churches irrelevant or evil, just flawed. Hopefully God will be with the Churches till the end of the world as he promises...

Anonymous said...

Christ, the true Head of the Church, has not appointed any universal pontiff or local priesthood, or mass, confessional or penances. If you have been trusting in these things, you have been deceived. If you continue to follow the Pope and his fraudulent claims, you will follow him to hell, which is where we all deserve to go because of our sin and guilt. Only by coming to God and trusting in Jesus Christ alone can our sins be forgiven.The issue is not a mere antiquated squabble. We must make no mistake on this – the issues involved are eternal ones. Christ must be all our salvation or none. He will not share the glory of saving sinners with anybody else. (Acts 4.12)