Calvin, Zwingli and Luther (2)


The Scottish reformation story is largely about other people rather than Calvin himself. As far is Scotland is concerned, Calvin was an invisible man whose presence was nonetheless felt very strongly. Though he never set foot in Scotland, his influence deeply affected the religious life of the nation, but this was achieved through other people rather than Calvin himself. One of the principle players was a gentleman known as Beza, who was, during the latter years of Calvin’s life, most intimately associated with him.

William Cunningham, a nineteenth century Principal and Professor of Church History at Edinburgh’s New College, has this to say about Beza: “Beza was one of the very ablest defenders of Calvin’s system of theology. He succeeded to the high position which Calvin had long held, not only in Geneva, but in the Protestant world; and was, for a period of above forty years after Calvin’s death, the most prominent and influential theologian in the Reformed church. He exerted great influence for a very long period in most of the Reformed churches, and in none more than in that of Scotland.”

It is impossible to speak about Calvin and Scotland without mentioning the name of John Knox, and Knox’s contribution to reform in Scotland cannot be underestimated. It is therefore interesting to realise that John Knox was advised and encouraged by Beza in the course of his arduous struggle in Scotland with the Church of Rome.

Yet, in both Edwardian England and in Geneva, Knox influenced the course of the English reformation years before he began to dominate its Scottish counterpart. When he travelled to Geneva, Knox received a hearty welcome from Calvin, and venerated Calvin as a father. Knox was said to be never so happy as when he was in the company of John Calvin.

Back in Scotland in 1559, Knox wrote one of many letters to Calvin to ask his opinion on a number of matters. Letters flowed between the countries and Calvin, the invisible man, was in Scotland to stay. Indeed, when Knox’s first wife died in 1561, Calvin wrote a letter to Knox in which he expressed his sympathy over his loss. Then, writing in a letter to Goodman in the same month, Calvin said, “I grieve not a little that our friend Knox has been deprived of his most sweet wife; but I rejoice that, afflicted as he has been, he has continued to labour for Christ and the Church.”

This demonstrated the closeness of the relationship between Calvin and Knox, and the Reverend Professor Henry F. Henderson had no doubt about the significance of that relationship: “Calvin’s great and masterful mind exercised a powerful influence over John Knox, and, through him, over Scotland and other lands. In everything that came from Knox’s pen, after 1559, in his Liturgy, his Confession of Faith, his book of discipline, and in his pamphlet on Predestination, we can trace the spirit and the ideas of Geneva.”

On 6th November 1559, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Sir William Cecil: “God keep us from such a visitation as Knox has attempted in Scotland!” The ‘visitation’ resulted within less than a year in the abolition by the Scottish Parliament of the jurisdiction of the Pope in Scotland, and the ratification of the Confession of Faith.

No wonder Calvin wrote to Knox on 8th November 1559: “As we wonder at success incredible in so short a time, so also we give great thanks to God.” John Calvin, though himself unseen by Scotland, was in the life of the nation to stay.

The reform in Scotland, and the name of Calvin, had such a far-reaching impact that the national church was often referred to in Calvin’s time as the “Calvinistic Church Of Scotland”. Charles Bell wrote, “For the Protestant church in Scotland, the ‘federal Calvinism’ was to become the criterion of orthodoxy for the next 250 years.” Right up to the present day, Calvinism is often spoken of as denoting the theological viewpoint of a person or persons, and scholars argue over the rights and wrongs of Calvin and Calvinism. 

I wonder what Calvin himself would think of it now. Have his Institutes become institutions? Is his name applied by some people to theologies of one flavour or another without truly knowing what the man himself believed?

The invisible man is still in the nation of Scotland today, that is certainly clear. Whether his reforming spirit is alive and well, is another question altogether. Though having made such a significant impact on the nation of Scotland, perhaps John Calvin would take no great comfort from the state of the Protestant church today, but would now, as then, be calling for reform.