Calvin’s Luther: Unity and Continuity in Protestantism



John Calvin: More Lutheran or Zwinglian?

Everybody knows that Calvin was closer to Zurich than to Wittenberg. What this essay presupposes is: Maybe he wasn’t? In fact, Calvin was neither Zwinglian nor Lutheran in the developed sense of those terms, but rather saw himself as one who might mediate between the two sides in their intractable debates, particularly over the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

But what is perhaps most interesting, given contemporary ecclesiastical circumstances, is that Calvin saw himself as unabashedly part of one church—not just invisibly, but visiblywith all magisterial Protestants in Europe, and sought to make that visible unity more concrete through his literary and theological efforts, even if those hopes were in large measure frustrated.

At the same time, although Calvin was neither a Züricher nor a Wittenberger tout court, it is nevertheless true that Martin Luther, a quarter of a century older than Calvin, held a special and preeminent place in Calvin’s mind as a herald of reformation—preeminent, yet, it should be noted, not above criticism. Calvin’s intellectual posture reveals a combination of a son’s devotion—in a 1545 letter to Luther, never delivered, he calls him a “most excellent pastor of the Christian church and my especially revered father”—and mature independence of judgment under the aegis of the Word, thus encapsulating his most important contribution to the Reformed tradition: reverence for the past sublimated by God’s speech.


Calvin’s View of Tradition

Calvin’s relationship to Luther was, in other words, an example of the critical appropriation of tradition. As Calvin himself put it to the German Simon Grynaeus in 1539 in the dedicatory epistle to his commentary on Romans:

But we ever find, that even those who have not been deficient in their zeal for piety, nor in reverence and sobriety in handling the mysteries of God, have by no means agreed among themselves on every point; for God hath never favored his servants with so great a benefit, that they were all endued with a full and perfect knowledge in every thing; and, no doubt, for this end—that he might first keep them humble; and secondly, render them disposed to cultivate brotherly intercourse.

Since then what would otherwise be very desirable cannot be expected in this life, that is, universal consent among us in the interpretation of all parts of Scripture, we must endeavour, that, when we depart from the sentiments of our predecessors, we may not be stimulated by any humour for novelty, nor impelled by any lust for defaming others, nor instigated by hatred, nor tickled by any ambition, but constrained by necessity alone, and by the motive of seeking to do good: and then, when this is done in interpreting Scripture, less liberty will be taken in the principles of religion, in which God would have the minds of his people to be especially unanimous.1

Here, Calvin makes clear that the “universal consent” of Christians is a desideratum, but not one that will be granted in this life—and that disagreement arises despite an equal “zeal for piety” on all sides. Thus the theologian must be prepared to do two things simultaneously: respect his fellows and be open to the possibility that some aspects of their thinking may need correction or modification.


Calvin’s Continuity with Luther’s Reformation

How does Calvin’s view of tradition apply to his view of Luther? Calvin’s reverence for him is clear from several references to him in his 1543 treatise on The Necessity of Reforming the Church.2 He writes there of the time “at the commencement, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and who, by their ministry, founded and reared our churches…”3 Of all the men whom, he says, “God [had] raised up,” Luther—though not the only early reformer of significance (for he adds “and others”)—is the only one who receives the honor of being named.4 Moreover, he was the one who, having lighted “the way of salvation,” “founded and reared our churches.” Calvin saw the churches of Geneva, Strasbourg, and so on as part of the same visible church as the one in Wittenberg.

Again, later in the treatise Calvin speaks of “the time when divine truth lay buried under this vast and dense cloud of darkness.” He continues:

…then Luther arose, and after him others, who with united counsels sought out means and methods by which religion might be purged from all these defilements, the doctrine of godliness restored to its integrity, and the Church raised out of its calamitous into somewhat of a tolerable condition. The same course we are still pursuing in the present day.5

In the ellipse, Calvin lists particular areas in which Luther (“and after him others”) had led the way: worship, the doctrine of redemption, the administration of the sacraments, church government, pastoral care. Calvin sees himself as a follower of Luther, not on a similar path but on the same path: “We in the present day are still pursuing the same course.”6

Again, in a letter of February 1540 to Farel, he expresses his general preference for Luther over Zwingli, while not wishing to denigrate the latter:

Good men burn with anger if anyone dares to prefer Luther to Zwinglias if the gospel should be lost to us if we deviate from Zwingli in anything! But no injury is done to Zwingli in this. For if they are compared with each other, you know by how great a distance Luther excels.7

Nevertheless, such respect did not prevent Calvin from offering correction where he thought Luther needed it. Thus in The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin asserts that Luther could have been more thorough in the correction of abuses:

When Luther at first appeared, he merely touched, with a gentle hand, a few abuses of the grossest description, now grown intolerable. And he did it with a modesty which intimated that he had more desire to see them corrected, than determination to correct them himself.8

He believed as well that Luther erred in his handling of the controversy over the Lord’s Supper (though he thought that of Oecolampadius and Zwingli, too). In his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (1540),9 we learn that, in Calvin’s view, both sides in the debate made some legitimate points and could have spoken more clearly on others: Luther was right to emphasize the presence of Christ in the Supper, but “added similitudes which were somewhat harsh and rude.” However, Calvin quickly adds, “he was compelled to do so, as he could not otherwise explain his meaning.” It is difficult to discuss the Supper “without using some impropriety of speech.”

Likewise, Oecolampadius and Zwingli were correct to react against the dominant Roman view of “carnal presence” in the Supper and the implication of “execrable idolatry” in that view, since Christ was “worshiped as enclosed in bread.” But they became “engrossed” on this point, and thus “forgot to show what presence of Jesus Christ ought to be believed in the Supper, and what communion of his body and blood is there received.”10

The result, says Calvin, was that both parties became more concerned with defending their own positions than seeking “good ground” on which they might arrive at the truth together. Instead, “Luther failed on his side, and Zwingli and Oecolompadius on theirs.” Luther reacted with his “accustomed vehemence”; the other side showed “too great anxiety” to maintain that the bread and wine are signs, and forgot to add that “the reality is conjoined with them.”11


Unity without Unanimity

Calvin, then, sought the middle path that made for peace. We should not misunderstand his position, however: he did not want indifferentist compromise for its own sake. Rather, he wished to preserve the truth that he believed was represented on each side of the debate. His was a principled position, for he believed that a potentially mediating formulation was required by Scripture.

In other words, Calvin sought unity under the authority of the Word, because to do anything less was to disobey God. The sort of unity Calvin sought requires a recognition that there will not be absolute unanimity on all points among all Christians, given our weaknesses, our finitude, and the differences of our gifts—and yet it is a unity for all that, a unity that can be preserved by agreement on fundamentals and fraternal charity. I shall let his closing words in the treatise stand as the closing words of this essay, for, though his desire for such a pan-Protestant concord was frustrated in his own lifetime, it nevertheless remains a laudable goal:

Meanwhile it should satisfy us, that there is fraternity and communion among the churches, and that all agree in so far as is necessary for meeting together, according to the commandment of God. We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. How that is done some may deduce better, and explain more clearly than others. Be this as it may, on the one hand, in order to exclude all carnal fancies, we must raise our hearts upwards to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus is so debased as to be enclosed under some corruptible elements; and, on the other hand, not to impair the efficacy of this holy ordinance, we must hold that it is made effectual by the secret and miraculous power of God, and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation.12

This article appeared in Volume II, Issue 5 of Ad Fontes: The Davenant Institute’s Journal of Protestant Resourcement. Click here to receive free issues in your inbox, or to purchase a print subscription.


1 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of the Paul the Apostle to the Romans, ed. and trans. by John Owen. URL:

2 John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Henry Beveridge. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844.

3 Calvin, Necessity, 12.

4 Bruce Gordon notes that this is customary of Calvin: Luther was not alone in urging the church toward Reformation, yet he receives a special place of honor. See “Martin Luther and John Calvin,” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Online publication date: March, 2017. URL:

5 Calvin, Necessity, 40-1.

6 Calvin, Necessity, 41 (emphasis mine).

7 The letter can be found in Eduard Cunitz and Eduard Reuss, eds., Corpus Reformatorum 39 (Brunsvigae: Schwetschke, 1873), 24. The translation is my own.

8 Calvin, Necessity, 97.

9 In John Calvin, Tracts, vol. 2, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849), 163-98.

10 All quotations in the preceding two paragraphs from Calvin, Short Treatise, 195.

11 All quotations in the preceding paragraph from Calvin, Short Treatise, 196-7.

12 John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper,” in Tracts, Vol. 1, p. 197.

E. J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of classical culture and the Christian faith.