Those who cherish the Reformation have often sought out what, if any, influence Martin Luther may have had on John Calvin. Did the two Reformers ever meet in person? Was Calvin influenced by the writings or ministry of "the Initiator" of the Reformation? Did he ever rely on the writing of Luther in the development of his own theology? These and many other related questions surface when we begin, with admiration, to give ourselves to a study of these two massively important figures.
Much remains uncertain about which of Luther's works Calvin read and which of Calvin's works Luther read. It is, however, clear that Calvin had knowledge of the controversies that surrounded Luther's theological writings and debates and that Luther read Calvin on certain theological issues. For instance, Calvin labored to wed Zwingli's spiritual view of the Supper to Luther's insistence on real presence. In John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, Herman Selderhuis explains:
"Calvin was left with the pieces of the dispute and tried to resolve things by combining the elements that both Luther and Zwingli insisted on. He thus arrived at a belief in the real presence of Christ through his Spirit, a solution through which some kind of unity was established both with the Wittenbergers and with the Swiss. Unfortunately a three-party consensus was never achieved."1
Luther was aware that Calvin was seeking to reconcile his view with that of Zwingli, as Selderhuis notes:
"Melanchthon reported that when someone tried to incite Luther to attack Calvin's teaching on the Lord's Supper...Luther actually praised Calvin after reading the relevant passages."2
The bulk of Calvin's references to Luther have to do, not with theological matters but with personal assessment (which is unsurprising given the strong personalities possessed by the two Reformers). Calvin was critical as well as celebratory in his opinions about the Wittenberg Reformer. In a letter to Bullinger, Calvin deemed Luther "immoderately ardent and violent in character;" and, in a letter to Melanchthon, he criticized Luther for getting too worked up and for being too quick tempered. However, Calvin praised Luther to Bullinger when he wrote:
"I understand that Luther pours invectives on you and on us all. I dare scarcely request you to keep silence. But I supplicate you at least to remember what a great man Luther is, by what admirable qualities he is distinguished, what courage, what constancy, what ability, what power of doctrine there is in him to beat down the kingdom of anti-christ, and to propagate the knowledge of salvation. I say it, and have often repeated it, even though he called me a devil, I would not cease to honor him, and to acknowledge him as an illustrious servant of God."3
Despite having to endure personal attacks from Luther, Calvin praised Luther for being a "most learned father in the Lord." Merle d'Aubigne wrote: "Calvin did not even fear to say, that in his eyes Luther was far above Zwingli;--Nam si inter se comparantur, scis ipse quanto intervallo Lutherus excedat."4
On one occasion, Luther sent word to Calvin from Martin Bucer. Selderhuis notes that "Calvin was thrilled when Bucer brought him personal greetings from Luther, along with a report that their German colleague had been pleased with Calvin's writings."5 Calvin received word that Luther was finally appreciative of something that he had written. Not unaffected by this commendation, Calvin wrote, "If we are not appeased by such moderation, we must be completely of stone. I am really appeased. I wrote something that satisfied him."6
Despite his criticisms of Luther, Calvin acknowledged the early influence that Luther has on him regarding the other Reformers. Later in life, Calvin reflected on the fact that "'when he began to liberate himself from the darkness of the papacy,' he was so influenced by Luther that he distanced himself from the writings of Oecolampadius and Zwingli."7
One of the most beautiful statements about Calvin's view of Luther is in a letter that he wrote to Luther toward the end of Luther's life (a letter that Luther sadly never received). In it, the Genevan Reformer suggested he and Luther "would soon be together in heaven where they could continue their discussion in quiet."8 What more beautiful way to pursue the peace that Christ longs for His followers to experience! Despite what appears to have been a tumultuous relationship, there was, on the part of Calvin, a deep desire for unity and peace with the great "Initiator" of the Reformation. While they may not have had the sweetest of fellowship on earth, of this much we may be sure: Calvin and Luther are engaging themselves in perfectly loving discussions in heaven before the presence of the Christ whom they sought to glorify here on earth.
1. Herman Selderhuis John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2009) p. 94
2. Ibid., p. 105
3. Emmanuel Stickelberger, Calvin, a Life
. Translated by Georg
Gelzer (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1954), 70.
5. John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, p. 33
6. Ibid., p. 106
7. Ibid., p. 105
8. Ibid. p. 259