Calvinism: Best Drunk Shaken

There are few things as refreshing as a large glass of pure orange juice. However if you forget to obey the advice on the carton - best drunk shaken - the experience is rather less than it could be. Without a vigorous shake, one pours only a disappointing glass of orange-tinted water.

The theology of John Calvin is similar. Consumed without the requisite shaking, it can be a watery, dilute, shadow of its full reality- an image of that which should be fresh and vital. The full flavor of Calvin's theology is only tasted when it is shaken and squeezed out through the experiences of life.

I have been reading the writings of John Calvin now for eleven years. Recent experiences in my life have reminded me that one of the most satisfying aspects of Calvin's views is that they taste best when shaken by life's sadnesses.

My wife and I had been looking forward to the birth of our first baby. Before either of us had met we independently had the desire to call a baby 'Calvin'. Though not a common name in the U.K., it was our favorite. Tragically, late in the pregnancy Calvin died for unknown reasons. Anybody who has endured such a sadness will be aware that a few days are required in hospital, as the baby needs to be born. It is a difficult thing to be in a baby delivery ward, awaiting the birth of a baby who has already gone to heaven.

During those days, I had my copy of Calvin's Institutes with me in hospital. However, in breach of my normal routine, I could not bring myself to read the book. I knew the text was in my bag, but I did not feel inclined to pick it up and read.

Not being able to read in times of suffering is entirely natural. However the reading done in the better days is essential preparation for darker ones. Suffering and sadness is a large part of our lot in this fleeting life. It is how the theology of Calvin is shaken, so that it can be truly refreshing to those who drink it. I would like to suggest that Calvin was cognizant of this need for theology to be shaken by life's sadnesses.

Calvin never intended his teaching to be merely a framework or intellectual system. He rejected Aquinas' view that theology is 'speculative rather than practical.' (Summa 1.Q1.Art.4) Instead Calvin insisted that that his teaching should inculcate 'piety.' From the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin stated on the title page that his book embraced 'almost the whole sum of piety.' The original 1536 edition concluded with a paragraph in which Calvin encouraged readers to 'suffer anything rather than turn aside from piety.'

What Calvin meant by piety, one of his favorite words, was made more clear in the 1559 edition of the Institutes. Sadly the most popular translation, by Battles, obscures many of the references to piety, by often rendering the word 'godliness.' (See footnote 1 in Battles' translation, p.39-40) This policy means that the reader may easily miss the significance of the word. In both his preface to the reader, and dedication to King Francis, Calvin states that his book intends to inculcate piety - in both places rendered 'godliness' by Battles.

The title and purpose statements highlighting piety, prepare the reader for Calvin's insistence that God, 'is not known where there is no religion or piety.' Inst.1.2.1. Virgil is criticized because his speculations do not inculcate piety. Inst.1.5.5. Calvin proceeds to define piety: 'For this sense of God's virtue is a suitable teacher of piety, out of which religion is born. I call piety reverence joined with the love of God, which a knowledge of his kindnesses brings about.' Inst.1.2.1.

Calvin is teaching that a personal, existential appreciation of God's kindnesses is essential to real Christianity. Indeed, bringing about such an experience is a key goal of his theological endeavors. There must be a sense of God's kindness which goes far beyond the speculation so highly prized by Aquinas. Piety necessitates a 'heart certainty' (certitudinem cordibus) Inst.1.7.4.

A heart certainty which is to be sensed and experienced, must be forged in the travails of life. By definition that which is sensed cannot be attained by mere speculation. Calvin placed great emphasis upon the fact that knowledge of God must 'not merely flit in the brain, but take root in the heart.' There it must be 'felt, sensed and adored.' It must 'affect' and induce 'wonder.' Inst.1.5.9. With these and other terms Calvin urges readers to appropriate his theology.

The sufferings of life shake Christians; the result is that they experience, by faith in the Spirit's power, God's goodness in the midst of sadness. Such piety is not, as many Christians imagine, merely an extra, optional comfort to some who suffer. Rather, it is essential for all real Christians. Calvin's theology must be shaken by life's trials before it can be tasted for the revitalising drink that it is.

It impossible to read Calvin's work and not see that he spoke from experience. Calvin himself had a sense of God's goodness to him, even in trials and struggles. Exiled, bereaved, persecuted, reviled and unhealthy - Calvin's life was one in which he still felt God goodness toward him, personally.

It is often said that Calvin did not retract a theological view: what he wrote when young was what he maintained in old age. Compared to Augustine this is true - Calvin never needed to write a retraction of an earlier view. However Calvin did mature and grow in his personal sense of the goodness and knowledge of God. Read the opening sections of his 1536 Institutes. The famous first sentence is present in a recognisable form: 'Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts, knowledge of God and ourselves.' There may be some significance in his later highlighting of sapientiae (wisdom/knowledge) alongside the earlier cognitione (knowledge). Calvin knew his opening sentence was programmatic - every word would have been carefully selected. However, both words were used in other places, seemingly interchangeably. In any case, Calvin's development is seen not in the details of individual words, but his argument. For there is a theoretical certitude in his original Institutes which is striking when set alongside the mature 1559 edition.

So in the 1536 edition, Calvin, after his opening sentence proceeds to assert 'Surely we ought to learn the following things about God...' He then lists four lessons all should learn. In the next section, about the knowledge of man, he follows a similar approach of listing the main lessons. All he says is true and important - but the tone is in stark contrast to later editions of his work. After Calvin and Farel were forced out of Geneva in April 1538, Calvin wrote another edition of his Institutes. This version, published in 1539, added the words: 'Which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.' A note of uncertainty, humility and awe begins to permeate what had previously been merely a clear explanation.

The humility Calvin seemed to feel before the awesome reality of God, climaxed in his 1559 edition, which may be seen to be markedly different in tone to the edition published in 1536. Calvin probes and explores the obscure and intangible links between knowledge of God and humanity. Gone are the three or four points that must be learnt; added is the section on piety quoted above. The final 1559 edition carried readers into an experience of the knowledge of God, precisely because Calvin had himself matured and entered more fully into a personal sense of God's goodness in suffering. Doubtless there were people that Calvin ministered to in his time of exile from Geneva; they and us benefit from the embarrassment caused to Calvin by his experience of suffering. Calvin's sufferings were a shaking which caused his knowledge to be more personally appropriated. His struggles inculcated piety.

And so I think John Calvin would understand why I did not feel like reading his book while in hospital. Times of suffering are there for experiencing and appropriating that which can be known no other way. Calvin had himself gone through the process of acquiring knowledge about God, only to have it deepened and 'rooted in his heart' Inst.1.5.9., by times of suffering. Such is the nature of that knowledge which is not speculation, but piety. I would urge you to read John Calvin's writings carefully and frequently. The traces of Calvin's piety are there to see. However as you read in the good times, perhaps remember- Calvinism is best drunk shaken.

Peter Sanlon is a trainee minister in the Church of England and a PhD student at Cambridge University.


Peter Sanlon, "Calvinism: Best Drunk Shaken", Reformation 21 (July 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at

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