If the modern world was becoming more secular, this was the very opposite of Calvin’s piety. He was not a progressive anticipating the Enlightenment’s autonomous individualism, but an evangelical humanist crying, “Back to the sources!”
The faith he encouraged was deeper and wider than the popular piety of his day. Like any pious Augustinian, Calvin viewed every aspect of life coram Deo, before the face of God. Calvin would not have even comprehended the idea that is usually assumed in the word spirituality as we use it today: namely, as a private island of subjective and imaginative irrationality surrounded by a sea of objective and public reason.
“Piety” (pietas), not spirituality, is the Reformer’s all-encompassing term for Christian faith and practice. Even this term has lost its value in modernity. We’ve learned to draw a line between doctrine and life, with “piety” (like “spirituality”) falling on the “life” side of the ledger. The ancient church saw it differently: eusebia encompassed doctrine and life. It could be translated “piety” or “orthodoxy” without any confusion.
Calvin assumed this overarching horizon. Doctrine, worship, and life are all of one piece. The doctrine is always practically oriented, and practice is always to be grounded in true doctrine. In fact, “justification by faith . . . is the sum of all piety.”  The root of piety is faith in the gospel. Love is the yardstick for all duties, and God’s moral law in both Testaments stipulates the character of this love on the ground, comprehending “piety toward God” and “charity toward men.”  Calvin even defined his Institutes as “a sum of Christian piety.”
If historical distance makes us work harder to understand Calvin’s view of piety, it also forces us to appreciate the extent to which the Re- former himself would have been embarrassed to be singled out for a distinctive view of the Christian life. Indeed, the label Calvinist was coined in 1552 by Lutheran polemicist Joachim Westphal, and Calvin did not treat it as a term of endearment. Calvin stood on the shoulders of giants from the past and fellow Reformers who helped shape many of his own views that are erroneously attributed to his unique genius.
In short, Calvin has been given too much blame by critics and too much credit by fans. His real genius is to be found in his remarkable ability to synthesize the best thought of the whole Christian tradition and sift it with rigorous exegetical skill and evangelical instincts. His rhetorical rule was “brevity and simplicity,” and this, combined with a heart enflamed by truth, draws us back to his wells for refreshment in many times and places—especially when we seem to have lost our way.
This post is adapted from Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever by Michael Horton. Used with permission from Crossway.
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.15.7.
- Institutes, 3.3.1; 3.3.16.
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