What Would Calvin Say?

Recently a prominent evangelical (Bible church) pastor suggested that were Calvin alive today he would be premillennial and that true “Calvinists” should be (pre-trib, dispensational) premillennialists. Those of us who actually read Calvin and historic Calvinist theology and who are confessing ministers and members of Calvinist churches were not a little surprised about this breakthrough in Calvin studies coming from the San Fernando Valley. Now it’s true that some prominent Reformed theologians became historic premillennialists after Calvin and it is true that American Presbyterianism has been traditionally tolerant of a variety of eschatological positions, but it is also true that most Reformed folk (whether British, American, or European) have not been premillennal. So far as I know premillennialism (of whatever sort) has been the minority report. So far as I know I’ve never known anyone claim that were Calvin alive today he would be a dispensational premillennialist. Of course all such questions are anachronistic.

Not to muddle things unduly with facts but there is at least some prima facie evidence in Institutes 3.25.5 that Calvin took a dim view of “chiliasm,” i.e., the belief in a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth. He said,

This fiction is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation. Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which it is known that they extracted a gloss for their error, (Revelation 20:4) since the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the Church, but only to the various troubles which await the Church militant in this world.

There are other places in Calvin where one finds similar sorts of arguments. In his lecture on 1 Thess 4:17 he said,

“Now, to assign to Christ a thousand years, so that he would afterwards cease to reign, were too horrible to be made mention of.”

To be sure, there it is the limiting of eternal life to 1000 years that troubled Calvin, but the very idea of a literal 1000 year reign of Christ and believers on the earth was not appealing to Calvin. That much is evident from his comments on Acts 1:6-8 in which he said:

Whereupon it followeth that he [Christ] doth reign spiritually, and not after any worldly manner. And that which the apostles had conceived of the carnal kingdom proceeded from the common error of their nation; neither was it marvel if they were deceived herein. For when we measure the same with our understanding, what else can we conceive but that which is gross and terrestrial? Hereupon it cometh, that, like brute beasts, we only desire that which is commodious for our flesh, and therefore we rather catch that which is present. Wherefore, we see that those which held opinion, that Christ should reign as a king in this world a thousand years fell into the like folly. Hereupon, also, they applied all such prophecies as did describe the kingdom of Christ figuratively by the similitude of earthly kingdoms unto the commodity of their flesh; whereas, notwithstanding, it was God’s purpose to lift up their minds higher. As for us, let us learn to apply our minds to hear the gospel preached, lest we be entangled in like errors, which prepareth a place in our hearts for the kingdom of Christ.

We can have a reasonable idea of what Calvin thought about the idea of a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth. There is even more evidence that Calvin agreed with with Heinrich Bullinger’s comments in the Second Helvetic Confession (11.10; 1566):

We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in 2 Thess., ch. 2, and 2 Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.

Calvin was an amillennialist.

Perhaps more to the point, these comments raise the question as to who is Reformed? There seems to be a widespread move to reduce the word “Reformed” to belief in predestination. No one doubts that belief in predestination is necessary to being Reformed but is it a sufficient condition of being Reformed? Judged by the Reformed confessions, the answer must be no. We confess a good deal more about the faith than simply the doctrine of divine sovereignty.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


This essay was originally published in 2008. Rev. 2022

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One comment

  1. Speaking of biggies of the past, Google “Famous Rapture Watchers.” Also “Pretrib Rapture Desperados.” If you want to go whole-hog, read “The Rapture Plot” (Armageddon Books) but be sure to take some tranquilizers first! Marge

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