John Calvin & The Church of England

John Calvin and the Church of England

By Chuck Collins

His writings and ideas so significantly influenced the Church of England that Anglicanism can be fairly described as not only generally Protestant, but “reformed.” John Calvin died on May 27, 1564, in Geneve, Switzerland at the age of 54. 

Although he never visited England, Calvin corresponded with many of the English reformers, and warmly welcomed English Protestants (called “evangelicals”) to Geneva who were exiled there during the reign of Mary Tudor. Calvin’s mentor and close friend, Martin Bucer, went to England in 1548 where he died a year later, but in that short period he had a very large impact on Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer. Bucer wrote a critique of the first 1549 Book of Common Prayer (Censura) that powerfully influenced Cranmer’s “immortal bequest”: the 1552 Prayer Book (that was recognised again in 1662 as our Anglican standard of worship). Bucer argued for simple ceremony and clerical vestments that convey, and don’t detract from, the gospel of Christ. 

There is much scholarly debate as to how much the 16th century English version of Reformation resembles Luther or Calvin – or how the Protestantism in the Church of England was at first clearly Lutheran until it took a turn towards Calvin when Henry VIII had his public run-in with Martin Luther. But everyone recognises that Calvin and Cranmer were second-generation reformers to Martin Luther, building on Luther’s conviction of justification by faith alone. Anglicans especially borrow from Calvin’s understanding of the sacraments, seeing that the grace offered in the rites becomes effective in the hearts of those who receive him by faith (not corporeal presence located in the bread and wine, as Catholics and Lutherans teach).  

Later theologians who opposed individual, absolute predestination (see Article 17, Thirty-nine Articles of Religion) in favour of free-will anti-Calvinism failed by lumping Calvinists and Puritans together for the sake of glossing over our Calvinist history. In fact, there were conforming Calvinists and conforming moderate Puritans in the Church of England who all ceded to the episcopal (bishops) form of church government. This was evident in Queen Elizabeth’s choice of three Archbishops of Canterbury (Matthew Parker 1559-1575, Edmund Grindal 1519-1583, and John Whitgift 1583-1604) who were all convinced Calvinists and against the nonconforming Puritans whom Patrick Collinson called “the hotter sort of Protestants.” 

Anglican’s original narrative that is front-and-centre in our historic formularies is Calvinist, and this remained firm until the reign of Charles 1 (1625-49) when the anti-Calvinists and high churchmen grabbed control (then Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud), which led to the civil war and the overthrow of the high church party. Most people in those days recognised that the rise of Arminianism and the resulting high church party represented a departure from the doctrinal teachings of historic Anglicanism that were identified with the teachings of John Calvin. If the Anglican Communion today has a chance to survive the attack of all kinds of theological aberrations, we will again acknowledge our indebtedness to Reformation Anglicanism, and live in the truth and light of our historic formularies.

The Rev’d Canon Chuck Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism in the USA.