Francois Wendel’s Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought

Francois Wendel’s monumental work on the life and thought of John Calvin presents a thorough overview of the theological views of John Calvin while avoiding the pitfalls of excessive detail.  Wendel’s motive for presenting such a comprehensive overview stemmed from the fact that aside “from the volume of Doumergue…there is no exposition of the Calvinist doctrine as a whole in existence.”1  Needless to say, this statement does not stand true today, over forty years after the writing of this book.  However, the sound scholarship and striving objectivity of the author mark this book as a classic study in the thought of Calvin.

The book is divided into a biographical section and a section on Calvin’s theological doctrine.  This review will focus on the latter.  Specifically, Wendel discussed the Institutes, Calvin’s idea of God as the creator and sovereign ruler of the world, God as the Redeemer in Jesus Christ, the hidden work of the Holy Spirit, and the church, sacraments, baptism, and Lord’s supper.

Summary of the Text

Wendel defended the Institutes as the most proper and logical place to begin a discussion of Calvin’s theological contributions by noting that, unlike Luther and Zwingli, one need not necessarily turn to many different writings to gain a broad understanding of Calvin’s view on basically every theological question.2  In truth, one need look no further than the Institutes to understand the mind of Calvin.  Nonetheless, theInstitutes developed in stages, employed a variety of sources, and shifted in its purpose as well.

Wendel carefully traced the evolution of the Institutes from its original six chapter, Latin, catechistic format of 1536 to its first French translation in 1541, to its final authoritative and comprehensive 1559 Latin and 1560 French translation.3  Furthermore, he showed that Calvin, while relying mainly on the Scripture, undoubtedly drew from such sources as Luther, Zwingli, Melancthon, Bucer, the early Fathers (i.e. – Chrysostom and Augustine), and Erasmus.4  Lastly, he noted that the Institutes grew first out of Calvin’s longing for an “elementary manual” of theology, then grew to be a tool others could use, and finally became Calvin’s contribution to scholars.5

Wendel next considered Calvin’s views on God as the creator and sovereign ruler of the world.  In so doing, he alluded to Calvin’s thoughts on the knowledge of God, the Trinity, the creation, and Providence.  Calvin stressed that God was unapproachable because of the mystery of His nature.6  Indeed, Calvin argued that the Scriptures are the only tool available to man by which he can approach God.  Even then, the person had to be one who had faith.7

In discussing the Trinity, Calvin took no radical departure from, say, the Lutheran reformers.  He did stress that the nature of the Trinity proved the deity of Jesus Christ.8  This is just one example of the all-pervasive Christology which runs through the Institutes.

Wendel then outlined Calvin’s view of the evidence of God’s reality and existence as it is displayed in the creation.  God is evident in the creation. The creation includes both the spiritual and physical world.9

Lastly, he showed from the Institutes that Calvin had a concept of direct causation when dealing with the issue of the sovereignty of God.10  God is an interested Creator who causes all that happens to happen.11  Nonetheless, Calvin understood the problems this posed and made great pains to explain that, although God was sovereign and caused all, He cannot be said to be responsible for the sins of mankind.12

In discussing Calvin’s idea of God as the Redeemer, Wendel considered the depravity of man, the Law, the relationship of the Old and New Testament, and the person of Christ.  Calvin held that man shared in Adam’s sin, was corrupt and depraved, and had lost only the “healthy will” by which he could have acted in a God-like manner.13  Thus, man only could will to sin.

Regardless of man’s depravity, Calvin saw in the Law a tool by which God kept contact with His fallen race.14  The Law was a “mirror of sin” which shows man his wretchedness.15  In so doing, it also pointed to Christ by showing the fallen race that they need a Redeemer.16  This view caused Calvin to see the Old and New Testaments as possessing a commonality and intertwined relationship.17  In this, Calvin departed from the emphasis of some of the other reformers.

Calvin pictured Christ as the great Redeemer.  Only Christ could fulfill the necessary dual role of being man and God in one.18  Once more, Calvin seemed to draw all of his arguments and points to the central figure of the Christian faith:  Jesus Christ.

Wendel then turned to Calvin’s discussion of the Holy Spirit’s role in the grace of Christ, regeneration, justification by faith, predestination, and last things.  The Holy Spirit serves to unite us closer to Christ in an ever-growing bond.19  Furthermore, Calvin saw a dual role for the Holy Spirit in that He brings us to mortify our old flesh and helps us to grow in the newness of our life in Christ.20  The Holy Spirit is therefore instrumental in our walk of obedience.

Justification by faith was to Calvin the cornerstone of all salvation.21  Wendel pointed out that Calvin saw salvation as resting not in the nature of Christ alone but in Christ’s sacrifice and role as one who fulfills the righteous requirements of God.22  Through faith in Christ’s work on the cross man is then prompted to imitate the work of Christ.

Wendel then made the very interesting observation that men such as Alexandre Schweizer were perhaps mistaken in viewing predestination as Calvin’s central teaching.23 He further argued that Calvin never sought to divorce the single issue of predestination from the broader context of salvation through the work and person of Christ.  Though important, it was not meant to be discussed alone.24

Wendel ended his book with Calvin’s views of the Church, sacraments, baptism, and communion.  Calvin felt that, although God certainly was not relegated to any boundaries, the Church was His primary instrument for dispensing aid to the believers.25  Calvin continued the theme of there being no salvation outside of the Church.26

The sacraments were to Calvin external confirmations of the grace of God.27  Though they did not dispense salvation to the believer, they did aid him in reminding him of the promises and work of God.  Wendel pointed out Calvin’s extreme devotion to Augustine on this and other points.28

Baptism has the dual role of providing a means of public confession of faith and also strengthening the faith of the believer.29  It has a dual meaning as well in that it symbolizes the remission of sin as well as our death and resurrection in Christ Jesus.30  Wendel ended his preview of baptism by noting Calvin’s attacks on the Catholic view as well as the attacks that Calvin received on his view of paedobaptism.31

In his views on communion, Calvin sought to draw a common ground between the camps of Zwingli and Luther.  He disagreed on Luther’s idea of the body and blood being actually present.  He also condemned Zwingli’s excessive spiritualizing of the Eucharist.32  To Calvin, the supper had power because it was rooted in the promise of Christ.  Thus, in a sense neither mystically empty or physically present, the Lord’s Supper dispensed the blood and body of Christ to the believer through the promise of Christ.33

An Evaluation of Francois Wendel

Francois Wendel has written an invaluable survey of Calvin’s theological thought.  His major strength lies in his recognition of his own limitations.  Though undoubtedly tempted to revel in the fact that, apart from Doumergue’s book (which was even then out of print) his was the only “exposition of the Calvinist doctrine as a whole in existence,” he nonetheless assures the reader, with sincere humility, that he was not seeking “to adduce any sensational novelties of unprecedented interpretations.”34  He further reiterated this modest approach to the single goal of presenting an overview through the text of the book.

For instance, when dealing with God as the creator and ruler, Wendel noted again that he refused to be bogged down in detailed controversies which would avert him from his task.  He than noted that he would “rely upon the words of the author of the Institutes rather than those of his commentators, however perspicacious and ingenious they have been.”35  In so stating, Wendel not only stayed true to his promised intention of a broader overview, but also insured his attempts at objectivity.

It is difficult to name the faults of Wendel’s work.  He wrote his book out of a perceived need for it.  He was not attempting to analyze Calvin’s theology as much as to present it.  Thus, his own opinions, while certainly unavoidable at times, were always in the background of the text itself.  With recitation of passages from theInstitutes and a presentation of the main arguments for and against many of Calvin’s more controversial views, Wendel more than accomplished his goal and, at the same time, gave the world an invaluable study on the life and thought of Calvin.


1Francois Wendel, Calvin:  The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), 10.

2Ibid., 111.

3Ibid., 112-113;116-118.

4Ibid., 122-123;130.

5Ibid., 146-147;149.

6Ibid., 152.

7Ibid., 153.

8Ibid., 169.

9Ibid., 170;172.

10Ibid., 180.

11Ibid., 177.

12Ibid., 183.

13Ibid., 189.

14Ibid., 196.

15Ibid., 198.

16Ibid., 197.

17Ibid., 214.

18Ibid., 218.

19Ibid., 235;239.

20Ibid., 242.

21Ibid., 256.

22Francois Wendel, Calvin:  The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), 260.

23Ibid., 263.

24Ibid., 269.

25Ibid., 292-293.

26Ibid., 294.

27Ibid., 312.

28Ibid., 313.

29Ibid., 318.

30Ibid., 319-329.

31Ibid., 321;328.

32Ibid., 334.

33Ibid., 338.

34Ibid., 10.

35Ibid., 150.

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