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Read John Calvin’s Mail to Discover His Theological Development

Reading the mail of significant figures is a long-treasured practice, no matter the distance in time or difference in culture. Some of the most beloved letters among Reformed thinkers include those of John Calvin (1509–64). Calvin’s correspondence reveals his inward meditations; he utilized letter writing as a form of self-examination, in the context of both his friendships and his congregational affiliations.

One particular season of Calvin’s correspondence (the so-called Strasbourg years of 1538–41) allows us to examine Calvin’s theological development.

Calvin didn’t practice letter writing absent from theological implications. These implications can be identified in three particular contours—Calvin’s views on friendship, the church, and the unifying power of faith.


While Calvin believed union with God brings an experiential knowledge of God, the nature of this union isn’t situated in some kind of personal monastery, isolated from others.

A perseverance rooted in regular correspondence was one way in which despondency, accrued through isolation, was blunted—particularly for him while ministering. The isolation felt during the Strasbourg years accentuated this facet of friendship for Calvin. He realized on a deeper level that to experience union with God is to be in union with God’s people.

Developing a deeper bond in Christian friendship and mutual union with God, therefore, is how one develops a greater sense of satisfaction in the circumstances of life. This stands in stark contrast to the worldly friendships devoid of the divine component, as Calvin expressed when he said that Christ “will no more allow his believers to be estranged from him than that his members be rent and torn asunder.”


As a functional shepherd for the flock of Geneva (though in Strasbourg, and while William Farel was in Neuchâtel), Calvin contended he and Farel may, as a conduit of blessing, bind the people of Geneva to the pastors who were serving over their churches—with sincere and friendly affection.

To experience union with God is to be in union with God’s people.

The fact that Calvin issued advice to the Geneva church in absentia reveals his mentality toward the church and the intimacy he felt for them, as well as the spiritual obligations of stewardship he felt for those churches. He was one who could instruct and appeal to them as an overseer from a distance.

He wrote with what may be considered brazen spiritual authority, “I require you, in the first place, by our Lord Jesus Christ, that so far as may be, you will first of all weigh the matter in your mind, and without any hastiness of judgment. For since we all of us owe this on the score of charity to one another, that we may not rashly pass sentence against others.”

His letter doesn’t seem a mere suggestion but a bona fide spiritual charge, uneclipsed by distance or material means. He understood a bond of fellowship (and even a degree of authority) to remain intact, which is communicated via letter. The church was local but also global. The way such a connection is possible is through his conception of the role of faith.

Bond of Faith

Calvin believed faith is gifted by the “action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer” yet is experienced and stirred in maturity through the life of the church and through the providential hand of God. Fellowship shouldn’t cease, even if those involved are miles apart, but ought rather be “gladly and wholeheartedly share[d] with one another, as far as occasion requires.”

Again, although Calvin was apart from his Genevan congregation and his close friends, he desired this particular kind of fellowship with them—even if it had to be mediated through pen and paper, and not merely on “occasion” but as much as “special affection” required.

Calvin expressed a certain expectation concerning the church with regard to this faith—namely, that through the favored communion gifted in Christ to the church members, even that which is invisible would be clearly demonstrated, as he writes: “It is signified this way, so that even though it is invisible to us, we recognize it no less, than if we could see it evidently.” He called on the churches to express their union one with another, including with him and those at a distance, as evidence of their union with Christ.

Even though Calvin was physically separated from those to whom he wrote, including those in Geneva, he held to a theological principle that “the union into which Jesus Christ draws his faithful people is of such a significance that they share together in all good things.”

In their reciprocal letters, both Calvin and fellow reformer Martin Bucer articulated a theological understanding of the church’s communion to be far more societal than what’s often understood by personal faith: the community embraces Christ together. Although localized expressions will be observed (such as in the Lord’s Supper), such practices still in some sense remain seated in the universal community as a whole.

Thus the foundation for Calvin and Bucer in writing to one another and relishing in the other’s insights (as well as the aforementioned cases of Farel and the Genevan congregation) is based on this communal edification—even while Calvin pastored his small French refugee church. These letters verify the notion of a communion of the saints that exists beyond the walls of the local church, with sincere regard for piety within the individual.

Sanctification by Letter Writing

Letter writing as a discipline helped Calvin consider his words and his calling, preserved his connection to the ministry in Geneva, and kept his friendships flourishing both in Strasbourg and beyond.

These letters verify the notion of a communion of the saints that exists beyond the walls of the local church.

While he remained in Strasbourg for a short time, it was because of his correspondences that his return to Geneva was smooth and his partnership with the Reformed ministries throughout Europe had yielded fruit—simply through the means of sincere words on paper. He noted to Bucer that he’s “not unmindful” of the benefit and honor he received.

The Strasbourg letters were a means of perseverance amid the turmoil in his personal ministry and a means for the development of a rich ecclesiology—in Calvin personally and in the future community of Geneva. Perhaps Calvin wasn’t so far from the apostle Paul in the framework of his letter writing, even if Calvin wasn’t writing for the canon of Scripture.

Today, those who study the letters of Calvin and appropriate his thought for theological advantage aren’t “stealing” from the venerable scholar by procuring his mail. Rather, they’re continuing this communal bond he saw through his correspondence united in faith, which remains true even for those temporally distant from Calvin.


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