The world in the times of Luther and Calvin was crowded with just the sorts of energies that enabled the Reformation to take root and grow. There was a deep spiritual and intellectual paranoia which manifested in the late medieval theology. How did Luther and Calvin challenge the established notions of the medieval times?
During the Reformation, thinkers took up with new seriousness the possibility that there was a genuine positivity to Satan’s evil power that was in some ways at odds with traditional Augustinian and Scholastic understandings of evil out of which these thinkers had sprung. This was, in important ways, because of the context out of which the Reformation itself came.
Reformation emerged in a world where there was an increasing, slowly-growing concern about the stability of the created order. There had been massive social change, the beginnings of an industrial revolution were happening, and the economy was booming. All of this happened in the wake of probably the greatest catastrophe that the West has known in the last 4,000 years: the Black Death.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Black Death
In 1348, the plague that became known as the Black Death—which actually was the bubonic plague—swept across Western Europe and killed an enormous swath of the population. It was an extremely traumatic event and after it had passed, there were enormous social changes.
The shifting of wealth in Europe away from the old model of serfdom actually generated a peasant class that had some property of its own. At the same time, Europeans, having recovered from the Black Death, began to send out their tendrils of exploration and trade on ships that travelled around the world. The discovery and exploration of the Americas was happening at exactly the same time that the Reformation was taking place.
Furthermore, the capacity of humans to know what is going on in this changing social order—intellectually developing ideas of new ways of understanding and organizing society and new ways of understanding and organizing the cosmos—were growing as well. There was a sense that knowledge of the world and of our past was outstripping the capacity of medieval scholastic modes of knowing to accommodate it.
Luther and Calvin
The Late Middle Ages were thus, a deeply fraught time, full of dynamism, change and reaction, plague wars, rumors of wars, and powerful currents of religious energy. Against this backdrop emerged Martin Luther, the most famous reformer of this period, followed by Jean Calvin.
Martin Luther (1483–1546), started off his career as a monk and a professor. He ended as a preacher, a hymnodist (writer of hymns), and a husband and father of six.
Calvin (1509-1564), on the other hand, was about 25 years or so younger than Luther and went on to become the second great Reformer after him.
Calvin was trained in a very different world. Being trained as a French humanist and a lawyer, his background and his expectations about what happens in the world were very different from a medieval scholastic monk’s, which is what Luther was. Yet, their ideologies significantly contributed in challenging the late medieval notions of evil.
Learn more about human rivalry with God.
Evil and the Devil
Martin Luther was a trained medieval scholastic, someone who was deeply versed in the thought of Aquinas and Anselm among others. He understood evil in a particular way. He saw the Devil as, in some significant ways, like a theologian. Calvin, on the other hand, was not a classically trained theologian or philosopher, he was not a scholastic. In fact, he was a trained Renaissance humanist lawyer.
Where Luther sees and in some ways plays up this metaphor of the Devil as a kind of theologian, Calvin sees the challenge of evil to lie in the endlessly inventive character of the human imagination; the interiority of the human.
While often Calvin’s examples, his theological stories, included travelers on the roads, Luther’s, in contrast, often took place with people sitting down at tables drinking beer (Luther loved beer), or desks, writing (Luther loved nothing more than writing with beer beside him), or in bed (Luther did love sleeping). Calvin, on the other hand, always talks about Christians as being on the road. He made prominent the idea that everyone is a pilgrim in this world.
Satan and the Human Mind
Both Luther and Calvin greatly differed on their portrayal of Satan. For Calvin, unlike Luther there was very little active place for Satan. In his thinking, there was no need for a powerful Satan. The human mind alone does more than enough good duty for Calvin in making evil happen in the world.
Calvin’s renaissance humanism, as it were, allows for the idea that the human has a great deal of power; but, of course, what that does is turn the humans’ capacity for power directly to evil.
Interestingly, for Calvin, the metaphoric seduction into evil is not a big one as it was for Luther; instead, what we get is a metaphor of drowning. Evil, sin, death, indirectly the Devil; these things always threaten to drown us, making us fall back into our own ego.
Learn more about looking for hope in the face of evil.
God and Evil
To solve the problem of evil, then, it’s arguable that in certain ways both Luther and Calvin use the emphasis on the power and sovereignty of God in ways that are revolutionary. They both incorporated evil more immediately into God than anyone else. In fact, God’s providential mastery over creation was so important to Luther that he ascribed the responsibility for even evil to God.
Luther and Calvin both understood themselves to be challenging traditional medieval notions of good and evil. Essentially for both Luther and Calvin, the struggle with evil takes place in the human soul, not in the cosmos (as in the Book of Revelation) or in human history (as with Saint Augustine), but rather in the lonely and individual.
Common Questions about the Reformation
The discovery and exploration of the Americas was happening at exactly the same time that the Reformation was taking place.
Calvin uses the metaphor of drowning to explain the seduction into evil. Evil, sin, death, indirectly the Devil; these things always threaten to drown us, making us fall back into our own ego.
To solve the problem of evil, both Luther and Calvin use the emphasis on the power and sovereignty of God.