©2001 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of John Calvin

Analyst: Eva Morrison


edited 4/30/14

1. Theory of Value

Knowledge for Calvin is divided into two parts: knowledge of God and knowledge of self.(1) The knowledge of God is gained form the New and Old Testament, and the burden of education is placed on the church.(2) The goal of this Christian education is to instruct people to live a life in keeping with Christian virtue and value. In the arena of self-knowledge, Calvin displayed a keen interest in the humanist learning of his time. He was the student of the well-known humanist Cortier, and owed much of his humanistic learning and method of teaching to Cortier.(3) In fact, the humanities were more important to Calvin than the study of law or medicine.(4) Calvin greatly differed from other reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli, by emphasizing the liberal arts as a means for man to develop his humanity.(5)

2. Theory of Knowledge

The foundation of knowledge for Calvin comes from God. In fact, Calvin believed knowledge about self could only be realized by “contemplating the face of God”(6). Because God is foundational to knowledge, and the ability to know God is innate(7), Calvin seems to make no distinction between knowledge and belief. For Calvin, there is no knowledge without belief, as he writes in his Institutes, “…the unbeliever brings death to all God’s Words”.(8) Any mistaken representation of truth is either a direct result of sin (turning away from God) or from not knowing God at all. Truth in self-knowledge and knowledge of God comes only through the belief in God.(9)

3. Theory of Human Nature

Calvin's basic reform theology sees man as a sinful, fallen creature created by God. The forgiveness of sin comes through the martyrdom and resurrection of Christ, God’s son, and subsequent belief in Christ’s ability to forgive sins. Contrary to popular notion, Calvin’s doctrine of election interprets Christ’s death as a sacrifice for all people. The assurance of election for Calvin is proven through faith in Christ.(10) Subsequently, faith in Christ allows for self-knowledge and an understanding and appreciation for the world.(11)

4. Theory of Learning

Calvin's own educational training was very much based in humanism. He emphasized strong training in the liberal arts, preferring these to the study of law or medicine.(12) Calvin placed great importance on learning, beginning at a young age, so as not to “leave the Church a desert for our children.”(13) He reorganized the existing primary schools in Geneva, stressing disciplined behavior, cleanliness and promptness. The curriculum was typical of the Renaissance thinking. It included drilling Latin grammar and vocabulary, as well as planned times for physical exercise. The Psalms were sung in French for one hour each day. Calvin forbade excessive force and required the principal of the school to have a “gracious personality free from harshness and rudeness (un esprit débonnaire).”(14)

5. Theory of Transmission

Calvin had an elaborate theory of government. He separated the church into four offices: pastor; doctor or teacher; presbyter or elder; and deacon. Teachers were mainly to be in charge of schools and ministers in charge of Sunday schools. He viewed the main function of the church as being educational.(15) An intimate knowledge of the subject was gained by frequent repetition, such as the daily singing of the psalms. Calvin also considered expositional teaching and preaching integral to the learning process.(16)

6. Theory of Society

Calvin put society squarely under the sovereignty of God. For Calvin, God should be the president and judge of all our elections. (17) Yet Calvin did not interpret the state as the kingdom of God, rather as an opportunity for good government and to help people. He believed the state should order all functions of life, including the church. In the government he set up in Geneva, magistrates interpreted the law. Calvin accepted Roman law in the secular arena. He encouraged these magistrates to have weekly prayer times to keep themselves humble and truthful. Calvin’s espoused a state run by lay people who upheld the teachings of the church (theocracy), not a state run by ministers (hierocracy).(18)

7. Theory of Opportunity

While in Geneva, Calvin set up a government whose citizens pledged to maintain a school to which all would be obliged to send their children including the children of the poor, who would attend free of charge. It is not entirely clear whether girls were included in this pledge, though there was a school for girls in Geneva.(19) Of course, the right to schooling was only available to those who were citizens of Geneva. Calvin also heavily encouraged the building, through private donations, the building of the Geneva Academy.(20) This Academy became a leading institution of higher education in Europe, and supplied the blueprint for universities in colonial America.

8. Theory of Consensus

Within Christianity, the only framework Calvin knew, he believed in consensus building. He frequently exchanged ideas with other reformers, carefully supporting his view through scripture. He negotiated and compromised. Toward the end of his life, Calvin proposed a “free and universal council to reunite all Christianity”.(21) He was even willing to have the pope preside over the council, provided he would submit to the decisions of the council.(22) However, Calvin was unable to build consensus with thinkers outside his faith.



(1) Calvin, John, Institutes for the Christian Religion :Book First, Chapter I, Section 1

(2) Tillich, Paul, History of Christian Thought, (New York: Harper and Row, 1968) p. 272

(3) Reid, W.Stanford, John Calvin: His Influence on the Western World, (Michigan: Zondervan, 1982) p.15

(4) Ibid., p.16

(5) Ibid., p. 15

(6) Institutes for Christian Religion, Chapter I, Section 2

(7) Ibid., Ch. 2, Sec. 1

(8) Ibid., Ch. 6, Sec. 4

(9) Ibid., Ch.1, Sec.2

(10) John Calvin: His Influence of the Western World, p. 204-205

FURTHER informaton relating to John Calvin can be found at Calvin On "Woman".