John Calvin's views on Mary

John Calvin (July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564) was a French born Protestant theologian during the Protestant Reformation, and, next to Martin Luther one of the most influential reformers. He was main founder and organizer of reformed protestantism Calvinism. By background he was a gifted organizer, statesman, theologian and lawyer. In Geneva, his ministry both attracted other Protestant refugees and over time made that city a major force in the spread of Reformed theology. He is renowned for his teachings and writings, in particular for his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He had a keen intelligence and a aristocratic, sometimes stern character.

His legal and exegetical training was important. Once convinced of the growing Protestant faith, he applied these exegetical methods to the Scripture. He self-consciously tried to mold his thinking along biblical lines, and he labored to preach and teach what he believed the Bible taught. Salvation depends exclusively on Jesus Christ. This main theological theme influences the martiological positions of Calvin.

Calvin's theological views on Mary

Perpetual virginity

To institute the reformation in Geneva and elsewhere, Calvin needed to define the doctrinal basis and moral consequences. He issued a Catechism in 1536, which was approved by the Great Council in November 1536. It included a exposition of the Calvinist faith, consequences for Christian life and punishments for transgressions such as excommunication and exile. In his Catechism, Calvin writes about Mary that she gave birth to Jesus through the Holy Spirit without the participation of any man. In this, he borrows the definition from Martin Bucer and Heinrich Bullinger, who before him used the same words. The Mother of God was a virgin, not only during her pregnancy, but during Child birth and for the rest of her life. Calvin opined, that Mary, when visited by the angel, did not at that moment profess virginity. Rather she was engaged with Joseph before, and recognized from the angel’s message that she was selected by God to be the mother of his Son. At that moment, so Calvin, Mary looked into the future and recognized, that in light of this grace, any contact with a man would be excluded for her (solvendum est objectum illud, quos virgo in futurum tempus respiciat ideoque significet nullum sibi fore cohabitationem cum viro) Algermissen 641. Since Calvin believed in the Ever Virgin Mary, virginity before, during and after birth, he always called her Virgin Mary, not Mary. In some texts he simply called her the Virgin, but never just Mary.

Mother of God

Mary is Mother of God. Christ could not be praised, if Mary would not have existed. The mother of God title of Mary is on firm biblical basis, since Elisabeth greeted Mary as “mother of her Lord”.

  • Elizabeth called Mary Mother of the Lord, because the unity of the person in the two natures of Christ was such that she could have said that the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the eternal God.

The Mother of God title is the highest honour to be attributed to Mary. It cannot be negated. It is a true divine motherhood, a virginal motherhood. In this context, Calvin discussed possible linguistic variations of the term virginity in the original texts but concludes, whatever the variations may be, the context clearly established the meaning of virginity of the mother of God.


Calvin was convinced of man’s smallness and God’s immensity. No amount of good works of the little creature could possibly ensure his salvation, which only God can will. Calvin believed that all salvation is determined by him, who determined long before creation, who is to be saved and who is to be damned. Because all salvation depends exclusively on the will of God and the salvation works of his son Jesus Christ, Calvin rejects any notion of Mary as a participant in the mystery of salvation He wonders why to some Jesus Christ alone is not sufficient, and calls this pure defiance. Therefore Roman Catholic veneration is idolatry , because Mary is honoured with titles like « mediator » « our hope » « our life » and our light. Thus, Calvin rejects prayers and supplications to Mary. We should pray for each other in this world, but, according to Calvin, about calling on the dead is not a biblical concept. Once God damns a person, he is damned. Calvin’s theology has no room for purgatory, there is no in between place for an eventual salvation. And therefore, Calvin does not permit prayer for the dead, as their fate is sealed. To call on Mary for salvation is nothing but blasphemy "exsecrabilis blasphemia", because God alone has predestinated the amount of grace to each individual in his absolute will.

Fullness of Grace

The fullness of grace is therefore rejected as well, since the plenitude de grace is Christ only. On this point he coincides with Roman Catholic teaching, which sees only in Christ absolute fullness of grace, while the graces of Mary are seen as a gift of God attributed to her. On the other hand, Calvin called Mary a treasure of grace , because, Mary preserved in her heart not only for her own use but for the use of all things entrusted to her. She preserved things in her heart, not just for herself, but for all of us. "She has preserved in her heart the teachings which open the heavenly gates and lead to Christ". God wanted to determine the time n which they would be revealed.


John Calvin considered himself the real follower of Mary, because he freed her from undeserved Papist honour which is due only to Jesus Christ, and for returning this honour to him alone. Calvin stated that Mary cannot be the advocate of the faithful, since she needs God’s grace as much as any other human being If the Catholic Church praises her as Queen of Heaven, it is blasphemous and contradicts her own intention, because she is praised and not God.

Veneration of Mary

The veneration of the Mother of God exists, if the faithful see Mary as leader to Christ. She was not only physically mother, but spiritually in unity with him, as her prayer Magnificat is testimony for. The Magnificat must be the basis for a realistic devotion to her. The Magnificat is also an invitation to imitate her life. Furthermore, the Mary’s Magnificat is an example of true praise of God in humility, because we humans are nothing and have no value. We owe everything to the grace of God. Mary totally gave herself to God and is therefore our model

Calvin had genuine respect for Mary and saw her as a model for faith. "To this day we cannot enjoy the blessing brought to us in Christ without thinking at the same time of that which God gave as adornment and honour to Mary, in willing her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son". Mary is a model of faithfulness as Elisabeth informs us. Because she kept the faith and the teachings, we have these teachings today. Through Mary, we are “built up”. This is her gift from God, and, because of this we can be led to him. Therefore Christians must try to follow the Blessed Virgin The spirit of God placed her in front of us like a painting, so everyone may become similar to her in respecting the word of God. The genuine respect for Mary in Calvin’s writing, and his attempt to express his Marian convictions to the faithful of his day in his explanations of the epistles is not fully known or shared by Reformed Protestants after John Calvin.


Some of the Protestant reformers, Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin encouraged the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue's prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven images of God. As a result, statues and images were damaged in spontaneous individual attacks as well as unauthorised iconoclastic riots. Erasmus described such an incident in a letter:

  • The smiths and workmen removed the pictures from the churches and heaped such insults upon the images of the saints and the crucifix itself. … Not one statue was left either in the churches , or he vestibules or the porches or he monasteries. The frescoes were obliterated with lime. Whatever would burn was thrown in the fire, and the rest was pounded into fragments. Nothing was spared for the love of money.

The destruction of Marian paintings and painting of the saints was not ordered by Calvin alone. But, virtually all Marian pictures and statues in Geneva were destroyed as a result of his 1535 order. John Calvin considered the veneration of religious pictures including Marian pictures as heresy. The Second Council of Nicaea, which in the year 787 had specifically encouraged the pictorial presentation, and which was a part of he ancient Christian patristic tradition, was renounced as an illegal by Calvin in 1550.

Calvin and Catholic Mariology

Will Durant states, It is remarkable, how much of Roman Catholic tradition and theory survived in Calvin’s theology. Calvin’s genius was not in creating new ideas but developing existing thought “to ruinously logical conclusions” He borrowed from Martin Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, “but most of these Protestant doctrines had come down, in milder form, in Catholic tradition”. Calvin gave them stronger interpretation and rejected the Catholic humanism, and the Renaissance. His theological view on predestination, he admitted , is repulsive to reason. . But solved a mariological issue where Catholic thinkers had unsuccessfully run up against for centuries: Mary is the Mother of God, must be without sin, including original sin. God must have willed and determined from beginning that the mother of his son is saved and is given the grace to be free from original sin, (Immaculate Conception). Calvin states that God willed and determined from the beginning the future and fate of every person, he created, not just of Mary, and thus did not even have to raise this issue.

The criticism of Calvin on the Catholic Church in general and in regard to Mary in particular, is severe. As in the conflicts with Luther and Zwingli, equally severe Catholic counter-attacks lead later theologians to the observation, that Mary was used by both sides to define theological positions and identity.

To Calvin, Mary is an idol in the Catholic Church, which greatly reduces Christ the Lord. The Catechism of Calvin not only outlawed Marian veneration, it also punished behavior, such as carrying a rosary, observing a saints day, or the possession of holy relics. Regarding Marian relics, Calvin commented positively in an ironical way, stating, since the Papist assumed her to be in heaven, at least nobody can claim to have Marian relics. Otherwise there would be so many Marian bones in circulation, that a huge new cemetery could be filled with them.

Calvin's influence

Second Helvetic Confession

Calvin's view on Mary are reflected in the Second Helvetic Confession (Latin: Confessio Helvetica posterior, or CHP . The Reformed document was mainly written by Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), pastor and the successor of Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich Switzerland. The Second Helvetic Confession was written in 1561 as a private exercise. It came to the notice of the elector palatine Frederick III, who had it translated into German and published in 1566. It gained a favourable hold on the Swiss churches in Berne, Zurich Schaffhausen St.Gallen, Chur, Geneva and other cities. The Second Helvetic Confession was adopted by the Reformed Church not only throughout Switzerland but in Scotland (1566), Hungary (1567), France (1571), Poland (1578), and next to the Heidelberg Catechism is the most generally recognized Confession of the Reformed Church. Slight variations of this confession existed in the French Confession de Foy (1559), the Scotish Confessio Fidei (1560) the Belgian Ecclasiarum Belgicarum Confessio (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

Marian views

Mary is mentioned several times in the Second Helvetic Confession. Chapter Three quotes the angel’s message to the Virgin Mary, “ – the Holy Spirit will come over you “ - as an indication of the existence of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. The Latin text described Mary as diva, indicating her rank as a person, who dedicated herself to God. In Chapter Nine, the Virgin birth of Jesus is said to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born without the participation of any man. The Second Helvetic Confession accepted the “Ever Virgin” notion from John Calvin, which spead throughout much of Europe with the approbation of this document in the above mentioned countries.

The French Confession de Foy, the Scotish Confessio Fidei, the Belgian Ecclasiarum Belgicarum Confessio and the Heidelberg Catechism, all include references to the Virgin Birth, mentioning specifically, that Jesus was born without the participation of a man. Invocations to Mary were not tolerated however, in light of Calvin’s position, that any prayer to saints in front of an altar is prohibited.

See also


  • Konrad Algermissen, John Calvin, in Marienlehre, Regensburg, 1967
  • Konrad Algermissen, John Calvin, in Marienlexikon, Regensburg, 1988 (quoted as Algermissen 1988)
  • John Calvin, Calvini Opera Omnia Braunschweig-Berlin, 1863-1900 Vol 29-87
  • Will Durant, The Reformation, The Story of Civilization:Part VI, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957
  • Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through The Ages, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, referencing Walter Tappolet, ed., Das Marienlob der Reformatoren Tubingen: Katzman Verlag, 1962
  • David Wright (editor), Chosen By God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989


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