French-born Swiss reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) participated in the second phase of the Reformation, moving toward a Christianity that was increasingly less Catholic. Of all the reformers, Calvin was perhaps the least effusive about the Virgin Mary, and the most critical toward the Roman Catholic Church.
There are a few areas, however, in which Calvin shared the convictions of Luther and Zwingli. Calvin firmly believed, for example, in the ever-virginity of Mary. He was familiar with a theory circulating during his time that Mary had other children with Joseph after Jesus was born, but he dismissed this theory as an ancient, recycled heresy, based on the teachings of Helvidius, who lived in the fourth century and provoked the ire of Jerome over the issue of Mary's ever-virginity. Calvin went so far as to say that this ancient heresy had been brought back into fashion by those who speculated upon Scripture in a way that was dangerously imaginative.
Calvin is most well known today for Calvinism, a theory based upon Luther's model related to salvation through faith alone. Calvinists emphasize the grace of God in predestining souls to heaven or hell, teaching that chosen people experience “irresistible grace,” which means that they are powerless to turn away from the grace of God once selected to receive it.
For Calvin, whose father suffered for many years under a ban of excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, it was very important to approach Christian theology with a healthy dose of intellectual sobriety. He derided those who took a more speculative chapter 10: Toppling Mary: The Reformation approach to Scripture, reading things into the text that weren't there. According to Calvin, one of the key ways to combat the “terrible confusion” of the Roman Catholic Church of his day was to remain intellectually sober. Calvin also expressed concerns about some of the reformers who seemed to love speculating and coming up with new theories that were not firmly grounded in Scripture.
In light of Calvin's concern for sobriety, it is no surprise that he railed against some of the common practices of his day related to Mary. Like Zwingli, he was firmly opposed to images of Mary. He felt that the excessive Roman Catholic pomp surrounding the Virgin Mary bordered on blasphemy.
He was also opposed to the saying of the Rosary, as well as to the practice of naming churches and chapels after Mary. He was appalled by what he perceived as the increasingly superstitious quality of the Hail Mary, which had mysteriously changed from a mere greeting to a prayer, and was increasingly viewed on the popular level as one of the only ways to attain the grace of God. Calvin was disturbed when he saw people praying the Hail Mary instead of approaching God directly.
The Mirror of Faith
Ironically, as much as Calvin deplored physical images of the Virgin, his chief way of speaking about her involved mental images. Mary was an invaluable example to believers because of the ways in which she represented the epitome of an obedient life of service to God. According to Calvin, Mary had no merits in her own right, but because of her obedience to God, her witness can help the faithful live in a way that is more consistent with Scripture. According to Calvin, “She was a mirror of the faith that we must bring to God.”
Calvin expressed the ancient connection between Mary and the Church in a profound way:
Calvin suggests that, like Mary, all believers should be open to receiving the Word of God in their own hearts. Mary is a model, not only of a faithful life that embraces Christ, but also of the Church.