Calvin versus the Anabaptists

By Dustin Bruce

In John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhuis attempts an unbiased telling of the Reformer’s story, counting him “neither friend nor enemy.”[1] Striving for balance, Selderhuis presents a nuanced relationship between Calvin and the Anabaptists. Against the common misconception of Calvin as a vitriolic persecutor of Anabaptists, Selderhuis states, “Calvin did not differ from his fellow Reformers in his stance toward them, but he did in his approach, for he thought that these Anabaptists had a point when they stressed sanctification of life, imitation, dedication, and devotion.”[2]

Calvin, willing to learn from Anabaptists, found commonalities with them even while feeling they went too far in some areas. For Calvin, the Anabaptist tendency toward perfectionism in the Christian life and church proved unbiblical. He sought to extend Luther’s insight of simul iustus et peccator from the individual saint to the church as a whole.[3] Calvin also took issue with “the absence of ordered, structured thought among the Anabaptists.”[4] Calvin served a God of order and he felt the absence of such to be inconsistent with divine revelation.

While the Magisterial Reformer undoubtedly took issue with the Anabaptists at points, Selderhuis makes a case for a much more understanding Calvin. As he summarizes, “He was very engaged with the Anabaptists, and even married an Anabaptist widow, providing a symbol of the way he dealt with them theologically. One had to win them over and bring them into one’s own house. In terms of the church, one might even marry them by taking into one’s own theological house the good that they bring with them.”[5] Whether you count John Calvin as theological friend of enemy, all would do well to model such a practice.

[1]Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (Downer’s Grove: IL, InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 8.

[2]Selderhuis, John Calvin, 74.

[3]Selderhuis, John Calvin, 75.

[4]Selderhuis, John Calvin, 75.

[5]Selderhuis, John Calvin, 74.


Dustin Bruce lives in Louisville, KY where he is pursuing a PhD in Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary. He is a graduate of Auburn University and Southwestern Seminary. Dustin and his wife, Whitney, originally hail from Alabama.