John Calvin’s Institutes have earned him the title of “the preeminent systematician of the Protestant Reformation.” His reputation as an intellectual, however, is often seen apart from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology. For Calvin, theological understanding and practical piety, truth and usefulness, are inseparable. Theology first of all deals with knowledge—knowledge of God and of ourselves—but there is no true knowledge where there is no true piety.
Calvin’s concept of piety (pietas) is rooted in the knowledge of God and includes attitudes and actions that are directed to the adoration and service of God. In addition, his pietas includes a host of related themes, such as filial piety in human relationships, and respect and love for the image of God in human beings. Calvin’s piety is evident in people who recognize through experiential faith that they have been accepted in Christ and engrafted into His body by the grace of God. In this “mystical union,” the Lord claims them as His own in life and in death. They become God’s people and members of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This relationship restores their joy of fellowship with God; it recreates their lives.
The purpose of this chapter is to show that Calvin’s piety is fundamentally biblical, with an emphasis on the heart more than the mind. Head and heart must work together, but the heart is more important. After an introductory look at the definition and goal of piety in Calvin’s thinking, I will show how his pietas affects the theological, ecclesiological, and practical dimensions of his thought.
The Definition and Importance of Piety
Pietas is one of the major themes of Calvin’s theology. His theology is, as John T. McNeill says, “his piety described at length.” He is determined to confine theology within the limits of piety. In his preface addressed to King Francis I, Calvin says that the purpose of writing the Institutes was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness [pietas].”
For Calvin, pietas designates the right attitude of man towards God. This attitude includes true knowledge, heartfelt worship, saving faith, filial fear, prayerful submission, and reverential love. Knowing who and what God is (theology) embraces right attitudes toward Him and doing what He wants (piety). In his first catechism, Calvin writes, “True piety consists in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences Him as Lord, embraces His righteousness, and dreads offending Him worse than death.” In the Institutes, Calvin is more succinct: “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” This love and reverence for God is a necessary concomitant to any knowledge of Him and embraces all of life. As Calvin says, “The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness.” Or, as the subtitle of the first edition of the Institutes states, “Embracing almost the whole sum of piety & whatever is necessary to know of the doctrine of salvation: A work most worthy to be read by all persons zealous for piety.”
Calvin’s commentaries also reflect the importance of pietas. For example, he writes on 1 Timothy 4:7-8, “You will do the thing of greatest value, if with all your zeal and ability you devote yourself to godliness [pietas] alone. Godliness is the beginning, middle and end of Christian living. Where it is complete, there is nothing lacking . . . . Thus the conclusion is that we should concentrate exclusively on godliness, for when once we have attained to it, God requires no more of us.” Commenting on 2 Peter 1:3, he says, “As soon as he [Peter] has made mention of life he immediately adds godliness [pietas] as if it were the soul of life.”