Philip Melanchthon was a better and a greater man, and did the Reformation a far superior service. Luther would have been much disabled without him, and Germany has awarded him the title of its “Preceptor.” But no Reformation could have come if the fighting or directing of its battles had been left to him. Even with the great Luther ever by his side, he could hardly get loose from Rome and retain his wholeness, and when he was loose could hardly maintain his legs upon the ground that had been won.
John Calvin was a man of great learning and ability. Marked has been his influence on the theology and government of a large portion of the Reformed churches. But the Reformation was twelve years old before he came into it. It had to exist already ere there could be a Calvin, while his repeated flights to avoid danger prove how inadequate his courage was for such unflinching duty as rendered Luther illustrious. He was a cold, hard, ascetic aristocrat at best, more cynical, stern, and tyrannical than brave. The organization for the Church and civil government which he gave to Geneva was quite too intolerant and inquisitorial for safe adoption in general or to endure the test of the true Gospel spirit. Under a regime which burnt Servetus for heresy, threw men into prison for reading novels, hung and beheaded children for improper behavior toward parents, whipped and banished people for singing songs, and dealt with others as public blasphemers if they said a word against the Reformers or failed to go to church, the cause of the Reformation could never have commanded acceptance by the nations, or have survived had it been received. The famous “Blue Laws” of the New England colonies have had to be given up as a scandal upon enlightened civilization; but they were largely transcribed from Calvin’s code and counsels, including even the punishing of witches. For the last two hundred years the Calvinistic peoples have been reforming back from Calvin’s rules and spirit, either to a better foundation for the perpetuation and honor of the Church or to a rationalistic skepticism which lets go all the distinctive elements of the genuine Christian Creed—the natural reaction from the hard and overstrained severity of a legalistic style of Christianity.
With all the great service Calvin has rendered to theological science and church discipline, there was an unnatural sombreness about him, which linked him rather with the Middle Ages and the hierarchical rule than with the glad, free spirit of a wholesome Christian life. At twenty-seven he had already drawn up a formula of doctrine and organization which he never changed and to which he ever held. There was no development either in his life or in his ideas. The evangelic elements of his system he found ready to his hand, as thought out by Luther and the German theologians. They did not originate or grow with him. And had the Reformation depended upon him it could never have become a success. So too with any others that might be named.