How Calvin Defined Friendship

By Aaron Lumpkin    |    March 7, 2022

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Friendship is portrayed in many ways in Western culture. Television shows reveal both twisted and humorous types of friendship. Consider NBC’s “The Office.” In the show’s nine seasons, Jim Halpert and Dwight Schrute developed a relationship that ended in a close friendship. Though often at each other’s throats, they shared several things in common. They both sought to make sales, they both worked for the laughable Michael Scott, and they both enjoyed pulling a good prank, such as when Jim dressed as Dwight and posed the question, “What bear is best?” Despite all the buffoonery, their friendship created a sense of loyalty and comradery.

Ideas of friendship will undoubtedly vary from person to person. Some may define friendship in terms of common interests, common enemies, or shared experiences. I imagine friendships in your own life come in all shapes and sizes. This has been the case in my life and throughout history.

Like many still do today, John Calvin (1509–1564) sent letters to his friends during the Protestant Reformation. His letters were marked by instruction, direction, and concern, but his tone could be harsh, rude, and arrogant. For some of us, friends like this don’t last long. Yet with a closer look, it becomes clear that Calvin deeply cared for his friends, and he serves as a model for friendships today.

Biblical Foundations

A quick look at Calvin’s understanding of friendship reveals several key components. First, Calvin learned the nature of friendship from the Scripture. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura, evident in Calvin’s writings, carried over influence into the realm of relationships.1 The Bible was the foundation of his orthodoxy and orthopraxy. As D’Aubigné noted, “In Calvin’s view, everything that had not for its foundation the Word of God was futile and ephemeral boast; and the man who did not lean on Scripture ought to be deprived of his title of honor.”2 For Calvin, the Scriptures offered a biblical lens for friendship.

Second, Calvin described friendship in terms of intimacy. In his commentaries, he described God’s interaction with Moses in Exodus 33 as “familiar intercourse.” 3 He observed this in God interaction with Moses—they spoke face to face, as one would with a friend. For Calvin, friendship was ongoing and accustomed rather than intermittent and unfamiliar. Human relationships were to model God’s relationship with man. Further, Calvin believed friendships are filled with intimacy, as seen in Acts 10. Calvin noted that Cornelius called for his relatives and close friends. Calvin again used language revolving around familiarity and closeness to another person.4 As such, Calvin was convinced that friendship is characterized by including others in one’s life.

Third, Calvin also recognized that friendships involved personal presence. Reflection on the Gospel of John in his commentary, Calvin suggested that friendship involves locality. In describing the scene of the bridegroom and his friends in John 3, Calvin made the point that the bridegroom brings his friends with him to the wedding to celebrate.5 While not stated explicitly, Calvin may have understood friendship to involve personal interaction, at times done face to face. Likewise, friends are seen to participate in key moments in life, such as a wedding. Therefore, friendship certainly included personal interaction.

Fourth, Calvin believed the Scripture taught that friendships should be marked by love. In his commentary on John 15, Calvin recounted Jesus’s command to love others as he had loved them. Jesus continued by further revealing the standing of his relationship to them. According to John 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Calvin explained that Jesus told of his love for the disciples by opening his mind to them “as familiar communication is maintained among friends.”6 This shows Calvin’s view of friendship to be one related to time, intentionality, and intimacy, and to be rooted in love. Familiar communication implies a level of intimacy that comes with intentional involvement in another’s life. Furthermore, communication is maintained, meaning it occurs frequently rather than occasionally. In this same passage, Calvin also showed how Christ, as the friend of sinners, came to them and made known to them the “heavenly wisdom” from the Father. This again implies the importance of intimate communication. In turn, this passage in John speaks of the responsibility of knowing a friend’s need and coming to them to meet that need.

Calvin deeply cared for his friends, and he serves as a model for friendships today.”

—Aaron Lumpkin

Fifth, Calvin understood friendship in terms of redemption. This characteristic of friendship is ultimately understood and seen in the example of Christ, who saw the need of sinful humanity and gave his life for their redemption. Later in his commentary on the Gospel of John, Calvin gave the meaning of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17. In part of this prayer, Jesus spoke of the love of God for the saints. Calvin connected this truth to Paul’s writings on election and reconciliation.7

Sixth, Calvin viewed friendship in terms of reconciliation. The atoning work of Christ provided all that is necessary to be reconciled to God. In his commentary on Romans, he connected friendship with God to Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. Humans are naturally enemies of God due to sin. Yet, by being reconciled to God, one becomes a friend of God.8 For Calvin (and other Christians), God’s friends are his friends, and God’s enemies are his enemies. He prioritized friendship with friends of God and recognized his enemies with the enemies of God. He went on to say, “Though it be not indeed lawful for us to pray to God for vengeance on our enemies, but to pray for their conversion, that they may become friends; yet if they proceed in their impiety, what is to happen to the despisers of God will happen to them.”9 Calvin’s concern was with the conversion of his enemies. He wanted more friends in the gospel.

Seventh, Calvin understood friendship through the act of service. While explaining the distinction between friends of God and friends of the world, Calvin made two specific points.10 First, those who are friends of the world alienate themselves from God. As such, they are unable to serve God. However, the inverse applies as well. Those who draw near to God serve him rather than the world. Thus, friendship with God implies service to God, a task that Calvin would commit his life toward. And, if one ought to imitate God, friendship would certainly involve service to one’s friends.

Friendship in History and Practice

While Calvin developed a biblical framework of friendship, he also learned about history through his culture and from history. As Bruce Gordon has noted, Cicero would prove to be especially influential on Calvin.11 Calvin’s friendships were at times marked by benevolence, as well as constantia, fides, and veritas.12 Though Cicero provided a grid of understanding friendship for Calvin, Calvin would more directly learn of friendship through his relationships with contemporaries.

Calvin often exchanged letters with his friends and contemporaries.13 In a preliminary reading of Calvin’s letters, it may appear that he failed to be a friend to his closest companions. Strangely, Calvin often mistreated his closest friends. With them, he appeared to be aggressive and unrestrained at times. He would often follow these offenses with some type of apology, poorly stated and clearly lacking in his acceptance of responsibility. His struggle with friendship may be traced to one of his many personal flaws. Calvin struggled with feeling intellectually superior.14 He elevated himself above his friends, and this would prove to be a stumbling block in many of his friendships. On the other hand, Calvin’s letters reveal that he did prove to be a friend to many of his contemporaries. Calvin’s friendships would be built around the gospel and the truth of Scripture. Calvin “would define friendship in terms of commitment to a common cause; it was within that framework he was able to express fraternity and intimacy.”15 He sought to be united around the gospel and to practice constantia, fides, and veritas.

Some of Calvin’s closest friends included Martin Bucer, Guillaume Farel, Henry Bullinger, and Philip Melanchthon. Bucer and Farel shared a particularly warm friendship with Calvin in comparison to his relationship with Bullinger and Melanchthon. Bucer and Farel served as mentors for Calvin, and he developed a love for them through this relationship. Though, at one point Calvin said he wanted to release all his “fury” on Farel. But this comes as no surprise. Even the best of friends has moments of frustration and anger. Consider Bullinger and Melanchthon. They often disagreed with Calvin, which led to several annoyances in their friendships. Still, Calvin proved to be a friend that loved and cared for his companions. Their belief in the gospel served as the foundation of their friendship, and they valued faithfulness, truth, love, and humility in their relationships.

I fear that our society, and particularly the church, has far too often been satisfied with shallow friendships. I believe much of this is because of our desire to protect ourselves rather than to love others in a grace-saturated, Christ-exalting way. Christian discipleship is friendship; it exudes genuine love for another person that seeks his good in the gospel. Calvin’s example helps us foster and develop Christ-centered friendships. If Christians understand all their relationships in light of the gospel, and if they act on those relationships through the power of the gospel, we will see a great movement of the gospel through Christ-centered friendships.

  1. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Calvin’s Commentaries 21 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 248–49.
  2. J. H. Merle D’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, Vol. VII (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1880, 2000), 85.
  3. John Calvin, Commentaries on The Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 3, Calvin’s Commentaries 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 372.
  4. Calvin refers to an example of Latin friendship, which emphasizes a bound connection. See fn 2, which references the Latin: “Qui arctiore vinculo inter se conjuncti sunt,”—who are bound together by a closer tie. See John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1, Calvin’s Commentaries 18 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 429.
  5. John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 1, Calvin’s Commentaries 17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 134.
  6. John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2, Calvin’s Commentaries 18 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 117.
  7. Ibid., 2:186.
  8. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Calvin’s Commentaries 19 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 197–98.
  9. Ibid., 474–75.
  10. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, Calvin’s Commentaries 22 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 331.
  11. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 29.
  12. Cicero, “De Amicitia,” in On Old Age. On Friendship. On Divination, trans. W. A. Falconer, Loeb Classical Library 154 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923), 17.62–64; 18.65; 18.65–66; 24.89–90.
  13. This was customary of his period. Yet, simple epistolary writing does not equate to friendship. Likewise, self-proclaimed friendship does not equate to friendship. Identifying friendships in history is quite complex. As Wengert has noted, simple epistolary writing does not equate to friendship. Likewise, self-proclaimed friendship does not equate to friendship. Identifying friendships in history is quite complex. Nevertheless, we do our best to assess each person in his or her context. Readers must be cautious not only in imposing standards of the present but also standards of the past on their subjects. As such, Calvin must be read in his context. See Timothy J. Wengert, “‘We Will Feast Together in Heaven Forever’: The Epistolary Friendship of John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon,” in Melanchthon in Europe, ed. Karin Maag (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), Kindle Locations 131–33.
  14. Gordon, Calvin, 29–30.
  15. Ibid., 29.
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