Spirituality is a popular word that today often has connotations of individualism and can be unrelated to theology or institutional religion. For Calvin, however, piety defines the attitude and actions of all those who respond to God’s self revelation in Christ and are gathered in Christ’s Body, the church, by the Holy Spirit. The foundation of piety is God’s gift of faith, adoption in Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit acting on the human heart as well as the mind.
The two great commandments give shape to Calvin’s piety: “Love God” and “Love your neighbor,” elaborated in the moral law, the Ten Commandments. The first table of the law, summarized as the officia pietatis, the duties of piety, is more closely related to traditional ideas of piety as acts of worship. The second table of the law, the officia charitatis, or duties of love, is for Calvin the necessary corollary. For the regenerate person-of-faith, the law provides the structures of Calvin’s corporate and personal piety. Faith in itself cannot be seen but it finds visible expression in the officia pietatis and the officia charitatis.
The acts of worship and devotion that manifest piety are both individual and corporate. Principal among these is prayer, which Calvin calls “the chief exercise of faith,” the expression of trust in and obedience to God. True prayer must come from the heart and does not need words. However, it is also very appropriate to use words in prayer, at least in part to help the person praying to concentrate. Corporate prayer in the gathered community of the church is especially essential in Calvin’s understanding of the officia pietatis.
However, every person should learn forms of prayer that serve as both vehicles and models. Prayers from Scripture are the key, beginning with the perfect model, the Lord’s Prayer, but also including other biblical hymns such as Simeon’s Song and most fully the Psalms. In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms Calvin called them “an anatomy of the soul”; they give expression to all the feelings and thoughts of God’s people and so are the best prayers. Since music can move the heart, it is appropriate to sing the Psalms, although the first and chief attention should be on the words rather than the music because the purpose is intelligible prayer. The treasure of the French Psalter, with its careful metrical translations and its amazing range of specially composed melodies, gave a distinctive voice to Calvin’s people, including those in France whom the exiled pastor never forgot. Metrical Psalters were published in many languages and became both a characteristic mark of Calvinists and one of the primary sources of their religious language.
Another substantive source of Calvin’s piety is hearing expository sermons that explain Scripture and apply it to practical life. Attending public worship is a vital expression of piety. Bible reading became increasingly important over time. The earliest Protestants were part of an oral society so hearing the gospel was fundamental, even as the printed word spread and Calvin’s followers came to be recognized for their literate faith. Piety needs to be nourished by informed understanding of the Bible as well as actual knowledge of the text, so catechisms, commentaries, and sermons help to educate a Christian people who can engage in worship with both hearts and minds.
Calvin believed that faith is strengthened by the use of the external aids God has ordained.
Besides public prayers and Scripture, the sacraments form a significant part of Calvin’s understanding of the officia pietatis. They are seals of God’s promises and confessions of faith, having personal and corporate dimensions for the believer and the community. Although the importance of sacraments for Calvin was long neglected in studies of his piety, in the twentieth century scholars recognized the vital role of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the reformer’s teaching on practical faith and devotion (not simply theological doctrine). Calvin’s attention to the sacraments is distinctive not least because both sacraments are necessarily corporate actions in the gathered church, a reminder that Protestants, and the Reformed tradition in particular, rejected “private” sacraments and reoriented sacramental piety to corporate church life. The individual Christian can and must believe, by God’s grace, but the individual believes in the context of the community of faith. The officia pietatis are grounded in the church’s life even when the Christian prays in her closet.
In keeping with his understanding of the Bible, Calvin insisted that faith can sometimes be more truly expressed by love for the neighbor, seen in officia charitatis, than by acts of worship (officia pietatis). Ceremonies can be hypocritical but real compassion requires more than simply acting a part. For this reason, piety cannot be only a matter of prayers, sermons, and sacraments but it must be lived out in the practice of daily life in the world.
One of the most important expressions of this inner-worldly piety is love for the neighbor in need, love from the heart given intelligent and practical form with both head and hands. The Christian church and its members are obligated to be aware of and respond to the real situations of the poor, the sick and afflicted, the ignorant and sinful. Each Christian must be attentive to see the neighbor as the image of God and treat all neighbors not as they deserve but as God deserves. The work of ecclesiastical discipline (from disciplina, training) and the ministry of the deacons are two corporate manifestations of love for the neighbor in concern for the soul and the body. Pastors and elders work together to teach, correct, and reconcile where there are visible evidences of ignorance of God’s will and disobedience to it, of conflict and injustice in the community. Deacons serve to identify and respond to physical ills of all kinds; those who can work are called to do so, those who cannot care for themselves should have their needs met with compassion and genuine good will.
In different ways each Christian shares the responsibility to act in love for the neighbor. Calvin’s world was more hierarchical than the modern west but his principle — everything one “possesses” is a gift from God and carries with it responsibility — applied to all ranks of society. Thus any material possession, or any talent of mind, or any power of position or office, must be received as God’s gift. All God’s blessings are given for human good and meant to be enjoyed, according to God’s will. However, God’s will requires attention to God’s purposes, careful stewardship, moral strength, intelligence, courageous and self-denying action, and constant recourse to prayer.
Calvin’s piety means both worshiping God according to God’s own word, and living in daily obedience to God in the community of faith and the world God created. This active knowledge of God by faith is our highest good and joy.
Elsie McKee is Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, N.J.