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Who is John Calvin?

Calvin, John (1509–1564)

One of the principal leaders of the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin is chiefly remembered as a biblical scholar and a systematic theologian.

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in the cathedral town of Noyon, where his father was an ecclesiastical business manager. At about age twelve Calvin was sent to Paris to prepare for theological studies at the Collège de la Marche. Progressing rapidly, he entered the Collège de Montaigu, famous for its traditional scholasticism, but after he had taken his bachelor’s degree, his father redirected him toward law. He studied law both at Orléans and Bourges, finishing his degree in 1531. During this time he made his acquaintance with the new learning of the Renaissance, Pierre del’Etoile and the great Andrea Alciati introduced him to the historical–critical method of studying law, while Melchior Wolmar introduced him to Greek as well as to the ideas of the Reformation. At this period in his life, however, Calvin was interested above all in the historical and literary pursuits of be Christian humanists such as Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples and Erasmus. After his father’s death (1531), Calvin was able to devote himself to literary studies at the newly founded Collège de France in Paris. There, under royal patronage, the new learning held full sway.

Calvin’s mastery of this new learning, especially classical Greek and Hebrew, brought him into an elite circle of intellectuals who were committed to church reform. In November 1533 one of Calvin’s friends, Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, in the course of his rectorial address espoused the reforms not only of the Christian humanists but of Protestantism as well. Calvin may have been the ghostwriter of the speech. At any rate, both he and Cop were obliged to flee. Eventually finding refuge in Basel, Cop’s hometown, Calvin published the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). Only then did it become clear that Calvin had decided for the Protestant rather than the Christian humanist approach to reform. The Institutes came out strongly in favor of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. With this the foundation of Calvin’s theology was set.

After a considerable amount of traveling, Calvin arrived in Geneva in August 1536. There William Farel pressed him into helping reform the church in the former prince–bishopric. Only four years before, the city council had exiled the bishop, declared for the Reformation, and called several Protestant pastors to conduct services. The council was not willing, however, to give the newly reformed church of Geneva a constitution. All decisions were to be made by the city council. Both Calvin and Farel found the situation intolerable. Much friction developed, and finally the two reformers were exiled.

This time Calvin found refuge in Strassburg. There he became the understudy of the German reformer Martin Bucer. In 1539 he published a new edition of the Institutes showing a considerable development in his thought. First, it shows his deepening appreciation for the classical doctrine of the Trinity and the Christology of the patristic age. To these doctrines Calvin remained firmly committed throughout his life. Second, it shows his growing interest in the biblical doctrine of predestination as it had been developed particularly by Augustine. While Calvin saw it as a fundamental teaching of Scripture it was not the cornerstone of his theology. For Calvin, the point is that human destiny is in the hands of God and that salvation therefore is a divine gift rather than a human achievement. Calvin’s teaching on this subject was not a matter of theological speculation but rather a matter of biblical interpretation. The place where the apostle Paul treats the subject most thoroughly is the letter to the Romans, and Calvin wrote a very thorough commentary on Romans during this same period. He obviously intended to explore the subject as deeply as possible. The commentary is an original study of the Greek text in the manner of the new learning, the first of many commentaries treating most of the books of the OT and the NT.

Back in Geneva, the city council was beginning to recognize the need for a legitimately organized church. In 1541 Calvin was asked to return; however, the reformer would accept only if the church was granted its own constitution. This constitution included a form of prayers, a form of government, and a catechism. Although all three were accepted, the church of Geneva still had a long struggle to establish its independence.

The worship of the Reformed church of Geneva had a strong doxological bent consistent with Calvin’s doctrine of the sovereignty of God. It featured the praying of the Psalter and, quite appropriate to Calvin’s doctrine of providence a strong ministry of intercessory prayer. The preaching focused on the exposition of Scripture. Calvin preached at the cathedral twice each Sunday and daily every other week at morning prayers. Others filled in the schedule at the cathedral and the parish churches. Catechetical education for children was established, and Calvin lectured regularly to theological students. He had a covenantal understanding of worship, and therefore the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs and seals of the covenant were essential to worship. Rather than as a sacrifice, Communion was celebrated as a covenant meal.

A major problem for Calvin was to gain for the church a polity that would make it possible for the church to be independent of the state. Unlike the Lutherans in Germany and the Anglicans in Elizabethan England, Calvin could not accept a state–controlled church. It was the Word of God which was to have authority in the church, and in accordance with that Word the church was to be governed. This responsibility Calvin entrusted to the “consistory,” or presbytery composed of ministers and elders. Calvin saw the church as a republic rather than a monarchy.

A reform that was only theological and liturgical and did not express itself in the ethical life of the community would have seemed quite in vain to Calvin, hence his great concern to develop a disciplined Christian life. Before the Reformation, Geneva had a reputation for loose morals and sharp business practices. The Libertines wanted to keep it that way and resented Calvin’s puritanism. Although the moral code of Protestant Geneva was not much different from those of other cities of the period, under Calvin’s influence it was enforced on rich and poor alike. Geneva was not a theocracy but a republic, and Calvin’s “moral” influence there was due primarily to his preaching. His supporters were increasingly elected to office because the electorate sensed that the moral discipline preached by Calvin would effect a better–ordered society than the Libertines were apt to produce. Calvin’s intellectual and moral leadership gave the city an international reputation which attracted great numbers of learned and industrious refugees, producing something of a population explosion.

Calvin, sad to relate, was not very skillful at dealing with his opposition. The Libertines of Geneva were a constant frustration to him until they finally discredited themselves and were voted out of office. In 1544 Sebastian Castellio attacked Calvin’s interpretation of the Song of Solomon. The clash of personalities made the controversy disproportionately bitter. The most serious challenge to Calvin’s leadership was that of Michael Servetus who had made himself odious to Catholics and Protestants alike by his abusive attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity. The Libertines tried to use the affair to discredit Calvin, encouraging Servetus to bait him, but the execution of Servetus (1553) marked the defeat of the Libertines. While Calvin made and maintained many fast friendships throughout his life, his intense and excitable nature tended to overreact when he was goaded by his opponents.

Our portrait of Calvin has changed greatly in the last few years, but the painting in of some of his features is still difficult because he rarely spoke of his personal life. We know almost nothing, for instance, of either his conversion or his ordination. The reformer’s lack of interest in himself was expressed in his simple dress, his modest life–style, and his complete devotion to his work. He died on May 27, 1564, and had even taken care that his place of burial remain unknown. Far from being driven by anxiety, he was a man inspired by faith, confident that in the mysterious workings of divine providence Christ’s kingdom would be established.

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W. J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (1988); E. A. Dowey, Jr., The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (1952; repr. 1964); A. Ganoczy, The Young Calvin (ET 1987); J. H. Leith, John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (1989); K. McDonnell, John Calvin, the Church and the Eucharist (1967); A. E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (1990); D. McKim, ed., Readings in Calvin’s Theology (1984); T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (1975); C. B. Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy (1977); F. Wendel, Calvin etl’humanisme (1976).

ET English translation

Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.; Edinburgh: Westminster/John Knox Press; Saint Andrew Press, 1992), 45.

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