John Calvin (aka. Jean Cauvin) played an important role in the Protestant Reformation—perhaps second only to Martin Luther in importance.
Calvin wrote the deeply influential Institutes of the Christian Religion (published in 1536, see also the Britannica summary), developed the “presbyterian” model of church government, and has been called the “organizer of Protestantism” because of his pastoral work organizing churches in Strassburg and Geneva.
He was born on July 10, 1509 in the city of Noyon in Picardy, France (where his childhood home is now a museum), was raised with children of the aristocracy, adopted the Latin “Calvin” as a young scholar. His father was the Bishop’s secretary serving the cathedral in Noyon, and he ensured that Calvin was well educated. At age 14, Calvin enrolled at the University of Paris and later attended the College de Montaigu there. Calvin studied theology and in the midst of the war between Renaissance education and Scholasticism, he became strongly attracted to the new thinking. Here Calvin was influenced by the church reform movement led by Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples (1455-1536) and was exposed to Luther’s writings and ideas circulating around Paris. In 1528, however, Calvin’s father had a falling-out with the church officials in Nyon, and he sent for his son to abandon theology for the study of law. Calvin complied and left for study at Orleans, Bourges, and Paris.
Calvin’s father died in 1531, leaving Calvin to pursue a scholarly career in Paris. Though he had earned his doctorate and a license to practice law, he preferred more academic pursuits. Sometime between 1532-34, Calvin was converted to Protestantism. He fled Paris when the charge of heresy was brought against his university rector for supporting the lutheran reform. He eventually resigned his position at the university and left France when king Francis I (1515-1547) began persecuting Protestant Christians.
When Calvin published Institutes in 1536, he lost the ability to live the quiet, anonymous, scholar’s life. This, he said, “God thrust me into the fray.” Despite the publication of this book, outlining reformation theology, and dedicated to the King, Calvin remained a refugee from France. Later that year, Calvin had hoped to settle in Strassburg but while on his way he stopped overnight at Geneva and was persuaded by William Farel (1849-1565) to accept the responsibility of helping him lead the Geneva church.
Then, from 1538-1541, Calvin spent his time studying peacefully in Strassburg. While there, he associated with Martin Bucer (1491-1551), pastored a congregation of French Protestant refugees, compiled a liturgy and a psalm book, represented Strassburg in the religious colloquies at Worms and Regensberg between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
When one of Calvin’s Anabaptist converts died in 1539, he married his convert’s widow, Idelette de Bure. In 1542 Calvin and De Bure conceived a son, who died shortly after birth. At her death in 1549, Calvin wrote, “Truly mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life.”
In 1541, urged by Ami Perrin, commissioner for Geneva, Calvin reluctantly returned to Geneva to pastor the churches there once more (the previous leaders had all fallen from good graces simultaneously). It was here that Calvin found his life’s work, continuing to reform the Protestant church, and further exercising his influence into foreign affairs, law, economics, trade and public policy. Geneva became the center of the Protestant movement, and Protestant refugees flocked there. When Calvin died 23 years later (May 27, 1564), the entire city turned out to honor him. He was granted citizenship only five years before his death.
(Some controversy, however, surrounds Calvin’s time at Geneva. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the last years of Calvin’s life at Geneva were given over to despotic theocratic rule wherein Calvin’s Institutes had the weight of state-enforced religion: "In November, 1552, the Council declared that Calvin’s Institutes were a ‘holy doctrine which no man might speak against." and also, "Within five years fifty-eight sentences of death and seventy-six of exile, besides numerous committals of the most eminent citizens to prison, took place in Geneva. The iron yoke could not be shaken off. In 1555, under Ami Perrin, a sort of revolt was attempted. No blood was shed, but Perrin lost the day, and Calvin’s theocracy triumphed." The capstone to this time is the conviction, sentencing, and execution of Michael Served y Reves (Servetus), all laid at the feet of Calvin.)
At the heart of Calvin’s theology is the idea that God created human beings for fellowship with himself. This led Calvin to stress that all wisdom comes from knowledge of God and of ourselves—in knowing God, we know ourselves and in knowing ourselves we know God. Calvin also stressed that what we know about God is strictly limited to what God explicitly revealed, so our chief role is not to spend our time embroiled in theological speculation, but rather in moral edification.
For further study:
- A Defense of Calvinism by C. H. Spurgeon
- Encyclopedia Britannica: John Calvin
- Calvin Studies Society
- Calvin’s Preface to the Psalter
- Catholic Encyclopedia: John Calvin
- Columbia Encyclopedia: John Calvin
- John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Reformation: John Calvin
- The Calvin Institute (Theology)
- The Five Points of Calvinism, by R. L. Dabney (1820-1898)
- The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543)
- Why Calvin Was a Calvinist: Rediscovering the Geneva Reformer in his long-lost catechism.
Thanks to Bob J. (covenantpc (at) cp-tel.net) for alerting me to errata in this article
[tags]BlogRodent, church-history, ChurchRodent, Francis-I, history, John-Calvin, Martin-Bucer, Martin-Luther, Protestantism, Reformation, Renaissance, Scholasticism, William-Farel[/tags]