John Calvin

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John Calvin

St. Augustine
The Reformation

Calvin's Institutes
Five Solas
Five Points (TULIP)
Regulative principle
Confessions of faith

Theodore Beza
Synod of Dort
Puritan theology
Jonathan Edwards
Princeton theologians
Karl Barth

Reformed Baptist

Afrikaner Calvinists

John Calvin ( July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564) was a French Protestant theologian during the Protestant Reformation and was a central developer of the system of Christian theology called Calvinism. In Geneva, he replaced Papal authority with church authority under a new scheme. He is renowned for his teaching and infamous for his role in the execution of Michael Servetus.


Young John Calvin
Young John Calvin

Calvin was born Jean Chauvin (or Cauvin, in Latin "Calvinus") in Noyon, Picardie, France, to Gérard Cauvin and Jeanne Lefranc. In 1523, Calvin's father, an attorney, sent his fourteen-year-old son to the University of Paris to study humanities and law. By 1532, he had attained a Doctor of Law degree at Orléans. Calvin's first published work was an edition of the Roman philosopher Seneca's De Clementia, accompanied by a thorough commentary.

In 1536, he settled in Geneva, Switzerland. After being expelled from the city, he served as a pastor in Strasbourg from 1538 until 1541, before returning to Geneva, where he lived until his death in 1564.

After attaining his degree, John Calvin sought a wife in affirmation of his approval of marriage over clerical celibacy and asked friends to help him find a woman who was "modest, obliging, not haughty, not extravagant, patient, and solicitous for my health." In 1539, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow, who had a son and daughter from her previous marriage to a converted Anabaptist in Strasbourg. Calvin and Idelette had a son who died after only two weeks. Idelette Calvin died in 1549. Calvin wrote that she was a helper in ministry, never stood in his way, never troubled him about her children, and had a greatness of spirit.

Calvin's health began to fail when he suffered migraines, lung hemorrhages, gout and kidney stones, and at times he had to be carried to the pulpit. According to his successor, influential Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza, Calvin took only one meal a day for a decade, but on the advice of his physician, he ate an egg and drank a glass of wine at noon. His recreation and exercise consisted mainly of a walk after meals. Towards the end Calvin said to those friends who were worried about his daily regimen of work, "What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?"

John Calvin died in Geneva on May 27, 1564, and was buried in the Cimetière des Rois under a tombstone marked simply with the initials "J.C.", partially honoring his request that he be buried in an unknown place, without witnesses or ceremony.

Calvin's thought

Calvin was trained to be a lawyer. He studied under some of the best legal minds of the Renaissance in France. Part of that training involved the newer humanistic methods of exegesis, which dealt with a text directly via historical and grammatical analysis as opposed to indirectly via layers of commentators. This legal and exegetical training was seminal for Calvin for, once convinced of the evangelical faith, he applied these exegetical methods to the Scripture.

Calvin self-consciously molded his thinking along biblical lines. He labored to preach and teach what he believed the Bible taught. Just as anyone else, however, he stood in the midst of a history and culture from which he could never fully extricate himself.

While Reformers such as John Huss and Martin Luther may be seen as somewhat original thinkers that began a movement, Calvin was a great logician and systematizer of that movement, but not an innovator in doctrine. Calvin was well familiar with the writings of the early church and the great Medieval schoolmen. He was also in debt to earlier Reformers. It is inaccurate to say that Calvin rejected the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages; rather, he made use of it and reformed it in accordance with his understanding of the Bible.

Calvin had a great commitment to the absolute sovereignty and holiness of God. Because of this, he is often associated with the doctrines of predestination and election, but it should be noted that he differed very little with the other magisterial Reformers regarding these difficult doctrines. The Five points of Calvinism are a reflection of the thinking of the great Reformer, but were not articulated by him, and were actually a product of the Synod of Dort, which issued its judgments in response to five specific objections that arose after Calvin's time.

Calvin's theological thought has obviously been highly influential, but his impact can also be seen in other areas. For example, he placed a high premium on education of the youth of Geneva. He founded the Academy of Geneva in 1559 which was a model for other academies around the world. Calvin's academy would eventually become the University of Geneva. Calvin's thought in the area of church polity was seminal as well, giving rise to various Reformed and Presbyterian systems of church government. The Consistory of Geneva, with Calvin at its helm, was influential in sending out scores of missionaries, not only to France, but also to countries as far off as Brazil. Finally, Calvin, knowing the benefits of business, was instrumental in founding and developing the silk industry in Geneva, by which many Genevans reaped monetary blessings.

Writings by Calvin

At the age of twenty-six, Calvin published several revisions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a seminal work in Christian theology that is still read today. It was published in Latin in 1536 and in his native French in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 (Latin) and in 1560 (French).

He also produced many volumes of commentary on most of the books of the Bible. For the Old Testament, he published commentaries for all books except the histories after Joshua (though he did publish his sermons on First Samuel) and the Wisdom literature other than the Book of Psalms. For the New Testament, he omitted only the brief second and third epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. (Some have suggested that Calvin questioned the canonicity of the Book of Revelation, but his citation of it as authoritative in his other writings casts doubt on that theory.) These commentaries, too, have proved to be of lasting value to students of the Bible, and they are still in print after over 400 years.

In the eighth volume of Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, the historian quotes Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (after whom the anti-Calvinistic movement Arminianism was named) with regard to the value of Calvin's writings:

Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.

Although nearly all of Calvin's adult life was spent in Geneva (1536-38 and 1541-64), his publications spread his ideas of a properly reformed church to many parts of Europe and from there to the rest of the world.

Reformed Geneva

John Calvin
John Calvin

John Calvin had been exiled from Geneva because he and his colleagues, namely William Farel and Antoine Froment, were accused of wanting to create a "new papacy." Thus, he went to Strasbourg during the time of the Ottoman wars and passed through the Cantons of Switzerland. While in Geneva, William Farel asked Calvin to help him with the cause of the Church. Calvin wrote of Farel's request, "I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course." Together with Farel, Calvin attempted to institute a number of changes to the city's governance and religious life. They drew up a catechism and a confession of faith, which they insisted all citizens must affirm. The city council refused to adopt Calvin and Farel's creed, and in January 1538 denied them the power to excommunicate, a power they saw as critical to their work. The pair responded with a blanket denial of the Lord's Supper to all Genevans at Easter services. For this the city council expelled them from the city. Farel travelled to Neuchâtel, Calvin to Strasbourg.

For three years Calvin served as a lecturer and pastor to a church of French Huguenots in Strasbourg. It was during his exile that Calvin married Idelette de Bure. He also came under the influence of Martin Bucer, who advocated a system of political and ecclesiastical structure along New Testament lines. He continued to follow developments in Geneva, and when Jacopo Sadoleto, a Catholic cardinal, penned an open letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the mother church, Calvin's response on behalf of embattled Genevan Protestants helped him to regain the respect he had lost. After a number of Calvin's supporters won election to the Geneva city council, he was invited back to the city in 1540, and having negotiated concessions such as the formation of the Consistory, he returned in 1541.

Upon his return, armed with the authority to craft the institutional form of the church, Calvin began his program of reform. He established four categories of offices based on biblical injunctions:

  • Doctors held an office of theological scholarship and teaching for the edification of the people and the training of other ministers.
  • Ministers of the Word were to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise pastoral discipline, teaching and admonishing the people.
  • Deacons oversaw institutional charity, including hospitals and anti-poverty programs.
  • Elders were 12 laymen whose task was to serve as a kind of moral police force, mostly issuing warnings, but referring offenders to the Consistory when necessary.

Critics often look to the Consistory as the emblem of Calvin's theocratic rule. The Consistory was an ecclesiastical court consisting of the elders and pastors, charged with maintaining strict order among the church's officers and members. Offenses ranged from propounding false doctrine to moral infractions, such as wild dancing and bawdy singing. Typical punishments were being required to attend public sermons or catechism classes. Whereas the city council had the power to wield the sword, the church courts held the authority of the keys of heaven. Therefore, the maximum punishment that the consistory could decree was excommunication, which was reversable upon the repentance of the offender. However, the officers of the church were considered to be the state's spiritual advisors in moral or doctrinal matters. Protestants in the 16th century were often subjected to the Catholic charge that they were innovators in doctrine, and that such innovation did lead inevitably to moral decay and, ultimately, the dissolution of society itself. Calvin claimed his wish was to establish the moral legitimacy of the church reformed according to his program, but also to promote the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Recently discovered documentation of Consistory proceedings shows at least some concern for domestic life, and women in particular. For the first time men's infidelity was punished as harshly as that of women, and the Consistory showed absolutely no tolerance for spousal abuse. The Consistory helped to transform Geneva into the city described by Scottish reformer John Knox as "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles." In 1559 Calvin founded the Collège Calvin as well as a hospital for the indigent.

Calvin and power

Engraved from the original oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, this is considered Calvin's best likeness.
Engraved from the original oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, this is considered Calvin's best likeness.

Some allege that Calvin was not above using the Consistory to further his own political aims and maintain his sway over civil and religious life in Geneva, and, it is argued, he responded harshly to any challenge to his actions. Calvin was reluctant to ordain Genevans, preferring to choose more qualified pastors from the stream of French immigrants pouring into the city for the express purpose of supporting his own program of reform. When Pierre Ameaux complained about this practice, some contend that Calvin took it as an attack on divinely ordained authority and persuaded the city council to require Ameaux to walk through the town dressed in a hair shirt and begging for mercy in the public squares.

Jacques Gruet sided with some of the old Genevan families, who resented the power and methods of the Consistory. He was implicated in an incident in which someone had placed a placard in one of the city's churches, reading:

Gross hypocrite, thou and thy companions will gain little by your pains. If you do not save yourselves by flight, nobody shall prevent your overthrow, and you will curse the hour when you left your monkery. Warning has been already given that the devil and his renegade priests were come hither to ruin every thing. But after people have suffered long they avenge themselves. Take care that you are not served like Mons.Verle of Fribourg [who was killed in a fight with the Protestants, while endeavoring to save himself by flight]. We will not have so many masters. Mark well what I say.

Gruet's views on religion were well known in Geneva, and he wrote verses about Calvin and the French immigrants that were "more malignant than poetic" ( Audin). As Gruet had been heard threatening Calvin a few days earlier, he was arrested in connection with the anonymous placard and was tortured. He confessed to the placard and to writing various other heretical documents that were found in his house, and he was beheaded.

Calvin's acceptance of torture in particular is reprehensible to modern sensibilities, but in this view, he was in accord with the prevailing attitude of that age. Few persons of any position or religious denomination were critical of the practice, though there certainly were exceptions such as Anton Praetorius and Calvin's previous good friend Sebastian Castellio.

Calvin and Servetus

The most lasting controversy of Calvin's life involves his role in the execution of Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician, radical reformer, and unitarian.

Servetus first published his views in 1531 to a wide yet unreceptive audience. He denounced the trinity, one of the few cardinal doctrines that Catholics and Protestants agreed upon. Calvin knew of these views in 1534, when he accepted Servetus' invitation to a small gathering in Paris to discuss their differences in person. For unknown reasons Servetus failed to appear.

Around 1546, Servetus initiated a correspondence with Calvin that lasted until 1548, when the exchange grew so rancorous that Calvin ended it. Each man wrote under a pen name and each tried to win the other to his own theology. Servetus even offered to come to Geneva if invited and given a guarantee of safe passage. Calvin declined to offer either. In 1546 Calvin told Farel, "[Servetus] takes it upon him to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail."

Calvin's zeal was very much the rule among civil and church authorities in 16th century Europe, above all toward Servetus' effort to spread what they deemed heresy. As early as 1533 the Spanish Inquisition had sentenced Servetus to death in absentia. Years later, in 1553, he was charged with heresy while living under an assumed name in Vienne, France. Calvin supplied crucial evidence to support the heresy charge, and some have said it was part of a plan he hatched to help French Catholic authorities carry out his dirty work. Still, the stronger evidence shows that he was reluctant to use private letters to condemn Servetus; Calvin denied any "agreement between me and the satellites of the Papacy." After Servetus escaped from the French prison in April 1553, the authorities there convicted and burned him in effigy.

Servetus came to Geneva in August 1553 and brazenly attended a Sunday church service with Calvin in the pulpit. He was recognized and arrested on Calvin's initiative. And, while Calvin also wrote the heresy charges, Geneva's city council did far more to steer Servetus' trial, sentence, and burning at the stake. Calvin asked the council for a more humane execution -- beheading instead of the stake -- but his appeal was denied, and the sentence carried out on 27 October 1553.

Servetus was the only person "put to death for his religious opinions in Geneva during Calvin's lifetime, at a time when executions of this nature were a commonplace elsewhere," but an angry debate has continued in the four-plus centuries from then till now. Opinions about the episode are often defined by the same line that separates Calvin's admirers and detractors generally.

Calvin and witchcraft

John Calvin and the other reformers (as well as Catholics in middle Europe) believed that they should not permit the practice of witchcraft, in accord with their understanding of passages such as Exodus 22:18 and Leviticus 20:27. Calvin comments on these passages under his analysis of the first of the Ten Commandments, which he understands to condemn the practice of other religions. Of witchcraft in particular, he says, "God would condemn to capital punishment all augurs, and magicians, and consulters with familiar spirits, and necromancers and followers of magic arts, as well as enchanters. And… God declares that He 'will set His face against all, that shall turn after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards,' so as to cut them off from His people; and then commands that they should be destroyed by stoning." Following this understanding of the Old Testament law, in 1545 twenty-three people were burned to death under charges of practicing witchcraft and attempting to spread the plague over a three–year period.

Popular culture

  • The character Calvin in Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes was named after John Calvin. It is thought that this reflects the young male character's belief in predestination (as justification for his behaviour), while his stuffed tiger Hobbes shares Thomas Hobbes's view of human nature.
  • The 1979 film Hardcore has a discussion between George C. Scott's Jake VanDorn and the prostitute Niki about Calvin's teachings concerning predestination and salvation.
  • In His Dark Materials, the trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman, the protagonists spend a considerable amount of time in a parallel universe where Calvin became Pope, moved the Church's centre of power to Geneva, and abolished the Papacy upon his death.

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