Who is John Calvin?
John Calvin was a Christian pastor and theologian as well as one of the prominent leaders of the Protestant Reformation, along with Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509 and he died in Geneva, Switzerland in 1564. Among his well-known works are The Institutes of the Christian Religion and his commentaries on books of the Bible.
Calvin was the son of Gérard Cauvin, or Caulvin (of which Calvin is the Latinized form) a registrar of the government of Noyon, solicitor in the ecclesiastical court, fiscal agent of the county, secretary of the bishopric, and attorney of the cathedral chapter. Calvin's mother was Jeanne Le Franc of Cambrai, noted for personal beauty and great religious fervor and strictness. Of the five sons of his parents he was the second, and but one of his younger brothers survived childhood.
His mother died while he was still young and his father married a widow, whose name is unknown, who bore him two daughters. His father's position and ambition for his sons was such that he secured for them the best educational advantages at home, association with the children of prominent families, and ecclesiastical patronage; so that Calvin on May 19, 1521, when only twelve years of age, received the chaplaincy attached to the altar of La Gésine in the cathedral of Noyon, which gave him a regular income. It was expected that he would become a priest and so he was given the tonsure.
Student of Theology
In 1523 he was sent to Paris to prepare for the priesthood. He attended for a few months the Collége de la Marche, wherein Mathurin Cordier grounded him in Latin; next the Collége de Montaigu, where he remained till the opening of 1528. The high grade of his childish friendships and of those of maturer years reveals his own character, and refutes the insinuations his detractors have dared to whisper.
That he stood well with the ecclesiastics in his native city is shown by their giving him on Sept. 27, 1527, in addition to the chaplaincy mentioned, the (nominal) curacy of Saint Martin de Martheville, eight leagues from Noyon, which he exchanged on June 5, 1529, for the curacy of Pont l'évéque, a village 1 m. w. of s. of Noyon, associated with his ancestors, who were boatmen on the Oise. On Apr. 30, 1529, he resigned his chaplaincy in favor of his younger brother, but resumed it on Feb. 26, 1531, and held it till May 4, 1534.
Student of Law and the Classics
As a student Calvin showed rare ability and was rapidly acquiring the priestly training when in 1528 his father, who had fallen out with the ecclesiastical authorities in Noyon, ordered him to change his studies to law. He meekly obeyed and left Paris for Orléans, whose university was then a famous law center, as there Pierre Taisan de l'Estoile lectured, and the next year went to Bourges, where Andrea Alciati, a rival of equal eminence, and more to Calvin's taste, was the great attraction.
In both universities he came under the influence of Melchior Wolmar, a humanist of the front rank and favorable to the Reformation. On May 26, 1531, his father died, and Calvin left Bourges and returned to Paris, to classical study and the study of Hebrew, except that from the summer of 1532 to that of 1533 he was again a student of law at Orléans and there "annual representative" of the dean of the Picard students, another indication of his moral standing and popularity with the students, for students do not honor of their own accord dubious or disagreeable characters.
First Publication and Conversion
In Apr., 1532, he published in Paris at his own expense, and at a pecuniary loss, the text of Seneca's De Clementia, with a commentary, which showed that he was still a humanist within the Roman Church. But the Reformation was making headway in France among the humanistic class to which he belonged, and so must have often been a topic of his conversation. Step by step he approached the position of the Reformers, but slowly, for, as he says himself, in the partly autobiographic preface to his commentary on the Psalms (and it is about all that is known on the subject), he "was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire."
But, some time in 1533, "God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought [his] mind to a teachable frame. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, [he] was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although [he] did not altogether leave off other studies, [he] yet pursued them with less ardor. [He] was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to [him] to learn, although [he himself] was as yet but a mere novice and tyro."
In January 1535, he was at Strasburg, and the same month at Basel. There he put the finishing touches on his "Institutes of the Christian Religion," and issued it March 1536. The persecution of the Reformed in France was its immediate occasion. He thus speaks of this famous book in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms: "My objects were, first, to vindicate my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord; and next that, as the same cruelties might very soon after be exercised against many unhappy individuals, foreign nations might be touched with at least some compassion toward them and solicitude about them.
When it was then published it was not the copious and labored work which it is now, but only a small treatise, containing a summary of the principal truths of the Christian religion; and it was published with no other design than that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed by those flagitious and perfidious flatterers. That my object was not to acquire fame appeared from this, that immediately after I left Basel, and particularly from the fact that nobody there knew that I was the author." It was prefaced by a letter to King Francis I. of France, who was an archpersecutor of Protestants in his kingdom while cultivating friendly relations with them outside, which ranks as one of the masterpieces in apologetic literature. 8. First Residence in Geneva and in Strasburg.
Rising Fame and Recall to Geneva
When Calvin went to Strasburg he thought he had done with Geneva. He was very poor, and his position was comparatively obscure, but his abilities soon brought him into prominence and appeals for advice from friends in Geneva kept him in touch with that city. He utilized his position to study and also to put into practise certain reforms he could not carry out in Geneva. And his fame rapidly spread. He was asked to share in the cathedral lecture course, next he was sent as delegate of the city to the Colloquies of Worms and Regensburg.
When on Mar. 18, 1539, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to the city of Geneva which was a plea for it to return to the Roman obedience and it was sent to Bern, it was Calvin who was requested by the Bern government to answer, and he did in his masterly fashion. A change took place in the government in Geneva and the friends of Calvin got the upper hand. Then his virtues and extraordinary powers were remembered, and on Sept. 21, 1540, the Little Council voted to try to induce him to return.
More and more the impression spread that he was the man to rule the city. There was no intention of going back to Rome, but the city was torn by faction and contained many unruly elements which needed an iron hand to hold in check. On Oct. 19 and 20 the Two Hundred and the General Assembly formally invited him to return, but the invitation was unwelcome and he would give no decided answer. But when in Feb., 1541, the impetuous Farel urged him to go, he found him as irresistible as before, and so on Sept. 13, 1541, he entered again the city of Geneva and took up the heavy task of ordering her affairs according to his high standards. He came without illusions, knowing that he was not even the choice of a majority, that he had many personal enemies, and would encounter many difficulties; but he believed that God had called him and would sustain him.Calvin's Fundamental Ideas
Calvin based his system upon the Apostles' Creed and followed its lines. Ethics and theology were handled in the closest connection. His reformation in theology was preeminently a practical affair. Even the doctrine of predestination was developed, not as a speculation, but as a matter of practical concern. By the extraordinary emphasis put upon it, the Genevans were taught to consider it almost the cornerstone of the Christian faith. In opposition to the lax views of sin and grace which the Roman Church inculcated, he revived the Augustinian doctrine in order by it to conquer Rome. In so doing he was one with Zwingli, écolampadius, Luther, and Melanchthon. But in his supralapsarian views he stood alone among the Reformers.
His views of ecclesiastical authority and discipline are also important. He allowed to the Church a greater authority than any other Reformer. Here, again, the influence of Augustine is seen. He says, "The Church is our mother" ("Institutes," IV. i. 1). Outside of the Church there is no salvation. Her ministry is divinely instituted, and to it believers are bound to pay deference. Her authority is absolute in matters of doctrine; but, when civil cases arise, she hands the offenders over to the State for punishment. State and Church have, therefore, separate and exclusive jurisdiction; yet they exist side by side, and cooperate. They mutually support each other.
The ideal government embraced a democracy, an aristocracy, and a king or autocrat. Calvin taught obedience to the powers that be. In this scheme he had in mind the Israelites. He aimed at a theocracy. He bowed before the majesty of the righteous Judge. His fear of God led him to unquestioning submission. In a sense it was his very breath; and so in his system justice is more prominent than love. God as the ruler, rather than as the lover of all in Christ, was the object of his reverence.Calvin's Reforms
In accordance with Calvin's principles was his work. During his first residence in Geneva he showed his determination to separate Church and State; and therefore he and his fellow preachers protested against the interference of the State in the matter of the use of fonts, of unleavened bread in the Lord's Supper, and in the celebration of the church-festivals, as these were properly within the ecclesiastical province. When, also, he refused the Eucharist unto the city, because of its immorality, he asserted for the Church freedom from the civil authority. This determined stand cost him temporarily his position; but, when he resumed his work in Geneva, he and the citizens knew that he aimed to rule absolutely.
The reforms he instituted are famous, and often condemned as infamous. They are, however, not only defensible, but commendable, if judged by the standard of that age. We can not withhold our admiration of the moral courage, the self-forgetfulness, the stern morality, and the uncompromising zeal with which Calvin addressed himself unto the apparently hopeless task of curbing the passions of the loose populace, and gaining the cordial cooperation of the upper classes. He succeeded. Geneva came to be regarded as a normal school of religious life. Religion was the life of the greater part of the inhabitants.
With a correct insight into the necessities of the case, Calvin declared immediately after his victorious reentry that he could not take up work without a reorganization of the Church; viz., by the formation of a church-court, which should have full authority to maintain discipline. On Nov. 20, 1541, at a popular meeting, the scheme he drew up was ratified. This provided for a consistory, composed of the pastors of the city churches, who were five in number, and three assistants, and twelve elders - one of the latter to be a syndic and their president - which met every Thursday, and put under church-discipline, without respect of persons, every species of evil-doers. The rigor and vigor of this administration quickly awakened natural indignation, in part even among those who on the whole favored Calvin. His life was at times in danger. Some showed their terrified contempt for him by naming their dogs after him.
In a city like Geneva, full of refugees of every description, there were many who looked upon all restraint as oppression; others who objected to Calvin's measures as going too far, or criticized his methods. In order still further to increase the authority of the church-court, Calvin secured (1555) an important modification of the city government, whereby the Conseil Général (the "General Council"), the highest law-making body, was only called twice a yearéin February to elect syndics, and in November to fill some minor offices, and fix the price of wine. But nothing might be discussed in this meeting which had not been previously determined upon in the Council of Two Hundred; nor in the latter which the Council of Sixty did not approve of; nor could this council take up anything not previously agreed to in the highest council, which thus practically governed the State. The General Council became in this way a superfluity, without the power of initiative. It had, however, accomplished its missionéaccepted the Reformation.
Most prominent among the means Calvin used to reform the city was preaching. Every other week he preached every day in plain, direct, convincing fashion, without eloquence, but still irresistibly; and the life that the preacher led constituted his strongest claim to attention. The reports of his sermons are probably from notes made by his hearers; which was the easier done, because, being asthmatic, he spoke very slowly. Every Friday the so-called "Congregation" was held, in which questions were answered, and debates even carried on. Minors were carefully instructed in a catechism originally prepared by Calvin in French and Latin, 1545. In 1537 he had issued a French, and in 1538 a Latin catechism, which was a mere abridgment or syllabus of his "Institutes," and was not in the form of question and answer; but the catechism of 1545 was in the usual form.
Calvin has the credit of first introducing congregational singing into the worship of the Reformed Church in Geneva. The first songs were some of his own metrical renderings of the Psalms.
Like Zwingli and Luther, Calvin had his difficulties with the Anabaptists. He met them in public debate Mar. 16-17, 1537, and in the opinion of the Council of Two Hundred effectually disposed of their arguments. So on Mar. 19 it passed a sentence of perpetual banishment against them.Calvin's Opponents and the Burning of Servetus
But Calvin had personal controversies, the chief of which were:
(1) First with Pierre Caroli, a French refugee and pastor in Lausanne, a religious chameleon, whose latest hue was that of a stickler for orthodoxy. Calvin was very indifferent to the terminology of theology, so long as the truth was expressed. In discussing the nature of the Godhead during his first residence in Geneva, he avoided using the words "Trinity" and "Person," although he had no particular objection to them; and so they did not occur in the Confession of Faith which he drew up, and to which the citizens of Geneva were compelled to assent; nor did the Geneva Church subscribe formally to the Athanasian Creed. Caroli accused Calvin and his fellow divines of Arianism and Sabellianism; and so plausible was the charge, that Calvin was greatly troubled. However, in the synod of 1537, held in Bern, the Genevan divines fully cleared themselves, and Caroli was deposed and banished.
(2) Philibert Berthelier, the son of a martyr for freedom, was forbidden the communion (1553) by the consistory. The council absolved the ban. Calvin from the pulpit, two days before the September Communion (one of the four yearly occasions), declared that he would die sooner than give the Lord's holy things to one under condemnation for despising God. Perrin, who was then syndic for the second time, ordered Berthelier to stay away from communion, and so ended a dispute from which the enemies of Calvin had hoped a great deal.
(3) Jéréme Hermés Bolsec, whose presumption in denying predestination, and abusing the ministers at a "Congregation," drew upon him, not only Calvin's indignant reply at the time, but also imprisonment and banishment (1551).
(4) Sebastian Castellio, a learned but arrogant man, won Calvin's opposition because of his denial of the inspiration of the Canticles and of the descent of Christ into hell.
(5) But by far the most famous of all Calvin's opponents was Michael Servetus, who seems to have been a rather flippant person. It is said he desired Calvin's banishment in order that he might be installed in his place. To this end he accused Calvin of perfidious, tyrannical, and unchristian conduct. It is no wonder, therefore, that Calvin treated him harshly. It is idle to shield Calvin from the charge of bringing about Servetus's death, although it is true that the mode adopted (burning) did not meet with his approval - he wished to have him beheaded; but at the same time it is easy to excuse him on the ground of the persecuting spirit of his age. The Protestants who had felt the persecution of Rome were ready to persecute all who did not follow them.
The burning of Servetus (Oct. 27, 1553) for the crime of heresy, specifically antitrinitarianism, was approved by the Helvetic Church, and, what is more remarkable, by the mild Melanchthon; but it failed even then to win universal approval, and now it is usually considered a sad, ineffaceable blot upon Calvin's character. Many who know nothing else of either Calvin or Servetus are very indignant over the tragedy, and apparently reject Calvinism because of it. We ought rather to mourn than to censure. Servetus knew the danger he braved in coming to Geneva. He had as early as 1534 been in debate with Calvin, although they did not meet personally. On his intimating an intention to visit Geneva, Calvin gave him fair warning, that, if he came, he would prosecute him to the death. ("I shall never permit him to depart alive if my authority is great enough." Calvin to Farel, Feb. 13, 1546 (cf. Calvin's Letters, Eng. transl., ii. 33)). While, therefore, Calvin may be held responsible for Servetus's death, he must be cleared of the charges of having allured Servetus to Geneva, and of rejoicing in his death on personal grounds.
No good came of the execution, only evil ridicule from the Roman Catholics, and the adverse criticism from many friends. It likewise failed to check the antitrinitarian heresy. Calvin defended himself, and Beza aided him; but no defense could excuse the facts. In 1903 a penitential monument was erected on the place of his burning.His Ecclesiastical Influence
By his lectures Calvin attracted students from every quarter. He often had as many as a thousand: therefore his influence was constantly spreading. As was natural, it was most formative in France, whence most of his pupils came, and to whose Protestants Calvin was leader and spiritual father. But in other lands he exerted his power. In Italy he came to the aid of the troubled duchess of Ferrara. To England he sent his commentary on Isaiah, with a dedication to the youthful king, Edward VI. To Cranmer he wrote letters; and through Knox he molded Scotland. He counseled the Moravian Brethren. He helped the Poles in the Trinitarian controversy, and likewise the Reformed cause in Hungary. He also prepared, in his way, the present interest in foreign missions by his unfortunate mission to Brazil in 1555.
Calvin's relations with Switzerland and Germany were unpleasant. He strove most earnestly to unite the different branches of the Protestant Church. But unhappily he was suspected by many Swiss of Lutheran views on the Lord's Supperéfor this was the controverted pointéand by many Germans of too much Zwinglianism; so that he made but an indifferent mediator. He had high hopes of the Consensus of Zurich (1549), which harmonized the Swiss churches; but the controversy with the Lutherans was violently renewed by Hesshus.Calvin's Character
The common conception of Calvin is erroneous. He was not the stony-hearted tyrant, the relentless persecutor, the gloomy theologian, the popular picture represents him to have been. Men, by a blessed inconsistency, are often kinder than their creeds. So, at all events, was Calvin. To the superficial observer he is not attractive; but it is the opinion of every one who has studied him that he improves upon acquaintance. Granted that he was constitutionally intolerant; that he did draft and sternly carry out regulations which were vexatious and needlessly severe; that he knew no other standpoint in government, morals, or theology than his ownéhe had qualities which entitle him to respect and admiration. He was refined, conscientious, pure, faithful, honest, humble, pious. He attracted men by the strength of his character, the loftiness of his aims, and the directness of his efforts. He had the common human affections. He loved his wife, and mourned her death. He grieved over his childlessness. He took delight in his friends; and they were the noblest in the Protestant Church.
Somewhat of the forbidding aspect of his life may perhaps be accounted for by the unnatural life he was forced to lead. He desired to spend his days in study; whereas he was forced to incessant, multifarious, and most prominent labor. Experience shows there is no harder master than a timid man compelled to lead. Again, his ill-health must be taken into account. He was a chronic invalid. Such men are not apt to be gentle. The wonder rather is that he showed so patient a spirit. The popular verdict has been given against him; but vox populi is not always vox dei. What Beza, his biographer, wrote is nearer truth: "Having been an observer of Calvin's life for sixteen years, I may with perfect right testify that we have in this man a most beautiful example of a truly Christian life and death, which it is easy to calumniate, but difficult to imitate." Ernest Renan finds the key to his influence in the fact that he was "the most Christian man of his generation" (Studies of Religious History and Criticism, New York, 1864 pp. 286 sqq.).Calvin's Personal Appearance
Calvin was of middle stature, and, through feeble health, of meager and emaciated frame. He had a thin, pale, finely chiseled face, a well-formed mouth, a long, pointed beard, black hair, a prominent nose, a lofty forehead, and flaming eyes. He was modest, plain, and scrupulously neat in dress, orderly and methodical in all his habits, temperate, and even abstemious, allowing himself scarcely food and sleep enough for vigorous work. (The famous portrait by Ary Scheffer is too much idealized.)
This article is reprinted from Philip Schaff, Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. II (Baker Book House, 1953). The text is in the public domain. Related articles, books and links added by the editor.More Online Resources on John Calvin
- Institutes of the Christian Religion - large PDF file (944 pages)
- Calvin's Commentaries - complete set, nice index
- On the Christian Life - trans. Henry Beveridge
- Catholic Encyclopedia on John Calvin
- Richard Hooker on John Calvin
- Calvin's Commentaries, 22 Volumes.
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Volumes.
- The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection on CD-ROM
- Ford Lewis Battles, Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin.
- Mark Fackler, Day by Day with John Calvin.
- Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin.
- John Calvin: Sovereign Hope Christian Classics Study Guides