John Calvin

by Josiah Audette

In case you did not know, yesterday we celebrated the 503rd birthday of the great reformer, John Calvin. The following is a considerably brief biography and commentary on the life and work of the reformer. Calvin was born July 10 (One biographer even nailed it down to 1:27 p.m.) in Noyon, France just seventy miles northeast of Paris.


In humble accordance with the wishes of his father, Gerard Calvin, John Calvin started his studies for the legal profession at the youthful age of fourteen in the three leading French universities (Orleans, Bourges, and Paris) from 1523 to 1533. Notwithstanding, Calvin, having no conviction for such a particular calling, turned to the study of Theology after his fathers death and found it a sphere of discipline which most aptly suited his natural endowments and personal choice. While Calvin had no affixing sentiments toward the legal profession he valued the education he did attain and would later dedicate one of his commentaries to an old teacher, Mathurin Cordier, with these grateful words, “When my father sent me, still only a boy, to Paris…, Providence so ordered it that for a short time I had the privilege of having you as my teacher, so that I might be taught by you the true method of learning.” Calvin would also dedicate a future commentary to his beloved Greek teacher, Melchior Wolmar of the University of Orleans. “Under your direction I added to the study of law Greek literature, of which you were than a celebrated professor.” As you can very well see, Calvin was an outstanding student and as such received his first Master’s degree at the modest age of eighteen. Dr. Lorraine Boettner in his brief biography of Calvin described him as, “Having been of a shy and retiring nature, very studious and punctual in his work, animated by a strict sense of duty, and exceedingly religious. He early showed himself possessed of an intellect capable of clear, convincing argument and logical analysis.”


The eminent church historian Phillip Schaff reminds us that, “All Reformers were born, baptized, confirmed, and educated in the historic Catholic Church, which cast them out; as the Apostles were circumcised and trained in the Synagogue, which cast them out.” John Calvin was certainly no exception to this historical precedent. Calvin was in his early years a devout Catholic of unblemished character.  At the age of twenty-two Calvin wrote his first book, De Celementia, on the Roman philosopher Seneca, and dedicated it to the bishop of his hometown monastery. In it Calvin wrote this work in pristine Latin, capably quoted 56 Latin writers, 22 Greek writers, and 7 historic church fathers. Yet rather abruptly, Calvin converted to the impoverished and oppressed Protestantism sect despite the prosperous future which waited for him as a Catholic theologian and churchman. In his own worlds, “God by a sudden conversion subdued my heart. I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave of other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardor.” Despite his new conversion, Calvin faithfully remained in the Catholic church with the honest intention of reforming it from within. However, circumstances changed readily on November 1, 1533.


Nicholas Cop a close friend of Calvin was delivering the inaugural oration on All Saint’s Day to a large assembly in the Church of the Mathurins having been elected Rector of the University just a month prior. The speech had been prepared by Calvin at Cop’s request. The oration was summarily a humble appeal to reformation and a valiant condemnation of the theologians of the day who Calvin portrayed as being ignorant of the Gospel. Naturally, the Sorbonne and the Parliament considered this academic lecture as a brazen manifesto declaring war on the Catholic Church and therewith burnt the document to ashes. Cop fled to his relatives in Basel, Calvin escaped from Paris, and 24 innocent Protestants were burned at the stake in public places as a result of the fury of the Catholics.


For the next three years Calvin traveled as a  religious refugee from France to Switzerland to Italy to finally Geneva, a newly declared Protestant city. Calvin had not intended to make a permanent abode in Geneva but providence would have it otherwise. His arrival in Geneva was made known to the Geneva reformer and evangelist, William Farel. Knowing Calvin to be a competent reformer, Farel hastened to secure Calvin to the city in order to save the struggling reformation movement. Schaff gives a remarkable account of Farel’s convincing Calvin to remain in a city which he wanted nothing to do with in the first place due to its severe nature. “Farel at once called on Calvin and held him fast, as by divine command. Calvin protested, pleaded his youth, his inexperience, his need of further study, his natural timidity, and bashfulness which unfitted him for public action. But all in vain. Farel, ‘who burned of a marvelous zeal to advance the Gospel,’ threatened him with the curse of Almighty God if he preferred his studies to the work of the Lord, and his own interest to the cause of Christ” Calvin, consistent with his submissive nature previously noted, felt, “As if God from on high had stretched out His hand.” Calvin conceded to Farel’s boisterous summons and accepted the call as a pastor in Geneva in 1536.


Calvin made for an excellent pastor during the pandemonium of the Catholic persecution and surge of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin with the heart of a pastor wrote, “I long for one holy communion of the members of Christ. As for me, if I can be of service, I would gladly cross ten seas in order to bring about this unity.” And of service Calvin was. R.C. Reed gives an account of Calvin’s notable perseverance in advancing the reformation, “He toiled for it to the utmost limit of his strength, fought for it with a courage that never quailed, suffered for it with a fortitude that never wavered, and was ready at any moment to die for it. He literally poured every drop of life into it, unhesitatingly, unsparingly. History will be searched in vain to find a man who gave himself to one definite purpose with more unalterable persistence, and with more lavish self-abandon than Calvin gave himself to the Reformation of the 16th century.” Calvin indeed also overcame as many trials as would be comparable to the crossing of ten seas. As Dr. Lorraine Boettner records, “Living in a fiercely polemic age, and standing on the watchtower of the reform movement in Western Europe, he was the observed of all observers, and was exposed to attacks from every quarter.”


Most significant of all Calvin’s achievements was that of his, “Institutes of Christian Religion,” the fist editions of which he published in Latin at just twenty-six years of age in 1536. Dedicated to, “His most Christian Majesty, Francis, King of the French and his Sovereign” the institutes were written as a help to the new and persecuted Protestants of France and greater Europe. “When I began this work, Sire,” continued Calvin to his king, “Nothing was farther from my thoughts than writing a book which would afterwards be presented to your Majesty… this labor I undertook chiefly for my country men, the French, of whom I apprehended multitude to be hungering and thirsting after Christ, but saw very few possessing any real knowledge of Him… But when I saw that the fury of certain wicked men in your kingdom had grown to such a height as to leave no room in the land for sound doctrine, I thought I should be usefully employed in the same work I delivered my instructions to them, and exhibited my confession to you, that you may know the nature of that doctrine which is the object of such unbounded rage to those madmen who are now disturbing the country with fire and sword.” The institutes were a marvel of intellectual precocity and were later enlarged to five times the size of the original. Most extraordinary of all was the fact that Calvin never made any radical departures from the doctrines set forth in previous editions, but  rather in every case built on the teachings of past works. Such theological consistency and regularity is an astounding literary precedent.  “The value of such a gift to the reformation” says Reed, “cannot easily be exaggerated. Protestants and Romanists bore equal testimony to its worth. The one hailed it as the greatest boon; the other execrated it with the bitterest curses. It was burnt by order of the Sorbonne at Paris an other places, and everywhere it called forth the fiercest assaults of tongue and pen. Florimond de Raemond, a Roman Catholic theologian, calls it ‘The Koran, the Talmud of heresy, the foremost cause of our downfall.’ Kampuchulte, another Roman Catholic, testifies that ‘It was the common arsenal from which the opponents of the Old Church borrowed their keenest weapons,’ and that ‘No writing of the Reformation era was more feared by Roman Catholics, more zealously fought against, and more bitterly pursued than Calvin’s Institutes.’ Its popularity was evidenced by the fact that edition followed edition in quick succession; it was translated into most of the languages of western Europe; it became the common text-book in the schools of the Reformed Churches, and furnished the material out of which their creeds were made.” Just a few weeks after the publication of the Institutes Bucer, who ranks third among the Reformers in Germany, wrote to Calvin, “It is evident that the Lord had elected you as His organ for the bestowment of the richest fulness of blessing to His Church.” The great Dr. B.B. Warfield wrote, “Of all the services which Calvin rendered to humanity – and they were neither few nor small – the greatest was undoubtably his gift to it afresh of this system of religious thought, quickened into new life by the forces of his genius.” “After three centuries and a half” Warfield continued, “It retains its unquestioned preeminence as the greatest and most influential of all dogmatic treatises… Even from the point of mere literature, it holds a position so supreme in its class that every one who would fain know the world’s best books, must make himself familiar with it. What Thucydides is among Greek, or Gibbon among eighteenth-century English historians, what Plato is among philosophers, or the Iliad among epics, or Shakespeare among dramatists, that Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ is among theological treatises.”


Dr. Lorraine Boettner hailed Calvin, along with Augustine, “As the two outstanding systematic expounders of the Christian system since St. Paul.”  And so it would be no surprise that Calvin wrote exegetical , expositional commentaries of nearly all books of the Bible in 55 volumes. Again, in the words of Boettner, “As Luther was the prince of translators, so Calvin was the prince of commentators.” Commentaries from the earliest centuries, following in the Roman Catholic history and tradition, allegorized the Scriptures, which, in the words of Reed, “Converts the Bible into a nose of wax, and makes a lively fancy the prime qualification of an exegete.” Calvin did no such act. Characterizing Calvin’s commentaries was the carefully observation of the meaning of the text line by line, word by word. Furthermore, while Calvin wrote with the lofty mind of a theologian, he mercifully expressed his thoughts in the everyday language of the layman. Additionally Calvin exposed the corrupt doctrines, practices, and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church while exalting the authority of Scripture alone. With Calvin’s superior education in the Latin, French, Greek, and Hebrew languages and his thorough understanding of theology his commentaries were like unto no other and remain so to this day.


Due to an attempt of Calvin and Farel to enforce a system of church discipline in Geneva which was deemed severe, it became necessary for them both to leave the city in 1538. Calvin and Farel requested that four reforms be made in the church of Geneva. Presented in a hand written letter to the Geneva Little Council, Calvin stated, “It is not possible to reduce everything to good order in a moment… But now that it has pleased the Lord a little to better establish His reign here, it seemed to us good… to confer together concerning these things… praying you in the name of God that… if… you see that our advice is from the holy Word of the Gospel, take good care that these observations be received and obeyed in your city…” The first observation was that, “In order to maintain the church in its integrity, the discipline of excommunication is necessary.” To the Geneva council excommunication was a mighty weapon, one which the Geneva state was not willing to properly render to the Geneva church. Calvin went on with his second request, “It would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday, at least as a rule.”The third article” Calvin continued, “Concerns the instruction of children, who without doubt ought to make a confession of their faith to the church.” And to make such a confession Calvin desired to write and implement a catechism to be taught to the children by their parents. Fourthly and finally Calvin requested, “There are the Psalms which we desire to be sung in the church.” The radicalness of this request is that no congregation had sung in a church institution for centuries. The councils did not decide against the singing of Psalms, the catechizing of children, but the “observations” of excommunication and the Lord’s Supper were near to intolerable. Counsel in direct dissent to Calvin and Farel ordered the two preachers not to exclude or excommunicate anyone from the Lord’s Supper, regardless of the religious abuse which would result. On Easter Sunday, after severe political and social hostility toward Calvin and Farel, both men denied the celebration of the Holy Communion outright to each of their respective churches. Council the following day gave the preachers three days to “Get themselves out of our city.” Calvin then journeyed to Strassburg where he was to spend the next three years enjoyably, as a professor, pastor, and author. It was to be here also that Calvin would meet his wife, Idelette de Bure and marry her in August. of 1940. During his leave of Geneva affairs became so dire that the fruits of the Reformation were in peril of being lost and Calvin was urgently requested to return to Geneva. “We pray you very earnestly that you would transfer yourself hitherward to us, and return to your old place and former ministry… Your good friends, The Syndics and Council of Geneva. October 22, 1540.” Calvin certainly didn’t hide his utter repulsion to the notion of moving back to Geneva in his letter to Farel, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one hand to perish daily a thousand times over.” Lest he had not made himself clear Calvin wrote again, but this time to Viret, “There is no place under heaven of which I can have a greater dread.” With much more imploring from Geneva, Calvin in his submissive nature returned in 1541 and continued where he left off. Such reservation against Geneva wasn’t unwarranted. “The Genevese” records Philip Schaff, “Were a light-hearted, joyous people, fond of public amusements, dancing, singing, masquerades, and revelries. Recklessness, gambling, drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, and all sorts of vice abounded. Prostitution was sanctioned by the authority of the State, and superintended by a woman called the Reine de bordel. The people were ignorant. The priests had taken no pains to instruct them, and had set them a bad example.” Calvin’s return was not in vain though, in accordance with the cry of the reformation and the later inscription over the Geneva town hall, “POST  TENEBRAS LUX. “After Darkness Light.”


On the first Sunday John Calvin mounted the pulpit again to the waiting public. One would have expected him to speak on the reasons of his exile and return, but in faithfulness to the expositional teaching of the Scriptures, Calvin started at the exact verse where he had discontinued over three years earlier. Calvin brought much reform to the church in Geneva. In addition to implementing the four “observations” which had ousted him from Geneva in the first place, Calvin freed the church from government control. Thus essentially bringing about the separation of the church and state. In addition to his civil work, Calvin drafted his famous Ecclesiastical Ordinances for the Geneva church. As a direct result of Calvin’s faithful service, Geneva rose to a city famed for its quiet, orderly, and peaceable citizens.


All reformers were highly educated men and like Calvin, knew the value of sound education for the promotion of pure religion and public welfare. Such values of the reformation materialized in the erection of the Genevan University in 1552.  The famous Geneva academy opened in 1558 in which Calvin was an associate professor along with ten other respected teachers. The school gave instruction in grammar, logic, mathematics, physics, music, and the ancient languages. In its opening year over nine hundred students, mostly protestant refugees, enrolled. For over two centuries it remained the foremost academy of Reformed Theology and literary culture. In the words of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox, who was a student under Calvin’s institution at the time, the Geneva school was “The most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles.”


Calvin died in the year 1564 at a comparatively young age of fifty-five. Thomas Beza, a close friend and academic colleague, describes his death being peaceful and then adds, “Thus withdrew into heaven, at the same time with the setting sun, that most brilliant luminary, which was the lamp of the Church. On the following night and day there was intense grief and lamentation in the whole city; for the Republic had lost its wisest citizen, the Church its faithful shepherd, and the Academy an incomparable teacher.” Schaff records that, “Calvin had expressly forbidden all pomp at his funeral and the erection of any monument over the grave. He wished to be buried, like Moses, out of the reach of idolatry. This was consistent, with his theology, which humbles man and exalts God.” Calvin’s close Geneva companion, William Farel, said on his death, “Oh, how happily he has run a noble race. Let us run like him, according to the measure of grace given us.”


Much, much more could be written (And has) on the life and ministry of John Calvin, and furthermore his lasting legacy. But if I were to sum it up, I would borrow from that famous line of Alfred North Whitehead and declare, “All Western Civilization is a footnote to… Calvin.”