The below is a short introduction to John Calvin that was written for a class on Church History.
From his earliest days as a Protestant Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564) has been either highly esteemed as the greatest systematician of reformation theology, or otherwise severely loathed as a controlling leader who accurately imaged the God he wrote about. Whatever ones perception of Calvin may be, it cannot be denied that his life, theology, and writings had a profound impact on the future of Christendom. This was true, not only in his home continent of Europe, but likewise in the development of the New World. For this reason, it is important to understand the life of this looming figure, and the way in which his works and theology shaped the religious and social thinking of future generations.
Calvin’s father originally had intentions for his son to enter the priesthood, fine intentions that were later changed, for financial reasons, to the pursuit of a career in law. These endeavors made a bright student and admirable scholar out of the young man who would attend several prestigious schools. In his studies, Calvin found himself interacting with the ideas of various humanists and reformers, ideas that would prove to have a profound impact on his own thinking.
Because Calvin was not prone to write much concerning himself, historians are uncertain as to the precise date and nature of his conversion to Protestantism. However, in his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin permits keen insight into how his conversion not only changed the state of his religious mind, but likewise the direction of his life as a whole. Though his father had him studying law for financial gain, Calvin says that “God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course.” He continues on to refer to his devotion to Rome as “an abyss of mire” that God had delivered him from. In this “sudden conversion,” God had made Calvin’s mind teachable, redirecting his studies, and giving him an intense desire for pure doctrine. It is easy to see, then, how Calvin’s conversion would shape his future endeavors and transform this ardent classics and legal scholar into one of the greatest theologians of the Reformation.
Through his conversion, Calvin had come to pursue the study and propagating of pure doctrine in the scholastic realm. The direction of his life, however, would still prove to be directed by the mysterious workings of the providence of God. At the University of Paris, Calvin would find himself fleeing persecution, after helping to fashion together a University address that promoted the reformed faith. Upon leaving Paris, Calvin set his eyes towards Strasbourg, home of reformer Martin Bucer, where he hoped to continue his writing and studies undisturbed.
En route to Strasbourg, Calvin made a brief stop in Geneva, where a city minister, seeking the reformation of the city, heard that the genius author of the Institutes of Christian Religion was passing through. Upon finding Calvin, William Farel resolutely insisted that he had a duty to remain in the city and assist him in its reformation. Though clearly desiring to arrive at his destination to continue his studies, Calvin yielded to Farel’s firm request. The two quickly began working with other ecclesiastical and civil leaders to bring about the reformation of church, state, and culture in the city. This endeavor, however, was not successful or taken well by the city’s residents who eventually expelled the them both.
Removed from Geneva, Calvin finally made it to Strasbourg where he served as the pastor of a French congregation in Bucer’s city. This was a formidable time for the reformer, as he was able to not only continue his writing and studies, but also mature and develop as a pastor and reformer. However, Genevan leaders would soon find themselves calling Calvin and his reformational ideas back to the city. Upon return, he began where he left off, only this time as a matured and experienced minister, more prepared to shephered the flock of God.
The rest of Calvin’s time in Geneva yielded great fruit for the Reformation. Though some have tried to caricature Calvin as a theocratic dictator of the city, he held no real citizenship in Geneva, let alone any position of official civic leadership. His ideas and person, however, were held in high esteem by the actual city officials, who often sought out his guidance on various public matters. Despite his obvious influence, Calvin’s direct power was entirely limited to the ecclesiastical realm.
One such example which Calvin has become infamous for, is the execution of Michael Servetus. Servetus, a physcians and writer already wanted by Rome for his teachings, had found his way to Geneva where his doctrine clashed with Calvin and the city officials. Servetus was condemned by the city for heresy, particularly for denying the doctrine of Trinity, and was eventually executed. Though Calvin surely abhorred the teachings of Servetus and supported the state’s power to suppress heresy, he held no direct involvement in the condemnation and execution of Servetus. One scholar has even argued that Calvin desired greater mercy to be shown to Servetus than he had actually received.
Throughout his life, Calvin developed quite a remarkable number of prominent written works. Among the most important of these was his Institutes of Christian Religion, which Alister McGrath calls “the most influential theological work of the Protestant Reformation, eclipsing in importance the rival works of Luther, Melanchthon, and Zwingli.” First published in 1536 with only six chapters, Calvin would continue additions to the Institutes throughout his life until finally completing a monstrous work that covered four different “books” comprised of 80 total chapters. The contents of his work covered the knowledge of God as creator and redeemer, how one participates in Christ, and the external means by which God brings sinners to himself.
Among his other important works are his commentaries and sermons on the bible. Calvin wrote commentaries on almost every book of the bible, starting first with what seems to be the favorite book of almost every reformer – Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Likewise, Calvin taught and preached exegetically, verse by verse through whole books of the bible. He was so convinced of this approach, says historian David Calhoun, that upon returning from his banishment from Geneva, Calvin returned to his pulpit and continued preaching from the same exact chapter and verse that he had left off on before being removed.
Two other influential works of Calvin are worth being quickly noted. First, Calvin held the honor of drafting the confession of faith for the reformed church in France. This Gallic Confession was written by Calvin and received by the church synod in Paris with only minor changes. Second, Calvin, before even the Scottish John Knox, is particularly known as the father of Presbyterianism. This is due, in part, because he was largely responsible for fashioning together this form of ecclesiastical governance – one which he saw as coming directly out of the Scriptures. In the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, Calvin and the Genevan Council set forth what is believed to be the biblical organization and duty of the Church and its officers. Not only this, but it likewise sets forth some concerns as to the relationship and duties of Church and State. These two works and their ensuing application would prove to have lasting effects, not only on the Church in Calvin’s Geneva and France, but on the future of western culture as a whole.
The life and writings of John Calvin have been briefly covered thus far, but what is so unique about his theology? Of utmost importance in Calvin’s entire theology is his understanding of the nature of Church. For Calvin, the two sure marks of the true Church are the Word and Sacraments. In his Institutes, Calvin submits that “wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and listened to, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, it is in no way to be doubted that a church of God exists.” Whereas Calvin clearly departed with Rome in this thinking, he also differed with Martin Bucer who held out ecclesiastical discipline as an essential mark of the being of the Church. Thus, for Calvin, of utmost importance to the being of the Church was Word and Sacrament; discipline, among other biblical traits, may be necessary for her well-being, but not for her essential being.
Within ecclesiology, another area of uniqueness in Calvin was his understanding of the sacraments. Particularly in regards to his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin offered a via media on the disagreement between Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and their followers. The debate between these two reformers concentrated on the relationship “between the sacramental sign and the spiritual gift which is signified.” Whereas Calvin denied the Lutheran understanding, that the physical presence of Christ is locally with and under the elements of bread and wine, he also whole heartedly denied Zwingli’s mere memorialism. Calvin held that there was a real and true connection between the sign and the thing signified, but that they should also be clearly distinguished from one another. Thus, in the Supper, Calvin held that the elements remained truly bread and wine, and that Christ remained physically and locally in heaven. And yet Calvin still maintained the real and full presence of Christ with believers in the sacrament. How was this possible? Calvin’s doctrine of the believers union with Christ assured those who received the elements in faith that Christ was really with them and feeding them by his Spirit in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Calvin was no perfect man or minister. On his deathbed, the sickly Calvin acknowledged himself “to be a miserable sinner,” and confessed that he had “failed innumerable times to execute [his] office properly.” In his last hours, this great reformer threw himself entirely on the mercy of Christ, admitting that, had it not been for God’s goodness, all of his zeal would have been in vain. Though he insisted on being placed in an unmarked grave, Calvin’s imperfect yet sanctified zeal lived on in the furtherance of the Reformation. Perhaps most evident is this in those students and ministers who took his ideals out of Geneva and brought about reformation in their own countries. Men like John Knox, the father of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, who worked alongside Calvin and was no doubt influenced by the man. Time would tell that the English Puritans, French Huguenots, would make use of the works and example of John Calvin in their own attempt to reform their churches and cultures to the glory of God.
Alister E. McGrath. Reformation Thought, An Introduction: Fourth Edition. UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
Bruce Shelley. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, TN: Harper Collins, 2013.
David Calhoun. “The Life of John Calvin.” Lecture, Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, MO, 2006. Accessed May 28, 2017. https://www.covenantseminary.edu/resources/reformation-modern-church-history/
E.S Ra. “The Question of Calvin’s Involvement in the Trial of Servetus at Vienne (1553).” Verbum et Ecclesia; Vol 23, No 1 (2002). 168-182. Accessed June 1, 2017. doi: 10.4102/ve.v23i1.1216
John Calvin. Commentary on the Psalms –Volume 1. Translated and collated by James Anderson. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005. Accessed May 31, 2017. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.vi.html
John Calvin and the Geneva Council “The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541)” Virtual Museum of Protestantism. Accessed June 1, 2017. https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-ecclesiastical-ordinances-1541/
John Piper. John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God.Weaton, IL: Crossway, 2009
Keith A. Matthison. Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011.
Paul Helm. Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T & T Clark International, 2008.
- Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, TN: Harper Collins, 2013. 268.
- Calvin, John. Commentary on the Psalms –Volume 1. Translated and collated by James Anderson. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005. Accessed May 31, 2017. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.vi.html
- Shelley, Plain Language, 268.
- Calhoun, David. “The Life of John Calvin.” Lecture, Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, MO, 2006. Accessed May 28, 2017. https://www.covenantseminary.edu/resources/reformation-modern-church-history/
- Calhoun, “Calvin,” Lecture
- McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought, An Introduction: Fourth Edition. UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. 220.
- Ra, E.S. “The Question of Calvin’s Involvement in the Trial of Servetus at Vienne (1553).” Verbum et Ecclesia; Vol 23, No 1 (2002), 168-182. Accessed June 1, 2017. doi: 10.4102/ve.v23i1.1216
- Calhoun, “Calvin,” Lecture.
- McGrath, Reformation Thought, 251.
- Calvin, John. Institutes of Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2008.
- Calhoun, “Calvin,” Lecture.
- Calvin, John and the Geneva Council “The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541)” Virtual Museum of Protestantism. Accessed June 1, 2017. https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-ecclesiastical-ordinances-1541/
- Quoted in McGrath, Reformation Thought, 153.
- Ibid, 154.
- Ibid, 186.
- For an introductory overview of this topic see Helm, Paul. Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T & T Clark International, 2008. 118-123.For a more comprehensive overview see Mathison, Keith A.. Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011.
- Quoted in Piper, John. John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God.Weaton, IL: Crossway, 2009. 58.
- Calhoun, “Calvin,” Lecture.