John Calvin was a French theologian and pastor who was an instrumental figure in the Protestant Reformation. After his death, Calvinism became an influential religious doctrine which believed in thrift, hard work, a puritanical morality and the religious dogmas of predestination and eternal damnation for those who did not seek salvation from God.
Calvin was born 10 July 1509 at Noyon, a town in Picardy, France. He received a high standard of education, studying at College de Montaigu in Paris. He planned a career in the church but aged 16 his father enrolled him in the University of Orleans to study law, probably because a lawyer was more remunerative than church life. In 1529, he enrolled at the University of Bourges, where he was inspired by Andreas Alciati, a humanist lawyer. For a while, Calvin pursued humanist studies which included the great classical writers such as Aristotle and Plato.
However, around 1530, the young Calvin underwent a religious conversion. He left his religion of birth – the Roman Catholic Church and felt a burning desire to pursue his new understanding of ‘Godliness’.
“Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardour.”
John Calvin: Selections from His Writings p26
This conversion mirrored the Protestant Reformation which had recently begun with Martin Luther in 1517. A reaction against the abuses of the Catholic church, such as the selling of indulgences.
The Reformation created serious tension between those who wished to reform the Catholic church and those who were loyal to the old traditions. As a result of Calvin being associated with reformers, he was forced to leave France, and in 1535, he fled to Basel in Switzerland, a city which had become a haven for those seeking to reform the church.
In 1536, he published his first religious book – Institutio Christianae Religionis or Institutes of the Christian religion. It set out the position of Christian reformers in a comprehensive and systematic way. It was intended to be an introduction to the Christian faith and became a key book of the Protestant Reformation. He revised this book over the course of his life.
Doctrine of Calvin
Calvin placed great emphasis on the study of scripture. He defended the Trinity and opposed the use of idols (common in the Catholic church.) Calvin believed in the providence of God and fate. Arguing everything that happens is the will of God – even if we do not understand. Controversially, Calvin went further than Augustine, stating some are predestined by God to eternal hell while others are chosen by God to live righteously and join the ranks of the ‘saved’.
“All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”
– John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (1536)
Quoting church fathers, Calvin emphasizes the fallen nature of man – the inherent sinfulness we inherited from Adam and Eve. The only redemption is for humanity to seek forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
After a brief visit to France, Calvin set off for Strasburg, but to avoid the French imperial forces, made a detour south to Geneva. In Geneva, he stayed with William Farel, a French reformer who pleaded with Calvin to stay and share his work of expressing publicly the new doctrines of the Reformation. Without any formal training, Calvin began to offer pastoral duties to the new Reformed community.
In 1538, he fell into dispute with the Geneva authorities, and he was invited to Strasbourg, where he became a prominent preacher, lecturing every day at different churches.
In 1540, at the urging of his friends, he reluctantly married Idelette de Bure, a widow who had two children from her first marriage. The couple got on well. Calvin described her as a faithful helper and never expressed the slightest hindrance to his work. They had only one son, who died shortly after his premature birth. His wife, Idelette died in 1549, leaving Calvin with a sense of bereavement.
By 1541, Geneva’s religious and political climate had changed, and they invited Calvin back to serve as a preacher. In Geneva, Calvin was prolific in giving sermons, speaking without notes. He consistently went through the Bible, going from chapter to chapter. Calvin was influential in shaping the religious and political life of Geneva, which under Calvin became very conservative and puritanical. Calvin restricted the freedom of citizens to dance, play music, gamble and live freely. Sins such as adultery and fornication were severely punished and attendance at church was compulsory. During Calvin’s rule, several persons suspected of witchcraft were burnt at the stake.
Due to these harsh social laws, Calvin created powerful opposition from wealthy members of Geneva society who were unhappy with the more restrictive practices of the Calvinists. This group became known as the ‘libertines’ and slowly they gained control of the council and curbed Calvin’s authority – though Calvin was able to refuse a request to banish him from the city.
In 1533 Michael Servetus, a Protestant theologian, criticised the doctrine of the Trinity and predestination. He also criticised Calvin’s own book ‘Institutes of the Christian religion.” Servetus was labelled a heretic across Europe, and the Inquisition in Spain and France issues warrants for his arrest. Servetus fled to Geneva, but under pressure, he was arrested and put on trial. Although the Genevan court was keen to frustrate Calvin, they sought advice from other Swiss cities, who argued Servetus was a heretic. The court passed a sentence that Servetus was to be burnt at the stake.
Sebastian Castellio became critical of Calvin’s treatment of ‘heretics’ arguing that it was a mistake to focus on theological interpretations, instead real Christianity was focusing on the Christ’s moral teachings. Treatise on Heretics (1554)
Calvin didn’t believe people could be forced to become Protestants, though he did support the execution of ‘dangerous heretics.’
However, this incident improved Calvin’s reputation as a defender of Christianity. Servetus’ doctrines were disputed by both Catholic and Protestant reformers. Over the next few years, Calvin gained more influence over the city council and became not only the religious leader of Geneva but in effect the de facto political leader. In 1555, the council announced the church was able to have the ability to excommunicate members of the church. By 1555, French refugees to Geneva helped shift the balance of power and the libertines were forced to flee the city. Those libertines that remained were arrested and executed.
This left Calvin in a powerful position as one of the leading Protestant Reformers. He had a very strong influence on new branches of Protestant churches. For example, English refugees from Catholic Mary Tudor’s reign were given refuge in Geneva. James Knox and William Whittingham were influenced by Calvin’s doctrines and when they returned to Britain, it had strong influence on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the English Reformed Church. Calvinist theology was influential in the Puritanical religion of Cromwell in England after the civil war. Calvin exerted strong leadership over the Protestant Church in France. Despite official persecution, Calvin was tireless in sending missionaries to France to encourage his doctrine and policies.
Calvin placed emphasis on hard work and education. In Geneva, he established a school which included a private grammar school and an advanced public school.
In 1564, he passed away after finishing his final revision of the Institutes.
Relationship with Martin Luther
Calvin was only eight years old when Martin Luther posted the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Calvin admired Luther for his role in starting the Reformation movement. Initially, Calvin had a strong mutual appreciation of Martin Luther. However, on the doctrine of the Eucharist they split and as a result the Reformation split into two main branches. Calvin wrote several articles of faith, which he hoped would unite the different churches. He advised his followers that in some circumstances they needed to adapt to their environment. For example, to refugees in Germany, he advised his followers to integrate with the Lutheran churches, despite their theological differences.
Legacy of Calvin
Calvinism was influential in shaping the religious life of the Huguenots in France, the Puritans in England and the Protestant churches in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Many European emigrants to America took Calvin’s puritanical approach to religion.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of John Calvin”, Oxford, UK, www.biographyonline.net. 14th September 2018.
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