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John Calvin, his story and theology
May 09, 2022
Here is my promised newsletter on John Calvin. His bio page on my web site, https://www.christian-history.org/john-calvin.html, was one of my favorites to write. I especially loved his exchange with Cardinal Sadolet, which is linked at that page. This newsletter is a shorter summation of Calvin's life and doctrine.
John Calvin was born in 1509 and converted in 1530 or 1531. Though he is so notable in Reformation history, he was a latecomer. He was only 8 years old when Martin Luther nailed the famous 95 theses to the Cathedral door in Wittemberg and only 12 when Luther was excommunicated after the Diet of Worms in 1521.
It is Calvin who said he was "converted," and we cannot be sure what he meant by that. He was still Roman Catholic until 1533, where a sermon by Nicolas Cop, prepared by Calvin, announced that they would not tolerate the "heresies and abuses" of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Cop fled to Switzerland, and Calvin had to climb out a window to escape. Queen Marguerite of Navarre protected him in Angouleme, France for a year or so before he, too, fled to Basel, Switzerland to be with Cop.
It was there in Basel, he published his first edition of _Institutes of the Christian Religion_, now one of the most famous publications in church history. It came out in March, 1536, while he was still in Basel.
As said, the Reformation was already in full bloom, and Reformers, most notably Martin Bucer, praised the work. On the other hand, the RCC called it "the Koran and Talmud of heresy" and ordered it burned.
I discuss Calvin's _Institutes_ on the site more fully. Let's just finish his biography here.
Calvin was passing through Geneva, Switzerland, planning to stay but one night when William Farel, who was trying to establish the Reformation there, tried to persuade him to stay. In fact, he told Calvin that the wrath of Almighty God would be on him if he "preferred his studies to the work of the Lord, and his own interest to the cause of Christ."
An excellent summation of the work of establishing the Reformation is this paragraph from my John Calvin page:
"So Calvin stayed. He and Farel set about cleaning up Geneva. Like most cities that require its citizens to be 'Christians,' very few of Geneva's citizens actually lived like Christians. Prostitution was actually sanctioned by the council, and vice abounded. The priests, as was typical of medieval Catholicism, had neglected to teach the citizens anything of Christ, the Scriptures, or obedience to the faith."
A great deal of preaching, including FIVE TIMES on Sunday was the main method of Reform.
After a couple years of this, the council that led Geneva required all citizens to affirm a confession of faith that represented Reformation theology rather than Catholic theology. Tired of being told what to do, the citizens elected an "anti-clerical" council in the place of the old one. Calvin and Farel did not slow down a bit, and the citizens and the new council ran him out of Geneva. Their preference was a more moderate and less restrictive version of the Reformation with the city of Bern as a guide.
Calvin went to Strassburg. His time there, from 1538 to 1541, was very important. Here is the description from my web page:
"Strassburg is a beautiful, fortressed city, a part of Germany then and France today. With the peaceable Martin Bucer leading it, it had proven to be a bridge between Lutheranism and Zwinglianism, at that time the only two branches of the Reformation, one German and one Swiss. It was only later that John Calvin's leadership in Geneva and his Institutes would lead to a third branch.
"John Calvin arrived in Strassburg in September, 1538. It would prove to be preparation for the rest of his life. Bucer taught him some tolerance and graciousness, at least until he was in full control of Geneva, and he got to know the Lutherans, gaining an appreciation for them, and possibly a knowledge of predestination which would come to be known as Calvinism. The original confession of Geneva, drawn up by John Calvin and William Farel, had contained no mention of predestination."
In Strassburg, he released the second edition of _Instutes_.
Calvin married a member of the congregation in Strassburg in 1540. She was a widow of an Anabaptist he had converted, and she had at least two children. It is amazingly difficult to get information on Calvin's children.
You can read more about the Anabaptists on my web site as well. I am particularly fond of their early years, which is known to history as the "Radical Reformation." I am not nearly so fond of what happened to them. Rampant division was the first problem, and today their descendants include the Mennonites and Amish, who are surprisingly every bit as divisive as any other Protestant group.
CALVIN RETURNS TO GENEVA, 1541
Things had not gone well in Geneva after Calvin left, and despite much controversy, the council asked him to return in 1541.
With some help from Peter Viret, another Swiss Reformer, for a year and much patience and humility on Calvin's part, he gained good standing in Geneva, though it took years. His wisest choice was not to take advantage of those who had run him out of town just two years earlier. The city was settled and still run by councils, but led spiritually by John Calvin by 1544. He would remain there till his death in 1564.
By 1544, he had a dozen pastors under him, but this is what he said of them:
"I labor here and do my utmost, but succeed indifferently [i.e., so-so, not much to take heart about]. Nevertheless, all are astonished that my progress is so great in the midst of so many impediments, the greater part of which arise from the ministers themselves."
Here's my description of Calvin's main accomplishments during those years:
"His greatest influence was theological. He debated heretics in print, wrote letters of advice to many from around Europe who consulted him, and preached almost daily. Visitors flocked from Germany, France, Italy, and Spain to hear him, and eventually there was even a Spanish-speaking congregation in Geneva."
Again, you can read the whole story at the link in the first paragraph of this email. Calvin's influence has been immense. I will conclude with two quotes highlighting just how influential he was:
"If, in your investigation, you probe into the history and influence of Calvinism, you will discover that its doctrines have been incorporated into the majority of the great creeds of the Protestant churches" (The Five Points of Calvinism, David N. Steele & Curtis C. Thomas, Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 1963, p. 61).
"Calvinism has formed the doctrinal basis of the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church, the Episcopal Church of America, and in the main the Baptist and Congregationalist Churches, which include the United Church of Christ. Most aspects of Calvinistic ideology are found in the Nazarene Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and almost all so called “Evangelical” churches. (McClintock & Strong, Vol. 2, p. 47.)"
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