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John Calvin was born July 10, 1509, about the time Martin Luther was learning the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in an Augustinian monastery in Germany. By the time he experienced what he described as conversion in 1530 or 1531, the Reformation was well-established in Germany, many of the German electors being already Protestant.
Even after his conversion, of which very little is known, Calvin did not officially leave the Roman Catholic Church. In 1533 he went to Paris to attend the College Royal. He was friends with Nicolas Cop, the rector, who was sympathetic to the Reformation, though the college itself was not.
The rector was scheduled to deliver an inaugural address on November 1, 1533, and he asked John Calvin to prepare it. Cop intended to call for reformation within the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin, through Nicolas Cop, declared that day:
As you may imagine, that address was not well-received! The faculty was incensed. Cop fled immediately to Basel in Switzerland. John Calvin himself climbed out a window by tying sheets together, costumed himself as a vinedresser, then walked out of the city with a hoe on his shoulder. His room was searched, and all his papers were seized. He spent most of the next year in Angouleme, France, under the protection of Queen Marguerite of Navarre.
It is at this point that we can say that John Calvin was no longer Catholic. On May 4, 1534 he resigned all ecclesiastical favors granted him as a scholar. His stay in France had to come to an end, however, due to an event in which his role is unknown. It is possible he had nothing to do with it.
On the morning of October 19, 1534, the king of France awoke to find a poster on the door of the royal chamber at Fontainebleu, where he was staying. The poster called the mass a blasphemous denial of the one, all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ and referred to the pope and "all his vermin" as servants of the antichrist.
Similar posters were put up all over Paris, and, quite naturally, persecution arose immediately. No one knows whether John Calvin played any part in this, but he decided it would be a good time to leave France, going to Basel to be with Nicolas Cop in January of 1535.
In Basel he published his first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion, his opus magnum, and one of the most influential works in Christian history. This first edition came out in March of 1536, though it was edited and expanded many times during Calvin's life.
Calvin is known most for his work in Geneva, which began later in 1536, but we should delay that story to discuss Institutes.
The publication of John Calvin's Institutes brought immediate praise among the reformers. Martin Bucer, one of the most respected of the Swiss reformers, wrote:
The Roman Catholics had an equally strong but opposite reaction. They called it "the Koran and Talmud of heresy," and it was ordered burned throughout France and Switzerland.
To this day, it is one of the most respected Christian writing among Protestants, and it is revered by those churches that still call themselves Reformed. Dr. Karl von Hase, a German theologian of the 19th century, called it "the grandest scientific justification of Augustinianism, full of religious depth with inexorable consistency of thought" (Kirschengeschichte, as quoted and translated by Schaff, ibid., ch. 79).
John Calvin's theology runs much deeper than the 5 tenets of Calvinism. Institutes is published today in up to four volumes and runs around 1500 pages long in its English translation; however, the 5 tenets of Calvinism are by far his most well-known, and thus most controversial, teaching.
These main teachings of Calvinism are summed up in the acronym TULIP. The letters represent these teachings:
This is the teaching that man is "totally" depraved. This means that we are so depraved that we cannot even choose to believe in Christ. We can believe only if God gives us grace to believe.
God chooses those he will saved based on no reason whatsoever except his sovereign choice. There is no value in us or our deeds that influence that choice.
Jesus only died for the elect. He did not die for the lost.
If God chooses you, you will respond. No one resists God's grace. Those who are chosen will be saved.
If God chooses you to be saved, obviously you will continue to the end. Those who do not continue to the end of their lives only looked like they had grace, they didn't really have it.
Basically, John Calvin took the idea of justification apart from works and made it justification apart even from the will. He took God's choice to the extreme, and he removed all choice of man. This is not a real surprise. Martin Luther had already gone this route with his book The Bondage of the Will. It was an idea that he picked up from Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century bishop.
Augustine teaches doctrines very similar to TULIP in his work A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints. In fact, his teaching is similar enough that had he not preceded John Calvin, he could be called a Calvinist. However, he had not always believed these doctrines!
Before Augustine—and then only in his later years, when we was bishop of Hippo—the hopeless condemnation of the lost, with no opportunity for salvation because they are not elect, cannot be found.
It is entirely possible that this doctrine of Augustine's was a reaction to the heretic Pelagius, who taught that man could be saved by his own free will, choosing to live holy and in obedience to God apart from God's grace. Augustine opposed him first with the historical teaching of the Church, that all men are called by God through the Gospel to a salvation wrought and empowered by the Spirit of God. Later, thinking through the issue of free will and grace, he used Scripture to convince himself, contrary to the historical teaching of the church, that the lost had no opportunity to be saved because they were not chosen!
Augustine, then, came to these things in response to Pelagianism. These doctrines then sat untouched until Martin Luther revived them and passed them on to John Calvin, who passed them on to the world.
I promised to return to John Calvin's story. Besides the theology that he promulgated through The Institutes of the Christian Religion, it is his rule in Geneva, Switzerland that is most remembered. It is a detailed story, and I am afraid we will have to limit ourselves to the highlights.
Calvin was simply passing through Geneva in July of 1536, intending to stay only a night. William Farel, however, who had been working tirelessly—and effectively—to bring the Reformation to Geneva, had other ideas. On May 21, he had gotten the city council to publicly introduce the Reformation. Now, he pleaded with John Calvin to help him give it birth.
Did I say pleaded? That word is too weak! When cajoling and pleading did not work, he threatened Calvin with the wrath of Almighty God if he "preferred his studies to the work of the Lord, and his own interest to the cause of Christ" (Schaff, ibid., sec. 81).
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.
John Calvin, Farel, and a reformer named Courald set about to rectify this. They wrote up a confession of faith, developed a catechism to instruct the people, preached five times on Sunday and several times throughout the week, and asked the council to pass laws forbidding immoral habits and gambling and requiring church attendance.
These things the council did, but the reformers had asked them as well to grant the right of excommunication to the spiritual leaders of the city.
Because the Roman Catholics had abused this power, the reformers asked that trusted citizens be appointed to oversee the matters of admonishment and church discipline. But because the Roman Catholics had abused this power, neither the council nor the citizenry was willing to grant this right to the Protestants, either.
When the council required all citizens to publicly affirm the confession drawn up by the reformers, the people began to stir. The council was maintained by elections, and on Feb. 3, 1538 an "anti-clerical" party managed to win a majority of council seats.
At the time the nearby city of Bern had also gone reformed, but they were not near so radical. Before Calvin had ever arrived, Farel had gotten the council to ban all holidays but Sunday, and citizens were punished if they were found with any relics of popery, such as a rosary.
The new council decided to pattern itself after Bern. They still set a curfew for the city, and they banned lewd songs in the streets, but they removed the requirement to swear to the new confession.
It wasn't sufficient for the reformers. They preached vehemently against the vices of the people, and they publicly condemned the council for not taking a stronger stand. Courauld, in fact, was so bold and so offensive in his speech that he was first forbidden to preach, then imprisoned, then banished, despite the protests of both Farel and John Calvin.
This did not frighten or even slow down Farel or Calvin. They spoke up all the louder. Calvin dared to call the council the devil's council. The people began to threaten them, even pounding on their doors at night.
John Calvin wasn't moved. When he and Farel were ordered to celebrate communion at Easter with unleavened bread the way the church in Bern did, they refused to grant communion, claiming rampant debauchery and insubordination. Swords were drawn and the reformers were shouted down when they announced this in the service, and within two days the council had deposed and banished them.
Calvin rejoiced at the persecution, and the people rejoiced publicly over their new freedom. Communion was administered the following week by new pastors.
William Farel was immediately beckoned to Neuchatel, where he had worked before. It was several months before Martin Bucer, lead reformer in the city of Strassburg, sent for John Calvin to join in the work there.
Strassburg is a beautiful, fortressed city, a part of Germany then and France today. With the peaceable Martin Bucer lading 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.
It is mentioned by the historian Philip Schaff that Calvin had the freedom to enforce the church discipline that he had been unable to enforce at Geneva. Discipline was as important to him, he says, as doctrine was to Luther (ibid., sec. 86).
The discipline may have been strong, involving excommunication, but it was not strict. The first person who was banned from the communion table had avoided church meetings for a month and fallen into gross immorality. This is hardly a harsh requirement! No wonder John Calvin insisted on it. Surely anyone wanting to build a church is going to want to keep the openly immoral from the communion table!
Calvin built up a large church there in Strassburg, preaching four times weekly, including twice on Sundays. He converted many anabaptists, and he was well-respected by his congregation. Interestingly enough, when he returned it 1556 he was greeted warmly but forbidden to preach, as the congregation had become thoroughly Lutheran. Because Calvin did not preach "consubstantiation," the doctrine that Christ's actual body and blood is in some way in the bread and wine of communion, his teaching was no longer welcome.
While in Strassburg, he released the second edition of Institutes, and he also wrote a commentary on Romans. He would become one of the most prolific Reformation authors, though no one could match the tireless pen of Martin Luther.
John Calvin married Idelette de Bure in August of 1540. He was 31 at the time, and the story surrounding his marriage is quite interesting.
Calvin delayed marriage partly to prevent the Roman Catholic Church from accusing him of leaving them in order to get a woman. Later, when he did decide to marry—at the urging of friends who felt he needed help at home—he stated that he would not choose a wife based on earthly beauty. In a letter to Farel from 1539, he described the attributes of the woman of his dreams: "chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, careful for my health."
Apparently his friends were trying to seek out a wife for him, but when Farel read these qualifications, he gave up. He knew of no such woman.
In February of 1540 he mentions that a noble woman had proposed to him, quite rich, but he could not go through with it because she did not speak his language (!) and he was worried she would be too concerned with family and education. Philip Schaff suggests that the proposal was probably made through Martin Bucer because the woman was from Strassburg, thus a German speaker. Calvin spoke French and Latin (and learned Greek and Hebrew as well for Bible study).
In March of 1540, he had his brother send a woman who had agreed to marry him. That fell through for unknown reasons.
Finally, he married a woman of his own congregation, a widow of a man that he hand converted from anabaptism. Schaff states that she had "several children." Others suggest that she had two children. Wikipedia cites two recent biographies, by Bernard Cottret and T.H.L. Parker, for that information.
Calvin spoke very little of his home life, unlike Martin Luther, so after much research it appears to me that no one knows the gender of the children that Idelette de Bure brought to their marriage. In fact, there is question as to how many children John Calvin and Idelette had after their marriage. Certainly he had an infant son that died in 1542. Some biographies, however, suggest that he had three children. The other two, they say, were daughters who also died in infancy.
Schaff says this is a mistake. Dr. Jules Bonnet published a collection of letters by John Calvin, and included is a letter to Viret, the Genevan reformer, commenting on the death of an infant daughter. Schaff says this is impossible because in Responsio ad Balduini Convitia, written in 1561, Calvin mentions that God had given him a little son, then taken him away. There is no mention of any other children. Further, Nicolas Colladon, a friend of John Calvin's later in Geneva, wrote in his biography that Idolette had but one son from John Calvin.
A great precursor to the story of John Calvin's return to Geneva is his controversy with Cardinal Sadolet. Each side wrote only one letter, but even the excerpts from Calvin's letter are so powerful that they comprise the best defense of the Protestant Reformation that I have ever seen.
Things had not gone well after Calvin had been banished from Geneva, which is something he had predicted. It took only a year for his opponents to split into factions. The people, happy to throw off the yoke of both Christ and the reformers, degraded into rampant immorality. It was so bad that historian Philip Schaff reports, "Persons went naked through the streets to the sound of drums and fifes" (ibid., sec. 93).
The council began to think they had made a mistake, and in 1540 they began to court Calvin, asking him to return.
This turned out to be a huge issue, and everyone had opinions. Martin Bucer in Basel spoke up, at various points taking both sides. William Farel assailed Calvin without retreat, calling for his return to Geneva, and even warned him to remember Jonah. Philip Melancthon, Martin Luther's sidekick, had become friends with Calvin in Germany and was heartsick at the thought of his return to Switzerland.
The issue was the importance of the cities. Both were crossroads, sitting near the border of France, Switzerland and Germany. Strassburg spoke German; Geneva spoke French. The former was seen as more crucial to the Reformation, the latter was thought to provide hope for the spread of the Reformation to France, where it had been cruelly put down.
Needless to say, after much debate and negotiotian, John Calvin returned to Geneva. The one point he steadfastly required is that church discipline be allowed.
John Calvin did not want to take over the work in Geneva alone. He tried to secure the services of William Farel or Peter Viret. Both were needed elsewhere, however, Farel in in Neuchatel and Viret in Lausanne.
Just as a matter of interest, these 3 Swiss Reformers, of whom only Peter (actually, Pierre) Viret was actually Swiss, were among the most noted in their day. Theodore Beza, who would become Calvin's successor at Geneva, said of them that Calvin was the most learned of the Reformers, Farel the most forceful, and Viret the most gentle.
John Calvin was only 32 when he returned to Geneva. He had Farel to turn to on a regular basis, but otherwise the work was completely his. It was not minor:
It would be a rocky road. Imagine trying to run a church that everyone was required to be in. It was unavoidable that he would make many enemies, especially with the kind of discipline that he was trying to maintain in Geneva. The next 23 years would be filled with trials and battles, more within Geneva than even outside of it.
Peter Viret was with him at the beginning. Geneva had managed to secure him at the end of 1540, a few months before Calvin returned. He stayed with Calvin for a year before he had to return to Lausanne. This was of inestimable comfort to Calvin.
But Calvin was wise enough not to do it alone. Viret had written him in Strassburg telling him that if he did not come, then Viret would have to perish or leave. The work, he said, was utterly overwhelming.
The only way it could be different for John Calvin was for him to administrate better, and he did. First he secured the cooperation of the councils of Geneva. He went to the councils with an "ecclesiastical order," which was basically a charter for the church. His willingness to compromise secured the acceptance of the ordinances, and they were approved by all 3 of Geneva's councils and the people.
His humility through all this was extraordinary. He avoided, purposely, taking vengeance on his defeated enemies or even denouncing them from the pulpit:
What a great attitude!
Thus securing the cooperation of government and people, he went to work on getting help for his labors. By 1544, just three years after he arrived, he had a dozen pastors. He also trained a number of evangelists.
The work in Geneva had begun in earnest.
This page is going to be too long, but this is a great story!
John Calvin had a lot of trouble with those pastors he put to work in Geneva … a lot of trouble.
I'll let him describe it:
That was from a letter to Melancthon in February, 1543. That was almost two years after his return. Before that, he complained even more about these pastors. In a letter to Basel begging to keep Peter Viret for a while, written in March, 1542, he says:
It wasn't all bad. He adds in the letter to Melancthon:
Late in 1541, he was asked to help draft a new set of laws along with the four "syndics," who were the highest leaders in Geneva and members of both the larger and smaller councils. These laws concerned everything down to the roles of firemen and watcmen on the wall. Later, in the 1560's, these would be revised again by John Calvin's friend, Germain Colladon.
Despite his influence with the councils, John Calvin never held political office. And while he was consulted on major decisions, he did not regularly appear before the council. He has been called the pope of Geneva, but it would not be accurate to call him the civil head of Geneva.
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.
Farel and Viret continued to appear in Geneva from time to time, and together they became the most influential teachers of their time with the exception of Philip Melancthon in Germany.
There was a tie between state and church in John Calvin's Geneva. Calvin taught, and the government agreed, that they were to "cherish and support the external worship of God, the true doctrine of religion, to defend the constitution of the church … " (Schaff, vol. VIII, ch. 13, sec. 101). There was really nothing unusual about this. Freedom of religion would have to wait at least two centuries to be found anywhere in the world.
In a state with no freedom of religion, there will be no freedom of press, either. Geneva's press law forbad "popish, heretical, and infidel publications" (ibid.).
On the other hand, their press law called for privileged initial publication of new translations of the Scripture. As a result, it was in Geneva in 1551 that Robert Stephen, after being censored in Paris, published the first New Testament containing verse divisions as we have them today.
The "Geneva Bible" was also published there in 1560, and it was the primary English translation in Europe for more than 50 years until being displaced by the King James Bible in the early 1600's.