Everyone knows John Calvin. He is beloved and reviled; the object of praise and respect and the object of scorn and resentment. John Calvin is claimed by Reformed Christians, the Church of England, the Free Will Baptists and Westboro Baptist Church. Indeed, Calvinism has become an utterly useless term. Those who claim to be Calvinists sometimes have little to no relation to each other whatsoever. In his article “Calvin and Calvinism,” Carl Trueman states, “we need to understand that the term ‘Calvinism’ is profoundly unhelpful. It was coined as a polemical tool for tarnishing the reputation of the Reformed, and it is of no real use to modern intellectual history.” (The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, Ch. 13) Love him or hate him, John Calvin’s writings continue to shape and change the world as they did during the Reformation.
Born in Noyon, Picardy in France, John Calvin grew up in a changing world. Renaissance humanism had opened the door to new ideas and Calvin embraced them as he studied for the priesthood and later turned to law at his father’s bidding. Neither really suited Calvin’s aspirations even though he went to some of the finest schools France had to offer. These included the Collège de Montaigu for his priesthood training and Orlèans and Bourges for law. As church historian David Calhoun put it, “He did not want to be priest, and he did not want to be a lawyer either. Young John Calvin wanted to be a scholar. He wanted to write books and have people read them.” (“Business with God: The Life of John Calvin”) Calvin wrote On Mercy as a discourse of Seneca to little reception in 1532 and also started to really delve into the writings of Martin Luther. Calvin’s appropriation of Luther and continued interest in studying the scriptures put him in a place that was ripe for controversy and reformation.
Nicholas Cop who was the newly installed rector of the University of Paris gave an inauguration address written by Calvin. It sent shock-waves through the city. In a direct attack against the Roman Church, Cop spoke: “They teach nothing of faith, nothing of the love of God, nothing of the remission of grace, nothing of justification, or if they do so, they pervert and undermine it all by their laws and sophistries. I beg of you, who are here present, not to tolerate any longer these heresies and abuses.” (Cop) The uproar that ensued prompted both Calvin and Cop to feel the city to avoid immediate arrest. Calvin came to the house of a friend – an owner of a vineyard. As the authorities came to search for him, “Calvin lowered himself from a window on bed sheets tied together, and escaped Paris dressed as a farmer with a hoe on his shoulder. Taking the alias Martianus Lucianius, he reached safety in tolerant Basel, [Switzerland].” (Severance) Calvin’s epic flight from Paris and assumption of false names to avoid detection followed by his arrival in Basel allowed for him to write his most famous work.
Basel afforded Calvin a time to rest and regroup. More importantly, it allowed him to write and complete his very first edition of The Institutes of Christian Religion in 1536. The Institutes would undergo many revisions over the years of his life as Calvin expanded his theological understanding. The release of the Institutes gained Calvin some notoriety among the reformers and Calvin re-solidified his resolve to become a scholar. He would seek Strasbourg, but as we know William Farel would change all that later the same year during Calvin’s fateful stay in the city of Geneva.
After Farel convinced Calvin to stay, it was not all peace and tranquility. The french influx into the city as well as a still developing protestant movement created a rocky start. Calvin and Farel had devoted supporters, but also harsh opposition. As Calhoun relates, “Genevans named their dogs Calvin, so they could kick their dogs. They would shoot off guns outside his bedroom windows at night, simply to bother him. They threw rocks through his windows when they saw him studying. It was not a good relationship between the pastor and the church.” (“Business with God: The Life of John Calvin.”) By 1538, both Farel and Calvin were expelled.
Calvin delighted in this as now he could finally get to Strasbourg where he served with the notable reformer in his own right, Martin Bucer. Calvin’s years in Strasbourg were some of the best of his life. It was here that “he was pastor of a church for French-speaking refugees and also lectured on the Bible;… he [also] published his commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Romans. There too, in 1540, he married Idelette de Bure, the widow of a man he had converted from Anabaptism… [and] their marital relationship proved to be extremely warm.” (Bouwsma) Calvin spent his time in Strasbourg learning, developing, and continuing his work in an environment where he received a warm reception. It would be hard for Calvin to leave.
In 1541, Calvin was invited back to Geneva as the Reformation had stalled and Calvin’s prestige among protestant reformers had grown. Calvin set out to reorganize the city and as a result Geneva became a model for and refuge of Protestantism in Europe. French refugees flocked to the city aiming to escape the mass persecution in France, as did Englishmen and the father of Scottish Presbyterianism, John Knox. Describing Geneva, John Knox called it “the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles.” (“John Knox: Presbyterian with a Sword.”) However, Geneva was not without its hiccups. At one point the consistory or, governing council, banned all taverns and pubs that lasted about six months before enough public outcries got it repealed. (Trueman, “19. Calvin IV”) There was the burning of Michael Servetus, a humanist thinker as well. Servetus made a lot of enemies by viciously attacking the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus was already on the run from the Roman Catholic authorities when he decided to come to Geneva. Despite the event’s negative reception today and Calvin’s disagreement with the form of execution, the action awarded Geneva a warm reception and commendation from the rest of Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike. (Trueman, “19. Calvin IV”)
Calvin suffered from a series of health problems and also from being a workaholic. He worked continuously throughout his life laboring for the cause of the Reformation. When told on his deathbed that he had done enough already, Calvin replied, ““What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?” (“John Calvin – Did You Know?”). Calvin died May 27, 1564 and was succeeded by Theodore Beza in Geneva. John Calvin is probably best remembered for his contribution in recovering the doctrines of grace that Augustine had taught and also recovering true worship in the church. His theology is well documented so I will simply end here with the opening lines of his most famous work, The Institutes:
Our wisdom, if it is to be thought genuine, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. As these are closely connected, it is not easy to decide which comes first and gives rise to the other. To begin with, no one can assess himself without turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves, because it is quite obvious that the gifts we possess cannot possibly spring from ourselves and our very being is sustained by God alone…on the other hand, is is evident that man never arrives a true self-knowledge before he has looked into the face of God and then come away to look at himself…but though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual bond, it is only right that the former is given first place, and then we can come down to the latter. – John Calvin – The Institutes of Christian Religion. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1987). p. 21-24.
Bouwsma, William J. “John Calvin – French Theologian.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 07 Oct 15.
Calhoun, David. “Business with God: The Life of John Calvin.” Transcript. Covenant Theological Seminary, 2006. Web. 07 Oct 15.
“John Calvin – Did You Know?” Christian History. Web. 07 Oct 15.
Cop, Nicholas. Quote. “John Calvin Fled Paris – 1533.” It Happened Today. CHI. Web. 07 Oct 15.
“John Knox: Presbyterian with a Sword.” Christian History. Web. 07 Oct 2015
Trueman, Carl. “19. Calvin IV.” Audio Lecture. The Reformation. Westminster Theological Seminary. 29 Sept. 2014. Web.
Trueman, Carl. “Calvin and Calvinism.” The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Donald K. McKim, Ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Available via Google Books. 07 Oct 2015.
Severance, Diana. Dan Graves, ed. “Lowered over a Wall, Calvin Fled Paris.” Web. 07 Oct 15.