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  • John Calvin was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation.

  • He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later

  • called Calvinism. Originally trained as a humanist lawyer, he broke from the Roman Catholic

  • Church around 1530. After religious tensions provoked a violent uprising against Protestants

  • in France, Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, where he published the first edition of his

  • seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.

  • In that year, Calvin was recruited by William Farel to help reform the church in Geneva.

  • The city council resisted the implementation of Calvin's and Farel's ideas, and both men

  • were expelled. At the invitation of Martin Bucer, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, where

  • he became the minister of a church of French refugees. He continued to support the reform

  • movement in Geneva, and was eventually invited back to lead its church.

  • Following his return, Calvin introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite

  • the opposition of several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority.

  • During this period, Michael Servetus, a Spaniard regarded by both Catholics and Protestants

  • as having heretical views, arrived in Geneva. He was denounced by Calvin and executed by

  • the city council. Following an influx of supportive refugees and new elections to the city council,

  • Calvin's opponents were forced out. Calvin spent his final years promoting the Reformation

  • both in Geneva and throughout Europe. Calvin was a tireless polemic and apologetic

  • writer who generated much controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters

  • with many reformers, including Philipp Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to the

  • Institutes, he wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, as well as theological

  • treatises and confessional documents. He regularly preached sermons throughout the week in Geneva.

  • Calvin was influenced by the Augustinian tradition, which led him to expound the doctrine of predestination

  • and the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation.

  • Calvin's writing and preachings provided the seeds for the branch of theology that bears

  • his name. The Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches, which look to Calvin

  • as the chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world.

  • Early life

  • John Calvin was born as Jehan Cauvin on 10 July 1509, in the town of Noyon in the Picardy

  • region of France. He was the first of four sons who survived infancy. His father, Gérard

  • Cauvin, had a prosperous career as the cathedral notary and registrar to the ecclesiastical

  • court. He died in his later years, after suffering two years with testicular cancer. His mother,

  • Jeanne le Franc, was the daughter of an innkeeper from Cambrai. She died a few years after Calvin's

  • birth from an unknown cause. Gérard intended his three sonsCharles, Jean, and Antoinefor

  • the priesthood. Jean was particularly precocious; by age 12,

  • he was employed by the bishop as a clerk and received the tonsure, cutting his hair to

  • symbolise his dedication to the Church. He also won the patronage of an influential family,

  • the Montmors. Through their assistance, Calvin was able to attend the Collège de la Marche,

  • in Paris, where he learned Latin from one of its greatest teachers, Mathurin Cordier.

  • Once he completed the course, he entered the Collège de Montaigu as a philosophy student.

  • In 1525 or 1526, Gérard withdrew his son from the Collège de Montaigu and enrolled

  • him in the University of Orléans to study law. According to contemporary biographers

  • Theodore Beza and Nicolas Colladon, Gérard believed his son would earn more money as

  • a lawyer than as a priest. After a few years of quiet study, Calvin entered the University

  • of Bourges in 1529. He was intrigued by Andreas Alciati, a humanist lawyer. Humanism was a

  • European intellectual movement which stressed classical studies. During his 18-month stay

  • in Bourges, Calvin learned Koine Greek, a necessity for studying the New Testament.

  • During the autumn of 1533 Calvin experienced a religious conversion. In later life, John

  • Calvin wrote two accounts of his conversion that differ in significant ways. In the first

  • account he portrays his conversion as a sudden change of mind, brought about by God. This

  • account can be found in his Commentary on the Book of Psalms:

  • In his second account he speaks of a long process of inner turmoil, followed by spiritual

  • and psychological anguish. "Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into

  • which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death,

  • I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past

  • life, not without groans and tears. And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me,

  • but instead of defence, earnestly to supplicate you not to judge that fearful abandonment

  • of your Word according to its deserts, from which in your wondrous goodness you have at

  • last delivered me." Scholars have argued about the precise interpretation

  • of these accounts, but it is agreed that his conversion corresponded with his break from

  • the Roman Catholic Church. The Calvin biographer, Bruce Gordon, has stressed that "the two accounts

  • are not antithetical, revealing some inconsistency in Calvin's memory, but rather [are] two different

  • ways of expressing the same reality." By 1532, Calvin received his licentiate in

  • law and published his first book, a commentary on Seneca's De Clementia. After uneventful

  • trips to Orléans and his hometown of Noyon, Calvin returned to Paris in October 1533.

  • During this time, tensions rose at the Collège Royal between the humanists/reformers and

  • the conservative senior faculty members. One of the reformers, Nicolas Cop, was rector

  • of the university. On 1 November 1533 he devoted his inaugural address to the need for reform

  • and renewal in the Catholic Church. The address provoked a strong reaction from

  • the faculty, who denounced it as heretical, forcing Cop to flee to Basel. Calvin, a close

  • friend of Cop, was implicated in the offence, and for the next year he was forced into hiding.

  • He remained on the move, sheltering with his friend Louis du Tillet in Angoulême and taking

  • refuge in Noyon and Orléans. He was finally forced to flee France during the Affair of

  • the Placards in mid-October 1534. In that incident, unknown reformers had posted placards

  • in various cities attacking the Catholic mass, which provoked a violent backlash against

  • Protestants. In January 1535, Calvin joined Cop in Basel, a city under the influence of

  • the reformer Johannes Oecolampadius. Reform work commences

  • In March 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutio Christianae Religionis

  • or Institutes of the Christian Religion. The work was an apologia or defense of his faith

  • and a statement of the doctrinal position of the reformers. He also intended it to serve

  • as an elementary instruction book for anyone interested in the Christian religion. The

  • book was the first expression of his theology. Calvin updated the work and published new

  • editions throughout his life. Shortly after its publication, he left Basel for Ferrara,

  • Italy, where he briefly served as secretary to Princess Renée of France. By June he was

  • back in Paris with his brother Antoine, who was resolving their father's affairs. Following

  • the Edict of Coucy, which gave a limited six-month period for heretics to reconcile with the

  • Catholic faith, Calvin decided that there was no future for him in France. In August

  • he set off for Strasbourg, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire and a refuge

  • for reformers. Due to military manoeuvres of imperial and French forces, he was forced

  • to make a detour to the south, bringing him to Geneva.

  • Calvin had only intended to stay a single night, but William Farel, a fellow French

  • reformer residing in the city, implored a most reluctant Calvin to stay and assist him

  • in his work of reforming the church there – it was his duty before God, Farel insisted.

  • Yet Calvin, for his part, desired only peace and privacy. But it was not to be; Farel's

  • entreaties prevailed, but not before his having had recourse to the sternest imprecations.

  • Calvin recalls the rather intense encounter:

  • Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts

  • to keep me in the city. And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy

  • in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing,

  • and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time

  • of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscious of my own timidity and cowardice,

  • I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.

  • Calvin accepted his new role without any preconditions on his tasks or duties. The office to which

  • he was initially assigned is unknown. He was eventually given the title of "reader", which

  • most likely meant that he could give expository lectures on the Bible. Sometime in 1537 he

  • was selected to be a "pastor" although he never received any pastoral consecration.

  • For the first time, the lawyer-theologian took up pastoral duties such as baptisms,

  • weddings, and church services. During the fall of 1536, Farel drafted a confession

  • of faith while Calvin wrote separate articles on reorganizing the church in Geneva. On 16

  • January 1537, Farel and Calvin presented their Articles concernant l'organisation de l'église

  • et du culte à Genève to the city council. The document described the manner and frequency

  • of their celebrations of the eucharist, the reason for, and the method of, excommunication,

  • the requirement to subscribe to the confession of faith, the use of congregational singing

  • in the liturgy, and the revision of marriage laws. The council accepted the document on

  • the same day. As the year progressed, however, Calvin and

  • Farel's reputation with the council began to suffer. The council was reluctant to enforce

  • the subscription requirement, as only a few citizens had subscribed to their confession

  • of faith. On 26 November, the two ministers heatedly debated the council over the issue.

  • Furthermore, France was taking an interest in forming an alliance with Geneva and as

  • the two ministers were Frenchmen, councillors began to question their loyalty. Finally,

  • a major ecclesiastical-political quarrel developed when Bern, Geneva's ally in the reformation

  • of the Swiss churches, proposed to introduce uniformity in the church ceremonies. One proposal

  • required the use of unleavened bread for the eucharist. The two ministers were unwilling

  • to follow Bern's lead and delayed the use of such bread until a synod in Zurich could

  • be convened to make the final decision. The council ordered Calvin and Farel to use unleavened

  • bread for the Easter eucharist; in protest, the ministers did not administer communion

  • during the Easter service. This caused a riot during the service and the next day, the council

  • told the ministers to leave Geneva. Farel and Calvin went to Bern and Zurich to

  • plead their case. The synod in Zurich placed most of the blame on Calvin for not being

  • sympathetic enough toward the people of Geneva. However, it asked Bern to mediate with the

  • aim of restoring the ministers. The Geneva council refused to readmit the two men, who

  • took refuge in Basel. Subsequently, Farel received an invitation to lead the church

  • in Neuchâtel. Calvin was invited to lead a church of French refugees in Strasbourg

  • by that city's leading reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. Initially, Calvin refused

  • because Farel was not included in the invitation, but relented when Bucer appealed to him. By

  • September 1538 Calvin had taken up his new position in Strasbourg, fully expecting that

  • this time it would be permanent; a few months later, he applied for and was granted citizenship

  • of the city. Minister in Strasbourg

  • During his time in Strasbourg, Calvin was not attached to one particular church, but

  • held his office successively in the Saint-Nicolas Church, the Sainte-Madeleine Church and the

  • former Dominican Church, renamed the Temple Neuf. Calvin ministered to 400–500 members

  • in his church. He preached or lectured every day, with two sermons on Sunday. Communion

  • was celebrated monthly and congregational singing of the psalms was encouraged. He also

  • worked on the second edition of the Institutes. Although the first edition sold out within

  • a year, Calvin was dissatisfied with its structure as a catechism, a primer for young Christians.

  • For the second edition, published in 1539, Calvin dropped this format in favour of systematically

  • presenting the main doctrines from scripture. In the process, the book was enlarged from

  • six chapters to seventeen. He concurrently worked on another book, the Commentary on

  • Romans, which was published in March 1540. The book was a model for his later commentaries:

  • it included his own Latin translation from the Greek rather than the Latin Vulgate, an

  • exegesis, and an exposition. In the dedicatory letter, Calvin praised the work of his predecessors

  • Philipp Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, and Martin Bucer, but he also took care to distinguish

  • his own work from theirs and to criticise some of their shortcomings.

  • Calvin's friends urged him to marry. Calvin took a prosaic view, writing to one correspondent:

  • "I, who have the air of being so hostile to celibacy, I am still not married and do not

  • know whether I will ever be. If I take a wife it will be because, being better freed from

  • numerous worries, I can devote myself to the Lord."

  • Several candidates were presented to him including one young woman from a noble family. Reluctantly,

  • Calvin agreed to the marriage, on the condition that she would learn French. Although a wedding

  • date was planned for March 1540, he remained reluctant and the wedding never took place.

  • He later wrote that he would never think of marrying her, "unless the Lord had entirely

  • bereft me of my wits". Instead, in August of that year, he married Idelette de Bure,

  • a widow who had two children from her first marriage.

  • Geneva reconsidered its expulsion of Calvin. Church attendance had dwindled and the political

  • climate had changed; as Bern and Geneva quarrelled over land, their alliance frayed. When Cardinal

  • Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the Catholic

  • faith, the council searched for an ecclesiastical authority to respond to him. At first Pierre

  • Viret was consulted, but when he refused, the council asked Calvin. He agreed and his

  • Responsio ad Sadoletum strongly defended Geneva's position concerning reforms in the church.

  • On 21 September 1540 the council commissioned one of its members, Ami Perrin, to find a

  • way to recall Calvin. An embassy reached Calvin while he was at a colloquy, a conference to

  • settle religious disputes, in Worms. His reaction to the suggestion was one of horror in which

  • he wrote, "Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross on which

  • I had to perish daily a thousand times over." Calvin also wrote that he was prepared to

  • follow the Lord's calling. A plan was drawn up in which Viret would be appointed to take

  • temporary charge in Geneva for six months while Bucer and Calvin would visit the city

  • to determine the next steps. However, the city council pressed for the immediate appointment

  • of Calvin in Geneva. By summer 1541, Strasbourg decided to loan Calvin to Geneva for six months.

  • Calvin returned on 13 September 1541 with an official escort and a wagon for his family.

  • Reform in Geneva In supporting Calvin's proposals for reforms,

  • the council of Geneva passed the Ordonnances ecclésiastiques on 20 November 1541. The

  • ordinances defined four orders of ministerial function: pastors to preach and to administer

  • the sacraments; doctors to instruct believers in the faith; elders to provide discipline;

  • and deacons to care for the poor and needy. They also called for the creation of the Consistoire,

  • an ecclesiastical court composed of the lay elders and the ministers. The city government

  • retained the power to summon persons before the court, and the Consistory could judge

  • only ecclesiastical matters having no civil jurisdiction. Originally, the court had the

  • power to mete out sentences, with excommunication as its most severe penalty. However, the government

  • contested this power and on 19 March 1543 the council decided that all sentencing would

  • be carried out by the government.

  • In 1542, Calvin adapted a service book used in Strasbourg, publishing La Forme des Prières

  • et Chants Ecclésiastiques. Calvin recognised the power of music and he intended that it

  • be used to support scripture readings. The original Strasbourg psalter contained twelve

  • psalms by Clément Marot and Calvin added several more hymns of his own composition

  • in the Geneva version. At the end of 1542, Marot became a refugee in Geneva and contributed

  • nineteen more psalms. Louis Bourgeois, also a refugee, lived and taught music in Geneva

  • for sixteen years and Calvin took the opportunity to add his hymns, the most famous being the

  • Old Hundredth. In the same year of 1542, Calvin published

  • Catéchisme de l'Eglise de Genève, which was inspired by Bucer's Kurze Schrifftliche

  • Erklärung of 1534. Calvin had written an earlier catechism during his first stay in

  • Geneva which was largely based on Martin Luther's Large Catechism. The first version was arranged

  • pedagogically, describing Law, Faith, and Prayer. The 1542 version was rearranged for

  • theological reasons, covering Faith first, then Law and Prayer.

  • During his ministry in Geneva, Calvin preached over two thousand sermons. Initially he preached

  • twice on Sunday and three times during the week. This proved to be too heavy a burden

  • and late in 1542 the council allowed him to preach only once on Sunday. However, in October

  • 1549, he was again required to preach twice on Sundays and, in addition, every weekday

  • of alternate weeks. His sermons lasted more than an hour and he did not use notes. An

  • occasional secretary tried to record his sermons, but very little of his preaching was preserved

  • before 1549. In that year, professional scribe Denis Raguenier, who had learned or developed

  • a system of shorthand, was assigned to record all of Calvin's sermons. An analysis of his

  • sermons by T.H.L. Parker suggests that Calvin was a consistent preacher and his style changed

  • very little over the years. Very little is known about Calvin's personal

  • life in Geneva. His house and furniture were owned by the council. The house was big enough

  • to accommodate his family as well as Antoine's family and some servants. On 28 July 1542,

  • Idelette gave birth to a son, Jacques, but he was born prematurely and survived only