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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 sons—Charles, Jean, and Antoine—for
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
briefly. Idelette fell ill in 1545 and died on 29 March 1549. Calvin never married again.
He expressed his sorrow in a letter to Viret:
I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one who, if it has been so ordained,
would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was
the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.
Throughout the rest of his life in Geneva, he maintained several friendships from his
early years including Montmor, Cordier, Cop, Farel, Melanchthon and Bullinger.
Discipline and opposition
Calvin encountered bitter opposition to his work in Geneva. Around 1546, the uncoordinated
forces coalesced into an identifiable group whom he referred to as the libertines, but
who preferred to be called either Spirituels or Patriots. According to Calvin, these were
people who felt that after being liberated through grace, they were exempted from both
ecclesiastical and civil law. The group consisted of wealthy, politically powerful, and interrelated
families of Geneva. At the end of January 1546, Pierre Ameaux, a maker of playing cards
who had already been in conflict with the Consistory, attacked Calvin by calling him
a "Picard", an epithet denoting anti-French sentiment, and accused him of false doctrine.
Ameaux was punished by the council and forced to make expiation by parading through the
city and begging God for forgiveness. A few months later Ami Perrin, the man who had brought
Calvin to Geneva, moved into open opposition. Perrin had married Françoise Favre, daughter
of François Favre, a well-established Genevan merchant. Both Perrin's wife and father-in-law
had previous conflicts with the Consistory. The court noted that many of Geneva's notables,
including Perrin, had breached a law against dancing. Initially, Perrin ignored the court
when he was summoned, but after receiving a letter from Calvin, he appeared before the
Consistory. By 1547, opposition to Calvin and other French
refugee ministers had grown to constitute the majority of the syndics, the civil magistrates
of Geneva. On 27 June an unsigned threatening letter in Genevan dialect was found at the
pulpit of St. Pierre Cathedral where Calvin preached. Suspecting a plot against both the
church and the state, the council appointed a commission to investigate. Jacques Gruet,
a Genevan member of Favre's group, was arrested and incriminating evidence was found when
his house was searched. Under torture, he confessed to several crimes including writing
the letter left in the pulpit which threatened the church leaders. A civil court condemned
Gruet to death and he was beheaded on 26 July. Calvin was not opposed to the civil court's
decision. The Spirituels and Patriots continued organizing
opposition, insulting the appointed ministers, and challenging the authority of the Consistory.
The council straddled both sides of the conflict, alternately admonishing and upholding Calvin.
When Perrin was elected first syndic in February 1552, Calvin's authority appeared to be at
its lowest point. After some losses before the council, Calvin believed he was defeated;
on 24 July 1553 he asked the council to allow him to resign. Although the libertines controlled
the council, his request was refused. The opposition realised that they could curb Calvin's
authority, but they did not have enough power to banish him.
Michael Servetus
The turning point in Calvin's fortunes occurred when Michael Servetus, a fugitive from ecclesiastical
authorities, appeared in Geneva on 13 August 1553. Servetus was a Spanish physician and
Protestant theologian who boldly criticised the doctrine of the Trinity and paedobaptism.
In July 1530 he disputed with Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel and was eventually expelled. He went
to Strasbourg where he published a pamphlet against the Trinity. Bucer publicly refuted
it and asked Servetus to leave. After returning to Basel, Servetus published Two Books of
Dialogues on the Trinity which caused a sensation among Reformers and Catholics alike. The Inquisition
in Spain ordered his arrest. Calvin and Servetus were first brought into
contact in 1546 through a common acquaintance, Jean Frellon of Lyon; they exchanged letters
debating doctrine; Calvin used a pseudonym as Charles d' Espeville, while Servetus left
his unsigned. Eventually, Calvin lost patience and refused to respond; by this time Servetus
had written around thirty letters to Calvin. Calvin was particularly outraged when Servetus
sent him a copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion heavily annotated with arguments
pointing to errors in the book. When Servetus mentioned that he would come to Geneva, "Espeville"
wrote a letter to Farel on 13 February 1546 noting that if Servetus were to come, he would
not assure him safe conduct: "for if he came, as far as my authority goes, I would not let
him leave alive." In 1553, Calvin's front man, Guillaume de
Trie, sent letters trying to address the French Inquisition to Servetus. Calling him a "Spanish-Portuguese",
suspecting and accusing him of his recently proved Jewish converso origin. De Trie wrote
down that "his proper name is Michael Servetus, but he currently calls himself Villeneufve,
practising medicine. He stayed for some time in Lyon, and now he is living in Vienne."
When the inquisitor-general of France learned that Servetus was hiding in Vienne, according
to Calvin under an assumed name, he contacted Cardinal François de Tournon, the secretary
of the archbishop of Lyon, to take up the matter. Servetus was arrested and taken in
for questioning. His letters to Calvin were presented as evidence of heresy, but he denied
having written them, and later said he was not sure it was his handwriting. He said,
after swearing before the holy gospel, that "he was Michel De Villeneuve Doctor in Medicine
about 42 years old, native of Tudela of the kingdom of Navarre, a city under the obedience
to the Emperor". The following day he said: "..although he was not Servetus he assumed
the person of Servet for debating with Calvin". He managed to escape from prison, and the
Catholic authorities sentenced him in absentia to death by slow burning.
On his way to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva to visit "d'Espeville", where he was recognized
and arrested. Calvin's secretary Nicholas de la Fontaine composed a list of accusations
that was submitted before the court. The prosecutor was Philibert Berthelier, a member of a libertine
family and son of a famous Geneva patriot, and the sessions were led by Pierre Tissot,
Perrin's brother-in-law. The libertines allowed the trial to drag on in an attempt to harass
Calvin. The difficulty in using Servetus as a weapon against Calvin was that the heretical
reputation of Servetus was widespread and most of the cities in Europe were observing
and awaiting the outcome of the trial. This posed a dilemma for the libertines, so on
21 August the council decided to write to other Swiss cities for their opinions, thus
mitigating their own responsibility for the final decision. While waiting for the responses,
the council also asked Servetus if he preferred to be judged in Vienne or in Geneva. He begged
to stay in Geneva. On 20 October the replies from Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Schaffhausen
were read and the council condemned Servetus as a heretic. The following day he was sentenced
to burning at the stake, the same sentence as in Vienne. Calvin and other ministers,
in an attempt to appear compassionate, asked that he be beheaded instead of burnt, knowing
that burning at the stake was the only legal recourse. This plea was refused and on 27
October, Servetus was burnt alive—atop a pyre of his own books—at the Plateau of
Champel at the edge of Geneva. Securing the Reformation
After the death of Servetus, Calvin was acclaimed a defender of Christianity, but his ultimate
triumph over the libertines was still two years away. He had always insisted that the
Consistory retain the power of excommunication, despite the council's past decision to take
it away. During Servetus's trial, Philibert Berthelier asked the council for permission
to take communion, as he had been excommunicated the previous year for insulting a minister.
Calvin protested that the council did not have the legal authority to overturn Berthelier's
excommunication. Unsure of how the council would rule, he hinted in a sermon on 3 September
1553 that he might be dismissed by the authorities. The council decided to re-examine the Ordonnances
and on 18 September it voted in support of Calvin—excommunication was within the jurisdiction
of the Consistory. Berthelier applied for reinstatement to another Genevan administrative
assembly, the Deux Cents, in November. This body reversed the council's decision and stated
that the final arbiter concerning excommunication should be the council. However, the ministers
continued to protest, and as in the case of Servetus, the opinions of the Swiss churches
were sought. The affair dragged on through 1554. Finally, on 22 January 1555, the council
announced the decision of the Swiss churches: the original Ordonnances were to be kept and
the Consistory was to regain its official powers.
The libertines' downfall began with the February 1555 elections. By then, many of the French
refugees had been granted citizenship and with their support, Calvin's partisans elected
the majority of the syndics and the councillors. On 16 May the libertines took to the streets
in a drunken protest and attempted to burn down a house that was supposedly full of Frenchmen.
The syndic Henri Aulbert tried to intervene, carrying with him the baton of office that
symbolised his power. Perrin seized the baton and waved it over the crowd, which gave the
appearance that he was taking power and initiating a coup d'état. The insurrection was soon
over when another syndic appeared and ordered Perrin to go with him to the town hall. Perrin
and other leaders were forced to flee the city. With the approval of Calvin, the other
plotters who remained in the city were found and executed. The opposition to Calvin's church
polity came to an end. Final years
Calvin's authority was practically uncontested during his final years, and he enjoyed an
international reputation as a reformer distinct from Martin Luther. Initially, Luther and
Calvin had mutual respect for each other. However, a doctrinal conflict had developed
between Luther and Zurich reformer Huldrych Zwingli on the interpretation of the eucharist.
Calvin's opinion on the issue forced Luther to place him in Zwingli's camp. Calvin actively
participated in the polemics that were exchanged between the Lutheran and Reformed branches
of the Reformation movement. At the same time, Calvin was dismayed by the lack of unity among
the reformers. He took steps toward rapprochement with Bullinger by signing the Consensus Tigurinus,
a concordat between the Zurich and Geneva churches. He reached out to England when Archbishop
of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer called for an ecumenical synod of all the evangelical churches.
Calvin praised the idea, but ultimately Cranmer was unable to bring it to fruition.
Calvin sheltered Marian exiles in Geneva starting in 1555. Under the city's protection, they
were able to form their own reformed church under John Knox and William Whittingham and
eventually carried Calvin's ideas on doctrine and polity back to England and Scotland. However,
Calvin was most interested in reforming his homeland, France. He supported the building
of churches by distributing literature and sending ministers. Between 1555 and 1562,
more than 100 ministers were sent to France. These efforts were funded by the church in
Geneva, as the city council had refused to become involved in missionary activities at
the time. Henry II severely persecuted Protestants under the Edict of Chateaubriand and when
the French authorities complained about the missionary activities, Geneva was able to
disclaim responsibility.
Within Geneva, Calvin's main concern was the creation of a collège, an institute for the
education of children. A site for the school was selected on 25 March 1558 and it opened
the following year on 5 June 1559. Although the school was a single institution, it was
divided into two parts: a grammar school called the collège or schola privata and an advanced
school called the académie or schola publica. Calvin tried to recruit two professors for
the institute, Mathurin Cordier, his old friend and Latin scholar who was now based in Lausanne,
and Emmanuel Tremellius, the Regius professor of Hebrew in Cambridge. Neither was available,
but he succeeded in obtaining Theodore Beza as rector. Within five years there were 1,200
students in the grammar school and 300 in the advanced school. The collège eventually
became the Collège Calvin, one of the college preparatory schools of Geneva, while the académie
became the University of Geneva.
In the autumn of 1558, Calvin became ill with a fever. Since he was afraid that he might
die before completing the final revision of the Institutes, he forced himself to work.
The final edition was greatly expanded to the extent that Calvin referred to it as a
new work. The expansion from the 21 chapters of the previous edition to 80 was due to the
extended treatment of existing material rather than the addition of new topics. Shortly after
he recovered, he strained his voice while preaching, which brought on a violent fit
of coughing. He burst a blood-vessel in his lungs, and his health steadily declined. He
preached his final sermon in St. Pierre on 6 February 1564. On 25 April, he made his
will, in which he left small sums to his family and to the collège. A few days later, the
ministers of the church came to visit him, and he bade his final farewell, which was
recorded in Discours d'adieu aux ministres. He recounted his life in Geneva, sometimes
recalling bitterly some of the hardships he had suffered. Calvin died on 27 May 1564
aged 54. At first his body was laid in state, but since so many people came to see it, the
reformers were afraid that they would be accused of fostering a new saint's cult. On the following
day, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Cimetière des Rois. While the exact location
of the grave is unknown, a stone was added in the 19th century to mark a grave traditionally
thought to be Calvin's. Theology
Calvin developed his theology in his biblical commentaries as well as his sermons and treatises,
but the most concise expression of his views is found in his magnum opus, the Institutes
of the Christian Religion. He intended that the book be used as a summary of his views
on Christian theology and that it be read in conjunction with his commentaries. The
various editions of that work span nearly his entire career as a reformer, and the successive
revisions of the book show that his theology changed very little from his youth to his
death. The first edition from 1536 consisted of only six chapters. The second edition,
published in 1539, was three times as long because he added chapters on subjects that
appear in Melanchthon's Loci Communes. In 1543, he again added new material and expanded
a chapter on the Apostles' Creed. The final edition of the Institutes appeared in 1559.
By then, the work consisted of four books of eighty chapters, and each book was named
after statements from the creed: Book 1 on God the Creator, Book 2 on the Redeemer in
Christ, Book 3 on receiving the Grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and Book 4 on the
Society of Christ or the Church.
The first statement in the Institutes acknowledges its central theme. It states that the sum
of human wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Calvin
argues that the knowledge of God is not inherent in humanity nor can it be discovered by observing
this world. The only way to obtain it is to study scripture. Calvin writes, "For anyone
to arrive at God the Creator he needs Scripture as his Guide and Teacher." He does not try
to prove the authority of scripture but rather describes it as autopiston or self-authenticating.
He defends the trinitarian view of God and, in a strong polemical stand against the Catholic
Church, argues that images of God lead to idolatry. At the end of the first book, he
offers his views on providence, writing, "By his Power God cherishes and guards the World
which he made and by his Providence rules its individual Parts." Humans are unable to
fully comprehend why God performs any particular action, but whatever good or evil people may
practise, their efforts always result in the execution of God's will and judgments.
The second book includes several essays on the original sin and the fall of man, which
directly refer to Augustine, who developed these doctrines. He often cited the Church
Fathers in order to defend the reformed cause against the charge that the reformers were
creating new theology. In Calvin's view, sin began with the fall of Adam and propagated
to all of humanity. The domination of sin is complete to the point that people are driven
to evil. Thus fallen humanity is in need of the redemption that can be found in Christ.
But before Calvin expounded on this doctrine, he described the special situation of the
Jews who lived during the time of the Old Testament. God made a covenant with Abraham,
promising the coming of Christ. Hence, the Old Covenant was not in opposition to Christ,
but was rather a continuation of God's promise. Calvin then describes the New Covenant using
the passage from the Apostles' Creed that describes Christ's suffering under Pontius
Pilate and his return to judge the living and the dead. For Calvin, the whole course
of Christ's obedience to the Father removed the discord between humanity and God.
In the third book, Calvin describes how the spiritual union of Christ and humanity is
achieved. He first defines faith as the firm and certain knowledge of God in Christ. The
immediate effects of faith are repentance and the remission of sin. This is followed
by spiritual regeneration, which returns the believer to the state of holiness before Adam's
transgression. However, complete perfection is unattainable in this life, and the believer
should expect a continual struggle against sin. Several chapters are then devoted to
the subject of justification by faith alone. He defined justification as "the acceptance
by which God regards us as righteous whom he has received into grace." In this definition,
it is clear that it is God who initiates and carries through the action and that people
play no role; God is completely sovereign in salvation. Near the end of the book, Calvin
describes and defends the doctrine of predestination, a doctrine advanced by Augustine in opposition
to the teachings of Pelagius. Fellow theologians who followed the Augustinian tradition on
this point included Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, though Calvin's formulation of the
doctrine went further than the tradition that went before him. The principle, in Calvin's
words, is that "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."
The final book describes what he considers to be the true Church and its ministry, authority,
and sacraments. He denied the papal claim to primacy and the accusation that the reformers
were schismatic. For Calvin, the Church was defined as the body of believers who placed
Christ at its head. By definition, there was only one "catholic" or "universal" Church.
Hence, he argued that the reformers "had to leave them in order that we might come to
Christ." The ministers of the Church are described from a passage from Ephesians, and they consisted
of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and doctors. Calvin regarded the first three
offices as temporary, limited in their existence to the time of the New Testament. The latter
two offices were established in the church in Geneva. Although Calvin respected the work
of the ecumenical councils, he considered them to be subject to God's Word found in
scripture. He also believed that the civil and church authorities were separate and should
not interfere with each other. Calvin defined a sacrament as an earthly sign
associated with a promise from God. He accepted only two sacraments as valid under the new
covenant: baptism and the Lord's Supper. He completely rejected the Catholic doctrine
of transubstantiation and the treatment of the Supper as a sacrifice. He also could not
accept the Lutheran doctrine of sacramental union in which Christ was "in, with and under"
the elements. His own view was close to Zwingli's symbolic view, but it was not identical. Rather
than holding a purely symbolic view, Calvin noted that with the participation of the Holy
Spirit, faith was nourished and strengthened by the sacrament. In his words, the eucharistic
rite was "a secret too sublime for my mind to understand or words to express. I experience
it rather than understand it." Controversies
Calvin's theology was not without controversy. Pierre Caroli, a Protestant minister in Lausanne
accused Calvin as well as Viret and Farel of Arianism in 1536. Calvin defended his beliefs
on the Trinity in Confessio de Trinitate propter calumnias P. Caroli. In 1551 Jérôme-Hermès
Bolsec, a physician in Geneva, attacked Calvin's doctrine of predestination and accused him
of making God the author of sin. Bolsec was banished from the city, and after Calvin's
death, he wrote a biography which severely maligned Calvin's character. In the following
year, Joachim Westphal, a Gnesio-Lutheran pastor in Hamburg, condemned Calvin and Zwingli
as heretics in denying the eucharistic doctrine of the union of Christ's body with the elements.
Calvin's Defensio sanae et orthodoxae doctrinae de sacramentis was his response in 1555. In
1556 Justus Velsius, a Dutch dissident, held a public disputation with Calvin during his
visit to Frankfurt, in which Velsius defended free will against Calvin's doctrine of predestination.
Following the execution of Servetus, a close associate of Calvin, Sebastian Castellio,
broke with him on the issue of the treatment of heretics. In Castellio's Treatise on Heretics,
he argued for a focus on Christ's moral teachings in place of the vanity of theology, and he
afterward developed a theory of tolerance based on biblical principles.
Calvin and the Jews Scholars have debated Calvin's view of the
Jews and Judaism. Some have argued that Calvin was the least anti-semitic among all the major
reformers of his time, especially in comparison to Martin Luther. Others have argued that
Calvin was firmly within the anti-semitic camp. Scholars agree, however, that it is
important to distinguish between Calvin's views toward the biblical Jews and his attitude
toward contemporary Jews. In his theology, Calvin does not differentiate between God's
covenant with Israel and the New Covenant. He stated, "all the children of the promise,
reborn of God, who have obeyed the commands by faith working through love, have belonged
to the New Covenant since the world began." Still he was a supersessionist and argued
that the Jews are a rejected people who must embrace Jesus to re-enter the covenant.
Most of Calvin's statements on the Jewry of his era were polemical. For example, Calvin
once wrote, "I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a
drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness – nay, I have never found common sense in
any Jew." In this respect, he differed little from other Protestant and Catholic theologians
of his day. Among his extant writings, Calvin only dealt explicitly with issues of contemporary
Jews and Judaism in one treatise, Response to Questions and Objections of a Certain Jew.
In it, he argued that Jews misread their own scriptures because they miss the unity of
the Old and New Testaments. Political thought
The aim of Calvin's political theory was to safeguard the rights and freedoms of ordinary
people. Although he was convinced that the Bible contained no blueprint for a certain
form of government, Calvin favored a combination of democracy and aristocracy. He appreciated
the advantages of democracy. To further minimize the misuse of political power, Calvin proposed
to divide it among several political institutions like the aristocracy, lower estates, or magistrates
in a system of checks and balances. Finally, Calvin taught that if rulers rise up against
God they lose their divine right and must be put down. State and church are separate,
though they have to cooperate to the benefit of the people. Christian magistrates have
to make sure that the church can fulfill its duties in freedom. In extreme cases the magistrates
have to expel or execute dangerous heretics. But nobody can be forced to become a Protestant.
Calvin thought that agriculture and the traditional crafts were normal human activities. With
regard to trade and the financial world he was more liberal than Luther, but both were
strictly opposed to usury. However, Calvin allowed the charging of modest interest rates
on loans. Like the other Reformers Calvin understood work as a means through which the
believers expressed their gratitude to God for their redemption in Christ and as a service
to their neighbors. Everybody was obliged to work; loafing and begging were rejected.
The idea that economic success was a visible sign of God's grace played only a minor role
in Calvin's thinking. It became more important in later, partly secularized forms of Calvinism
and became the starting-point of Max Weber's theory about the rise of capitalism.
Selected works
Calvin's first published work was a commentary of Seneca the Younger's De Clementia. Published
at his own expense in 1532, it showed that he was a humanist in the tradition of Erasmus
with a thorough understanding of classical scholarship. His first theological work, the
Psychopannychia, attempted to refute the doctrine of soul sleep as promulgated by the Anabaptists.
Calvin probably wrote it during the period following Cop's speech, but it was not published
until 1542 in Strasbourg.
Calvin produced commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. His first commentary on
Romans was published in 1540, and he planned to write commentaries on the entire New Testament.
Six years passed before he wrote his second, a commentary on I Corinthians, but after that
he devoted more attention to reaching his goal. Within four years he had published commentaries
on all the Pauline epistles, and he also revised the commentary on Romans. He then turned his
attention to the general epistles, dedicating them to Edward VI of England. By 1555 he had
completed his work on the New Testament, finishing with the Acts and the Gospels. For the Old
Testament, he wrote commentaries on Isaiah, the books of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and
Joshua. The material for the commentaries often originated from lectures to students
and ministers that he reworked for publication. However, from 1557 onwards, he could not find
the time to continue this method, and he gave permission for his lectures to be published
from stenographers' notes. These Praelectiones covered the minor prophets, Daniel, Jeremiah,
Lamentations, and part of Ezekiel. Calvin also wrote many letters and treatises.
Following the Responsio ad Sadoletum, Calvin wrote an open letter at the request of Bucer
to Charles V in 1543, Supplex exhortatio ad Caesarem, defending the reformed faith. This
was followed by an open letter to the pope in 1544, in which Calvin admonished Paul III
for depriving the reformers of any prospect of rapprochement. The pope proceeded to open
the Council of Trent, which resulted in decrees against the reformers. Calvin refuted the
decrees by producing the Acta synodi Tridentinae cum Antidoto in 1547. When Charles tried to
find a compromise solution with the Augsburg Interim, Bucer and Bullinger urged Calvin
to respond. He wrote the treatise, Vera Christianae pacificationis et Ecclesiae reformandae ratio
in 1549, in which he described the doctrines that should be upheld, including justification
by faith. Calvin provided many of the foundational documents
for reformed churches, including documents on the catechism, the liturgy, and church
governance. He also produced several confessions of faith in order to unite the churches. In
1559, he drafted the French confession of faith, the Gallic Confession, and the synod
in Paris accepted it with few changes. The Belgic Confession of 1561, a Dutch confession
of faith, was partly based on the Gallic Confession. Legacy
After the deaths of Calvin and his successor, Beza, the Geneva city council gradually gained
control over areas of life that were previously in the ecclesiastical domain. Increasing secularisation
was accompanied by the decline of the church. Even the Geneva académie was eclipsed by
universities in Leiden and Heidelberg, which became the new strongholds of Calvin's ideas,
first identified as "Calvinism" by Joachim Westphal in 1552. By 1585, Geneva, once the
wellspring of the reform movement, had become merely its symbol. However, Calvin had always
warned against describing him as an "idol" and Geneva as a new "Jerusalem". He encouraged
people to adapt to the environments in which they found themselves. Even during his polemical
exchange with Westphal, he advised a group of French-speaking refugees, who had settled
in Wesel, Germany, to integrate with the local Lutheran churches. Despite his differences
with the Lutherans, he did not deny that they were members of the true Church. Calvin's
recognition of the need to adapt to local conditions became an important characteristic
of the reformation movement as it spread across Europe.
Due to Calvin's missionary work in France, his programme of reform eventually reached
the French-speaking provinces of the Netherlands. Calvinism was adopted in the Electorate of
the Palatinate under Frederick III, which led to the formulation of the Heidelberg Catechism
in 1563. This and the Belgic Confession were adopted as confessional standards in the first
synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1571. Several leading divines, either Calvinist
or those sympathetic to Calvinism, settled in England and Scotland. During the English
Civil War, the Calvinistic Puritans produced the Westminster Confession, which became the
confessional standard for Presbyterians in the English-speaking world. As the Ottoman
Empire did not force Muslim conversion on its conquered western territories, reformed
ideas were quickly adopted in the two-thirds of Hungary they occupied. A Reformed Constitutional
Synod was held in 1567 in Debrecen, the main hub of Hungarian Calvinism, where the Second
Helvetic Confession was adopted as the official confession of Hungarian Calvinists. Having
established itself in Europe, the movement continued to spread to other parts of the
world including North America, South Africa, and Korea.
Calvin did not live to see the foundation of his work grow into an international movement;
but his death allowed his ideas to break out of their city of origin, to succeed far beyond
their borders, and to establish their own distinct character.
Calvin is recognized as a Renewer of the Church in Lutheran churches, and as a saint in the
Church of England, commemorated on 26 May, and on 28 May by the Episcopal Church.
See also
Baron, Salo, "John Calvin and the Jews", in Feldman, Leon A., Ancient and Medieval Jewish
History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, OCLC 463285878 .
Berg, Machiel A. van den, Friends of Calvin, Grand Rapids, Mi.: Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing
Co., ISBN 9780802862273  Bouwsma, William James, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century
Portrait, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-504394-4 .
Calvin, John [1564], Institutio Christianae religionis [Institutes of the Christian Religion],
Translated by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 
Cottret, Bernard [1995], Calvin: Biographie [Calvin: A Biography], Translated by M. Wallace
McDonald, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, ISBN 0-8028-3159-1 
De Greef, Wulfert, "Calvin's writings", in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge Companion
to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8 
————————, The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide, Louisville,
Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 0-664-23230-2  Detmers, Achim, "Calvin, the Jews, and Judaism",
in Bell, Dean Phillip; Burnett, Stephen G., Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century
Germany, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-14947-2 . DeVries, Dawn, "Calvin's preaching", in McKim,
Donald K., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8  Dyer, Thomas Henry, The Life of John Calvin,
London: John Murray  Gamble, Richard C., "Calvin's controversies",
in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8  Ganoczy, Alexandre, "Calvin's life", in McKim,
Donald K., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8  Gerrish, R. A., "The place of Calvin in Christian
theology", in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8  Graham, W. Fred, The Constructive Revolutionary:
John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact, Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, ISBN 0-8042-0880-8 .
Helm, Paul, John Calvin's Ideas, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-925569-5 .
Heron, Alasdair, "John Calvin", in Lacoste, Jean-Yves, Encyclopedia of Christian Theology .
Hesselink, I. John, "Calvin's theology", in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge Companion
to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8 
Holder, R. Ward, "Calvin's heritage", in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge Companion to John
Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8 
Lane, Anthony N.S., "Calvin's Institutes", A Reader's Guide, Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing
Group, ISBN 978-0-8010-3731-3  Lange van Ravenswaay, J. Marius J. [2008],
"Calvin and the Jews", in Selderhuis, Herman J., Calvijn Handboek [The Calvin Handbook],
Translated by Kampen Kok, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ISBN 978-0-8028-6230-3 
Manetsch, Scott M., Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed
Church, 1536–1609, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, New York: Oxford University Press 
McDonnell, Kilian, John Calvin, the Church, and the Eucharist, Princeton: Princeton University
Press, OCLC 318418 . McGrath, Alister E., A Life of John Calvin,
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-16398-0 . McNeil, John Thomas, The History and Character
of Calvinism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-500743-3 .
Niesel, Wilhelm, The Theology of Calvin, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, ISBN 0-8010-6694-8 .
Olsen, Jeannine E., "Calvin and social-ethical issues", in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge
Companion to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8 
Pak, G. Sujin, The Judaizing Calvin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-537192-5 .
Parker, T. H. L., Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought, London: Geoffrey Chapman,
ISBN 0-225-66575-1 . ———————, John Calvin, Tring,
Hertfordshire, England: Lion Publishing plc, ISBN 0-7459-1219-2 .
———————, John Calvin: A Biography, Oxford: Lion Hudson plc, ISBN 978-0-7459-5228-4 .
Pater, Calvin Augustus, "Calvin, the Jews, and the Judaic Legacy", in Furcha, E. J.,
In Honor of John Calvin: Papers from the 1986 International Calvin Symposium, Montreal:
McGill University Press, ISBN 978-0-7717-0171-9 . Pettegree, Andrew, "The spread of Calvin's
thought", in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-01672-8  Potter, G. R.; Greengrass, M., John Calvin,
London: Edward Arnold Ltd., ISBN 0-7131-6381-X . Steinmetz, David C., Calvin in Context, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-509164-7 . —————————, "Calvin as Biblical
Interpreter Among the Ancient Philosophers", Interpretation 63: 142–153, doi:10.1177/002096430906300204 
Further reading Balserak, Jon, John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century
Prophet, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-198-70325-9 .
Backus, Irena; Benedict, Philip, eds.. Calvin and His Influence, 1509–2009. Oxford University
Press.  Gordon, Bruce, Calvin, London/New Haven: Yale
University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-17084-9 . Muller, Richard A.. The Unaccommodated Calvin:
Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-19-515168-8. 
Sewell, Alida Leni. Calvin, the Body and Sexuality: An Inquiry into His Anthropology. Amsterdam:
VU University Press. ISBN 978-90-8659-587-7.  Tamburello, Dennis E., Union with Christ:
John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox
Press, ISBN 0-664-22054-1 ISBN 978-0-664-22054-9 External links
John Calvin on In Our Time at the BBC. John Calvin entry in the Internet Encyclopedia
of Philosophy Works by John Calvin at Project Gutenberg
Works by John Calvin at Post-Reformation Digital Library
The John Calvin Bibliography of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies
Calvinism Resources Database Writings of Calvin at the Christian Classics
Ethereal Library Writings and lectures by and about John Calvin
at the SWRB Sermons by Calvin
Psychopannychia The Life of John Calvin by Theodore Beza
Catholic Encyclopedia
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John Calvin

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