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John Calvin

1509-1564. French Reformer. He was born 10 July 1509, in Noyon, Picardy, sixty miles NE of Paris, to Gerard Cauvin (Calvinus was the Latinized form of his name) and his wife Jeanne la France of Cambrai. John was the second of five sons. His father, a notary public, was primarily employed in the service of the bishop of Noyon, and as a result while John was still young he obtained for him two ecclesiastical benefices. The young Calvin at an early age became friendly with the sons of one of the local gentry, Joachim de Hangest, sire de Montmor, who suggested when his sons were going to Paris for further education that Calvin should accompany them. Gerard agreed. After spending a few months at the Collège de la Marche, John enrolled in the Collège de Montaigu. When Gerard, however, came into conflict with the bishop of Noyon he decided that his son should give up all thought of the priesthood. He therefore ordered him to study law at Orléans where Pierre de l'Estoile was teaching, and while there John also took lectures from Andrea Alciati, the humanist legal scholar, at Bourges. When his father died in 1531, however, he returned to Paris to continue his literary studies, although he did go back to Orléans for a term to complete his law course.

Although we know little about Calvin's conversion, we have information to indicate that he had frequent contacts with men of Protestant tendencies while a student. At the Collège de Montaigu he may have met John Major, the Scottish conciliarist, and at Orléans and Bourges we do know that he studied Greek under Melchior Wolmar, a humanist with strong Protestant leanings. A number of his friends at Orléans and his cousin Francis Olivetan were also moving in this direction. It may have been as a result of these influences, coupled with attendance in Paris at secret Protestant meetings, that Calvin, despite his later acknowledgement of his “obdurate attachment to papistical superstitions,” became a Protestant. As a young man with very considerable ability as well as a reputation for learning, he soon became one of the leaders in the Protestant movement in Paris.

In April 1532 Calvin, typical of young humanist scholars of his day, published his first book, a commentary on Seneca's De Clementia. But soon after, he became caught up in the Reformation movement, which led him to concentrate his attention on biblical studies. When his friend Nicholas Cop* was elected rector of the University of Paris, John helped him to prepare his rectoral address delivered on 1 November 1533, which was an attack upon the church and a demand for reform along the lines advocated by Luther. The result was an explosion of anti- Protestant feeling which forced both Cop and Calvin to leave Paris. Although Calvin later returned for a short time, his reputation as one of les Réformes soon obliged him to leave again, and for the next three years he spent his time traveling in France, Switzerland, and Italy. During this period he also resigned his ecclesiastical benefices at Noyon.

Despite the necessity of being continually on the move to avoid arrest or persecution, Calvin had begun to use his pen in behalf of the Protestant faith. In 1534 he published his first religious work, Psychopannychia, an attack upon the doctrine of soul sleep after death. Shortly afterward, Olivetan's French translation of the Bible appeared with a preface by Calvin. Most important of all, however, in March 1536 he published in Basle a slim volume of seven chapters with the title Christianae Religionis Insitututio, prefaced by a letter to Francis I of France defending the Protestants against their calumniators. A short summary of the Christian faith, this work whose author was at the time virtually unknown soon became popular among Protestants as both an able exposition and a forthright apology for the new doctrines.

After spending a few more months wandering, Calvin accompanied by his brother Antoine and his half sister Marie headed for Strasbourg, where Protestantism had been officially accepted and which consequently would provide the peace necessary for his projected literary work. Owing to fighting between France and the empire, however, he had to travel through Switzerland via Geneva, where he planned to stay only one night. That stopover was decisive, for the Protestant preacher Guillaume Farel,* who had brought about a considerable measure of reform in Geneva, heard of the young scholar's presence. Farel thereupon demanded that Calvin stay to assist him in completing the work. Calvin at first refused, but when Farel threatened the curse of God upon him, he consented much against his will. But his residence in the city did not last long. He and Farel sought to introduce into a notoriously profligate society a measure of ecclesiastical discipline which only raised up enemies. When the two reformers refused to obey the civil government's demand that they accept the liturgy of Berne, their opponents used this as an excuse to force them out of the city. Farel moved to Neuchãtel, while Calvin on the invitation of Martin Bucer* set out once again for Strasbourg.

Probably some of Calvin's happiest years were spent in Strasbourg. Although constantly plagued with poverty, he seems to have enjoyed his life. The most important event personally was his marriage to Idelette de Bure, widow of an Anabaptist whom Calvin had converted to the Reformed position. She bore him one son, who lived only a few days. Shortly after his arrival in Strasbourg, Calvin became pastor of the French refugee congregation which he organized along what he believed to be NT lines. Especially important in this was his drawing up of a liturgy and the preparation of a psalm book made up of his own and Clement Marot's French metrical translations. At the same time he was busy preparing his commentary on Romans and taking part as a representative of Strasbourg in colloquies with Lutherans and Roman Catholics at Worms and Regensberg. From these activities his fame as a biblical scholar and theologian gradually spread.

He would probably have spent the rest of his life in Strasbourg had it not been for Cardinal Sadoleto's efforts to bring Geneva back under Roman control. After Calvin and Farel had departed from the city, no one arose to give the needed leadership in the church. The result was confusion and conflict. In this situation the supporters of the old regime felt it was a propitious time to undo the Reformers' work. To this end, in March 1539, Jacopo Cardinal Sadoleto,* a well-known humanist, wrote a letter urging the Genevans to submit to the pope. Since no one in Geneva seemed capable of replying, the letter was sent to Calvin, who dealt with it very effectively. About the same time, a change in Geneva's government put the control of the city in the hands of his friends, who invited him to return. Although he had no desire to do so, under the exhortations once again of Farel he finally agreed to go, reentering the city on 13 September 1541.

Although he realized only too well that Geneva, which long had a Europe-wide reputation for immorality, would be no easy community to reform, Calvin set about his task immediately. One of his first responsibilities was the revision of the city's laws, while at the same time he drew up a form of government for the church and revised his Strasbourg liturgy and psalter. Eventually (in 1559) he even succeeded in persuading the people that an academy, later to become a university, should be founded for training the youth for service in the commonwealth. In all this, his one great aim was to make Geneva a “holy city,” conformed to the will of God. This meant a strict and sometimes harsh discipline of which most people, even Calvinists, would not approve today, but it had the effect of changing Geneva's character and of making it a power in the world of the sixteenth century.

Calvin's efforts to reform Geneva and the Genevans naturally led to internal conflict. Not all the inhabitants were Calvinists, and even some of those who agreed with him at times felt he carried his rigorous demands too far. The result was at times riots and disturbances aimed at eliminating him from the city. The final test came when Michael Servetus,* a Spaniard under sentence of death by the Inquisition* for denying the doctrine of the Trinity, came to Geneva, apparently to cause trouble. He was recognized, denounced by Calvin, and with the approval of the other Swiss Protestant cities, as well as the Roman Catholic authorities, burned at the stake (1553). Although during the sixteenth century thousands of Protestants suffered the same fate at the hands of Roman Catholic persecutors, Calvin has been constantly vilified for his part in this single execution.

While he held no government position, nor indeed even became a citizen of the city until invited to in 1559, Calvin undoubtedly dominated the whole community, by moral suasion rather than by any other means. Not only did he play a large part in the devising of a church government with wide powers of oversight over the population and in helping to make the city's laws more humane, but he also exercised a wide influence in other areas. He was largely responsible for establishing a universal system of education for the young, and he took a large part in arranging for the care of the poor and the aged. He sought to make Geneva a Christian commonwealth, in practice as well as in doctrine.

Naturally, from this endeavor Geneva gained a widespread reputation, particularly among persecuted Protestants throughout Europe. Situated at the crossing point of a number of important trade routes between the north and Italy, it had a strategic geographic position. But what was even more important, under Calvin's influence the city authorities threw open the gates to refugees who flocked in from all directions: France, Holland, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Poland, and practically every other country of Europe. From Geneva these people often returned home as missionaries to spread the Gospel as they had learned it in Geneva. Out of these contacts, constantly maintained by a voluminous correspondence, Calvin wielded an influence far beyond the borders of the Genevan commune. He became the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation in the middle of the century.

Equally, if not more, important than his personal contacts and letters were his more formal writings. During his lifetime he wrote commentaries on twenty-three books of the OT, including all the Pentateuch and all of the prophets, and on all of the NT but the Apocalypse. With his background of humanistic studies and his theological knowledge, these works have been influential in the church down to the present time. Besides preparing commentaries, he preached frequently, every day on alternate weeks, many of his sermons being taken down in shorthand notes which he may have revised, and then were published. The notes of others were lost until this century, but are now being published for the first time. Along with these labors he constantly produced pamphlets dealing with current topics affecting both Protestant thought and action.

Most important of all his writings, however, is the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Published originally in 1536, a book of six chapters, as a theological handbook for French Protestants, it was revised by Calvin five times, usually translating the original Latin version into French, by which he greatly influenced the development of the modern French language. By the time the definitive edition appeared in 1559, it had been so changed and enlarged that it was in four books with a total of seventy-nine chapters. This work quickly became disseminated widely in many different translations to form, except in countries where Lutheranism dominated, the systematic theology of the Reformation. And it has endured to the present, as is indicated by the numerous scholarly editions which have appeared recently in English, French, Japanese, and other tongues.

Idelette Calvin died in 1549, leaving her husband a sad and lonely man. He did not apparently ever think of remarrying, although he could well have done with the care of a loving wife, for he was not one who would take great care of himself. The result was that he suffered from stomach ulcers and similar troubles to the end of his life. Such weaknesses of the flesh nevertheless did not restrain him from working intensively almost up to the time of his death on 27 May 1564. At the age of fifty- four Calvin literally burned out in the service of God.

To many since his time, Calvin has been the epitome of rigor and cheerlessness in this life. They feel that he was a legalist who would exclude all joy from Christianity and would make it into an unyielding bondage. Yet if one really studies his works and the life of the man himself, this does not appear to be the case. He was a very human individual, as he reveals so frequently in his letters. True, he was intense in the service of God, to whom he offered his heart fully. Using all his undoubted gifts, he laid the groundwork for much of the Protestantism of the next four centuries. But his influence extended far beyond the borders of the church, as it did beyond the confines of Geneva, for many of his ideas in politics, aesthetics, science, and history became so interwoven in Western thought that we must recognize him as one of the great seminal minds, one of the formative factors in the development of Western culture and civilization.

E. Doumergue, Jean Calvin. Les hommes et les choses de son temps (7 vols., 1899-1927; rep. 1969); J. Moura and P. Louvet, Calvin. A Modern Biography (1932); idem, Calvin et l'institution Chrétienne (1935); Imbart de la Tour, Calvin. Der Mensch, die Kirche, die Zeit (1936); F. Wendel, Calvin, sources et évolution de sa pensée religieuse (1950); E. Stickelberger, Calvin, A Life (tr. D.G. Gelzer, 1954); W. Niesel, The Theology of Calvin (1956); G. Harkness, John Calvin, the Man and His Ethics (1958); A. Bieler, La Pensée Economique et Sociale de Calvin (1959); J.T. Hoogstra (ed.), John Calvin, Contemporary Prophet (1959); J. Cadier, The Man God Mastered: A Brief Biography of John Calvin (1960); D.A. Erichson, Bibliographia Calviniana (rep. 1960); W. Niesel, Calvin Bibliographie 1901-1959 (1961); J. Rilliet, Calvin (1963); G.E. Duffield (ed.), John Calvin (1966); A. Ganoczy, Le Jeune Calvin: Génése et évolution de sa vocation reformatrice (1966); R.W. Collins, Calvin and the Libertines of Geneva (1968); J.N. Tylenda, “Calvin Bibliography 1960-1970,” Calvin Theological Journal, VI (1971), pp. 156ff.