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John Calvin: The Accidental Reformer

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John Calvin

John Calvin was a sixteenth century French theologian, best known for his prominent role in the Reformation and his influential theology. More than four and a half centuries after his death, Calvin’s teachings continue to shape Christian beliefs, particularly regarding predestination and God’s absolute sovereignty.

In his lifetime, Calvin became a well-known (and controversial) Christian leader and a major fixture of the Reformation—but that almost didn’t happen. If it hadn’t been for a fateful encounter in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin may have never stepped into the limelight.

In their online course, Church History 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day, scholars Frank A. James III and John Woodbridge discuss John Calvin’s life and influence, and expose the moment when his life dramatically changed course in Geneva.

The following post is adapted from their online course.

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John Calvin’s early life

Calvin’s journey to Geneva began years earlier in the French cathedral city of Noyon, where he was born in 1509. The city was about sixty miles northeast of Paris, and John grew up in the shadow of the Noyon cathedral. His father, Gerard Calvin, was an attorney for the cathedral and secretary to the bishop. Little is known of John’s mother, Jeanne, who died when he was five or six years old. Due to the patronage of the bishop, John’s father was able to secure a modest church benefice (scholarship) to provide for his education.

At fourteen, John began studies at the University of Paris, first with general studies at the College de la Marche and then theological studies at the College de Montaigu. He graduated with an MA in 1528, intending a career in the church. But his plans went awry.

John’s father, Gerard, was excommunicated in 1528. The specific reasons for the excommunication are unclear—except that they had nothing to do with Protestantism. Gerard must have concluded that all prospects of a high-church appointment were lost for any son of an excommunicated man, hence the redirection of young Calvin’s career. Ever the obedient son, John then pursued legal studies at the universities of Orleans (about 1528–29) and Bourges (about 1529–31), gaining his law degree in 1532.

After the death of his father in May 1531, Calvin went to Paris, where he fell in with a group of French humanists influenced by Erasmus and Faber Stapulensis. During his Paris period (1531–33), Calvin published his first book—a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (On Clemency)—combining his expertise in law with his affinity for French humanism. There is nothing in this work to suggest he had embraced Protestantism.

While in Paris, Calvin became friends with a physician from Basel, Nicolas Cop, who was later appointed rector of the University of Paris.

Calvin converts to Protestantism

Calvin’s first significant encounter with Lutheranism may have come in the person of Melchior Wolmar, a German Hellenist in Orleans who taught Greek. Wolmar, as it turned out, was a secret Lutheran at the time. While it impossible to know with certainty, Wolmar may have introduced Lutheran ideas to his young Greek student.

When Calvin migrated to the University of Bourges, he again found Wolmar there in a new post. There is little doubt that a close personal relationship existed between the closet Lutheran and the young law student. It is notable that in 1546 Calvin dedicated his commentary on 2 Corinthians to Wolmar—his “most distinguished teacher.”

Whether through the evangelistic efforts of Wolmar or Olivetanus or not, the young Calvin had undergone a life-changing experience and embraced the Protestant cause sometime during 1533 and 1534. Before this period, there is simply no evidence of his having crossed the Rubicon. He may very well have engaged in discussions with Protestant friends, but he was not persuaded. However, by 1535 he was in Basel putting the finishing touches on the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion—his seminal work on Protestant faith.

In one of the rare moments of self-revelation, Calvin speaks passionately of his conversion to Protestantism. In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms (1557), he describes his “unexpected conversion”:

What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion, God tamed and made teachable a mind too stubborn for its years. For I was obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy and nothing less could draw me out of so deep a quagmire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire. . . .

Although Calvin seems to refer to a particular conversion experience, most scholars believe there was some kind of process. It is likely that he encountered Protestantism during his studies, perhaps through Wolmar or Robert, but resisted because he was “obstinately addicted” to Rome. Then over time, certainly by 1533 or 1534, he fully committed to the Protestant faith. It was “unexpected” in that he had been a devout Catholic who never contemplated leaving the mother church.

Just passing through Geneva

Protestantism arrived in Geneva a couple of months before John Calvin. By 1536 Geneva had managed to gain independence from its prince-bishop and the Duke of Savoy. Two Swiss subdivisions—Catholic Fribourg and Protestant Bern—were in competition for both political and religious influence on the newly independent city-state.

In the early 1530s, Bern sent Guillaume Farel (1489–1565) to win Geneva to the Reformation. Through public disputations and fiery sermons, in August 1535 Farel persuaded the magistrates to abolish the mass, and in December all Catholic clergy were given the option of conversion to Protestantism or exile. On May 21, 1536, the General Council of Geneva formally ratified the new Protestantism and pledged to “live according to the Gospel and the Word of God.”

In a remarkable providence, a young twenty-seven-year-old John Calvin was passing through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg in July 1536 when his world was turned upside down. Calvin had fled from Paris in the aftermath of the “Affair of the Placards” amid accusations that he was partly responsible for the overtly Protestant address by the newly appointed rector of the University of Paris, Nicolas Cop.

Interrupting the quiet life of a writer

Calvin made his way to the safe-house of Louis du Tillet in Angoulême, where he began to write the Institutes. Unlike Calvin’s first book, this one was an immediate success, and earned him a reputation as a Protestant theologian of marked ability. This taste of success persuaded the young Calvin that he could best serve the cause of Christ as a writer—and that all he needed was a quiet hideaway to write his books.

The free imperial city of Strasbourg, now fully in the Protestant camp, was just such a safe haven for an aspiring theologian, so he set off in the summer of 1536, with his brother Antoine and sister Marie, to settle there in the quiet life of a Christian scholar.

As it happened, the route to Strasbourg was cut off by the third of the Hapsburg-Valois Wars. The small entourage detoured through Geneva, intending to stay a single night.

Someone—whom Calvin describes only as one who later “apostatized and returned to the Papacy” (almost certainly a reference to Louis du Tillet)—reported to Farel that the author of the Institutes was passing through Geneva. The fiery redheaded preacher immediately confronted the young Calvin and passionately appealed to him to remain in Geneva to help consolidate the reformation of the city. Calvin politely declined the invitation, which only fueled Farel to a more dramatic appeal.

Calvin recounts the story in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms (1557): “I had resolved to pass quickly by Geneva, without staying longer than a single night.” Initially, Calvin explained to Farel that his “heart was set upon devoting himself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits.”

But Farel would not be denied, and Calvin, fearing the worst, gave up the journey. So began Calvin’s lifelong association with Geneva.

The beginning of Calvin’s leadership

When Calvin inadvertently ventured into the new republic of Geneva in the summer of 1536, he found himself in a bustling city in transition. Geneva had established its own governing structure: the Council of Two Hundred assumed judicial and legislative functions, while the Little Council took over the executive role of governance. Within the Little Council, the real power lay with four syndics, who were annually elected by the male citizens of Geneva.

If Calvin and Farel were going to reform Geneva, they would have to work through these existing political structures.

Then there were the Genevan citizens themselves. Not all Genevans were enthused about the decision to become a Protestant city or with the new foreigners who were given pastoral oversight. Most Genevans still retained loyalty to Rome.

To make matters even more complicated, both pastors soon became objects of animosity for one Pierre Caroli, a Sorbonne-educated theologian, who publicly accused them of denying the divinity of Christ. The early years of 1536–38 were arduous for Calvin and Farel, who discovered just how difficult it was to navigate the political and religious minefield that was Geneva.

For the next two years Calvin worked side by side with Farel to make Geneva a Protestant city, not only in name, but in reality. The two Reformers made new proposals for greater discipline and drafted a new Confession of Faith (1537), both of which had the support of the city council but were strongly resisted by the people as too burdensome. In February 1538, the Genevans elected four new syndics with a mandate to restrain the new Protestant pastors.

Tensions mounted between the city council and the Reformers, and matters finally came to a head on Easter Sunday in 1538, when Calvin and Farel defied the newly elected syndics. They refused to administer the Lord’s Supper according to Bernese prescriptions, which required unleavened bread. Irate city magistrates banished both Calvin and Farel, ordering them to leave Geneva within three days.

Calvin returns to Geneva

In what is one of the most surprising developments in early Reformation history, the Genevan city council did an about-face a few years later, and invited Calvin to return.

After Calvin and Farel were banished, the Erasmian Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto seized the opportunity to reel Geneva back into the Roman fold. Sadoleto wrote a powerful and eloquent appeal to the city fathers, pleading with them to return to the mother church. Finding no one in Geneva able to respond to Sadoleto’s challenge, the magistrates sought the wisdom of the leaders in Bern, who in turn asked Calvin to reply.

Although banished, Calvin reveals that he still felt a “paternal affection” and a spiritual responsibility toward Geneva: “God, when he gave it [Geneva] to me in charge, . . . bound me to be faithful forever.” Composed in six days, Calvin’s reply (August 1539) was a tour de force. Step by step, Calvin bested Sadoleto both in eloquence and argument. Calvin confesses:

We [Protestants] abound indeed in numerous faults; too often do we sin and fall. Still . . . modesty will not permit me to boast how far we exceed you [Catholics] in every respect. . . . Rome, that famous abode of sanctity . . . has so overflowed with all kinds of iniquity, that scarcely anything so abominable has been seen before.

Calvin’s reply bolstered the Protestant party in Geneva and led to the surprising invitation to return. He was still recovering from his earlier wounds and had no desire to return to Geneva. Writing a letter on behalf of Geneva and the Protestant cause was one thing. Returning was another.

He wrote to Farel, “I would rather submit to death a hundred times than to go to that cross [Geneva]. . . . Who will not excuse me if I am unwilling to plunge again into the whirlpool I know to be so dangerous?”

Farel again threatened divine curses if he should fail to heed the call. Calvin submitted and returned to Geneva on September 13, 1541.

The Ecclesiastical Ordinances

The main condition for Calvin’s return was that he be permitted to structure the Geneva church “such as is prescribed in the Word of God and as was in use in the early Church.” This new structure included “Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” which were made law in Geneva in November 1541.

The Ecclesiastical Ordinances organized the Genevan church under four offices: pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon.

Pastors were principally charged with preaching the Scriptures, administering the sacraments, and exercising discipline jointly with the elders.

Teachers were to serve the church through education of clergy as well as maintaining doctrinal purity.

Elders were duly appointed laymen focused on discipline within the community, especially ensuring church attendance and moral behavior.

Deacons were responsible for poor relief and overseeing the hospitals. The deacons especially concentrated on ministry to the poor, the orphans, and the sick.

As refugees began to flood into Geneva, these offices took on greater significance.

The Venerable Company of Pastors

Beyond the four offices, two ecclesiastical organizations were established to facilitate their responsibilities. The Venerable Company of Pastors was composed of pastors and teachers and met every Friday to study Scripture and once a quarter to oversee ecclesiastical affairs, especially education, ordination, and mutual discipline.

The consistory

More significant was the consistory, a mixed body of clergy and laymen (five pastors, twelve elders, and ten magistrates) whose main concern was enforcement of morality. According to the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, every home was to be visited annually by a pastor and elder to ensure moral conformity. To facilitate the visitations, the city was divided into three parishes: St. Pierre, St. Gervais, and la Madeleine.

While one of the syndics presided officially, Calvin exercised considerable influence over the decisions of the consistory. Any citizen found to be in violation of the moral code appeared before the consistory on Thursdays.

Recent research has shown that the consistory spent the vast majority of its time issuing admonishments for such things as failure to attend church, dancing, laughing during the sermon, gambling, retaining Catholic customs, and public disrespect for Calvin.

Even leading officials such as Pierre Ameaux, a member of the Little Council, were not immune from reprimand. When he publicly criticized Calvin in 1546, Ameaux was sentenced to walk around Geneva dressed only in a penitential shirt, begging for mercy on his knees in each of the public squares.

It was emphasized that all admonitions should be moderate, and the goal was restoration to the church.

More serious offenses came with harsher punishments.

The death penalty was prescribed for heresy, blasphemy, and adultery after a second offense. Following sixteenth-century norms, torture was used in the most serious offenses. Jacques Gruet, for instance, was tortured before being executed for sedition. As intrusive as the consistory could be, according to historian Robert Kingdon it was designed “to see to it that every resident of Geneva was integrated into a caring community.”

What was John Calvin like as a pastor?

One of the ironies is that Calvin, as far as we know, was never officially ordained as a pastor. When he was first employed in Geneva, he was a “reader”—that is, a teacher—but after some months, he was also referred to as “pastor” or “preacher.” It may be that he was made a “pastor” by the city council of Geneva rather than the church. In any case, there is little doubt that he was de facto the senior pastor of Geneva.

Calvin followed the lectio continua approach and usually expounded two to five Scripture verses in an hour. It was his practice ordinarily to preach five times a week—the Old Testament on weekdays, the New Testament on Sunday morning, and the Psalms on Sunday evening.

Calvin scholar T.H.L. Parker maintained that Calvin “is not fully seen unless he is seen in the pulpit.” For Calvin, the pulpit was a sacred place. By nature diffident, Calvin came alive in the pulpit and poured out his heart in preaching. He often speaks of the “hidden energy” that takes the words of the preacher beyond his own preparation to penetrate the hearts in the pew. For Calvin, preaching had a kind of sacramental quality in which the Holy Spirit—the hidden energy—is actively present and communicating grace to the people.

Calvin practiced what he preached. Something of the level of his pastoral activity is seen in a letter by another preacher, Nicholas Calladon, who wrote, “I do not believe there can be found his like. I don’t believe there is any man in our time who has more to listen to, respond to, write, or do. . . . [he] never ceased working day and night in service to the Lord.”

Pastoral ministry brought out the best in Calvin. In a letter from April 1549 he mentioned his daily visits to a dying woman in his congregation. When she began to express her fear of death, he told her, “God is able to help you. He has indeed shown you how He is a present aid to His own.” He then proceeded to reflect on the pastor’s responsibility: “We ought to weep with those who weep. That is to say, if we are Christians, we ought to have such compassion and sorrow for our neighbors that we should willingly take part in their tears, and thus comfort them.”

This is a side of John Calvin seldom noted in modern scholarship.

Did John Calvin execute heretics?

If John Calvin is known for nothing else, he is often identified with the execution of the Spaniard heretic Michael Servetus (1511–53). Servetus was infamous in his time for challenging the traditional doctrines of the deity of Christ, the Trinity, original sin, and infant baptism. Servetus’ primary occupation was as a physician, and he gained some notoriety as the first person to discover the pulmonary circulation of the blood.

In 1531 Servetus published his infamous De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity), requiring him to conceal his identity. He eventually settled in Vienne, France, where he became personal physician to the archbishop. As early as 1545, he began corresponding with Calvin, whose Institutes Servetus later contemptuously mocked with his 1553 publication titled Christianismi Restituto (Restitution of Christianity).

Calvin passed on the correspondence to the Catholic authorities in France, who arrested Servetus. He was convicted of heresy and sentenced to death by fire, only to escape just before the sentence was to be carried out.

Curiosity ultimately may have killed Servetus. On his escape in 1553, planning to go to Italy, the Spaniard made the disastrous decision to stop in Geneva and attend services in Calvin’s church. It was a fatal attraction. Servetus cannot have been unaware of the hostile reception he would receive if discovered. Calvin had made his feelings absolutely clear in a letter to Farel that if Servetus were ever to come to Geneva, “I will never let him depart alive, if I have any authority.”

Perhaps Servetus wanted to be able to taunt Calvin by later gloating over his clandestine venture into the church of St. Pierre. Whatever his intent, it failed when Servetus was recognized by French refugees. He was immediately arrested and soon put on trial—this time by Genevan Protestants.

The trial of Servetus has become to many an example of the harsh reign of Calvin. To others it has been viewed as merely a political venue by the libertines to silence Calvin’s voice in Genevan affairs. What is clear is that Calvin did not act as judge, jury, or executioner in the trial; he never possessed that kind of power.

In reality, Calvin served as the prosecution’s expert witness in the trial. Calvin was, after all, the leading theologian and one who had direct knowledge of Servetus’s views. After consultations with other Protestant cities (Basel, Bern, Schaffhausen, Zürich, and Wittenberg), there was a unanimous agreement that Servetus’s views were heretical and he should be burned to death according to the standards of sixteenth-century justice. Historian Roland Bainton wryly remarked that Servetus “had the singular distinction of being burned by the Catholics in effigy and by the Protestants in actuality.”

The Servetus affair marked a turning point for Calvin. Adversaries had dogged his every step almost from the beginning of his arrival in Geneva. But his opponents’ failure to exploit Servetus’s execution to their advantage led to greater influence for Calvin. With the increasing influx of persecuted refugees, especially French, he was able to build a strong, supportive constituency in Geneva. As a sign of his newfound stature, he was finally granted citizenship in Geneva in 1559.

Did John Calvin and Martin Luther work together?

By the time Calvin emerged onto the historical stage in 1536, Luther had only another ten years to live. As much as Calvin admired the “Lion of Wittenberg,” he was not blind to Luther’s shortcomings.

Calvin’s assessment of Luther is this: “I have often said that even if he [Luther] were to call me a devil, I would still regard him as an outstanding servant of God. But with all his rare and excellent virtues he has also serious faults. Would that he had studied to curb his restless uneasy temper which is so ready to boil over everywhere.”

Luther and Calvin never actually met, but there were a few exchanges toward the end of Luther’s life. After reading Calvin’s treatise on the Eucharist (1540), Luther was reported to have said that Calvin was “a learned and godly man, and I might well have entrusted this controversy to him from the beginning. If my opponents had done the same we should soon have been reconciled.” Luther also had a favorable impression of the 1539 edition of the Institutes and passed on his congratulations to Calvin.

Amid all the fireworks over the Eucharist in the 1540s, Calvin wrote a personal letter to Luther in hopes of healing the Protestant breach. He deferentially addressed the letter to “my much revered father.” However, Melanchthon, who was to deliver the letter, decided at the last moment not to give it to Luther, fearing that it would provoke further wrath. It seems Luther’s stormy temperament prevented what could have been a profitable alliance.

A humble death

Calvin’s fellow Reformer, Wolfgang Musculus, once described Calvin as a “bow always strung.” Calvin’s extraordinary work ethic eventually took its toll. After years of sleep deprivation (he slept only four or five hours a night), often one meal a day, and overwork, his body finally gave way. Moreover, his last years were complicated with a variety of physical ailments, including intestinal parasites, hemorrhoids, kidney stones, arthritis, tuberculosis, and headaches. He died at the age of fifty-five on May 27, 1564.

Yet, even on his deathbed Calvin continued to work. When friends begged him to stop, he replied, “What? Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes for me?”

Upon Calvin’s death, his colleague and successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, eulogized, “I have been a witness of him [Calvin] for more than sixteen years, and I think I am fully titled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an example of the life and death of the Christian, such as will not be easy to depreciate, and it will be difficult to imitate.”

Calvin would not have viewed himself as a victorious Christian, but merely as a weak servant. For all of his intensity and conviction, he retained a real humility even at the end of his life. He requested and was granted burial in an unmarked grave.

This post is adapted from Church History 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day, taught by Frank A. James, III and John Woodbridge.

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