The Reformers: John Calvin
Tomorrow is the 500th Anniversary of the birth of John Calvin.
John Calvin was born on the 10 July 1509 in Noyon, France, just eight years before the greater reformer, Martin Luther, would pin his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Germany in protest against the Catholic Church’s distortion of scripture, corruption and the abuse of power.
As this spark of dissent ignited by an obscure German Monk kindled into the Reformation, John Calvin began his life amidst an undistinguished, middle-class family. At the age of 14 Calvin’s father sent him to study theology at the University of Paris. Although we do not know the precise circumstances, it appears that there was a controversy between his father and the Catholic Church and this resulted in him removing his son from the study of theology and instead dedicating him to the study of law, first in Orleans and then in Bourges.
Between 1529 and 1533 a convergence of events, beginning with Calvin’s conversion and ending in his exile, changed the course of Calvin’s life and indelibly influenced the direction of the church and, indeed, Western culture.
This decisive period began on the completion of his legal studies following which Calvin turned to his first love, the study of the classics and, in doing so, mastered Greek. This was a crucial moment in that it enabled Calvin to study the New Testament in the original language, a practice which was viewed with great suspicion and unease by the authorities and the Catholic Church.
Although we do not know the circumstances of his conversion, it is believed that this decisive moment took place around 1529-1530 as John Calvin began to preach in churches round and about Bourges.
In the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, Calvin comes close to describing the decisive moment of his conversion,
God drew me from most obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honourable office of herald and minister of the gospel […] What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years – for I was so strongly devoted to the superstitions of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner, a raw recruit.
Calvin’s experience was similar to that of Martin Luther. He was born, raised and practiced as a good Catholic, he was ‘strongly devoted to the superstitions off the papacy’ when God miraculously intervened, opened his eyes and rescued him from the mire.
Other significant moments during this period included, in the November of 1533, a close friend, Nicolas Cop, delivering a sermon (which some suspect may have been written by Calvin) which was denounced as Lutheran. This resulted in a swift and vicious crackdown by Church and government in which many who were suspected of being ‘Lutheran’ were arrested and some even executed. Calvin fled to Noyon in fear of his life, now branded a dangerous Lutheran.
It seems that Calvin enjoyed a brief period of respite until Reformers began to post pamphlets in Paris. A further more extensive persecution broke out and Calvin found himself first fleeing to Basel and then to Geneva where he would remain (save for a brief expulsion between 1538-1541), ministering as a Pastor and theologian, for the rest of his life.
Between 1534 and his arrival in Geneva in 1541 Calvin was busy writing the first (and shorter) edition of his great work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which he systematically set forth the doctrinal position of the Reformers. Through revisions (up to the final days before his death), the Institutes has become regarded as the great pillar of Reformed theology and considered (rightly in my view) the greatest theological work outside of Scripture.
In Geneva, Calvin became a prolific preacher and writer. At the height of his ministry, Calvin was preaching twice on a Sunday and three times during the week. It is believed that he preached over two thousand sermons throughout his life.
Calvin was also responsible for teaching, training and mentoring church planters and missionaries. There is evidence that, in 1555, there were but five underground Protestant churches in the whole of France. By 1559 this number had grown to over one hundred and, by 1562, it is reckoned that there were more than two thousand underground churches. This incredible church growth is, in large part, a result of the work of John Calvin and the church in Geneva.
In addition to the Institutes (which, in its final edition spanned two volumes), Calvin published commentaries on the entire New Testament (excluding John’s second and third epistles and the book of Revelation) and much of the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch, the Psalms, Isaiah and Joshua. Later in his life a number of his sermons were compiled and reworked as commentaries on the minor prophets, Daniel, Jeremiah, Lamentations and much of Ezekiel. In addition, Calvin published a number of pamphlets and other treatises.
Such was Calvin’s dedication to his ministry that he continued preaching despite poor health. In his final weeks he preached a sermon with such fervour and passion that he burst a blood vessel and his health further declined as a result. Although confined to his deathbed, Calvin continued to work on the final edition of the Institutes which was published posthumously.
John Calvin died on the 27 May 1564.
Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Reformers were but men. They did not possess apostolic authority and their writings are of value only insomuch as they accord with Scripture.
Having said this, however, Western culture and Evangelicalism owe an incalculable debt to the Reformers. The Reformation not only opposed ecclesiastical corruption, but asserted the responsibility of the individual in matters of faith and conscience. Martin Luther’s famous declaration at the Diet of Worms was an astonishing assertion of the individual’s responsibility in reading, understanding and applying the word of God,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
Furthermore, we must thank the Reformers that we have access to the Word of God in the vernacular.
Similarly, Reformed theology and indeed Protestantism in general owe a great debt to John Calvin. Calvin most thoroughly (and most influentially) set forth, with the Institutes, a systematic account of Reformed theology. Following his death, his students set forth the five points of Calvinism, namely, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints (simplified with the acrostic, TULIP).
More than this, however, Calvin fought to present and maintain a majestic view of the glory, sovereignty and supremacy of Christ in all things.
At the age of 30, Calvin described an imaginary scene of himself giving an account to God,
The thing [O God] at which I chiefly aimed, and for which I most diligently laboured, was, that the glory of thy goodness and justice . . . might shine forth conspicuous, that the virtue and blessings of thy Christ . . . might be fully displayed…
It is good to be encouraged by the testimonies of the godly men and women who have gone before us. It is marvellous to witness the grace and glory of Christ shine forth in and through weak vessels, these mere jars of clay.
Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture – Provides an overview of Calvin’s life and ministry and the impact of Calvinism upon Western Culture. A Life can be purchased here.
T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography – Parker’s biography (revieweed here) is a succinct and compelling overview of Calvin’s life and ministry and can be purchased here. A second hand copy can be purchased here for just a couple of pounds.
John Piper, John Calvin and his Passion for the Majesty of God – a short (a mere 64 pages) overview of Calvin’s ministry and theology. Passion can be purchased here, second hand copies are available here for a couple of pounds or, better still, can be read on line for free by clicking here (courtesy of desiringgod.org).
 Brecht, Martin. (tr. Wolfgang Katenz) “Luther, Martin,” in Hillerbrand, Hans J. (ed.) Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 2:463.
 John Dillenberger, John Calvin, Selections from His Writings, (Scholars Press, 1975), p. 110