Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Renaissance)
Article abstract: Calvin was one of the most important theologians of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformed church that he established in Geneva became a model for Calvinist churches throughout Europe. Calvinism itself became the most dynamic Protestant religion of the seventeenth century.
John Calvin was born in Noyon, Picardy, on July 10, 1509, the second son of Gérard Cauvin and Jeanne le Franc Cauvin. His father was the secretary to the Bishop of Noyon and fiscal procurator for the province, and his mother was the daughter of a well-to-do innkeeper. The young Calvin was tutored for a career in the Church, and in 1523 he entered the Collège de la Marche at the University of Paris. It was there that he Latinized his name to Calvinus for scholarly purposes. Next, he attended the Collège de Montaigne, an institution of great importance in the Christian humanistic tradition of the day. After having received his master of arts degree, he studied law at the University of Orléans. He returned to Paris in 1531, where he furthered his studies with some of the greatest Humanists of the period.
Sixteenth century Europe was in ecclesiastical ferment. The Roman Catholic Church had long been under attack because of its weaknesses and abuses. Religious reformers had, for more than a century, called for a thorough cleansing of the Church. In 1517, Martin Luther had initiated the...
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Calvin studied theology, law, and classics, and he wrote his Commentary on Lucius Anneas Seneca’s Two Books on Clemency (1532) by the age of twenty-three. His sympathies with emerging Protestant thinking caused him to flee Paris in 1534. He wrote the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 in Basel, Switzerland. That same year, he settled in Geneva, where he acted as both its civil and its religious leader. His own conversion experience gave him a sense of God’s direct dealings with people. Calvin emphasized the sovereignty of God. He believed that knowledge of God came only through revealed scriptures, not through unaided human reason. Humans were created morally upright, but through Adam’s sin human nature became “totally depraved”; that is, all human faculties have been corrupted, and as a result humans are incapable of any act that God would deem good. Salvation is thus necessary but is wholly the act of God. Jesus died to effect the salvation of those God elects, and even the faith to accept salvation is God’s irresistible gift. God alone chooses who will and who will not receive the faith to accept forgiveness. Further, those whom God saves, God preserves. The responsibility of the Christian is to lead a moral, temperate life. Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism, 1904-1905) has argued that Calvinism has given rise to a work ethic and capitalism, although that conclusion is...
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IntroductionAlthough Martin Luther provided the spark that began the Reformation, John Calvin took this movement and created a complete Protestant theology based only on scripture. The ideas and beliefs of Calvin’s reformed theology were particularly influential to the early American colonists. Originally a lawyer with a strong belief in the Catholic Church, Calvin suddenly converted to Protestantism in 1533. Forced to flee France because of his beliefs, Calvin went to Geneva and is mostly associated with that city. He believed that all social organizations and government should be based on biblical principles, and he revolutionized Genevan society by imposing a strict moral code on all its citizens. Under Calvin, Geneva became the Protestant stronghold of Europe.
- After becoming a leader in Geneva and beginning to impose his strict theocratic government, he found himself banished from the city by unhappy citizens in 1538. Asked back in 1540, he remained in Geneva until his death in 1564.
- One of the main tenets introduced by Calvin was the doctrine of predestination (also called \"the doctrine of the elect\"). This belief held that salvation was predestined by God for certain individuals before birth. According to Calvin, there is no element of human choice or free will in salvation. You are either born part of the elect or you are not saved.
- Calvin’s most important work is Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), which sets out the basic tenets of Protestant faith. First published in Latin and later in French, the book is still read by theology students today.
- One of the major controversies of Calvin’s life was the execution of Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician and theologian, who had fled to Geneva to escape the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. Because Servetus had written a book denying the existence of the Trinity, which was still accepted Protestant doctrine, he was found guilty of heresy and executed in Geneva. Calvin himself supported the death sentence but was in favor of a painless beheading rather than the accepted method of executing heretics—burning at the stake. Unfortunately for Servetus, Calvin was overruled.
- Calvin’s church had four different types of officers: Pastors, who had all the authority in religious matters in Geneva; Teachers, who were responsible for teaching the flock the correct doctrine; Elders, who were responsible for admonishing the people and rooting out any perceived heresy; and Deacons, who were responsible for providing charitable service to the sick, the elderly, and the poor.
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