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 action which ultimately became the Protestant Reformation. Given this environment, Calvin was soon affected by these ideas of protest and of reform. During this period of transition, Calvin published his first book, a study of Seneca’s De Clementia (c. 55-56 c.e.; On Clemency), which revealed him to be a forceful and precise writer.
Soon after the publication of this work, Calvin was converted to Protestantism. Fearing for his safety, he fled Paris and went first to Angoulème and later to Basel. He devoted himself to a study of theology, concentrating on the Bible, as Luther had done. In 1536, he published the results of his study in the first edition of his most important work, Christianae religionis institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1561). This work was to be refined, expanded (quadrupled in size from this edition to the final, 1559 edition), and developed over the course of his life. It quickly won for him a reputation as a Protestant authority. Indeed, most scholars agree that it is the single most important work produced during the Reformation.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion provided the foundation for a different form of Protestantism. Calvin’s training as a lawyer helped him to produce a work which was well organized, clear, and logical. There were two primary themes within the work: the absolute majesty of God and the absolute depravity of man. On the one hand, God is omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore He knows all that was, is, and will be. Man, because of his corrupt nature, cannot determine his salvation; only God can do so. Indeed, because of God’s omniscience, He has predetermined who is to be saved and who is to be damned.
The doctrine of predestination, while it did not originate with Calvin, made good works useless. While this may seem fatalistic, to Calvin it was not. A member of the elect would most assuredly perform good works as a sign that God was working through him. Hence, one of the elect would work hard and strive for earthly success in order to prove himself as having received God’s grace. Calvin also stated that Christ is present in spirit when believers gather prayerfully; priests are not necessary, for they have no special powers. He also rejected all sacraments except for baptism and the Eucharist.
Shortly before the Institutes of the Christian Religion was published, Calvin left Basel for Ferrara, Italy. There, he visited the Duchess of Ferrara, a sympathizer who had protected a number of reformers. Calvin made a strong appeal to her for further financial support of the Reformation. This was the first of many of his efforts to acquire aristocratic support, which was essential in an age when aristocrats still controlled much power and wealth. Calvin returned to Basel, traveled to France, and, in 1536, stopped in Geneva, a city-state which had just become Protestant.
At this time, everyone in a given place had to be of the same religion. Geneva had revolted against its bishop, but the city had not determined which Protestant ritual it would follow. Calvin, thus, stepped into a religious vacuum. He held public lectures on the Bible, and he printed a tract to prepare the Genevese for his concept of the Reformed faith. His dour version of Christianity, however, was met with antipathy by many less austere Genevese. In 1538, Calvin and his associate, Guillaume Farel, were ordered to leave Geneva.
Calvin went to Strasbourg for the next three years. There he developed a liturgy in French, created an organization for running a parish, and attended many religious debates on the Holy Roman Empire. He debated with Lutheran theologians, especially Philipp Melanchthon, and with Catholic theologians as well. During the debates, he became convinced that Roman Catholics could...
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