John Calvin Biography
John Calvin took the Reformation—the movement for which Martin Luther had provided the spark—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.
Facts and Trivia
- 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.
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 never be negotiated with and that there would never be a reunion with the Roman church. He also became convinced that Lutheranism had not resulted in enough reforms within its church. In 1540, he married Idelette de Bure. They had one child, who died in infancy. Idelette died in 1549, and Calvin never remarried. A naturally reticent man, Calvin rarely permitted outsiders a glimpse of his personal life.
In 1541, Calvin was asked by the Genevese council to return. He was promised total cooperation in building the religious state that he wanted. His first activity was to propose a series of ecclesiastical ordinances, which were ratified on January 2, 1541. The ordinances were to become the cornerstone of Reformed church (Calvinist/Presbyterian) polity throughout Europe. The ministry was divided into four categories: doctors, pastors, lay elders, and deacons. The doctors were to study the Bible and to develop theology; Calvin was the only doctor at that time. Pastors were to proclaim the word of God; elders were to oversee the carrying out of the Reformed church’s dicta, that is, they were to be moral policemen; deacons were to help those who could not help themselves, that is, to perform benevolent works. The Company of Pastors was the official governing body of the Reformed church. Under the leadership of Calvin, the Company of Pastors determined religious assignments, worked with Protestants in other countries, and determined theology. The Company of Pastors also worked with the elders to control Geneva.
There were occasional sharp conflicts with the city council, but Calvin won absolute control of the city by 1555. All Genevese were forced to accept the moral laws of the Reformed faith or to suffer the consequences. From 1555 until his death in 1564, fifty-eight people were executed and 786 were banished in order to preserve the morals of the community. The most celebrated case was that of Michael Servetus, a somewhat eccentric Spanish theologian, who wished to debate Calvin on the doctrine of the Trinity. Calvin warned him not to come to Geneva. Servetus ignored the warning, came to Geneva in 1553, was arrested and convicted of heresy, and was burned. Calvin was not a believer in religious toleration.
With Geneva under his absolute control, Calvin devoted more time to the spread of his Reformed church to other areas. He created in 1559 a religious academy, which ultimately became the University of Geneva. Protestants from all over Europe were encouraged to come to Geneva to study. As his native land was his particular area of interest, hundreds of refugees were trained in the new theology and then were assisted in their return to France. Calvin also established an underground network throughout France to bind these French Reformed, or Huguenot, parishes together. Representative assemblies of pastors and elders were also encouraged. Drawing upon his earlier experiences in France and elsewhere, Calvin appealed to sympathetic French nobles for protection for the Huguenots. His most notable convert was the King of Navarre, although this ultimately resulted in the French Wars of Religion.
The last years of Calvin’s life were spent in dominating Genevese theological issues, in working with Calvinists everywhere, and in developing the Institutes of the Christian Religion further. In the 1560’s, he had serious health problems, and he permitted his heir apparent, Theodore Beza, to take over most of the responsibilities of managing the affairs of the Reformed church. On May 27, 1564, Calvin died. Throughout his life he had devoutly believed that he had been called by God to reform His church; this he had done. His powerful intellect and his unswerving devotion to his theology do much to explain Calvin’s enormous impact on Western theology and on Western religion.
John Calvin’s intellectual talents, quick mind, forceful writing style, and precise teaching skills enabled him to become one of the most important figures in Western religious history. While in Geneva, he created a religious dictatorship which became a model for Reformed church/Calvinist churches throughout Europe. His Institutes of the Christian Religion became one of the most important documents in Western theology. Even during his lifetime, his significance was well recognized, and Geneva itself was called a Protestant Rome.
Calvinism, as this second-generation Protestantism came to be called, quickly became the most dynamic theology in a Europe wracked by religious debate. Although Calvinism was austere in the extreme, its success may be explained. First, the Roman Catholic Church was so corrupt and so filled with abuses that a thorough purging was viewed as absolutely necessary by most religious reformers of the day. To many, Luther had simply not gone far enough; Calvin, on the other hand, created an absolutely cleansed church. Second, Calvin’s rules for a godly life were clear and succinct in comparison with those of the Roman church, and this clarity was appealing to those who hoped for salvation. Third, Calvin’s tenet of predestination, while on the surface appearing to be fatalistic, came to be a rationale for the behavior of the middle class. While Calvin had stated that no one could know whether one was a member of the elect, it was believed that God’s grace could be measured by one’s success. Although this conclusion is much debated by historians, it is nevertheless true that the Calvinist areas of Europe were to be the most economically successful over the next several centuries.
Following Calvin’s death, Calvinism became the dominant Protestant theology in the religious wars that occurred over the next century. Calvinist leaders played major roles in a number of European wars. Calvinism became the dominant religion of the Low Countries, southwestern France, Scotland, central Germany, and southeastern England. In each of these areas, strong economic growth took place, an educated middle class emerged, and demands for political power developed. Indeed, the period from 1550 to 1700 and afterward cannot be understood without an awareness of the impact of the theology of John Calvin.
Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. This work by a distinguished historian has been acclaimed as the best modern biography of Calvin. At the same time, as the subtitle indicates, Bouwsma uses Calvin’s experience “to illuminate the momentous cultural crisis central to his century.” Includes sixty pages of notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960. These volumes are an annotated edition of Calvin’s work and include a lengthy introduction and an extensive bibliography.
Haller, William. The Rise of Puritanism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938. While his prose is at times turgid, Haller offers insight into the spread of Calvinism into England. His study is useful for understanding why Calvinism spread so rapidly.
Kingdon, Robert M. Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 1555-1563. Geneva: Librairie E. Droz, 1956. Important for understanding Calvin’s methods of exporting his theology to other areas of Europe.
McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. A carefully balanced source that offers an excellent interpretive discussion of the theory and practice of Calvinism. Includes a lengthy biography of Calvin, followed by a series of chapters on the spread of Calvinism throughout Europe and to the United States.
O’Connell, Marvin R. The Counter Reformation, 1559-1610. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Places Calvin and the spread of Calvinism in perspective. Includes an excellent bibliography.
Parker, Thomas H. L. John Calvin: A Biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975. Parker’s work is a concise, single volume on the life of John Calvin. Particularly useful for a study of the impact of university life on Calvin and upon Calvin’s scholarship. Well written and easily understood. Useful bibliography.
Wendel, François. Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. First published in French in 1950, Wendel’s work is essential for an understanding of the evolution of Calvin’s theology.