John Calvin Introduction

Start Your Free Trial

Download John Calvin Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Calvin 1509–1564

French theologian and religious reformer.

Theologian, bible scholar, and reformer, Calvin towers as a central figure of the Protestant Reformation. Critics agree that this Frenchman, who has been described as a frail man of disciplined and aristocratic demeanor, permanently shaped the emerging Protestant worldview and culture. His method of biblical interpretation was "Sola Scriptura," the Bible alone, but filtered through a scholastic and humanist tradition. Calvin's chief work, Christianae Religiouis Institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536-59), which went through several editions, offered a systematic summary of the free grace doctrines of the Protestant reformers. Following St. Augustine's lead, Calvin emphasized human helplessness and depravity before a righteous God. Building on Martin Luther's justification by faith rather than deeds, he summarized the "doctrines of grace" and revived the controverted Pauline doctrine of Divine Sovereignty, the election and predestination of a chosen people. One of Calvin's most notorious tenets is the assertion that certain people, worthy or not, have been predestined for salvation; others, regardless of merit, will not be saved. Best known for the theological system which later came to bear his name, Calvin's theology can still be felt in our society (sometimes only in critical responses to Calvinism) in the areas of business, law, culture, the arts, and government. The churches associated worldwide with Calvin's theology are called Reformed and Presbyterian.

Biographical Information

Calvin (in French: Jean Cauvin, in Latin: Johannes Calvinus) was born in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509, to Gerard and Marie LeFranc Cauvin. His father, a cathedral attorney and secretary to the bishop, first directed his son, at the age of twelve, to Paris to study theology, and later, to Orleans and Bourges to study law, where Calvin earned a degree in 1531. Advancing in his studies of Greek and Hebrew, Calvin moved among the learned circles of Paris, where he became imbued with Renaissance ideas and Reformation principles. In 1532 Calvin published De clementia (On Clemency), a commentary on Seneca which displayed his skill with classical texts. In November, 1533, his friend Nicholas Cop delivered an address—possibly

ghost-written by Calvin—outlining Protestant and Lutheran ideas. Catholic reaction was highly critical and Calvin and Cop fled Paris. Calvin's conversion to the Protestant cause was followed some years later by the first edition and immediate success of his magnum opus, the Institutes. Later that year, while travelling through Geneva on his way to Basel, Switzerland, he was convinced by Guillaume Farel to settle immediately in Geneva and begin the reformation of that city's church and society. For four years Calvin and Cop struggled against an inconsistently reformed city council, and in 1539 they left Geneva and sought refuge with fellow reformer Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, Germany, where Calvin continued to study, write, and preach. In 1540, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow; their one child died in infancy; his wife died in 1549. In 1541, Calvin was asked to return to Geneva, where the Church was granted more independence from council control. He devoted the remainder of his life in Geneva to pastoral work, systematic preaching, and the writing of his biblical commentaries. Geneva became a reformed publishing center and a haven for the advancement of international Protestantism. One dark cloud in Calvin's life was the episode of Michael Servetus, an anti-Trinitarian, arrested, tried, and executed for the civil crime of blasphemy by the Genevan authorities; Calvin was instrumental in his prosecution. Calvin was a private, hard-working man, and we know little of his inner life except through his published writings and a subjective biography by his successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza. He died on May 27, 1564, and his grave remained, on Calvin's request, unmarked.

Major Works

The great Calvin scholar Emile Doumergue said, "To know Calvin truly and completely, his thought, character and personality, one must consult not one source but three: his Institutes, his sermons, and his letters." An exhaustive division would also include his exegetical commentaries as well as his tracts and treatises. The Institutes stand alone as the first and greatest summary of systematic Reformation theology. Published when Calvin was just twenty-six years old, the Institutes went through various Latin editions (1539, 1543, 1550, 1559); French texts were published in 1541 and 1560. The organization of the 1541 French edition followed a traditional theological structure: 1) The Ten Commandments, 2) Faith (as expressed in the Apostles' Creed), 3)Prayer, and 4) Sacraments. Sections added from the original version of 1536 included: 5) False Sacraments (an attack on Roman sacramentalism) and 6) Christian Liberty. Though the text of the Institutes went through expansion and re-organization, the basic theological framework remained the same. Calvin preached sermons twice each Sunday and three times more each week, not including catechism classes and theology lectures. Much of his sermon material was transcribed by others. Calvin's letters contain a wealth of historical material and include letters to Farel, Bullinger, Cramner, Bucer, John Knox, Melancthon, as well as the royalty of many lands. The greater part of Calvin's commentaries was produced in the latter portion of Calvin's career. His first biblical exposition, The Commentary on the Book of Romans (1539), was written while he was in Strasbourg. It treats the major doctrines of the Christian faith: sin, justification, sanctification, and predestination. Calvin also wrote commentaries on Genesis, the Pentateuch, Joshua, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekial, Daniel, and the minor prophets. His New Testament commentaries cover all but Revelation. His tracts included argumentative pieces like The Reply to Sadeleto (1539), Calvin's Protestant polemical response to Bishop Jacopo Sadeleto's appeal for Geneva to return to the Roman fold. The Antidote to the Council of Trent (1547) also contains inflamatory opposition to the papal claims. A Short Treastise on the Lord's Supper (1540) is believed by critics to provide a fine example of his sustained theological reasoning.

Critical Reception

Though of good classical scholarship, Calvin's competant commentary on Seneca brought him little critical success. His fateful link to the Protestant cause and to the reforming society of Geneva propelled him to the forefront of a growing Protestant religious movement. The first edition of the Institutes was a startling success in Reformation-oriented intellectual circles. Addressed to the King of France, the Institutes were generally not received well by the conservative aristocracy. Yet, among the business and trading classes, the well-thought-out Reformed Christianity, built on the Bible alone, devoid of superstitions, streamlined from ecclesiastical abuses, found growing reception. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, we mistake the influence of Calvinism if we see it in the light of our dour caricature of Calvin, for his was the progressive philosophy of his day. Calvin's writing had multinational appeal: versions of the Institutes appeared in Spanish (1540), Italian (1557), Dutch (1560), and English (1561). Just as Luther's Bible set the tone for standard German, Calvin's writing helped to fix with clarity the French literary style. His critical reception has generally tended to follow on religious and ideological lines: many of his followers have lauded him, some of his religious opponents—Catholics, Anabaptists, Arminians—have attacked him. Calvin's Reformed thought has acted as a recurring motif and counter-motif to Western intellectual history. In the sixteenth-century the Protestant Reformation sparked a Catholic Counter-Reformation. In the seventeenth-century, Calvinism's apparent fatalism galvanized the free-will reaction of Arminianism and, in turn, re-crystallized Reformed thinking at the Synod of Dort. Calvinistic Puritanism was the focal point for England's Cromwellian Protectorate and the anti-Puritan Restoration, and the Calvinist Pilgrims struggled to escape episcopacy by colonizing the New World. In the eighteenth-century, a Calvinistic worldview undergirded George Whitefield's preaching and Jonathan Edwards' philosophy. In the nineteenth-century there was somewhat of a revival of Calvin studies by traditional Calvinists with the printing of Calvin's collected works in English and Latin. It was not until the twentieth-century that objective scholarly commentary, devoid of either reverence or virulent Anti-Calvinism, has engaged critics' attention. Calvin and his works have continued to spark debate among contemporary scholars, but all agree that he is one of the most important theologians in the western European tradition.