John Calvin

By Mary Rose Helbling

John Calvin was a man to whom the modern day church owes much, but also a man whose weaknesses can instruct us. He war born in Noyon, Picardy, France on July 10, 1509. Calvin's early life was shaped by his fortunate connections with sons of noblemen. Tutored in the home of the de Hangest family, Calvin forged a lasting friendship with Claude, later an abbot at Noyon to whom Calvin dedicated his first book.

When Calvin was 14 years old, he, three of the de Hangest boys, and their tutor went to the University of Paris. Five years later, he received a Master of Arts in Theology. Instead of continuing his theological education, Calvin switched to pursue a law degree. This was due to his father's dispute with the cathedral chapter and desire to see his son involved in a more lucrative career than becoming a cleric. It seems as though Calvin was only being an obedient child to his father's wishes--for three years later, after his father died, Calvin turned his heart once again, to the study of language and literature.

Sometime around the mid-30s, Calvin's life was interrupted by God. As he states, "Since I was more stubbornly addicted to the superstitions of the Papacy than to be easily drawn out of so deep a mire, God subdued my heart--too stubborn for my age--to docility by a sudden conversion." Whether at that point Calvin was actually converted or not, it was evident afterward that he was a different man. Before, he was a young, brilliant humanist, and after, an intensely dedicated student of truth.

Shortly after this turning point, Calvin became frustrated with the Roman Catholic church in France. While Reformation was sweeping across Germany and Switzerland, it seemed hopeless that change would come in the midst of the country's tolerant Christian humanism. Like many moves of God, there was resistance against France also tasting the Reformation's new freedom. Because of France's hardened position, Calvin left the Roman Catholic Church and France, and became an exile in Basle. He began to formulate his theology, repudiating the papacy and siding with the passionate minority of persecuted evangelicals when he was just 25 years old. At 27, he published the first edition of his "Institute Religionus Christianae" (Institution of Christian Religion), written in Latin for scholarly readers throughout the continent, and which became one of the great classics of Christian literature.

Calvin just desired an opportunity to think and read, giving no thought, at first, to public leadership. Although he saw himself as no more than an introverted scholar, he could not keep silent. Those who knew of his views pursued him to inquire about "the purer doctrine." After visiting a friend in Italy, Calvin intended to return to Strasbourg and resume his writing. Here, God again interrupted his life. Because of the war between Francis I and Charles V, Calvin was forced to make a detour through Geneva. It would be in this sizable city of 10,000 that Calvin would leave his mark upon the world, causing many to refer to Geneva as the "Protestant Rome."

While in Geneva, Calvin met Guillaume Farel, a fiery Protestant preacher who had single-handedly secured the churches in the city for evangelical preaching. At the time, there was a power struggle between the city and the dukes of Savoy, whose control of Geneva's bishops was becoming tiresome for its citizens. They were ready for a change. In 1536, Farel persuaded Calvin to stay and implement the new protestant faith within the churches. Calvin reluctantly agreed. In his own words, he stated that Farel proceeded "to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken."

Two years later turmoil again arose in Geneva. Farel and Calvin were forced to flee over religious disputes with Berne, a city that had earlier supported Farel as he had preached throughout Geneva, but now attempted to impose their rites upon the new reformed churches. Calvin joined a French refugee colony in Strasbourg and for three years organized a French congregation, lectured and wrote liturgy, as well as a small book of psalms set to music.

In 1539, Rome appealed to Geneva to return to the fold. The unstable city then turned to Calvin to enlist him for their reply to the letter. Calvin did not want to return. "I would prefer a hundred other deaths to that cross," he later stated. But finally, on September 2, 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva. His intended stay of a few months stretched into years. Calvin never lived to see his homeland again, Geneva being his permanent residence until his death in 1564.

After returning to Geneva, Calvin created the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which was a system of discipline, preaching, worship, and instruction that incorporated the ministry of pastors, teachers (doctors), elders, and deacons. Minor offenses to Calvin's set of laws and moral regulations were handled by the elders and ministers. Serious offenses were to the full council. Calvin's reputation and constant involvement made him the leader not only of the Geneva church, but ultimately of the whole city.

Calvin had abhorred the tyranny of Rome, but he himself later became guilty of nearly the same excesses, and many historians have called him "The Tyrant of Geneva." His position was precarious, often being insulted or threatened by those who preferred looser morals and liberal opinions. Calvin responded by continued preaching, writing and contending, often harshly, with his opponents. He encouraged the burning of witches. Even eminent men were not safe from Calvin's control. Jacques Gruet was beheaded for blasphemy, treason, and a threat to the ministers. Jerome Bolsec, a physician who attacked Calvin's doctrine of predestination, was banished. A heretic who also was an anti-Trinitarian was burned at the stake.

Calvin had made a mistake similar to that of Peter's. Peter had also claimed that he would never be like the other disciples and deny Jesus. He ended up doing just what he said he would not do. In Acts 10:34, Peter contended that through Christ people of all nations could be saved, through their fear of God and not by works of the Law. Later, Peter rendered his statement meaningless when he refused to eat with the Gentiles when his Jewish brethren were present (see Galatians 2:11-16). Peter said one thing, but did the opposite. Oftentimes, we become that which we too harshly judge in others. This does not mean that we overlook sin or mistakes, but we must be careful how we judge, just as Paul warned in Galatians 6:l:

Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.
Political opponents to Calvin's authority were defeated over time. Laws became more restrictive and the punishment more exacting. Political authority rested mainly in the "Little Council." Despite these repressive elements in the regime, it was balanced by the great attention given to education. From 1558 onward, the Academy of Geneva birthed Calvinism throughout all parts of Europe. In his forties, Calvin continued to write his commentaries and treatises, despite his failing health. Finally, on May 27, 1564, Calvin died in Geneva at the age of 55. His contribution to society was not only his theological doctrine, but his successors. Theodorus Beza and Giovanni Diodato were responsible far translating the Italian Bible, whose popularity later withstood the publishing of the King James translation.

John Calvin had his weaknesses, but he was still mightily used by God to move the church from one point to another. When moving a monolithic church structure as large as Rome was in his day, there were bound to be some mistakes made by the newly birthed reformed churches.

Copyright: 1996 by Morningstar Publications and Ministries. All rights reserved.

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