John Calvin

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John Calvin

John Calvin was a famous Protestant French and Swiss reformer and theologian of the sixteenth century. He is especially known for his establishment of his Presbyterian system of church governance in Geneva in Switzerland, as well as his understanding of salvation and grace, in particular, predestination.

John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509. He died on May 27, 1564 was a prominent French theologian during the Protestant Reformation and the namesake of the theological system known as Calvinism. Along with Martin Luther, Calvin is arguably one of the two most significant architects of the Reformation.

Childhood and early career

Calvin was born Jean Cauvin in Noyon, France to Gerard Cauvin, a successful attorney, and Jeanne le Franc, a devout Catholic. The name Calvin is derived from the Latin version of his surname, Calvinus. Nothing is known about his childhood, and very little about his early years. As a student in Paris, he studied the liberal arts before continuing his studies in theology at his father's request. Later, when Gerard had a falling-out with the local bishop, he instructed John to pursue an education in civil law, which he did in Orléans. After graduating in 1531, he returned to Paris.

Calvin’s ambition was not to be a professional lawyer, but a man of letters. In 1532 he self-published a commentary on the Roman philosopher Seneca's Treatise on Clemency that evidenced considerable rhetorical skill, but otherwise went unnoticed.

During his time in Paris, Calvin converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, and subsequently became an informal leader to other Paris evangelicals. All that is known about the occasion is what he himself says in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms:

To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.

Two crucial incidents took place during Calvin's time in Paris. The first of these was a strongly pro-Lutheran sermon preached by Calvin's friend Nicholas Cop in defense of Queen Margaret of Navarre, his patroness and a supporter of reformation, on November 1, 1533. The address enraged both civil and church authorities and compelled Cop to flee Paris. The second was the so-called "Placard Incident," in which a number of handbills attacking the Mass were affixed to public buildings on October 18, 1534. As a result Paris became a dangerous place for evangelicals, and Calvin decided to flee to the city of Basel, which was a safe haven for Protestants.

While in Basel, Calvin received news from Geneva, where a reformation was underway. He also received news from France, where his evangelical friends were being persecuted and martyred. In response to the persecution, in 1536 he published the first edition of his systematic theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Addressed to Francis I, king of France, it was intended as an apologetic for the orthodoxy of Protestants. It was published in a compact octavo format, intended to provide evangelical ministers with a convenient aid with which to defend their faith.

The same year, an amnesty was offered in France to evangelical fugitives, provided that they renounced their views within 6 months. Calvin took advantage of the amnesty to return to Paris and settle his personal affairs. He then intended to move to the free city of Strasbourg and live quietly as a professional scholar.

However, a war between King Francis and Charles V of Germany obstructed the most direct route to Strasbourg, so Calvin was compelled to take a longer route through Switzerland, where he stopped for a night in Geneva.

First Geneva period and exile

While Calvin lodged in Geneva, the reformer Guillaume Farel learned of his presence, located him, and entreated him to stay and participate in the Swiss reformation. Calvin, wanting to pursue his own course of study in Strasbourgh, refused. The zealous Farel, unsatisfied, threatened Calvin, saying that God would curse his studies if he refused to stay in Geneva. Calvin acquiesced, and stayed in Geneva, assisting Farel as a Bible lecturer.

Farel and Calvin were continually at odds with the civil government and inhabitants of Geneva, who thought their moral reforms too strict, and resisted their attempts to reform the organization of the local church. In 1538 a government was elected that was hostile to the reformers, and they were forbidden from preaching on Easter Sunday. When they disregarded this order, they were banished from Geneva. Calvin settled in Strasbourg, persusaded by Martin Bucer to join him there, while Farel went to Neuchâtel.

While in Strasbourg, Calvin became the pastor of the French church there. He published numerous commentaries, as well as a revision of the Institutes in 1539. He married Idolette de Bure, the widow of one of his converts. Overall he gained valuable pastoral experience, which his previous conflict in the city of Geneva had proved he lacked.

Second Geneva period

Meanwhile, in Geneva the absence of Calvin and Farel had led to increasing disorder within the church, leading some to long for their return. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic bishop of the district of Geneva, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, wrote an eloquent open letter to the Genevan Protestants, inviting them to return to the Roman fold. The Genevans had no desire to return to Rome, but they did not know how to respond to Sadoleto. However, Calvin had obtained a copy of the letter, and he wrote a thundering reply to Sadoleto on his own initiative. This reply raised Calvin's reputation in the estimation of many Genevans. Copies of Calvin's rebuttal also reached Wittenberg. Martin Luther read it and praised it highly: "Here is a writing which has hands and feet," he said. "I rejoice that God has raised up such men." The two reformers never met, but the reply to Sadoleto was the occasion of some correspondence between them.

By 1540, the council of Geneva was ready to invite Calvin back to the city, and they sent a delegation to Strasbourg to persuade him to return. Again, Calvin refused, but reluctantly changed his mind several months later, again thanks to the entreaties of Guillaume Farel. He returned to Geneva on September 13, 1541.

In 1549, Calvin's wife Idolette died, leaving him to raise his two stepsons alone. Calvin and Idolette had only had one child together, a son who died in infancy.

Calvin's invitation to return to Geneva was a mandate to reform the church and the community. This period has been mischaracterized by many historians as a virtual reign of terror with John Calvin as the dictator of the city.

In fact, Geneva had three classes of residents: the citoyens, who were natural citizens, and had the right to participate in all levels of city government; the bourgeois, who purchased their ability to vote and take part in some levels of government; and the habitants, disenfranchised resident aliens that were not allowed to participate in politics. Calvin was only a habitant. He was tolerated as the pastor of Geneva only because there were no qualified locals, and his political influence extended only as far as his powers of persuasion. In fact, the first 13 years of the second Geneva period were marked by constant conflict in which Calvin opposed the city council's attempts to interfere in the operations of the church.

The execution of Servetus

The controversy over the arrest and execution of Michael Servetus exemplifies the conflict between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in Geneva. Servetus was a Spanish physician and theologian, and a heretic: in 1531 and 1532 he had published three works denouncing the doctrine of the Trinity. He had also developed an interest in the young John Calvin. In 1534, he arranged to meet Calvin in Paris. Calvin, thinking perhaps he could be of assistance to Servetus, returned in secret to Paris, but Servetus did not meet him.

In 1553, Servetus was imprisoned and condemned to death in France for his anti-Trinitarian views. He escaped and fled to Geneva. While attending a sermon by Calvin there, he was recognized and arrested, then tried and sentenced to death by burning at the stake.

It is commonly assumed that Calvin was responsible for having Servetus executed. Calvin did not have that authority; as pastor of Geneva, his power was limited to exercising church discipline, which at the most meant excommunication. As pastor, he took part in Servetus' trial as an "expert witness" in theology. This was his civic duty.

In fact, Calvin tried, as far as he was able, to assist Servetus. He visited him in prison and attempted to persuade him to recant his heresy. He also pled with the city council to have Servetus beheaded, a faster and more humane form of execution than burning. They refused.

Calvin's consent to Michael Servetus' death must be judged according to the prevailing wisdom of the day, and not by more progressive standards of religious tolerance that only developed in later centuries. In the 16th century, heresy was considered not only an ecclesiastical, but also a serious civil offense that threatened public peace. Servetus had already been condemned in a Roman Catholic country. Many of the living reformers supported his execution, including Bucer, Farel, Philip Melancthon, and Theodore Beza.

In hindsight, nearly all are agreed that the burning of Michael Servetus was an error. However, it is not an error for which John Calvin was responsible. Nonetheless, it is Calvin that is vilified for Servetus' death because it occurred in Geneva during his service as pastor.

Calvin's last years

In 1555, the political situation in Geneva changed. The number of French-born bourgeoisie had increased in the city, and that year they had sufficient numbers to elect a council sympathetic to Calvin and his reforms. He was finally able to do his work without government resistance.

Calvin also turned his attention to foreign missionary work, particularly in his own native France. Between 1555 and 1562, hundreds of missionaries were sent from Geneva into France, and they established 1200 evangelical churches.

In 1564, Calvin's health began to deteriorate. He wrote out his final instructions to his pastors, and died on May 27, 1564 at the age of 54.

Calvin's theology

John Calvin was a prolific writer of theology. His most notable work was the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition of which was published in 1536, when he was 26 years old. Calvin revised the Institutes thoroughly several times. The first edition was a small, compact work, but the final edition published in 1559 was a thorough systematic theology comprising four volumes.

Calvin also published commentaries on most of the Bible, excepting the historical books after Judges and the wisdom literature excepting the Psalms in the Old Testament, and 1 John, 2 John, and Revelation in the New Testament.


Calvin said that there could be no knowledge of self without knowledge of God. All men have a natural awareness of divinity, which is both planted in their minds and made evident through creation. However, man has suppressed or corrupted this knowledge, and confused the creation with the Creator.

Paradoxically, without knowledge of God there can be no knowledge of self. It is only when men contemplate the greatness of God that they can come to realize their own inadequacy.

God is providentially in control of all things that come to pass, including evil things, but this does not make him the author of evil.


Man is created in the image of God. This image has been marred by the Fall, though not destroyed. Before the Fall, man's will was truly free; however, now it is corrupt and enslaved to sin.

Jesus Christ

The person of Christ, God made man, provides the solution to this moral dilemma. Christ is the only possible bridge between God and men.

In the Incarnation, God and man were joined inseparably in one person, yet not in such a way that the divine and human were confused. The relationship between Christ's human and divine natures is paradigmatic for Calvin’s theology whenever the divine touches upon the human.

Calvin was the first person to describe the work of Christ in terms of the threefold offices of prophet, priest, and king. As prophet, Christ's teachings are proclaimed by the Apostles for the purpose of our salvation. As priest, Christ’s sacrifice of himself and his mediation before the Father secures the salvation of men. As king, Christ rules the Church spiritually in the hearts of its members.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit unites men to Christ when Christ is apprehended thorugh faith in the promises of Scripture. The Spirit leads men to Christ; without him, saving faith is impossible.

Justification by faith

Justification by faith is the material principle of the Reformation. It is based upon the mercy of God, not the merits of humanity. Although the doctrines of election and predestination are linked with Calvin's name, the doctrine of election actually plays a relatively minor part of Calvin’s theology. As a second-generation Reformer, his primary concern was with the government and organization of the church rather than theology. Nonetheless, Calvin believed in unconditional election and double predestination.


Calvin taught two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's supper. He differed from sacramentalists who believed that the sacraments were a means of receiving justifying grace. Rather, they are the badges, or marks, of Christian profession, testifying to God's grace.

Calvin was a paedobaptist, believing that infants were the proper objects of baptism. He differed from Catholic and Lutheran paedobaptists in arguing that baptism did not regenerate infants. Rather, it symbolized entrance into the New Covenant, just as circumcision did for the Old Covenant. His argument for infant baptism draws many parallels between the two signs.

Whereas Luther and the Catholic church believed that Christ's body was literally present in the Eucharist, and Zwingli taught that the Lord's Supper was a mere memorial, Calvin took a middle ground between the two positions. The elements were a symbol and therefore could not be the thing they signified; the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation confused the symbol and the substance. On the other hand, Zwingli's memorialism divorced symbol and substance completely. Calvin taught that when one receives the bread and wine, which are literal food and drink, in a spiritual sense he receives the spiritual food and drink of the Christian. Christ is spiritually present when the Eucharist is received by faith.

Church government

Calvin is the founder of the Presbyterian system of church government.

At the local level, Calvin's system consisted of a council of pastors representing the local assembly, and responsible for teaching and shepherding the churches. The Consistory, a larger council comprising pastors and lay elders elected according to district, was responsible for maintaining church discipline and watching over the moral lives of church members. At the regional level is the presbytery, then above this a provincial synod and a national synod.

This system, intended to function in a time of persecution, is an efficient and flexible one. The local church appointed its own officers and could continue to function with the loss of a minister. Alternatively, if the presbytery/synod failed to meet, the church could continue at the local level.

Church government is closely tied to church discipline. Discipline is the ordering of church life in obedience to Christ in response to the teaching of Scripture. It has a threefold aim: the glory of God, purity of the Church, and correction of the offender.

The power of the Church to punish offenders was limited to excommunication. Typically, this meant denying them the Lord’s Supper, baptism for them or their children, or marriage. While these punishments sound rather trivial today, they would have been significant in a community that had abandoned Roman Catholic sacramentalism only a few years earlier.

Calvin and Calvinism

Calvinism is most noted for its understanding of salvation which was codified at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 in the so-called Five Points of Calvinism.

There is some debate as to whether Calvin himself would have affirmed all five points as such. In his writings, he explicitly affirms total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. However, his affirmation of limited atonement is implicit at best. Some scholars, such as Norman Geisler, deny that Calvin would have endorsed limited atonement; others, such as Roger Nicole, say that his theology affirms all five points.

Separation of church and state

Calvin believed that the church not subject to the state, or vice versa. While both church and state are subject to God's law, they both have their own God-ordained spheres of influence. For example, the church does not have the authority to impose penalties for civil offenses, although it can call on the civil authorities to punish them. Conversely, the state is not to intrude on the operations of the church. However, it has a duty to protect the church and its ability to function as the church.

As a magisterial reformer, Calvin thought of the State as a Christian nation rather than a secular government. He did not advocate religious freedom in the same sense as the Baptists later would, for example. However, his ecclesiology sowed the seeds of the modern secular democracy.


Geneva became a safe haven for Protestant refugees, not only from France, but all over Europe. Calvin founded a school to instruct men in Reformed theology and then train them to return home, preach the Gospel, and plant churches. The city therefore became the nucleus of missionary activity; for example, in 1561, 140 missionaries are recorded as having left Geneva.

"Calvin didn't just plant small fledgling churches; he planted mega-churches that in turn planted more churches. It is difficult to fathom the extraordinary success of these Genevan sponsored missionaries. Even in our modern era, such statistics are unheard of."

The missionary influence of Calvin extended not only to his native France, but also to Scotland, home of the Presbyterian Church, England, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and even Poland. Calvin also sent out the first two overseas missionaries in the history of Protestantism: an expedition to Brazil in 1556.

Bible translation

Calvin assisted his cousin, Pierre Oliver, to translate the Scriptures into French; the result was the Olivétan Bible, which had the same influence on French Protestantism as Luther’s Bible had in Germany. Calvin himself wrote the preface.

English Puritans, in exile in Geneva to escape persecution by the Catholic queen Mary Tudor, produced an English translation under Calvin’s supervision, first published in 1560. The Geneva Bible was more popular in its day than the KJV, in part because of the Calvinistic explanatory notes in the margins. It was the Geneva Bible that the Pilgrims took with them to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620.

The Protestant work ethic

Calvin repudiated the distinction between "sacred" and "secular" duty and the prevailing notion that work is a necessary evil. Rather, he taught, work is a calling from God. Therefore, one glorifies God in his work by working diligently and joyfully.

Calvin did not invent capitalism, but he did teach that one of the rewards of hard work is wealth. His philosophy of work allowed capitalism to flourish where it was practiced.


Calvin, John, Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Transl. James Anderson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.

Ibid., Institutes of the Christian Religion. Transl. Ford Lewis Battles. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

McGrath, Alister E., A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1882.



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