In Christian history, a study of the reformation period is always fascinating and intriguing. One of the towering personalities of the Reformation is John Calvin. If Martin Luther was the one who initiated the movement, it was Calvin who consolidated and organised Reformation. Not very many are loved and hated, admired and abhorred, praised and blamed, all at the same time as Calvin. This paper is an attempt to draw a brief sketch of Calvin’s life and achievements, and it also aims at highlighting the distinctive reforms brought out by him in Geneva.
CALVIN’S BIRTH, EDUCATION AND CONVERSION
John Calvin was born July 10, 1509, in Noyon, a little town in north-eastern France near Paris. Calvin’s father was a secretary to the bishop, and therefore, he obtained a benefice from the Church for Calvin to study Theology at Paris. Later, on the insistence of his father, Calvin set out to study law. Soon after his father’s death, having no real desire to study law, he left his legal studies and returned to study theology. He received the best education which France at that time could offer. Nevertheless, at Paris, Calvin was exposed to the humanistic ideas of Guilaume Cop and also became aware of Protestant views through his cousin Pierre Oliver. Hitherto he was a devout Catholic. However, sometime between 1532 and 1533, Calvin was converted and adopted the ideas of reformation. Henceforth, he left the Roman Church and began to identify himself with the Protestant cause in France, which eventually forced him to flee Paris.
CALVIN’S THEOLOGICAL ACHIEVEMENT
After wandering for about two years, Calvin finally settled in Basel for a time of peaceful study. Here, he began to write a theological treatise in defence of the Protestant faith. In 1536, at the age of 26, Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin was undoubtedly a theologian. His theology was built on and borrowed from the reformers Luther, Zwingli and Bucer to some extent, and was thoroughly Augustinian in doctrine. Calvin, in course of time, emphasised more on God’s Sovereignty and Predestination of the elect. Moreover, he proclaimed the Scripture to be the sole authority for Christian faith.
CALVIN’S ARRIVAL AT GENEVA AND HIS REFORMATION WORK
The dreadful Roman inquisition was bent on destroying Protestants. Therefore, Calvin, after a short visit to Italy and France, decided to move to Strassburg and settle there as a scholar. As war had broken out between France and Germany, he had to journey through Geneva, where he thought to spend the night and move on. However, Guillaume Farel, the Genevan reformer, persuaded Calvin to help him in the consolidation of Reformation there.
The Initial Failure
Calvin was appointed as a preacher and pastor in Geneva. Calvin and Farel soon began to make their presence known through reforms. In order to set up a theocratic and Bible based society, Calvin enforced strict disciplinary actions against erring citizens. Opposition arouse, and this led to the expulsion of Calvin and Farel from Geneva. Calvin spent the next three years in Strassburg serving as a pastor of French refugees. Here, he came in contact with Martin Bucer who influenced the former in many ways. Moreover, Calvin brought out many scholarly writings, in particular, his Reply to Sadoleto. Meanwhile, Calvin’s supporters in Geneva regained power and urged him to return and resume his reform works. After much reluctance, he took again the task of reforming Geneva in 1541.
The Ecclesiastical Reforms
Soon after his return to Geneva, Calvin submitted to the magistrates his Ecclesiastical Ordinances. The structure of the Church proposed by Calvin had four office bearers. The most controversial aspect of the structure was the role of the “Consistory.” Calvin believed that such an organisation was an imitation of the early Church. However, the major impact of Calvin can be seen in the reforms he brought about regarding Church practices and worship. For Calvin, the Scripture was the final authority on all matters. Rituals like lighted tapers and crucifixes and many other superstitions were entirely prohibited.
The Political Reforms
Calvin was of the opinion that unless the government worked alongside the Church, reformation would not come about. Therefore, he began to influence and work with the Genevan council. Calvin believed in “Theocracy” and not “Ecclesiocracy.” Therefore, he kept the state separate from the Church, yet mutually supportive. Moreover, he believed that the form of government should be democratic. Calvin’s success in Geneva to a larger extend was because of his ability to draft laws for governance. He worked on recodification of Geneva’s constitution and law, softening the severity of many of the city’s statutes and making them more human.
The Moral and Social Reforms
Geneva was notorious for its wickedness; it was the cesspool of Switzerland. Calvin, therefore, along with authorities resorted to repressive measures to eliminate the evil structures. Although, these attempts were not entirely successful, they certainly reduced moral evil among Genevans to a great extent. Calvin used his powerful preaching to bring about many of the reforms mentioned above.Calvin’s contribution can be seen in social and economic aspects as well. Instead of completely bringing a new social order, Calvin attempted to mitigate the evil of the existing system by educating people from the Scripture. He boldly condemned malpractice in commerce and loathed slavery. He argued for the case of the poor and elderly; he helped negotiate treatises, helped merchandise and involved in many other social affairs. He even involved in regulating the sanitary and sewage systems of Geneva. Moreover, Calvin set out to order education in the city, for he believed that education would improve the church and civil government. He encouraged education in Scripture as well as in humanities. Moreover, he set up in Geneva a three level-level system of education with Geneva Academy at the top.
Resistance to Calvin’s Reforms and Final Success
Calvin’s reforms were opposed by Geneva’s leading aristocratic families and some of the members of Genevan Council during most of his stay in Geneva. Calvin’s teachings and theological stand also drew many opponents. However, Calvin overcame all kinds of opposition by 1554-55, and Geneva came under Calvin’s firm control. After toiling hard for twenty four years in building a Christian society, Calvin died on 27 May 1564 at the age of fifty-five. By the time, Geneva was firmly established as the Protestant headquarters. Later, followers of Calvin went throughout the world spreading his teachings and reforms.
A BRIEF EVALUATION OF CALVIN’S CHARACTER
Calvin is often pictured by his opponents as hard, cold, stern and calculating. Some of their accusations are justified. Calvin was usually hard on his opponents. In particular, he showed zero tolerance towards heretics. Calvin many a time forced the council to support him against his opponents by threatening to leave Geneva. Many detested Calvin because of his cold temperament. Moreover, Calvin’s major weakness was his determination to defend his theological position in spite of its uncertain ground. In a desire to see people live a Godly life, Calvin tried to establish too many rules and regulations.
Nevertheless, Calvin was a remarkable man with single-mindedness and courage. His life motto was “Promptly and Sincerely in the work of God.” In spite of his poor health, foreign nativity and constant opposition, he achieved astonishing success in Geneva. He always sought the glory of God and lived a simple life. He was impartial in treating people. Likewise, he was an incessant self-disciplined worker, whose only goal was to serve God faithfully.
The study of John Calvin is indeed inspiring and challenging. Calvin’s commitment to the Scripture and his relentless involvement in reforming the society offers precious lessons for us. Despite various shortcomings, Calvin achieved marvellous results. His contribution to theology has had far-reaching consequences. Truly, he can be called as the real architect of early Protestantism. Moreover, he laid down a reformation model which was successfully implemented in many countries by his followers.
Because of the early death of his mother, Calvin was brought up in the household of a nobleman in the neighbourhood of his own home. William J. Bousma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 9.
Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 3rd ed. (India: Suvartha Bhavan, 2004), 302.
Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 258.
Calvin studied successively at the three leading universities of Orleans, Bourges, and Paris, from 1528 to 1533. He is described as having been of a shy and retiring nature, very studious and punctual in his work, animated by a strict sense of duty, and exceedingly religious. Moreover, he early showed himself possessed of an intellect capable of clear, convincing argument and logical analysis. As a result, a brilliant career as a humanist, or lawyer, or churchman, was opening before him. T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin (England: A Lion Paperback, 1975), 5-8.
Many scholars are of the opinion that his conversion was not sudden but a gradual one influenced by his own reading of Scripture, writings of Martin Luther and by the efforts of Calvin’s cousin Olivetan. Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin, Geneva and the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 7-9.
Calvin collaborated with Nicholas Cop in 1533 in appealing for a Reformation in France. This caused an uproar that resulted in danger for Calvin. Shelley, 258. At least one year of wandering followed for Calvin. He was hunted from city to city, for no Protestant, especially Calvin, was safe in France. Calvin wandered as a fugitive evangelist under assumed names from place to place in southern France, Switzerland and Italy. His most common assumed name was Charles d’ Espeville. Everywhere he went he taught small groups in secret places, even in caves. Calvin was an evangelist. During this period, he confronted Libertines, freethinkers and humanists who were also opposed to the Roman Church. He won many of these to Jesus Christ. Jack L. Arnold, “John Calvin: From Birth to Strassburg,” http://thirdmill.org/magazine/search.asp/keyword/CHref/category/ch/site/iiim IIIM Magazine, vol. 1, no. 7, April 1999. Online: available from Internet; accessed 18 August 2005.
In France, the reformed faith was often confused with the wild teachings of Anabaptists, and therefore, the Protestants were being mercilessly persecuted. In order to explain the truth of the reformed faith, Calvin wrote a clear defence with a letter addressed to the King of France. Wallace, 12. See also, Parker, 40-41.
This work is the greatest exposition of evangelical truth produced during the Reformation. Calvin in the book, first discussed the Ten commandments; then on the basis of the Apostles’ creed, the faith; next, prayer on the basis of the Lord’s prayer; the two sacraments; the evils of the Roman view of the communion and finally on Christian Liberty. Cairns, 303. Calvin revised the Institutes five times during his life in order to present a clearer meaning of the Christian faith, but never did he make any radical departure from any of the doctrines set forth in the first edition. The Institutes were written originally in French but were translated into most of the languages of western Europe. The Institutes became the common textbook in the schools of the Reformed churches, and furnished the material out of which their creeds were made. Arnold, “John Calvin: From Birth to Strassburg.” Online.
Calvin based his doctrinal arguments and beliefs entirely based on Scripture and seldom appealed to Philosophy or Tradition. He also outrightly denied the reality of contingency. Calvin firmly believed in the predestination of the believers but did not teach double predestination explicitly. In the matter of Lord’s supper, Calvin opposed Luther’s, Zwingli’s and Rome’s views. Calvin’s followers of the later Centuries named Calvin’s distinctive teachings as “Calvinism.” Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Secunderabad: OM Books, 1999), 410-413.
Strassburg was one of the free cities at that time. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (NewYork: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 352.
A. Lindt, “John Calvin,” in The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook, Revised ed. ed. Tim Dowley (Oxford: A Lion Book, 1990), 380. After much hesitation, Calvin agreed to Farel’s proposal. Parker, 63. It is interesting to note that Geneva, at the time of Calvin’s arrival, had already broken its relationship with Roman Church and politically it was under the Swiss. A governing body of two hundred members called the “Genevan Council” took care of the judicial and legislative responsibility in 1527. Farel with other Protestants had already succeeded in getting the official recognition for reformation work in Geneva. Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999),256.
Calvin and Farel prepared articles of faith for the church in Geneva, a form of church government, and a catechism for the children. Calvin also introduced congregational singing, frequent celebration of Lord’s supper and insisted on expulsion of unworthy members. Cairns, 304.
Calvin insisted the church members should live in accordance with the demands of the New Testament. To secure this end, he asked that the church exercise its own discipline and bar from communion unworthy members. See also, Arnold, “John Calvin: From Birth to Strassburg.” Online.
Calvin was influenced by Bucer’s views of “Church organisation” and “integration of civic and religious life.” Lindberg, 258.
In 1539, Calvin published a commentary on the book of Romans and several other commentaries followed. He revised his previous work The Institutes. Lindt, 381. Moreover, he produced a short treatise on the Lord’s supper. Cardinal Sadoleto after Calvin left Geneva tried to persuade the Genevans to return back to the Roman Catholic faith. Since, the council at Geneva could not manage to give an apt response to Sadoleto, the members approached Calvin. Calvin’s reply to Sadoleto still stands as a powerful defence of the reformed faith against Roman Catholicism. This attempt of Calvin eventually helped Calvin to win the favour of Genevans once again. Wallace, 22-24. The other interesting fact of Calvin’s life at Staussburg was his marriage to Idelette in 1540. She remained a faithful companion to Calvin until her death in 1549. Walker, 353.
Shelley, 259, See also, Parker, 95-96.
The four office bearers were: the pastors, who preached the Word and administered the sacraments; the teachers, who were the guardians of the purity of the doctrine; the elders, who were responsible for discipline and supervision of the society over moral and religious matters; the deacons, who managed the Church funds and ministered to the needy. Parker, 98-99. In the English speaking world, today, a similar form of Church structure is referred as Presbyterianism (who oppose any form Episcopal set up). However, we cannot be sure whether Calvin was fully against Episcopalism. Lecture notes on “Zwingli, Calvin and Calvinism” from Bible College of New Zealand and Tyndale College. Acquired from Dr. Peter Lineham
The Consistory, a kind of ecclesiastical court consisting of elders and pastors, was responsible responsible for Church discipline. The Consistory had power to deny communion and excommunicate people on serious offences. The offences included adultery, illicit marriages, cursing, unauthorised luxury, disrespect in Church and practice of old traditions. Lindberg, 263.
From the paper of a New Zealand student by name Murray Burt. The title: Calvin’s Reform of the Church, page 2. Acquired from Dr. Peter Lineham.
For Calvin, sacraments were a visible and physical symbol, signifying something invisible and spiritual. Calvin believed that baptism was a public demonstration of allegiance to God, and therefore, encouraged baptism services with greater publicity. Regarding Communion, Calvin believed that in part-taking the bread and wine, believers participate in all the benefits of being in Christ. The Ordinances made provision for communion in all churches four times in a year. Moreover, the Ordinances made slight changes to Marriage Sacraments. Except Sunday marriages could happen and all marriage disputes were to taken to magistrates. The Ordinances prohibited all superstitions contrary to God’s Word at funerals. Ibid.
Calvin’s political thought was shaped by various forces including his background, his studies, influences of Zwingli and Luther, and his observances of the early Church. According to Calvin, the church has to set forth principles from the Scripture to the state. Both the rulers of the Church and and the civil magistrates are directly responsible to God, but they do not rule over each other. W. Stanford Reid, “John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy,” Christian History Magazine, Date Month 1986, 27-29.
B. G. Armstrong, “John Calvin,” in Who’s Who in Christian History, eds. J. D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Illinois: Tyndale House, 1992), 131.
Arnold, “John Calvin: From Second Reform in Geneva to Death,” vol. 1, no. 8, April 1999. Online.
Pre-Reformation Geneva was dominated by hedonistic pleasure centres. Prostitution and Gambling were prevalent. In 1546, an attempt was made to abolish Prostitution, drunkenness, dancing and chance games. (New Zealand Student’s paper, 4.) However, Calvin did not condemn all pleasure. He only condemned those ones which deny the fear of God and overlook the benefit of humanity. Wallace, 206.
For more details, see Bouwsma, 191-203. Calvin seldom used law to encourage charity or to control usury. Nor did he encourage capitalistic spirit as many opine. See also, Wallace, 85-89.
 Geneva became known for its cleanliness all over Europe. Armstrong, 131.
The catechising of the young always remained his first priority. Wallace, 97.
This later became to be known as the University of Geneva. It attracted students from all parts of Western and Central Europe, particularly France. His emphasis on education influenced many others like the Puritans of the later Centuries. Lindt, 381, See also, Cairns, 305.
This aristocratic group of citizens called Libertines did not want Calvin to probe into their personal lives by the way of moral disciplines. Moreover, they did not want to be held accountable by the Genevan Council either. However, Calvin was a respecter of no persons. He wanted to treat every one with the same law. This brought about heavy tension until 1555. Also, some of the council members were a little cautious because Calvin’s foreign nativity. Wallace, 53-57.
A man named Sebastian Castellio who propagated that Songs of Solomon was obscene and it should not be in the canon was banished. Another who opposed Calvin theologically was Jerome Bolsec. Bolsec strongly criticised Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Calvin made sure that Genevan council banished Bolsec too. Similarly, in 1553, Micheal Servetus, a notorious critic of Calvin and heretic was burnt in Geneva with the consent of Calvin. “Gallery of Calvin’s supporters and Opponents,” Christian History Magazine, date Month 1986, 18-19. See also Parker, 127-129;
Nearly 7000 religious had flocked to Geneva, attracted by Calvin’s stature and driven by persecutions. They represented nearly all European provinces. Many were taught at Geneva Academy and when they returned to their homelands, they served as Protestant missionaries. As Calvin’s fame began to grow, there arouse many slanders against him. Lindberg, 272.
Arnold, “Another Side of John Calvin,” vol. 1, no. 9, April 1999. Online.
Many of Calvin’s opponents were either banished or put to death. In 1553, during a major crises four of Calvin’s opponents were beheaded and this was considered as God’s will. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 246.
Some showed their protest by naming their dogs for Calvin. Lindberg, 265.
Calvin himself could not establish without doubt his doctrine of Predestination but regardless to other reformers’ opinions, he held on to his views. Similarly, Calvin’s distinct and confusing view on Eucharist eventually led to permanent division of Protestant groups (Lutherans and Calvinists) on a later stage. MacCulloch, 248-253.
He owned very little possession during much of his life and never used his influence to gain wealth. Nearing his end, Calvin gave strict instructions that he be buried in a common cemetery with no tombstone. Such was his simplicity. “Did you Know? Facts about John Calvin,” Christian History Magazine, date Month 1986, 6.
Like Luther, Calvin suffered a variety of ailments throughout his life. Lindberg, 271. In the initial days of his conversion, he had face bitter opposition from the Catholic Church. Moreover, Calvin came very near to losing his life several times because of an unbending attitude towards the free thinkers and libertines in Geneva. Arnold, “Another Side of John Calvin,” Online.
He treated the poor and the Aristocracy equally which got him into trouble many times. He never prevented the council from banishing his sister-in-law and step-daughter on account of adultery. He consented with the council showing his impartiality. Lindberg, 270.
By Sam K John