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Calvin, John (1509–1564) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

calvin’s church farel geneva

John Calvin, humanist, biblical theologian, and Reformer, was born 10 July 1509 at Noyon, France, to Gerard Cauvin (French form of the family name) and Jeanne Lefranc. Since Calvin spoke very little of himself, knowledge of his early life is limited to documentary evidence. Sent by his father to Paris to prepare for an ecclesiastical career, Calvin enrolled in the College de Montaigu to study the arts, a prerequisite for entry into the faculty of theology, and studied Latin with Mathurin Cordier. Upon Calvin’s completion of the master of arts, his father decided that the law would be more lucrative than theology and sent Calvin to study law at Orleans. Although Calvin obeyed the wishes of his father by earning a law degree, the young man’s real interests were in the literary and intellectual currents of the day. In addition to his legal studies, he pursued the study of Greek under the tutelage of Melchior Wolmar. Probably during his years at Orleans he came into contact with the Reform movement. With the death of his father in 1531, Calvin returned to Paris, where he pursued his interest in humanist studies, began studying Hebrew, and completed his commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia , which he published in April 1532 at his own expense. By 1533 Calvin had converted to the Reformed faith, although he is silent on the circumstances that led to his conversion. Evidence of his public identification with the Reform movement was Calvin’s departure from Paris following the inaugural address on 1 November 1533 by Nicolas Cop, the newly appointed rector of the University of Paris. The speech created an uproar, as it contained several ideas central to the evangelical movement, most notably that of justification by faith, not by works. Whether Calvin contributed directly or indirectly to the address is still the object of scholarly debate. In any case, Calvin apparently thought it prudent to leave Paris, but he returned there in December. As a consequence of the Affair of the Placards in October 1534, Calvin left Paris for Basel. During this initial period of exile, he wrote the first edition of the Institutes , completing it in August 1535, and made contact with French-speaking Reformers, including Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret. After a brief sojourn at the court of the duchess of Ferrara, Calvin returned to France to settle family affairs. Since the political climate continued to be hostile to the Reform movement, Calvin left for Strasbourg on 15 July 1536. Because of a troop movement on the direct road to Strasbourg, Calvin traveled south, stopping on the way in Geneva, a stop that was to change the direction of his life. Geneva had recently become a Protestant city, with Guillaume Farel as one of its principal pastors. Farel urged Calvin to become his coworker in promoting and consolidating the Reformed church in that city. Yielding to Farel’s request, Calvin gave up the life of a scholar to become a teacher and preacher in the Reformed church of Geneva and in time its chief pastor. At the beginning of 1537 the city’s leaders were friends of Farel and open to his and Calvin’s attempts to establish a separate church discipline. However, there was a growing resentment by the populace against being forced to swear to a confession of faith, which culminated in Calvin and Farel’s opponents gaining control of the city’s leadership. In April 1538, the struggle came to a head when, in an argument over liturgical practices, Calvin and Farel refused to celebrate the communion service. As a result, Calvin and Farel were expelled from the city. Calvin went on to Strasbourg, where he was invited by Martin Bucer to become the pastor of the French congregation.

For the next three years, Calvin lived a generally happy and productive life. Although at the beginning of his exile, he had some self-doubts about his call to the ministry, these were quickly resolved. In addition to his parochial duties, he completed the second edition of the Institutes (1539), the Reply to Sadoleto (1539), Commentary on the Romans (1540), a French translation of the Institutes (1541), and The Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (1541). In August 1540, at the urging of Bucer, a reluctant Calvin married one of his parishioners, Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children.

Meanwhile in Geneva, the pro-Calvin faction had regained control. Farel and Calvin were invited to return as pastors. Farel chose to remain in Neuchatel but urged Calvin to accept the invitation. On 13 September 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva. Although the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541 clearly established the sphere of church authority, Calvin once again found himself in a power struggle with the city council over church discipline, especially the power of excommunication. By the summer of 1553 the situation became so tense that Calvin offered to resign. The council refused his resignation. At the height of this battle, an event occurred that was to tarnish Calvin’s reputation not only in his own lifetime but up to our own day, namely, the execution of Michael Servetus. Although Calvin was not directly involved in the trial and passing of sentence, he had been involved in the infamous accusation and arrest of the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus. Several weeks after Servetus’ death, the Council of the Two Hundred voted in favor of the city council’s right to have the ultimate jurisdiction regarding excommunication, further frustrating Calvin’s attempt to establish control over the spiritual life of the Genevans.

In 1555, the tide of battle turned in favor of Calvin. His supporters gained control of city government, and he was able to implement his vision of the church and state, each in its own sphere serving God. In spite of his increasingly poor health, Calvin continued to maintain a heavy preaching schedule, revise the Institutes , and write his biblical commentaries. After bidding farewell to his ministers in April, Calvin died 27 May 1564 and was buried, at his request, in an unmarked grave. Although he spent most of his ministry in Geneva, his reputation and influence went far beyond the city limits. John Knox* and other Reformers visited Calvin to seek his advice. Keenly interested in the Reform movement in England, Calvin maintained correspondence with Cranmer* and the duke of Somerset, offering counsel and encouragement. Richard Hooker* knew and commented on Calvin’s ideas on church polity in Geneva.


Studies of Calvin have grown considerably during the past two decades. Much of this recent scholarship reflects an attempt to recast the popular (and at times scholarly) image of Calvin as the cold, harsh, and inflexible theocrat who ruled Geneva. Recent biographies, as Klempa points out, attempt to get “behind the myth [Calvin as the religious dictator] to the man” (343). Calvin’s reluctance to speak about himself makes this task quite difficult. However, in a recent biography, Bouwsma argues that we can get behind the received image of the Reformer by paying attention to his “oblique modes of communication…manner, tone and imagery…remarks that in context seem unexpected, gratuitous or even irrelevant” (5). Establishing the date and circumstances of Calvin’s conversion continues to be a debated topic. That debate is “largely a reaction to the work of Alexandre Gangoczy, Le jeune Calvin, Genèse et évolution de sa vocation réformatrice ” (Wolters, 356). Calvin’s influence not only on his own time but on the centuries following his death is also a favored topic for research, with a special emphasis on distinguishing what Calvin actually thought, as evidenced in his writings, as opposed to the teachings of his disciples otherwise known as Calvinism. McGrath’s recent life of Calvin subtitled A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture underlines the impact of Calvin on European history. Other critics have focused on Calvin’s importance in specific countries—France, England, Scotland, among others. Scholarly inquiry includes studies on Calvin’s sources. Of particular interest in this regard is an emphasis on the influence of the humanist tradition on Calvin’s thought, especially the use of rhetoric, not in the sense of “rendering the speaker effective, but rather upon rendering the truth effective” (Demson, 368). Critical studies have examined Calvin’s debt to classical writers such as Seneca and Cicero as well as to other Reformers such as Bucer, Bullinger, and Zwingli. Calvin’s theology is being studied within the context that he “did not construct his theology around one pivotal idea, such as predestination, justification…but he preferred instead to draw together a number of biblical and theological concepts” (Klempa, 346). The social and political views of the “worldly Calvin” (Graham, 361)—for example, the separation of church and state, the ideal form of government, the family, social welfare—continue to be debated. Max Weber’s thesis of the Protestant work ethic thesis vis-à-vis Calvin is also being critically reexamined and challenged. In keeping with trends in other disciplines scholars are reexamining Calvin’s attitudes toward women. Although Calvin’s biblically based attitude views women as subordinate to men, Blaisdell points out that Calvin does stress women’s “spiritual equality” (22) and that his view on marriage is “extremely original and affirmative” (23). That view is echoed by Douglass, who states that “Calvin’s intent…was to affirm that women as well as men are fully created in the image of God” (194). Calvin’s letters to women have also received critical analysis. Research also focuses on Calvin’s attitude toward the Jews, an attitude that can be gleaned only indirectly, since “his teachings on the Jews are so well integrated into his theological system that they are concealed” (Robinson, 25). Calvin’s criticism of the Jews was “most often limited to the Jews mentioned in the Scriptures” (Robinson, 92), a view challenged by some other critics.

Calvin’s prose, both Latin and French, receives praise from literary critics. He wrote in a “refined and elegant Ciceronian Latinity” (Payton, 101). His French style has earned him the reputation as one of the great prose writers of French literature, the foundation of that reputation being his “simplicity of syntax and precision of vocabulary” (Higman, 36) together with a “particular talent for the rhythmic control of his sentences” (Higman, 30).

Students of the Renaissance and Reformation will find an invaluable resource in Calvin’s sermons, biblical commentaries, polemical treatises, letters, and the Institutes . His importance remains undiminished, for he is “a seminal figure in European history, changing the outlook of individuals, and institutions at the dawn of the modern period, as western civilization began to assume its characteristic form” (McGrath, xi).

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