Written By:William J. Bouwsma
Introduction & Quick Facts
Life and works
John Calvin, French Jean Calvin, or Cauvin, (born July 10, 1509, Noyon, Picardy, France—died May 27, 1564, Geneva, Switzerland), theologian and ecclesiastical statesman. He was the leading French Protestant Reformer and the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation. His interpretation of Christianity, advanced above all in his Institutio Christianae religionis (1536 but elaborated in later editions; Institutes of the Christian Religion), and the institutional and social patterns he worked out for Geneva deeply influenced Protestantism elsewhere in Europe and in North America. The Calvinist form of Protestantism is widely thought to have had a major impact on the formation of the modern world.
Calvin’s Paris years came to an abrupt end late in 1533. Because the government became less tolerant of this reform movement, Calvin, who had collaborated in the preparation of a strong statement of theological principles for a public address delivered by Nicolas Cop, rector of the university, found it prudent to leave Paris. Eventually he made his way to Basel, then Protestant but tolerant of religious variety. Up to that point, however, there is little evidence of Calvin’s conversion to Protestantism, an event difficult to date because it was probably gradual. His beliefs before his flight to Switzerland were probably not incompatible with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. But they underwent a change when he began to study theology intensively in Basel. Probably in part to clarify his own beliefs, he began to write. He began with a preface to a French translation of the Bible by his cousin Pierre Olivétan and then undertook what became the first edition of the Institutes, his masterwork, which, in its successive revisions, became the single most important statement of Protestant belief. Calvin published later editions in both Latin and French, containing elaborated and in a few cases revised teachings and replies to his critics. The final versions appeared in 1559 and 1560. The Institutes also reflected the findings of Calvin’s massive biblical commentaries, which, presented extemporaneously in Latin as lectures to ministerial candidates from many countries, make up the largest proportion of his works. In addition he wrote many theological and polemical treatises.
The 1536 Institutes had given Calvin some reputation among Protestant leaders. Therefore, on discovering that Calvin was spending a night in Geneva late in 1536, the Reformer and preacher Guillaume Farel, then struggling to plant Protestantism in that town, persuaded him to remain to help in this work. The Reformation was in trouble in Geneva, a town of about 10,000 where Protestantism had only the shallowest of roots. Other towns in the region, initially ruled by their prince-bishops, had successfully won self-government much earlier, but Geneva had lagged behind in this process largely because its prince-bishop was supported by the neighbouring duke of Savoy. There had been iconoclastic riots in Geneva in the mid-1520s, but these had negligible theological foundations. Protestantism had been imposed on religiously unawakened Geneva chiefly as the price of military aid from Protestant Bern. The limited enthusiasm of Geneva for Protestantism, reflected by a resistance to religious and moral reform, continued almost until Calvin’s death. The resistance was all the more serious because the town council in Geneva, as in other Protestant towns, exercised ultimate control over the church and the ministers, all French refugees. The main issue was the right of excommunication, which the ministers regarded as essential to their authority but which the council refused to concede. The uncompromising attitudes of Calvin and Farel finally resulted in their expulsion from Geneva in May 1538.
Calvin found refuge for the next three years in the German Protestant city of Strasbourg, where he was pastor of a church for French-speaking refugees and also lectured on the Bible; there he published his commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Romans. There too, in 1540, he married Idelette de Bure, the widow of a man he had converted from Anabaptism. Although none of their children survived infancy, their marital relationship proved to be extremely warm. During his Strasbourg years Calvin also learned much about the administration of an urban church from Martin Bucer, its chief pastor. Meanwhile Calvin’s attendance at various international religious conferences made him acquainted with other Protestant leaders and gave him experience in debating with Roman Catholic theologians. Henceforth he was a major figure in international Protestantism.
In September 1541 Calvin was invited back to Geneva, where the Protestant revolution, without strong leadership, had become increasingly insecure. Because he was now in a much stronger position, the town council in November enacted his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which provided for the religious education of the townspeople, especially children, and instituted Calvin’s conception of church order. It also established four groups of church officers: pastors and teachers to preach and explain the Scriptures, elders representing the congregation to administer the church, and deacons to attend to its charitable responsibilities. In addition it set up a consistory of pastors and elders to make all aspects of Genevan life conform to God’s law. It undertook a wide range of disciplinary actions covering everything from the abolition of Roman Catholic “superstition” to the enforcement of sexual morality, the regulation of taverns, and measures against dancing, gambling, and swearing. These measures were resented by a significant element of the population, and the arrival of increasing numbers of French religious refugees in Geneva was a further cause of native discontent. These tensions, as well as the persecution of Calvin’s followers in France, help to explain the trial and burning of Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian preaching and publishing unorthodox beliefs. When Servetus unexpectedly arrived in Geneva in 1553, both sides felt the need to demonstrate their zeal for orthodoxy. Calvin was responsible for Servetus’ arrest and conviction, though he had preferred a less brutal form of execution.
The struggle over control of Geneva lasted until May 1555, when Calvin finally prevailed and could devote himself more wholeheartedly to other matters. He had constantly to watch the international scene and to keep his Protestant allies in a common front. Toward this end he engaged in a massive correspondence with political and religious leaders throughout Protestant Europe. He also continued his commentaries on Scripture, working through the whole New Testament except the Revelation to John and most of the Old Testament. Many of these commentaries were promptly published, often with dedications to such European rulers as Queen Elizabeth, though Calvin had too little time to do much of the editorial work himself. Committees of amanuenses took down what he said, prepared a master copy, and then presented it to Calvin for approval. During this period Calvin also established the Genevan Academy to train students in humanist learning in preparation for the ministry and positions of secular leadership. He also performed a wide range of pastoral duties, preaching regularly and often, doing numerous weddings and baptisms, and giving spiritual advice. Worn out by so many responsibilities and suffering from a multitude of ailments, he died in 1564.
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Calvin’s influence has persisted not only in the Reformed churches of France, Germany, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Hungary but also in the Church of England, where Calvin was long at least as highly regarded as among those Puritans who separated from the Anglican establishment. The latter organized their own churches, Presbyterian or Congregational, which brought Calvinism to North America. Even today these churches, along with the originally German Evangelical and Reformed Church, recall Calvin as their founding father. Eventually Calvinist theology was also widely accepted by major groups of Baptists; and even Unitarianism, which broke away from the Calvinist churches of New England in the 18th century, reflected the more rational impulses in Calvin’s theology. More recently Protestant interest in the social implications of the Gospel and Protestant neo-orthodoxy, as represented by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr, reflects the continuing influence of John Calvin.
Calvin’s larger influence over the development of modern Western civilization has been variously assessed. The controversial “Weber thesis” attributed the rise of modern capitalism largely to Puritanism, but neither Max Weber, in his famous essay of 1904, “Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus” (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), nor the great economic historian Richard Henry Tawney, in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), implicated Calvin himself in this development. Much the same thing can be said about efforts to link Calvinism to the rise of modern science; although Puritans were prominent in the scientific movement of 17th-century England, Calvin himself was indifferent to the science of his own day. A somewhat better case can be made for Calvin’s influence on political theory. His own political instincts were highly conservative, and he preached the submission of private persons to all legitimate authority. But, like Italian humanists, he personally preferred a republic to a monarchy. In confronting the problem posed by rulers who actively opposed the spread of the Gospel, he advanced a theory of resistance, kept alive by his followers, according to which lesser magistrates might legitimately rebel against kings. Unlike most of his contemporaries, furthermore, Calvin included among the proper responsibilities of states not only the maintenance of public order but also a positive concern for the general welfare of society.
Calvinism has a place, therefore, in the development of liberal political thought. Calvin’s major and most durable influence, nevertheless, has been religious. From his time to the present Calvinism has meant a peculiar seriousness about Christianity and its ethical implications.