John Calvin was the greatest of Protestant divines, and, after Augustine, the most perseveringly followed by his disciples of any Western writer on theology. He was born at Noyon in Picardy, France, 10 July, 1509, and died at Geneva, 27 May, 1564.
Although the three great reformers are usually identified as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, John Calvin was really a second generation reformer. He never met Martin Luther and was, by his own reckoning, converted not long before Zwingli's death. By birth, education, and temper Luther and Calvin, like Luther and Zwingli, were very different. Luther was a Saxon peasant, his father a miner; Calvin, like Luther in that he was born a Roman Catholic, sprang from the French middle-class. His father was an attorney in Noyon, where he practiced civil and canon law and served as the secretary to the Catholic Bishop. Luther entered an Augustinian monastery, took a monk's vows, was made a priest and ended up marrying a nun. Calvin never was ordained in the Catholic Church; his training was chiefly in law and the humanities; he took no vows and ended up marrying a Baptist. Luther's eloquence made him popular by its force, humor, rudeness, and vulgar style (once boasting about Rome's constant scrutiny of his every move that "If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome." Calvin spoke to the learned at all times, even when preaching before multitudes. His manner is classical; "he uses the weapons of a deadly logic and persuades by a teacher's authority." (Catholic Encyclopedialop) He wrote French as well as Luther wrote German, and like him has been reckoned a pioneer in the modern development of his native tongue.
According to Philip Melancthon, John Calvin was "the theologian of the reformation." This in spite of the fact that Calvin, as a monergist and a predestinarian, who would argue that we had no more to do with our second birth than our first, was in direct opposition to Melancthon's synergistic view of regeneration. Interestingly, Melancthon and Calvin seemed to genuine affection for one another.
Some trivia: Calvin from the famous comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, was named after John Calvin. It is thought that this reflects the young male character's belief in predestination (as justification for his behavior). His stuffed tiger Hobbes gets his name from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who held a dim view of human nature.
The Institutes of the Christian ReligionIn 1536 the near reformer Erasmus died. In Belgium, the English martyr William Tyndale was strangled and burned for translating the bible into English. And in Geneva, twenty-six John Calvin released the first edition of his systematic The Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is acclaimed by many as the greatest theological work (uninspired by the Holy Spirit) of all time. A few years earlier Calvin had been awakened by the Lutheran movement. The Protestants were under persecution in France, and interestingly enough Calvin dedicated Institutes to Francis I, King of France, attempting to explain to his king that his theology was not an innovation, and certainly not a heresy, but a return to classic, biblical Christianity. He also implored the king to take action to restrain the persecutions.
Calvin would make this point over and over: the Reformers were not heretics, and the reformation was actually a restoration of the ancient and forgotten beliefs of the early church. It was the Roman Church that, especially during the medieval period, had drifted into apostasy and heresy.
Like Luther, Calvin was greatly influenced by Augustine and quotes him liberally in his writings. However, Calvin did not view Augustine as inerrant, and considered his views on baptism to be in grave error. Whereas Augustine believed that unbaptized babies who died were bound for hell, Calvin was in the opposite extreme, believing that the newborns of believers were of the elect and perhaps even Christians, and should be withheld from the Lord's Supper only because they could not discern the body of Christ.
Luther and Calvin were in complete agreement on every important theological matter apart from one: the interpretation of the Lord's Supper. Calvin was a Lutheran, and Luther was a Calvinist.
Calvin is established in GenevaAfter many vicissitudes, and avoiding persecution, Calvin ended up in Geneva. From 1536 to 1538 Calvin had great authority there. This was his first attempt at reform, but he pushed the reform too quickly. The city council banished Calvin and fellow reformer and friend, William Farel. The two went to Strasburg for three years were he preached at a Huguenot church. This was undoubtedly a great time of discouragement for Calvin. He later returns, solidifying his position in the city. He died triumphant in peace in 1654, just as the Council of Trent was ending.
In 1540, in Strasburg, he befriended John Storder and his wife Idelette de Bure. The two were Anabaptists and part of a community of French refugees. They attended as many of Calvin's sermons and lectures that they could. They invited Calvin to their home and warm friendship developed.
Calvin worked endlessly: he took his pastoral duties seriously; he lectured at the University; he enlarged his Institutes from six chapters to seventeen and saw it published. As a disputant, with his clear vision and sound theology as well as his ability to present arguments, he was chosen as deputy for Strasburg in several conferences which strove for political and ecclesiastical unity. In each case the result was a stalemate. The only pleasure Calvin got from the first conference was a meeting with Philip Melancthon, a great joy to both men of God.
The hospitality of the Storders must have been very welcome to him, though he never spoke about money. He loved to think of them, as they styled themselves, his disciples, and he on his side admired their knowledge and love of the truth and 'the simplicity and sanctity of their lives'.
There were but two years of this happy friendship before sorrow came when John Storder fell ill and quickly died from the plague.
Calvin's friends thought he ought to marry and have a home of his own. He wrote to a friend that he would like a wife, specifying: 'The only kind of beauty which can win my soul is a woman who is chaste, not fastidious, economical, patient, and who is likely to interest herself in my health' And that, 'If she answers her reputation she will bring, in personal good qualities, a dowry large enough without any money at all.' It appears as that it was his friends who suggested to him, 'What about Idelette?' and his eyes opened to see her worth. She was about his own age, comely, kindly, and very intelligent. Suddenly he began to court her, and in a very few months married her.
They had not been married more than six months when the first of three pressing invitations came to him to return to Geneva. On September 13, 1531, amid great rejoicing and enthusiastic ovation, Calvin entered Geneva a second time. In this ordeal, God worked a tragedy into a blessing, creating a situation in which the people of Geneva welcomed Calvin and his reform.
Idelette greatly helped Calvin, and when she died 1549 he was devastated. At that point, according to his own words, he threw himself into his work. He wrote a detailed commentary on every bible book except Revelation, which he found to be impenetrable.
Arminius, the originator of a theology opposed to that of Calvin's system, gave an unbiased opinion of Calvin's works, saying:
"Next to the study of the Scriptures, I exhort my pupils to pursue Calvin's commentaries."It is easy to see the wonderful providence of God in bringing John Calvin back to Geneva. This free and independent city with its democratic institutions was at that time, of all the places in the world, the most admirably fitted to be the scene of the great reformatory labors of Calvin. The great Scottish reformer John Knox would call Geneva under John Calvin the most Christian city in history.
Upon his return to Geneva, Calvin drew up a Church Order, a set of rules for governing of the church. It was based upon the teaching of Scripture that Christ has ordained four offices in the church: pastors, teachers or professors, elders, and deacons. The cornerstone of Calvin's form of church government was the office of elder. Pastors were to preach and to exhort the people. Elders were men of unusual spiritual insight who supervised the people, and visited and assisted the pastors. Deacons were general servers. Through this type of government, based on the Bible, Calvin was able to instruct and discipline the people spiritually.
Calvin labored to set forth a theocracy that would be an example of Christian life and government, and also be a citadel of evangelical truth that would conquer the power of Rome in all other lands.
Calvin put great emphasis upon Christian education. He knew that the Reformation would only be effective as people knew and obeyed God's Word. He devised a catechetical system for the young which was carried all over Europe.
Calvin's view on baptism is brought to light considering his own baptism and that of his wife.
- Calvin believed that he was converted in his early twenties, upon hearing the theology arising from the Lutheran Reformation. He had been a lifelong Catholic.
- As a Catholic, he had been baptized by sprinkling at infancy.
- Although not a believer until his twenties, he viewed his and all baptisms as a sign of the sealing by the Holy Spirit. No matter that it took over too decades before he was illuminated—his baptism as a Catholic was legitimate. He did get baptized again.
- His wife had been baptized by immersion as an Anabaptist. After she and her former husband became disciples of John Calvin, she was not baptized again. Her baptism, like his own, was considered legitimate.
- Calvin's first born son was baptized as an infant. His other children died in infancy, before they were baptized.
The Burning of ServetusThe one event in Calvin's life that has cast a shadow over his name, and which has left him charged of intolerance and persecution is the burning of the heretic Servetus.
Servetus, who some believe was castrated at age five, was a Spaniard who opposed Christianity, both in its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms. He denied the Trinity and was the most audacious and even blasphemous heretic of the sixteenth century. He opposed the teaching of justification by faith and infant baptism. He was religious and superstitious, but not Christian—more of an astrologist.
Servetus had fled to Geneva from Vienna, France. Before he came to Geneva, he corresponded with Calvin, and Calvin did all he could to help this man see the truth of Christianity, but with no success. Servetus regarded Calvin as the pope of orthodox Protestantism whom he was determined to convert or overthrow. When Servetus first came to Geneva, he tried to align himself with the liberal city council that was somewhat opposed to Calvin. Calvin apparently sensed this danger and was in no mood to permit Servetus to propagate his errors in Geneva. Hence he considered it his duty to make so dangerous a man harmless, and determined to bring him either to recantation or to deserved punishment. Servetus actions were in one sense sedition — because in a theocracy there is a mixture of state and church, his attempt to overthrow the church was an attempt to overthrow the government of Geneva. Servetus was promptly arrested and brought to trial.
Calvin and other pastors in Geneva spent days with Servetus, trying to help him to see the error of his way, but Servetus was as hard as stone. He was convinced that the liberal council would throw Calvin out and let him out of jail.
The trial of Servetus was left to the civil court, which charged him with fundamental heresy, falsehood and blasphemy. The city council at this point was not favorable to Calvin. The libertines hoped to use the Servetus situation as a means of getting Calvin expelled from Geneva. The court's decision was:
"Inasmuch as you, Michael Servetus of Villanueva in the Spanish kingdom of Aragon, have been accused of terrible blasphemies against the holy Trinity, against the Son of God and other principles of the Christian faith, whereas you have called the Trinity a devil and a monster with three heads, whereas you went about to destroy poor souls by your horrifying mockery of the honor and majesty of God, too wicked to be mentioned, whereas refusing to be taught in any way, you called Christian atheists and magicians, whereas, whereas, whereas . . .The verdict was "guilty," and the sentence punishment by fire. Calvin, agreeing that Servetus should be put to death, opposed the state's method of execution and pleaded for the sword to be substituted for the fire. The council refused Calvin's request. The final responsibility for the burning rested with the city council, not Calvin.
"We, the mayor and judges of this city, having been called to the duty of preserving the church of God from schism and seduction, and to free Christians of such pestilence, decree that you, Michael Servetus, be led to the place of Champel and be bound to a stake and with your book be burned to ashes, a warning to all who blaspheme God."
Had Servetus been executed in any other way than by fire, his death would have passed almost unnoticed. It should be remembered that Servetus was, at one time, captured by the Inquisition. Had he not made good his escape, he likely would have been executed by the Catholic Church rather than the City Council of Geneva.
Calvin considered Servetus the greatest enemy of the Reformation and honestly believed it to be the right and duty of the state to punish those who offended the church. This act was based on the Old Testament principle of death for heretics
anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death. (Lev. 24:16).Calvin also felt himself providentially called to purify the church of all corruptions, and to his dying day he neither changed his views nor regretted his conduct toward Servetus.
We should not be too hard on Calvin in the matter of Servetus, for the spirit of the day among all, except the Anabaptists, whether Catholic or Protestant, was to put heretics to death. The treatment of heretics was an error of the age, and we dare not judge Calvin by our twentieth century standards. We must remember that Servetus was given a fair court trial, which lasted over two months, and that he was sentenced by the full session of the civil council in accordance with the laws which were then recognized throughout Christendom.
It should be noted that no Catholic or Anabaptist was ever executed in Geneva for the sake of his religious conviction.
Calvin's course in regard to Servetus was fully approved by all the leading Reformers of the time. Melanchthon, Bucer, Bullinger, Farel and Besa all felt that Calvin and Geneva dealt fairly with Servetus. The city council sought the advice of the other cities in Switzerland as to the fate of Servetus and received the following answers:
From Zwingli's city: "No severity is too great to punish such an offense. Our preachers are in total agreement with what Calvin thinks of his doctrine."
From Schaffhausen: "Stop the evil, other-wise his blasphemies, like a crawfish, will eat away the members of Christ!"
From Basel: "Do what lies in your power to convince him of his error. If he persists in his folly, then use the power which is entrusted to you by God to prevent him by force from any further injury to the Church of Christ."
Even Melanchthon stated to Calvin in a letter, "I have read your book in which you clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus . . . To you the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after regular trial, this blasphemous man."
Public opinion has undergone a great change in regard to this event, and the execution of Servetus which was fully approved by the best men in the sixteenth century is entirely out of harmony with modern ideas.
When Servetus was informed of the decision of the council, he was stunned at first, and then began to rant and rave like a mad man. Again, Calvin went to Servetus, hoping to lead him to Christ, and said to him:
"Believe me, never did I have the intention to prosecute you because of some offense against me. Do you remember," he spoke now with a tender voice and not in a tone of reproach, "how, in danger of death, I wanted to meet you in Paris sixteen years ago in order to win you to our Lord? And afterwards when you were a fugitive was I not concerned to show you the right way in letters until you began to hate me because you were offended by my firmness? But let's not talk about me, nor of the past! Are you thinking of asking forgiveness of the everlasting God whom you have blasphemed on so many occasions? Are you thinking of being reconciled to the Son of God?"
Servetus became quite serious and humble as he faced the certainty of death. He asked Calvin to forgive him, and perhaps he asked Christ for forgiveness also. It is recorded that he spent the last twenty-four hours of his life repeating over and over again, "Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me!"
The Spread of CalvinismAs much as Calvin's practice in Geneva, his publications spread his ideas of a correctly reformed church to many parts of Europe. Calvinism became the theological system of the majority in Scotland, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and was influential in France, Hungary (especially in Transylvania) and Poland.
Most settlers in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England were Calvinists, including the Puritans and Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York). South Africa was also founded by mostly Dutch Calvinist settlers beginning in the 17th century, who became known as Boers or Afrikaners.
Sierra Leone was largely colonized by Calvinist settlers from Nova Scotia, who were largely Black Loyalists, African Americans who had fought for the British during the Revolutionary War.
Usury, Capitalism, and the Protestant Work EthicOne school of thought about Calvinism is that it brought with it a revolt against the medieval condemnation of usury (lending money and charging interest), helping to set the stage for the development of capitalism in northern Europe. Furthering the cause of economic development was the widespread idea that a sign of being elect was good citizenship and hard work—the so-called Protestant Work Ethic.
Calvin expressed himself on usury in a letter to a friend, Oekolampadius. In this letter, he criticized the use of certain passages of scripture invoked by people opposed to the charging of interest -- he re-interpreted some of these passages, and suggested that others of them had been rendered irrelevant by changed conditions. He also said, though, that money should be lent to people in dire need without hope of interest.
German sociologist Max Weber noted that Protestants, especially Calvinists, played a prominent role in early-20th-century business success. He noted that "business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labor, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, [were] overwhelmingly Protestant."