July 10, 1509 - May 27, 1564
“There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.”
John Calvin was Martin Luther's successor as the preeminent Protestant theologian. Calvin made a powerful impact on the fundamental doctrines of Protestantism, and is widely credited as the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation. Besides being influenced by Martin Luther, John Calvin took the biblical truths that Wycliffe, Hus, and the Holy Spirit which had brought to light certain truths and created a worldwide movement. He did more to institutionalize the revolutionary doctrines of the reformation than any other reformer before him. John Calvin reorganized organized religion into what became known to the modern world as Protestantism. He brought opposing forces within the fledging movement to common ground providing the leadership and foresight that the “new church” needed to evolve. And due to Calvin’s persistent quest for unity, collaboration, and accountability, the reformation grew in strength and became a powerful voice for truth that could not be quenched. By his own faith as being seen as one of the elect of Christ, we honor Jon Calvin as one of God’s great generals.
History: John Calvin was born as Jehan Cauvin on 10 July 1509, in the town of Noyon in the Picardy region of France. He was the first of four sons who survived infancy. His mother, Jeanne le Franc, was the daughter of an innkeeper from Cambrai. She died in Calvin's childhood, from an unknown cause, after bearing four more children. Calvin's father, Gérard Cauvin, had a prosperous career as the cathedral notary and registrar to the ecclesiastical court. Gérard Cauvin died in 1531, after suffering two years with testicular cancer. Gérard intended his three sons—Charles, Jean, and Antoine—for the priesthood.
John was particularly precocious; by age 12, he was employed by the bishop as a clerk and received the tonsure, cutting his hair to symbolize his dedication to the Church. He also won the patronage of an influential family, the Montmors. Through their assistance, Calvin was able to attend the Collège de la Marche, in Paris, where he learned Latin from one of its greatest teachers, Mathurin Cordier. Once he completed the course, he entered the Collège de Montaigu as a philosophy student. In 1525 or 1526, Gérard withdrew his son from the Collège de Montaigu and enrolled him in the University of Orléans to study law. According to contemporary biographers Theodore Beza and Nicolas Colladon, Gérard believed his son would earn more money as a lawyer than as a priest. After a few years of quiet study, Calvin entered the University of Bourges in 1529. He was intrigued by Andreas Alciati, a humanist lawyer. Humanism was a European intellectual movement which stressed classical studies. During his 18-month stay in Bourges, Calvin learned Koine Greek, a necessity for studying the New Testament.
Continually pressing forward with his studies of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit kept preparing his heart to receive the savior. It is believed in the year 1533, John experienced an inner conversion that was the result of a revelation of the Protestant salvation by faith, although he remained a Catholic. It wasn’t until he attended the acceptance speech of a good friend who had just been named Dean of the University of Paris that his allegiance was made clearer. This was during a time of severe persecution in Paris and tensions were high. In the aftermath of this speech in which his close friend openly proclaimed reformist views—the friend was forced to flee Paris, and Calvin, being closely associated with him, was not far behind.
Calvin went into hiding during the winter of 1533-1534 and struggled within himself for many months. In the spring, he returned to Paris to seek out the famed Bible scholar Lefevre d’Etaples who was approaching one hundred years old. The meeting took place on April 6, 1534, and from that point on, Calvin had no hesitation about where his duty lay. One month later, instead of arriving as planned to be ordained into the priesthood, he returned to the Catholic Church to turn in his ministerial papers severing his ties with Catholicism forever. His converted heart from religion to spiritual truth allowed the lord to open the gate way to the path of John Calvin’s holy destiny, thus the beginning of his ministry.
Ministry and Impact: Often times the path of ministry can be a rather rocky transition, for John Calvin it was no different. Only three weeks after he broke ties with the Catholic Church in his hometown, John’s brother, Charles, was arrested for heresy, and John was arrested for not reporting him. After two short period of imprisonment, John was told to leave town. He moved from place to place, but still gathered a following of those who wanted to sit and learn from him, which threatened prior religious church teachings. These were considered to be the first “Calvinists.”
At the same time, the radical Protestants in Paris were launching a massive campaign against the Catholic Church which became known as the Affair of the Placards—this name was given because of the placards that were posted everywhere denouncing the practices of the Catholic Church. King Francis I was so outraged that he countered with the brutal burning of six Protestants and twenty-four more over the next six months.
Calvin was forced to leave France for neighboring Switzerland where he and many other reformers found safe refuge. He ended up settling high in the Alps in Basel. Here he hoped to withdraw from public notice and give himself to writing. He completed the 520-page first edition of the famous Institutes of Christian Religion in August of 1535. What began as six chapters would evolve into eighty chapters before it was finished.
In 1536, the first edition was published in Basel and sent directly to King Francis I with a letter exposing his murderous spirit and exonerating the martyrs. No one in Basel knew Calvin was the author because few knew he was there. He had been living under the assumed name of Martianus Lucanius.3 Soon the book was being widely distributed and Calvin rose high in the ranks of influential reformers.
Calvin made his way to Strasbourg in search of renewed anonymity and solitude. He again planned to settle down and continue writing. As he made his way there, he was forced to make a detour and spend the night in Geneva. Only planning to remain one night before heading on to Strasbourg, Calvin was caught off guard when his presence there was made known to a fiery evangelist named Farel.
This young man had taken the city for the Gospel and desperately needed help in organizing a long-term work to establish the Protestant believers there. His intention was to form a church and a school, but although he was a persuasive teacher, he lacked the organizational and administrative skills necessary. He hoped to convince Calvin to join him in leading the movement to make Geneva a Protestant stronghold.
Calvin bluntly refused the invitation. He did not feel compelled to step into such a public role and oversee the logistics of organizing an unprecedented Protestant church and school. His objective was to continue his writing in solitude. Farel was bold and tenacious as he unrelentingly plied Calvin to consider this work. He finally pointed his finger at Calvin and rebuked him sternly thundering, “If you refuse to devote yourself with us to the work . . . God will condemn you.” By September 1st, Calvin was in Geneva ready to begin work.
Geneva was unusual in that its citizens had voted to “live by the Gospel” to the extent that the political powers supported complete reformation of the religious and moral life of the community. While Farel, the zealous preacher, would stir up the waters and draw a harvest of souls, it was Calvin, who wove the net in which to bring them safely home. The same diligence he gave to his studies and writing, now Calvin poured into building the new church and establishing an enlightened society. He flooded every area of the community with his insight and wisdom about theology, philosophy, government, languages, pedagogy, and debate. No area that he had studied over the years went untapped.
Calvin literally turned the community upside down. Where the people were accustomed to serving the Church, the church under Calvin’s direction was developed to serve the people. Where there were loose morals, he brought in knowledge of the Scriptures so that common people could grasp the deep truths that would equip them to overcome sin. He created a confession of faith that was to be proclaimed by all who wished to be citizens stating that the Word of God was the ultimate authority; that natural man had no good in him; and that salvation, righteousness, and regeneration were in Jesus Christ alone. Musical praise in the local language was introduced to the people so that they could worship freely from their hearts. Before then, all songs during Mass were sung in Latin and few understood. Calvin planned an educational program that everyone was required to attend followed by a rule of excommunication for those who failed to live by God’s standards. They refused to allow people who did not live up to those standards to take Communion. Struggles ensued over the strictness imposed on the city’s inhabits and a power struggle between the church leaders and government officials began to intensify.
Finally, in January of 1538, the political powers were forced to forbid Farel and Calvin from preaching because Calvin called them “a council of the devil” in one of his sermons, and the two were ordered to allow everyone to take Communion. Calvin and Farel continued to preach and turn away immoral people from the Communion table. A mob erupted outside the church threatening to kill both of them. By April, the government ordered them to leave the city. After appealing to the councils of Bern and Zurich to intervene on their behalf, Calvin and Farel were forced to give up their vision for Geneva. Or so they thought.
Farel and Calvin had become close friends and resettled near to one another back in quieter Basel. Calvin fell into a depression overcome by a sense of failure, bitter over how he had been treated, and now without ministry direction, felt empty and useless. It was a difficult time of readjustment during which Calvin sold books for income. Farel was invited to another city to help with ministry there, when Calvin refused to go, Farel left alone.
Feeling alienated and betrayed, he took a break from his surroundings in July and visited the city of Strasbourg. There he was introduced to a well-respected reformer by the name of Martin Bucer who invited him to move to Strasbourg to pastor a five hundred-member French refugee church. The French refugees felt alienated in the German-speaking city, and this seemed the perfect match for the French-born Calvin.
Again he refused, never intending to pastor again. When Calvin returned to Basel, the invitation was renewed and Bucer gave the same warning that Farel had given Calvin in Geneva, “God will know how to find the rebellious servant, as He found Jonah.” This struck at Calvin’s heart and once again, by the first September, Calvin had resettled in Strasbourg ready to fulfill his duties as one of its leading pastors.
Strasbourg was a pleasant change to Geneva. The city had adopted evangelical worship fourteen years earlier and there was no council to negotiate with. Bucer and others had done an excellent job of organizing the churches with well-rounded programs. It was a flourishing center of reformation and it seemed Calvin and the French church were a perfect match. For the next three years Calvin thrived in this environment, healing from the disappointment of Geneva and maturing as a pastor.
He applied for citizenship after only a few short months and embraced the work of the leading reformers there. He became close friends with a man named John Sturm, who Bucer had installed as the rector of the Old Strasbourg convent with the mission of turning it into a Bible school. With Calvin’s help, the school became one of the most renowned and successful ministry training schools of the reformation. His involvement in establishing this school would serve as a pattern for something he would pioneer later, something that would reach to every corner of the known world. Calvin’s influence began to spread during this time of training and maturing. He was constantly called out to lecture and speak at conferences in surrounding cities and nations. He became increasingly popular with Charles V, the current Holy Roman Emperor, who sponsored a series of conferences to which he always invited Calvin to speak. During his three years in Strasbourg, Calvin authored four books and a very famous letter that rescued the destiny of Geneva.
In 1539, after Farel and Calvin had been banished from Geneva, the Catholic Church renewed hope of turning the city back to her former allegiance, Rome. A new Roman cardinal was installed in northern Italy who hoped to persuade Geneva to return to her Catholic heritage. He wrote a letter to the Council in Geneva inviting the government to realign itself to the Catholic Church while offering it political autonomy.
The eloquent letter was written in Latin and cast shadows of suspicion. It pressured Geneva by asking if it “be more expedient for your salvation to believe and follow what the Catholic Church has approved with general consent for more than fifteen hundred years, or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years by crafty men.” The Council promised to send a response but felt unqualified to answer in a clear and sufficient manner.
Their only hope was to send the letter to John Calvin and pray he would forgive them and respond on their behalf. Calvin didn’t give a second thought to clearing his schedule in order to write a thorough and articulate response. In six days he composed his masterpiece, which became so famous it was given a title, Reply to Cardinal Sadolet, and still circulates today. Calvin addressed every point with passionate precision. He stated that the Gospel was the scepter by which the Father ruled the kingdom—not a Latinized liturgy or the tyranny of a papacy. “You either labour under a delusion as to the term Church, or . . . knowingly and willingly give it a gloss.”
Neither did Cardinal Sadolet ever reply to Geneva’s expansive response written by John Calvin, but the Catholic Church never bothered Geneva again.
It was the dawn of a new day of ministry, for Calvin found himself in the market for a wife and married Idelette Stordeur, a widow with two children. She had lost her husband to the plague, who had been a fellow pastor in Geneva and close friend of Calvin’s. A year after they were married, Calvin received an invitation from Geneva to return and resume his pastoral duties there. This took Calvin by surprise and he had no desire to leave his utopian Strasbourg. He refused, as he had before to even consider the invitation. It took Bucer to convince him of returning—if only for a season—to help the willing leaders of Geneva reorganize their church.
With the only comfort being the hope of soon returning to Strasbourg, Calvin agreed to go to Geneva for a brief period to set the church in order. He planned on staying for only a few months but spent the next twenty-three years establishing churches, schools, and ministry training centers until his death in 1564.
Geneva welcomed him with open arms and spared no expense in honoring him and making he and his family comfortable. Calvin had learned much and matured a great deal during his three years in Strasbourg. He was seasoned in the art of organization and diplomacy, and using the Scripture as his pattern, he began restructuring the church. He outlined four orders of the ministry—pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. These four areas covered all of church life including worship, education, soundness, and moral purity, as well as the works of love and mercy.
This pattern of organization provided the foundation of how Protestant churches have been structured since. What became known as Calvinism has influenced thousands of Christian thinkers throughout modern Christian history including Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, and David Brainerd. John Calvin gave his last sermon in the cathedral on February 6, 1564, and attended his last Mass on Easter Sunday of that year. When April came, Calvin bid farewell to the council and ministers in a letter recounting his goals, struggles, and faults. He also had letters written to his closest friends, calling Farel his best one. By May, his health was depleted and he was in and out of a coma, encouraging those who attended him to trust in the Lord at every opportunity. On May 27, 1564, at the age of fifty-four, Calvin departed this life. Today in Geneva, there stands a monument upon which the names are engraved of four great men who changed the world as we know it: John Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore Beza, and John Knox.
Family Life: Calvin due to his credit, was so caught up in his labors for the Lord that he did not seem to consider marriage until age 30 or so. He asked friends to help him find a woman who was "chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for (his) health". His fellow laborer Martin Bucer had known Idelette and recommended her to Calvin in confidence that she would fit the bill. They married in August 1540.
Idelette bore Calvin one son and possibly a few daughters, all of whom died in infancy. In response to the slander of Catholics who took this for a judgment upon them for being heretics, Calvin said he was content with his many sons in the faith. Idelette busied herself attending to Calvin in his many illnesses, faithfully visiting the sick and afflicted, and making her home a refuge for those who fled for their lives and their faith.
Though she survived the plague when it ravaged Geneva, Idelette died after a lengthy illness in 1549. Upon her deathbed she was patient, and her words, edifying, e.g.: "O God of Abraham, and of all our fathers, in thee have the faithful trusted during so many past ages, and none of them have trusted in vain. I also will hope".