Portrait attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger
John Calvin (…) was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, aspects of which include the doctrines of predestination and of the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation, in which doctrines Calvin was influenced by and elaborated upon the Augustinian and other Christian traditions. Various Congregational, Reformed, Reformed Baptists and Presbyterian churches, which look to Calvin as the chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world.
Calvin was a tireless polemic and apologetic writer who generated much controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters with many reformers, including Philipp Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to his seminal Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, confessional documents, and various other theological treatises.
Originally trained as a humanist lawyer, he broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. After religious tensions erupted in widespread deadly violence against Protestant Christians in France, Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, where in 1536 he published the first edition of the Institutes. In that same year, Calvin was recruited by Frenchman William Farel to join the Reformation in Geneva, where he regularly preached sermons throughout the week; but the governing council of the city resisted the implementation of their ideas, and both men were expelled. At the invitation of Martin Bucer, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, where he became the minister of a church of French refugees. He continued to support the reform movement in Geneva, and in 1541 he was invited back to lead the church of the city.
Following his return, Calvin introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite opposition from several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority. During this period, Michael Servetus, a Spaniard regarded by both Roman Catholics and Protestants as having a heretical view of the Trinity, arrived in Geneva. He was denounced by Calvin and burned at the stake for heresy by the city council. Following an influx of supportive refugees and new elections to the city council, Calvin’s opponents were forced out. Calvin spent his final years promoting the Reformation both in Geneva and throughout Europe.
By 1532, Calvin received his licentiate in law and published his first book, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. (…) On 1 November 1533 he devoted his inaugural address to the need for reform and renewal in the Roman Catholic Church. The address provoked a strong reaction from the faculty, who denounced it as heretical, forcing Cop to flee to Basel. (…)
Sometime in 1537 he was selected to be a “pastor” although he never received any pastoral consecration. For the first time, the lawyer-theologian took up pastoral duties such as baptisms, weddings, and church services.
(1554) in August of that year, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow who had two children from her first marriage.
Idelette and Calvin had no children survive infancy.
Reform in Geneva (1541–1549)
In supporting Calvin’s proposals for reforms, the council of Geneva passed the Ordonnances ecclésiastiques (Ecclesiastical Ordinances) on 20 November 1541. The ordinances defined four orders of ministerial function: pastors to preach and to administer the sacraments; doctors to instruct believers in the faith; elders to provide discipline; and deacons to care for the poor and needy. They also called for the creation of the Consistoire (Consistory), an ecclesiastical court composed of the lay elders and the ministers. The city government retained the power to summon persons before the court, and the Consistory could judge only ecclesiastical matters having no civil jurisdiction. Originally, the court had the power to mete out sentences, with excommunication as its most severe penalty. The government contested this power and on 19 March 1543 the council decided that all sentencing would be carried out by the government.
In 1542, Calvin adapted a service book used in Strasbourg, publishing La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques (The Form of Prayers and Church Hymns). Calvin recognised the power of music and he intended that it be used to support scripture readings. (…)
In the same year of 1542, Calvin published Catéchisme de l’Eglise de Genève (Catechism of the Church of Geneva), which was inspired by Bucer’s Kurze Schrifftliche Erklärung of 1534. Calvin had written an earlier catechism during his first stay in Geneva which was largely based on Martin Luther’s Large Catechism. The first version was arranged pedagogically, describing Law, Faith, and Prayer. (…)
Historians debate the extent to which Geneva was a theocracy. On the one hand, Calvin’s theology clearly called for separation between church and state. Other historians have stressed the enormous political power wielded on a daily basis by the clerics.
An analysis of his sermons by T. H. L. Parker suggests that Calvin was a consistent preacher and his style changed very little over the years. John Calvin was also known for his thorough manner of working his way through the Bible in consecutive sermons. From March 1555 to July 1556, Calvin delivered two hundred sermons on Deuteronomy. (…)
(…) Shows and entertainments were expressly forbidden by their religion; and for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva. They condemned auricular confession, but they enjoined a public one; and in Switzerland, Scotland, and Geneva it was performed the same as penance.” (…)
Discipline and opposition (1546–1553)
Calvin encountered bitter opposition to his work in Geneva. Around 1546, the uncoordinated forces coalesced into an identifiable group whom he referred to as the libertines, but who preferred to be called either Spirituels or Patriots. According to Calvin, these were people who felt that after being liberated through grace, they were exempted from both ecclesiastical and civil law. (…)
(…) On 27 June an unsigned threatening letter in Genevan dialect was found at the pulpit of St. Pierre Cathedral where Calvin preached. Suspecting a plot against both the church and the state, the council appointed a commission to investigate. (…) A civil court condemned Gruet to death and he was beheaded on 26 July. Calvin was not opposed to the civil court’s decision.
Final years (1555–1564)
Calvin’s authority was practically uncontested during his final years, and he enjoyed an international reputation as a reformer distinct from Martin Luther. Initially, Luther and Calvin had mutual respect for each other. A doctrinal conflict had developed between Luther and Zurich reformer Huldrych Zwingli on the interpretation of the eucharist. Calvin’s opinion on the issue forced Luther to place him in Zwingli’s camp. Calvin actively participated in the polemics that were exchanged between the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Reformation movement. At the same time, Calvin was dismayed by the lack of unity among the reformers.
Calvin sheltered Marian exiles (those who fled the reign of Catholic Mary Tudor in England) in Geneva starting in 1555. Under the city’s protection, they were able to form their own reformed church under John Knox and William Whittingham and eventually carried Calvin’s ideas on doctrine and polity back to England and Scotland.
Impact on France
Calvin was deeply committed to reforming his homeland, France. The Protestant movement had been energetic, but lacked central organizational direction. With financial support from the church in Geneva, Calvin turned his enormous energies toward uplifting the French Protestant cause. (…)
Calvin developed his theology in his biblical commentaries as well as his sermons and treatises, but the most comprehensive expression of his views is found in his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. (…)
The first statement in the Institutes acknowledges its central theme. It states that the sum of human wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Calvin argues that the knowledge of God is not inherent in humanity nor can it be discovered by observing this world. The only way to obtain it is to study scripture. Calvin writes, “For anyone to arrive at God the Creator he needs Scripture as his Guide and Teacher.” He does not try to prove the authority of scripture but rather describes it as autopiston or self-authenticating. He defends the trinitarian view of God and, in a strong polemical stand against the Catholic Church, argues that images of God lead to idolatry. At the end of the first book, he offers his views on providence, writing, “By his Power God cherishes and guards the World which he made and by his Providence rules its individual Parts.” Humans are unable to fully comprehend why God performs any particular action, but whatever good or evil people may practise, their efforts always result in the execution of God’s will and judgments.
The second book includes several essays on original sin and the fall of man, which directly refer to Augustine, who developed these doctrines. He often cited the Church Fathers in order to defend the reformed cause against the charge that the reformers were creating new theology. In Calvin’s view, sin began with the fall of Adam and propagated to all of humanity. The domination of sin is complete to the point that people are driven to evil. Thus fallen humanity is in need of the redemption that can be found in Christ. But before Calvin expounded on this doctrine, he described the special situation of the Jews who lived during the time of the Old Testament. God made a covenant with Abraham, promising the coming of Christ. Hence, the Old Covenant was not in opposition to Christ, but was rather a continuation of God’s promise. Calvin then describes the New Covenant using the passage from the Apostles’ Creed that describes Christ’s suffering under Pontius Pilate and his return to judge the living and the dead. For Calvin, the whole course of Christ’s obedience to the Father removed the discord between humanity and God.
In the third book, Calvin describes how the spiritual union of Christ and humanity is achieved. He first defines faith as the firm and certain knowledge of God in Christ. The immediate effects of faith are repentance and the remission of sin. This is followed by spiritual regeneration, which returns the believer to the state of holiness before Adam’s transgression. Complete perfection is unattainable in this life, and the believer should expect a continual struggle against sin. Several chapters are then devoted to the subject of justification by faith alone. He defined justification as “the acceptance by which God regards us as righteous whom he has received into grace.” In this definition, it is clear that it is God who initiates and carries through the action and that people play no role; God is completely sovereign in salvation. Near the end of the book, Calvin describes and defends the doctrine of predestination, a doctrine advanced by Augustine in opposition to the teachings of Pelagius. Fellow theologians who followed the Augustinian tradition on this point included Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, though Calvin’s formulation of the doctrine went further than the tradition that went before him. The principle, in Calvin’s words, is that “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”
The final book describes what he considers to be the true Church and its ministry, authority, and sacraments. He denied the papal claim to primacy and the accusation that the reformers were schismatic. For Calvin, the Church was defined as the body of believers who placed Christ at its head. By definition, there was only one “catholic” or “universal” Church. Hence, he argued that the reformers “had to leave them in order that we might come to Christ.” The ministers of the Church are described from a passage from Ephesians, and they consisted of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and doctors. Calvin regarded the first three offices as temporary, limited in their existence to the time of the New Testament. The latter two offices were established in the church in Geneva. Although Calvin respected the work of the ecumenical councils, he considered them to be subject to God’s Word found in scripture. He also believed that the civil and church authorities were separate and should not interfere with each other.
Calvin defined a sacrament as an earthly sign associated with a promise from God. He accepted only two sacraments as valid under the new covenant: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (in opposition to the Catholic acceptance of seven sacraments). He completely rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the treatment of the Supper as a sacrifice. He also could not accept the Lutheran doctrine of sacramental union in which Christ was “in, with and under” the elements. His own view was close to Zwingli’s symbolic view, but it was not identical. Rather than holding a purely symbolic view, Calvin noted that with the participation of the Holy Spirit, faith was nourished and strengthened by the sacrament. In his words, the eucharistic rite was “a secret too sublime for my mind to understand or words to express. I experience it rather than understand it.”
Calvin and the Jews
(…) In his theology, Calvin does not differentiate between God’s covenant with Israel and the New Covenant. He stated, “all the children of the promise, reborn of God, who have obeyed the commands by faith working through love, have belonged to the New Covenant since the world began.” Nevertheless, he was a covenant theologian and argued that the Jews are a rejected people who must embrace Jesus to re-enter the covenant.
Response to Questions and Objections of a Certain Jew. In it, he argued that Jews misread their own scriptures because they miss the unity of the Old and New Testaments.
The aim of Calvin’s political theory was to safeguard the rights and freedoms of ordinary people. Although he was convinced that the Bible contained no blueprint for a certain form of government, Calvin favored a combination of democracy and aristocracy (mixed government). He appreciated the advantages of democracy. To further minimize the misuse of political power, Calvin proposed to divide it among several political institutions like the aristocracy, lower estates, or magistrates in a system of checks and balances (separation of powers). Finally, Calvin taught that if rulers rise up against God they lose their divine right and must be deposed. State and church are separate, though they have to cooperate to the benefit of the people. Christian magistrates have to make sure that the church can fulfill its duties in freedom. In extreme cases the magistrates have to expel or execute dangerous heretics. But nobody can be forced to become a Protestant.
Calvin thought that agriculture and the traditional crafts were normal human activities. With regard to trade and the financial world he was more liberal than Luther, but both were strictly opposed to usury. Calvin allowed the charging of modest interest rates on loans. Like the other Reformers Calvin understood work as a means through which the believers expressed their gratitude to God for their redemption in Christ and as a service to their neighbors. Everybody was obliged to work; loafing and begging were rejected. The idea that economic success was a visible sign of God’s grace played only a minor role in Calvin’s thinking. It became more important in later, partly secularized forms of Calvinism and became the starting-point of Max Weber’s theory about the rise of capitalism.
Calvin provided many of the foundational documents for reformed churches, including documents on the catechism, the liturgy, and church governance. (…) He also produced several confessions of faith in order to unite the churches.
By 1585, Geneva, once the wellspring of the reform movement, had become merely its symbol. Calvin had always warned against describing him as an “idol” and Geneva as a new “Jerusalem”. He encouraged people to adapt to the environments in which they found themselves. (…) Despite his differences with the Lutherans, he did not deny that they were members of the true Church. Calvin’s recognition of the need to adapt to local conditions became an important characteristic of the reformation movement as it spread across Europe.
Several leading divines, either Calvinist or those sympathetic to Calvinism, settled in England (Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr, and Jan Laski) and Scotland (John Knox). During the English Civil War, the Calvinistic Puritans produced the Westminster Confession, which became the confessional standard for Presbyterians in the English-speaking world.