John Calvin

The French Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) is best known for his doctrine of predestination and his theocratic view of the state.

John Calvin was born at Noyon in Picardy on July 10, 1509. He was the second son of Gérard Cauvin, who was secretary to the bishop of Noyon and fiscal procurator for the province. The family name was spelled several ways, but John showed preference while still a young man for "Calvin."

An ecclesiastical career was chosen for John, and at the age of 12, through his father's influence, he received a small benefice, a chaplaincy in the Cathedral of Noyon. Two years later, in August 1523, he went to Paris in the company of the noble Hangest family. He entered the Collègedela Marche at the University of Paris, where he soon became highly skilled in Latin. Subsequently he attended the Collège de Montaigu, where the humanist Erasmus had studied before him and where the Catholic reformer Ignatius of Loyola would study after him. Calvin remained in the profoundly ecclesiastical environment of this college until 1528. Then at the behest of his father he moved to Orléans to study law. He devoted himself assiduously to this field, drawing from it the clarity, logic, and precision that would later be the distinguishing marks of his theology.

In 1531, armed with his bachelor of laws degree, Calvin returned to Paris and took up the study of classical literature. At this time Martin Luther's ideas concerning salvation by faith alone were circulating in the city, and Calvin was affected by the new Protestant notions and by pleas for Church reform. He became a friend of Nicholas Cop, who, upon becoming rector of the university in 1533, made an inaugural speech which immediately branded him as a heretic. Calvin suffered the penalties of guilt by association and would certainly have been arrested had he not been warned to flee. In January 1534 he hastily left Paris and went to Angoulême, where he began work on his theological masterpiece, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Several turbulent months later, after a secret journey and two brief periods of arrest, Calvin was forced to flee from France when King Francis I instituted a general persecution of heretics. In December 1534 he found his way to Basel, where Cop had gone before him.

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Calvin's Theology

Sometime during his last 3 years in France, Calvin experienced what he called his sudden conversion and mentally parted company with Rome. He proceeded to develop his theological position and in 1536 to expound it in the most severe, logical, and terrifying book of all Protestantism, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin followed this first Latin edition with an enlarged version in 1539 and a French translation in 1540, a book that has been called a masterpiece of French prose. The reformer continued to revise and develop the Institutes until his death.

Its theme is the majesty of God. There is an unbridgeable chasm between man and his maker. Man is thoroughly corrupt, so base that it is unthinkable that he could lift a finger to participate in his own salvation. God is glorious and magnificent beyond man's highest capacity to comprehend; He is both omnipotent and omniscient, and He has, merely by His knowing, foreordained all things that ever will come to pass. Man is helpless in the face of God's will. He is predestined either to eternal glory or eternal damnation, and he can do nothing, even if he is the best of saints in his fellow's eyes, to alter the intention of God. To suggest that he could would be to imply that the Creator did not fore-know precisely and thus diminish His majesty. To Calvin there could be no greater sacrilege. This doctrine of predestination did not originate with Calvin, but no one ever expressed it more clearly and uncompromisingly. He did not flinch from the terrible consequences of God's omniscience.

To those few whom God has chosen to save, He has granted the precious gift of faith, which is undeserved. All are unworthy of salvation, and most are damned because God's justice demands it. But God is infinitely merciful as well as just, and it is this mercy, freely given, that opens the door to heaven for the elect.

Calvin knew that this doctrine was terrifying, that it seemed to make God hateful and arbitrary, but he submitted that human reason is too feeble to scrutinize or judge the will of God. The Creator's decision on who shall be damned is immutable. No purgatory exists to cleanse man of his sins and prepare him for heaven. Yet Calvin counsels prayer, even though it will not change God's will, because prayer too is decreed and men must worship even though they may be among the damned. The prayer should be simple, and all elaborate ceremony should be rejected. The Catholic Mass is sacrilegious, because the priest claims that in it he changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Calvin held that Christ is present whenever believers gather prayer-fully, but in spirit only and not because of any act undertaken by priests, who have no special powers and are in no way different from other Christians. There are only two Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Like Luther, Calvin rejects all other "sacraments" as not based on Holy Scripture.

Calvin makes a distinction between the visible Church and the true Church. The former is composed of those who participate in the Sacraments and profess their faith in Christ; the latter, invisible and unknown to all save God, is the community of the elect—dead, living, and yet unborn. One must belong to the visible Church in order to be saved, but belonging to it is no guarantee of salvation. Church and state are both ordained by God. The task of the former is to teach and prescribe faith and morals, while the latter preserves order and enforces the laws set forth by the Church. There is no separation of Church and state. Both must work in harmony to preserve the word of God, and to this end the state is enjoined to use force if necessary to suppress false teachings, such as Catholicism, Anabaptism, or Lutheranism.

That these ideas, particularly with their cornerstone of predestination, soon conquered much of the Christian world is baffling at first examination. But Calvin's followers were encouraged by hope of election rather than enervated by fear of damnation. It seems to be an essential part of human nature to see oneself as just, and Calvin himself, while he firmly maintained that no one is certain of salvation, always acted with confidence and trust in his own election.

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Geneva Reformer

While publication of the Institutes was in progress, Calvin made preparations to leave his homeland permanently. He returned briefly to France early in 1536 to settle personal business, then set out for Strasbourg. Because of the war between France and the Holy Roman Empire, he was forced to take a circuitous route which brought him to Geneva. He intended to continue on to Strasbourg but was persuaded to remain by Guillaume Farel, who had begun a Protestant movement in Geneva. Except for one brief interruption he spent the remaining years of his life in Geneva, spreading the word of God as he understood it and creating a theocratic state unique in the annals of Christendom.

In 1537 Calvin was elected to the preaching office by the city fathers, who had thrown off obedience to Rome along with their old political ruler, the Duke of Savoy. A council, now operating as the government, issued decrees in July 1537 against all manifestations of Catholicism as well as all forms of immorality. Rosaries and relics were banished along with adulterers. Gamblers were punished and so were people who wore improper, that is, luxurious, clothing. The austere hand of Calvin was behind these regulations.

The new rules were too severe for many citizens, and in February 1538 a combination of Libertines (freedom lovers) and suppressed Catholics captured a majority of the council. This body then banished Calvin and Farel; Calvin went to Strasbourg and Farel to Neuchâtel, where he remained for the rest of his life.

At Strasbourg, Calvin ministered to a small congregation of French Protestants and in 1540 married Idelette de Bure. She bore him one child, who died in infancy, and she herself died in 1549. While Calvin was establishing himself at Strasbourg, things were going badly for the new Protestantism in Geneva. Strong pressure was being exerted on the council from within and without the city to return to Catholicism. Fearing that they might be removed from office and disgusted with the trend toward flagrant immorality among the citizenry, the councilors revoked the ban on Calvin on May 1, 1541. A deputation was sent immediately to Strasbourg to persuade the reformer to return, and he did so reluctantly, on Sept. 13, 1541, after being promised total cooperation in restoring discipline.

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Rule of God

The law of a Christian state, according to Calvin, is the Bible. The task of the clergy is to interpret and teach that law, while the task of the state is to enforce it. Under this principle, while the clergy, including Calvin, were not civil magistrates, they held enormous authority over the government and all aspects of civil as well as religious life.

Immediately on his return to Geneva, Calvin set about organizing the Reformed Church. On Jan. 2, 1542, the city council ratified the Ordonnances ecclésiastiques, the new regulations governing the Church, formulated by a committee led by Calvin. The Ordonnances divided the ministry into four categories: pastors, teachers, lay elders, and deacons. The pastors governed the Church and trained aspirants to the ministry. No one could preach henceforth in Geneva without permission of the pastors.

The conduct of all citizens was examined and regulated by a consistory of 5 pastors and 12 lay elders elected by the council. The consistory had the right to visit every family annually and search its home; to summon any citizen before it; to excommunicate, which meant virtually automatic banishment from the city by the council; to force attendance at weekly sermons; to prohibit gambling, drunkenness, dancing, profane songs, and immodest dress; and to forbid all forms of the theater. The colors of clothing, hair styles, and amounts of food permissible at the table were regulated. It was forbidden to name children after saints, and it was a criminal offense to speak ill of Calvin or the rest of the clergy. The press was severely censored, with writings judged to be immoral and books devoted to Catholicism or other false teaching forbidden. Punishment for first offenses was usually a fine and for repetition of minor crimes, banishment. Fornication was punishable by exile, and adultery, blasphemy, and idolatry by death. Education, which Calvin regarded as inseparable from religion, was very carefully regulated, and new schools were established. Charity was placed under municipal administration to eliminate begging. Thus the whole life of Geneva was placed under a rigid discipline and a single Church from which no deviation was permitted.

The consistory and the city council worked hand in hand in enforcing the laws, but the moving spirit of all was Calvin, who acted as a virtual dictator from 1541 until his death. Calvin did not look the part of a dictator. He was a small, thin, and fragile man with an unsmiling ruthless austerity in his face. He was pale under a black beard and a high forehead. A poet would perhaps see these physical details as signs of enormous, orderly intellect and of little human warmth or appetite—a being all mind and spirit with almost no body at all. There were some ugly moments in theocratic Geneva. During these years 58 people were executed and 76 banished in order to preserve morals and discipline. Like most men of his century, the reformer was convinced that believing wrongly about God was so heinous a crime that not even death could expiate it.

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Last Years

The last years of Calvin's life were spent in elaborating Geneva's laws, writing controversial works against spiritual enemies, and laboring prodigiously on the theology of the Institutes. Geneva became a model of discipline, order and cleanliness, the admiration of all who visited there.

Men trained to the ministry by Calvin carried his doctrines to every corner of Europe. The reformer lived to see his followers growing in numbers in the Netherlands, Scotland, Germany, and even France, the homeland he had been forced to leave. The impetus he gave to austerity, frugality, and hard, uncomplaining work may have had some influence in forming a capitalist mentality devoted to the acquisition but not the enjoyment of wealth. In any case his teachings have been carried to the present day and live on in the churches which descended from him, modified from their early severity by time but still vigorous in some of the more puritan aspects of modern life.

On May 27, 1564, after a long illness Calvin died. He left an indelible mark on the Christian world.

Further Reading on John Calvin

Calvin's clarity of expression makes him readily intelligible to the layman. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles and edited by John T. McNeill (2 vols., 1960), provides an excellent introduction to the man and his work. Of the many biographies in English, two of the best are Williston Walker, John Calvin (1906), and Georgia Harkness, John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics (1931). For a thorough treatment of Calvin's teachings see John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (1954).

There are many studies of the Reformation. Among those written from the Protestant viewpoint are James Mackinnon, Calvin and the Reformation (1936), and Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1952). Those with Catholic emphasis are Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation (1957; rev. ed. 1960); Henry Daniel-Rops, The Protestant Reformation (trans. 1961), which contains a large section on Calvin; and Christopher Dawson, The Dividing of Christendom (1965). See also Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500-1650 (1954; with rev. bibl. 1965), and Geoffrey R. Elton, Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 (1964). William J. Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin, 1300-1564 (1957), is a popular history of the period.