John Calvin (July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564) was a prominent Christian theologian during the Protestant Reformation and is the namesake of the system of Christian theology called Calvinism. He was born Jean Chauvin (or Cauvin) in Noyon, Picardie, France, and French was his mother tongue; Calvin derives from the Latin version of his name, Calvinus. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, when Calvin was 8 years old.
Calvin’s father, an attorney, sent him to the University of Paris to study humanities and law. By 1532, he was a Doctor of Law at Orleans. His first published work was an edition of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s De clementia, accompanied by a thorough commentary.
In 1536, he settled in Geneva, halted in the path of an intended journey to Basel by the personal persuasion of the reformer William Farel. He would live there until his death in 1564.
John Calvin sought marriage to affirm his approval of marriage over celibacy. He asked friends to help him find a woman who was “modest, obliging, not haughty, not extravagant, patient, and solicitous for my health.” In 1539, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow of a converted Anabaptist in Strasbourg. Idelette had a son and daughter from the previous marriage. Only the daughter moved with her to Geneva. In 1542, the Calvins had a son who died after only two weeks. Idelette Calvin died in 1549. Calvin wrote that she was a helper in ministry, never stood in his way, never troubled him about her children, and had a greatness of spirit.
1 Writings by Calvin
2 The spreading of Calvinism
3 Usury and Capitalism
4 Reformed Geneva
Writings by Calvin
Calvin published several revisions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion â€” a seminal work in Christian theology that is still read today â€” in Latin in 1536 (at the age of 26) and then in his native French in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 and 1560, respectively.
He also produced many volumes of commentary on most of the books of the Bible. For the Old Testament (referring to the Protestant organization of books), he published commentaries for all books except the histories after Joshua (though he did publish his sermons on the First Samuel) and the Wisdom literature other than the Book of Psalms. For the New Testament, he omitted only the brief 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. (Some have suggested that Calvin questioned the canonicity of the Book of Revelation, but his citation of it as authoritative in his other writings casts doubt on that theory.) These commentaries, too, have proved to be of lasting value to students of the Bible, and they are still in print after over 400 years.
In the eighth volume of Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, the historian quotes Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (after whom the anti-Calvinistic movement Arminianism was named) with regard to the value of Calvin’s writings:
Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvinâ€™s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551-1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.
The spreading of Calvinism
As 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 colonised by Calvinist settlers from Nova Scotia, who were largely Black Loyalists, African Americans who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence. John Marrant had organised a congregation there under the auspices of the Huntingdon Connection.
Some of the largest Calvinist communions were started by 19th and 20th century missionaries; especially large are those in Korea and Nigeria.
Usury and Capitalism
One school of thought about Calvinism long has been that it represented a revolt against the medieval condemnation of usury, and implicitly profit, helping to set the stage for the development of capitalism in northern Europe. Such a connection was advanced in influential works by R.H. Tawney and by Max Weber.
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 dismissed the argument (based upon the writings of Aristotle) that it is wrong to charge interest for money because money itself is barren. He said that the walls and the roof of a house are barren, too, but it is permissible to charge someone for allowing him to use them. In the same way, money can be made fruitful.
He also said, though, that money should be lent to people in dire need without hope of interest.
John Calvin had been travelling to Strasbourg during the time of the Ottoman wars and passed through the cantons of Switzerland. While in Geneva William Farel asked Calvin to help him with the cause of the church. Calvin wrote of Farel’s request “I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course”. Together with Farel, Calvin attempted to institute a number of changes to the city’s governance and religious life. They drew up a catechism and a confession of faith, which they insisted all citizens must affirm. The city council refused to adopt Calvin and Farel’s creed, and in January 1538 denied them the power to excommunicate, a power they saw as critical to their work. The pair responded with a blanket denial of the Lord’s Supper to all Genevans at Easter services. For this the city council expelled them from the city. Farel travelled to NeuchÃ¢tel, Calvin to Strasbourg.
For three years Calvin served as a lecturer and pastor to a church of French Huguenots in Strasbourg. It was during his exile that Calvin married Idelette de Bure. He also came under the influence of Martin Bucer, who advocated a system of political and ecclesiastical structure along New Testament lines. He continued to follow developments in Geneva, and when Jacopo Sadoleto, a Catholic cardinal, penned an open letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the mother church, Calvin’s response on behalf of embattled Genevan Protestants helped him to regain the respect he had lost. A number of Calvin’s supporters having won election to the Geneva city council, he was invited back to the city in 1541.
Upon his return, armed with the authority to craft the institutional form of the church, Calvin began his program of reform. He established four categories of ministry, with distinct roles and powers:
Doctors held an office of theological scholarship and teaching for the edification of the people and the training of other ministers.
Pastors were to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise pastoral discipline, teaching and admonishing the people.
Deacons oversaw institutional charity, including hospitals and anti-poverty programs.
Elders were 12 laymen whose task was to serve as a kind of moral police force, mostly issuing warnings, but referring offenders to the Consistory when necessary.
Critics often look to the Consistory as the emblem of Calvin’s theocratic rule. The Consistory was an ecclesiastical court consisting of the elders and pastors, charged with maintaining order in the church and among its members. Offenses ranged from propounding false doctrine to moral infractions, such as wild dancing and bawdy singing. Typical punishments were mild–an offender might be required to attend public sermons or catechism classes. It is important to bear in mind the broader geopolitical context of this institution before passing judgment. Protestants in the 16th century were particularly vulnerable to the Catholic charge that they were innovators in doctrine, and that such innovation led inevitably to moral decay and, ultimately, the dissolution of society itself. Calvin was keen to establish the moral legitimacy of the church reformed according to his program, but also to promote the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Recently discovered documentation of Consistory proceedings shows that body’s concern for domestic life, and women in particular. For the first time men’s infidelity was punished as harshly as that of women, and the Consistory showed absolutely no tolerance for spousal abuse. The role of the Consistory was complex, and it would be an oversimplification to describe it as despotic theocracy. For good or for ill, it helped to transform Geneva into the city described by Scottish reformer John Knox as “the most perfect school of Christ.”
Calvin moved quickly and brutally to suppress Genevans who questioned his authority. The most notable episodes are the cases of Pierre Ameaux and Jacques Gruet. Calvin was reluctant to ordain Genevans, preferring to choose pastors from the stream of French immigrants pouring into the city for the express purpose of supporting Calvin’s program of reform. When Pierre Ameaux complained about this practice, Calvin took it as an attack on his authority as a minister, and he persuaded the city council to require Ameaux to walk through the town dressed in a hair shirt and begging for mercy in the public squares. Jacques Gruet sided with some of the old Genevan families, who resented the power and methods of the Consistory. He was implicated in an incident in which someone had placed a placard in one of the city’s churches, reading: “When too much has been endured revenge is taken.” Calvin consented to the torture and beheading of Gruet, who was accused of colluding in a French plot to invade the city.
In 1553, Calvin approved of the execution by burning of Michael Servetus for heresy. In 1559 Calvin founded a school for training children as well as a hospital for the indigent.
Calvin’s health began to fail when he suffered migraines, lung hemorrhages, gout and kidney stones. At times, he was carried to the pulpit. Calvin also had his detractors. He was threatened and abused. Calvin would spend his private moments on Lake Geneva and read scripture while drinking red wine. Towards the end Calvin said to his friends who were worried about his daily regimen of work, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”
John Calvin died in Geneva on May 27, 1564. He was buried in the CimetiÃ¨re des Rois under a tombstone (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pis&GRid=9979&PIgrid=9979&PIcrid=639472&PIpi=89752&pt=John+Calvin&) marked simply with the initials “J.C”, partially honoring his request that he be buried in an unknown place, without witnesses or ceremony.
Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, a comic character created by Bill Watterson, was named after John Calvin. It is thought that this reflects the young male character’s belief in predestination (as justification for his behavior), while his stuffed tiger Hobbes shares Thomas Hobbes’s dim view of human nature.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible
Other writings of Calvin at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library; includes sermons in Latin and French, “On the Christian Life,” and “On Prayer.”
The Works of John Calvin (http://www.johncalvin.com/) for purchase on CD
History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
by Philip Schaff
Bainton, Roland (1974). Women of the Reformation in England and France. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. ISBN 0807056499.
Robert M. Kingdon, “The Geneva Consistory in the Time of Calvin,” in Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620, Andrew Pettegree et al., eds. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.