Calvin was born Jean Cauvin in Noyon, Picardie, France, the second son to Gérard Cauvin and Jeanne le Franc. Calvin's father had a prosperous career as the cathedral notary and the registrar to the ecclesiastical court. His mother was the daughter of an inn-keeper from Cambrai. She died a few years after his birth.
In 1523 Gerard sent his fourteen-year-old son to the University of Paris to pursue a Latin, theological education and to flee the plague in Noyon. But when Gerard fell out of favor with the cathedral chapter, he urged Calvin to change his studies to law, and he did. By 1532, he had attained a Doctor of Laws degree at Orléans. A diligent student who excelled at his studies, Calvin was "remarkably religious" even as a young man. It is not clear when Calvin converted to Protestantism, though in the preface to his commentary on Psalms, Calvin said:
"God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.... Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off [legal] studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.His Protestant friends included Nicholas Cop, Rector at the University of Paris. In 1533 Cop gave an address "replete with Protestant ideas," and "Calvin was probably involved as the writer of that address." Cop soon found it necessary to flee Paris, as did Calvin himself a few days after. In Angoulême he sheltered with a friend, Louis du Tillet. Calvin settled for a time in Basel, where in 1536 he published the first edition of his Institutes.
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. After a number of Calvin's supporters won election to the Geneva city council, he was invited back to the city in 1540, and having negotiated concessions such as the formation of the Consistory, he returned 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 offices based on biblical injunctions:
In 1546, a faction headed by Ami Perrin, who had been behind Calvin's return to Geneva, were worried by the influx of refugees and ministers into the city, fretted that Emperor Charles V might attempt to take Geneva by force, and disliked the Consistory's strictures. Perrin was tried and acquitted of treason for allegedly planning to bring a French garrison into Geneva, and being then restored to his post as head of the Genevan militia, he played a part in the so-called Libertine opposition to Calvin a few years later.
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 strict order among the church's officers and members. Offenses ranged from propounding false doctrine to moral infractions, such as wild dancing and bawdy singing. Typical punishments were being required to attend public sermons or catechism classes. Whereas the city council had the power to wield the sword, the church courts held the authority of the keys of heaven. Therefore, the maximum punishment that the consistory could decree was excommunication, which was reversible upon the repentance of the offender. However, the officers of the church were considered to be the state's spiritual advisors in moral or doctrinal matters. Protestants in the 16th century were often subjected to the Catholic charge that they were innovators in doctrine, and that such innovation did lead inevitably to moral decay and, ultimately, the dissolution of society itself.
Calvin claimed his wish was 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 at least some 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 Consistory helped to transform Geneva into the city described by Scottish reformer John Knox as "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles." In 1559 Calvin founded the Collège de Genève as well as a hospital for the indigent.
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:
Gruet's views on religion were well known in Geneva, and he wrote verses about Calvin and the French immigrants that were "more malignant than poetic" (Audin). As Gruet had been heard threatening Calvin a few days earlier, he was arrested in connection with the anonymous placard and was tortured. He confessed to the placard and to writing various other heretical documents that were found in his house, and he was beheaded.
Calvin's acceptance of torture was in accord with the prevailing attitude of that age, and few persons of any position or religious denomination were critical of the practice, though there were exceptions such as Anton Praetorius and Calvin's former friend Sebastian Castellio. Such practices, however, have been rejected by followers of Calvin since at least the 1800s.
Calvin and the other reformers (as well as Catholics in middle Europe) also believed that they should not permit the practice of witchcraft, in accord with their understanding of passages such as Exodus 22:18 and Leviticus 20:27, and in 1545 twenty-three people were burned to death in Geneva under charges of practicing witchcraft and attempting to spread the plague over a three–year period.
The most lasting controversy of Calvin's life involves his role in the execution of Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician and theologian.
Servetus first published his views in 1531 to a wide yet unreceptive audience. He denounced the Trinity, one of the cardinal doctrines that Catholics and Protestants agreed upon. Calvin knew of these views in 1534, when he accepted Servetus' invitation to a small gathering in Paris to discuss their differences in person. For unknown reasons Servetus failed to appear.
Around 1546, Servetus initiated a correspondence with Calvin that lasted until 1548, when the exchange grew so rancorous that Calvin ended it. Each man wrote under a pen name and each tried to win the other to his own theology. Servetus even offered to come to Geneva if invited and given a guarantee of safe passage. Calvin declined to offer either. In 1546 Calvin told Farel, "[Servetus] takes it upon him to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail."
Calvin's zeal was very much the rule among civil and church authorities in 16th century Europe, above all toward Servetus' effort to spread what they deemed heresy. As early as 1533 the Spanish Inquisition had sentenced Servetus to death in absentia. Years later, in 1553, he was charged with heresy while living under an assumed name in Vienne, France. After Servetus escaped from the French prison in April 1553, the authorities there convicted and burned him in effigy.
Servetus came to Geneva in August 1553 and attended a Sunday church service with Calvin in the pulpit. He was recognized and arrested on Calvin's initiative. While Calvin also wrote the heresy charges, Geneva's city council did far more to steer Servetus' trial, sentence, and burning at the stake. Calvin asked the council for a more humane execution — beheading for civil disobedience rather than the stake for heresy — but his appeal was denied. The sentence was carried out on 27 October 1553. Servetus was burned along with every available copy of his final work, Christianismi Restitutio, only three known copies of which survived — two in Calvin's own possession.
Servetus was the only person "put to death for his religious opinions in Geneva during Calvin's lifetime, at a time when executions of this nature were a commonplace elsewhere," but an angry debate over this incident has continued to the present day. Historians have judged Calvin to be in the wrong on this issue, and later Calvinists have criticised his actions against Servetus. Although many of Calvin's detractors portray him as a man who craved power, could not abide any dissent, and is unworthy of the respect that is commonly given to him, his admirers see him as a man who sinned and failed to transcend the ethics of his time, but who is still deserving of honor because of his contributions elsewhere.
John Calvin died in Geneva on May 27, 1564. He was buried in an unmarked grave that to this day is not yet credibly identified. The traditional location is the Cimetière des Rois under a tombstone marked simply with the initials "J.C.". Beza, Calvin's successor laments the lack of recognition for Calvin's grave.. He is commemorated in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's liturgical calendar of saints as a Renewer of the Church on May 27.
While Reformers such as Jan Hus and Martin Luther may be seen as somewhat original thinkers that began a movement, Calvin was a great logician and systematizer of that movement, but not an innovator in doctrine. Unlike Luther and Melanchthon, who underwent many doctrinal changes and sometimes contradicted their previous views, Calvin held essentially the same theology from his youth to his death. He was very familiar with the writings of the early Church Fathers and the great Medieval schoolmen, and he was also in debt to earlier Reformers. Calvin did not reject the Scholastics of the Middle Ages outright but rather made use of them and reformed their thoughts in accordance with his understanding of the Bible. For example, using Anselm of Canterbury's satisfaction view of the atonement, Calvin developed and formalized the doctrine of penal substitution where Christ receives the punishment earned by the elect in their stead.
Calvin had a great commitment to the absolute sovereignty and holiness of God. Because of this, he is often associated with the doctrines of predestination and election, but it should be noted that he differed very little with the other magisterial Reformers regarding these difficult doctrines. Additionally, while the five points of Calvinism bear his name and can be seen as a reflection of his thinking, they were not articulated by him, and were actually derived from ideas debated at the Synod of Dort, which issued its judgments in response to five specific objections that arose after Calvin's time.
While Calvin's theological contributions have had a wide influence, his legacy can also be seen in other areas. For example, he placed a high premium on education of the youth of Geneva, and in 1559 he founded the Academy of Geneva, which was a model for other academies around the world and which would eventually become the University of Geneva. Calvin's thought in the area of church polity was seminal as well, giving rise to various Reformed and Presbyterian systems of church government. The Consistory of Geneva, with Calvin at its helm, was influential in sending out scores of missionaries, not only to France, but also to countries as far off as Brazil. Finally, Calvin, knowing the benefits of business, was instrumental in founding and developing the silk industry in Geneva, by which many Genevans reaped monetary benefits.
Although nearly all of Calvin's adult life was spent in Geneva (1536-38 and 1541-64), his publications spread his ideas of a properly reformed church to many parts of Europe and from there to the rest of the world. It is especially on account of his voluminous publications that he exerts such a lasting influence over Christianity and Western history.
Calvin's first published work was an edition of the Roman philosopher Seneca's De Clementia, accompanied by a commentary demonstrating a thorough knowledge of antiquity. His first theological work, the Psychopannychia, attempted to refute the doctrine of soul sleep as promulgated by Christians whom Calvin called "Anabaptists." He finished it in 1534 but, on the advice of friends, didn't publish it until 1542. The work demonstrates that since his conversion, Calvin had undertaken serious study and now showed a mastery of the Bible, and he had become, using Barth's words, a "theological Humanist" and a "biblicist" — that is, "no matter how true a teaching might be, he was not ready to lend an ear to it apart from the Word of God.
At the age of 26, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Latin title Institutio Christianae Religionis), a seminal work in Christian theology that is still read by theological students today . It was published in Latin in 1536 and in his native French in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 (Latin) and in 1560 (French). The book was written as an introductory textbook on the Protestant faith for those with some learning already and covered a broad range of theological topics from the doctrines of church and sacraments to justification by faith alone and Christian liberty, and it vigorously attacked the teachings of those Calvin considered unorthodox, particularly Roman Catholicism to which Calvin says he had been "strongly devoted" before his conversion to Protestantism. The over-arching theme of the book – and Calvin's greatest theological legacy – is the idea of God's total sovereignty, particularly in salvation and election.
Calvin also produced many volumes of commentary on most of the books of the Bible. For the Old Testament, he published commentaries for all books except the histories after Joshua (though he did publish his sermons on First Samuel) and the Wisdom literature other than the Book of Psalms. For the New Testament, he omitted only the brief second and third epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. 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 controversial matter of interpreting prophecy such as that in the Book of Daniel, Calvin was a preterist, which is to say that he believed most prophecies had already been fulfilled in history. In this view he was essentially in line with the early church and the Reformers who came before him, but he is in distinction to many of his immediate successors who took a historicist view and to many today who look a future fulfillment.
Calvin's body of letters has not received the wide readership of the Institutes and bible commentaries since his correspondence obviously addressed the particular needs and occasions of his day. Even so, the scale of his letter writing was just as prodigious as his better-known works: his letters number some 4,000, and fill eleven of Calvin's fifty-nine volumes in the Corpus Reformatorum. B. B. Warfield even calls Calvin "the great letter-writer of the Reformation age.
His letters, often written under the pseudonym Charles Despeville, concern issues ranging from disputes about local theater to raising support for fledgling churches to choosing sides in a political alliance. They also reveal personal qualities that are not evident in his exegetical prose. One example came after the massacre of the Waldensians of Provence in 1545 where 3,600 were slaughtered. Calvin was so dismayed that in a space of twenty-one days he visited Berne, Aurich, Schaffhausen, Basle, and Strasbourg, before addressing the deputies of the Cantons at the Diet of Arau, pleading everywhere for an intercession on behalf of those who survived. He wrote of his grief to William Farel:
One of Calvin's better known letters was his reply to Jacopo Sadoleto's "Letter to the Genevans, and this "Reformation Debate" remains in print today.
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