John Calvin
Posted: 26 October 2010 in Religious Personalities
Tags: calvinism, protestantism, reformation
John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was born on 15 July 1509 at Noyon in Picardy, France; the son of Gérard Cauvin and his wife Jeanne le Franc. Calvin’s father intended that he should train for the priesthood, and by the age of twelve the precocious Calvin was already working as clerk to the local bishop. He subsequently came to the notice of a wealthy and influential family, and through their patronage he was enabled to receive an education in philosophy at the University of Paris. There is not much agreement about the exact date, but sometime between 1525 and 1528 Calvin’s father withdrew him from the University of Paris, and sent him first to the  University of Orléans, and then to the University of Bourges, to study law. The motive for this decision was apparently the greater monetary rewards to be had from practising law. During his time in Bourges Calvin underwent a sudden religious conversion. Little is known about the circumstances surrounding this conversion, but it was to determine the future course of Calvin’s life.

The branch of Christianity, with which Calvin’s name is now associated, is usually thought of as being one of the more conservative strands within Christianity. It is therefore all the more ironic that, from the 1530s onwards, Calvin was to gain a reputation as a dangerous radical. The year 1533 saw him return to Paris, with the intention of continuing his studies at the Collège Royal.  He there met and befriended Nicholas Cop, the newly appointed rector of the University of Paris, and a radical who was in conflict with the more conservative members of the university. In the November of 1533 Cop delivered an address calling for the reform of the Catholic Church, which sounded very much like a Protestant manifesto. The address, which was in large measure the work of Calvin, caused outrage. Cop was denounced as a heretic, and both he and Calvin were forced to flee Paris.

During the next couple of years Calvin seems to have been permanently on the move. Living under the protection of first one sympathiser, and then of another. Sometime during this period he began work on the first edition of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. He surfaced in Basel in the January of 1535, and was there reunited with Thomas Cop. The following March the first edition of his magnum opus was published, although at this stage it consisted of only six chapters.

In July he was en route for Strasbourg, when he arrived in Geneva, intending to stay for only one night. However, a fellow Frenchman, by the name of William Farel was at work in Geneva, reforming the church there. He persuaded Calvin to stay, and help carry through his programme of reform.  In January 1536 Farel and Calvin presented the city council with their proposals for reforming the Genevan church. One of the recommendations was that the citizens of Geneva be required to subscribe to a confession of faith, which had been drawn up primarily by Farel. Although the council accepted their recommendations in broad terms, they proved reluctant to enforce this last requirement, because the majority of Geneva’s population turned out not to appreciate the coercion. This led the reformers to quarrel with the city council in November, and after another disagreement, this time over the Eucharist, they were forced to leave Geneva the following Easter.

At the invitation of Martin Bucer, another hero of the reformation, Calvin arrived in Strasbourg in 1538, and there became the local church’s minister. It was also at this time that he began work on the second edition of his Institutes, and married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children.

By 1541 the council in Geneva was beginning to have second thoughts about its expulsion of Calvin. This was partly due to the fact that Calvin’s friends had been elected to the city council, partly it was the result of a service Calvin had done them, in replying to a letter sent to Geneva by a Catholic cardinal, and partly it was due to the fact that things were otherwise not going well in Geneva. At first Calvin was reluctant to return, but he was eventually persuaded into doing so by William Farel and others. One of the conditions Calvin laid down for his return was that the church be allowed to govern its own affairs without interference from the city council, and an ecclesiastical court called the consistory was duly established.

As if to demonstrate that it was not only the Catholic Inquisition which was capable of executing people for holding heretical views, Calvin’s second stay in Geneva was to see him approve the execution of the Spanish theologian Michael Servetus. Servetus had published his first work, in which he denied the doctrine of the Trinity, in 1531. By the end of 1553 he had been arrested on charges of heresy, had escaped from prison, and been sentenced to death in his absence by the Inquisition.

Following an earlier correspondence with him, Servetus should have been under no illusion that, just for once, Calvin was in full agreement with the Catholic authorities, and he too thought Servetus ought to be executed. And yet, in January 1554, Michael Servetus incomprehensibly arrived in Geneva. He was soon recognised, put on trial, sentenced to death, and burnt at the stake outside of Geneva. Calvin had requested that he be beheaded rather than burned, but for this he was subsequently chided by one of his colleagues for his “leniency” in not wanting to see Servetus burned alive.

One of the thing’s Calvin’s Geneva is remembered for is its role in sheltering English Protestants during the reign of Mary I; otherwise known as bloody Mary because of the amount of Protestant blood she spilled. Amongst those exiles were John Knox and William Whittingham, who between them were to export Calvinism to the British Isles. During his stay in Geneva, Whittingham was to marry Calvin’s sister, and begin work on an English translation of the Bible, later to become known as the Geneva Bible.

Calvin saw the third and final edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion through the presses in 1559, and he died on 27 May 1564 following a long illness.


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