Jean Cauvin, better known as John Calvin, is the most influential theologian of the church since Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He may also be the most influential thinker in the modern West in terms of the impact of his ideas on civilization. He was a man of peace born into a world of upheaval. He loved quiet and seclusion and yet was destined to interact with the world’s most prominent people. Aristocratic in leanings, he yet sowed the seeds of modern democracy.
Calvin also is one of the most misunderstood figures in all of history. Even during his own era he was severely criticized, not only by Roman Catholic polemicists, such as Sadoleto, but also by rivals from various quarters, the most astringent of which was Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec, who was condemned by the Geneva council for heresy and then wrote a bitterly critical biography against his principal adversary. Today Calvin is either loved or hated. For some he is the clearest, most profound voice of sound theology of all times; for others, the most heinous and tyrannical church ruler to have lived. No one is indifferent to him.
CALVIN THE POLEMICIST
The Cauvin family lived in Noyon, a small town in Picardie dominated by the cathedral of Notre Dame. Jean’s father, Gérard, was a notary, the registrar of the ecclesiastical court. His mother, Jeanne Le Franc, was an innkeeper’s daughter, though of higher station than Gérard. Their second son, Jean, was born on July 10, 1509. Jeanne died young, in 1515, and the boys (there were three of them, and possibly a fourth, who may have died early) were brought up by their father in the typical way for the time. Life in Noyon was hard, and the boys were treated like little adults. Gérard intended his sons for the priesthood. Accordingly, John was consigned to a prominent Catholic family who took him to Paris in about 1520 to attend school. There he studied Latin and then natural and moral philosophy. In school he developed fine skills in debating and disputations and became a master of logic. His readings would have included the Scriptures, the works of Aristotle, Boethius, Pierre d’Ailly, and Euclid, and other classics at the time.
For Calvin, the Holy Spirit guides believers into a proper understanding of the Scripture, but not without the teaching ministry of the church.
In 1525 or 1526 Gérard moved young John out of theology and into civil law, which he studied at the University of Orléans. We are not entirely sure of the motives for this switch. Possibly because the Reformation was in full swing at this time, Gérard foresaw a decline in Roman Catholicism and thus guided the lad into a more promising future. After his licentiate, John presumably attained the title of doctor, meaning he could teach. He wrote his first book, De clementia, a learned commentary on Seneca’s text by this name, in which the revered Roman philosopher appeals to Nero about how to run an orderly empire. Calvin showed himself already to be a master of philosophy and the literary arts. Upon Gérard’s death in 1531, Calvin felt free to pursue theology once again. We do not know much detail about Calvin’s conversion. His most extensive description can be found in his commentary on the Psalms, where he compares himself to King David and acknowledges that out of an “abyss of mire,” God brought him “by a sudden conversion” (conversion subita) to a different frame of mind. Of the date, we can only conjecture it must have happened sometime between 1528 and 1532. Calvin goes on to compare his life with David’s, especially in his constant battles against opponents, whether within or without the church. In the fall of 1533 he found himself implicated in a scandal initiated by Nicolas Cop, rector of the university and sympathizer with the Reformation. Cop gave a speech (possibly inspired by Calvin), centering on the grace of God, in which he attacked the theologians on the Sorbonne. It was interpreted as “Lutheran” by many in Francis I’s entourage. Calvin fled Paris and began to distance himself from traditional Roman Catholicism. In 1534 pro-Reformation placards were posted throughout France, and again Calvin was implicated.
He traveled to Basel early in 1535, then to Ferrara in the spring of 1536. By August 23, 1535, Calvin had finished the first edition of his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in Latin in March of 1536. It would grow in subsequent Latin and French editions until reaching its full measure in 1559. In the summer of 1536, at the age of 26, Calvin arrived in Geneva. It was a republic surrounded on all sides and vulnerable to the duchy of Savoy, the kingdom of France, and other Swiss cantons. Geneva allied with Bern as the Reformers made a serious bid for the city in the 1530s, and on May 25, 1536, the general assembly of its citizens voted “to live by the gospel,” thus officially embracing the Reformation. Three months later, the fiery Guillaume Farel persuaded Calvin, who was taking a detour on his way to Strasbourg, to stay and help with the reformation of the city of Geneva. Calvin became a “reader in theology,” and eventually a preacher and pastor, although never ordained, as far as we know. Though he enacted a number of reforms in Genevan social life, it must not be thought that he, any more than the other Reformers, was against the authority of the church. Indeed, the Reformers had a high view of the church’s place in God’s provision. For Calvin, the Holy Spirit guides believers into a proper understanding of the Scripture, but not without the teaching ministry of the church.
Geneva renounced the Mass, destroyed its monasteries, and refused papal authority. Nevertheless, Calvin hoped for a more thorough reform. For example, he wanted each individual to subscribe to a Protestant confession of faith. In April 1538 he was banished from Geneva and ended up in Strasbourg, where he worked with Martin Bucer. His principle ideas were never in question, but in style he became more urbane and polished, and deeply concerned for the life of the church. He married a widow, Idelette de Bure, in 1540. She came with two children, and together they had a son who died very young. Idelette died in 1549, leaving Calvin a deeply bereft man.
In 1539 Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto brought a strong challenge to Geneva to return to Catholicism. Calvin replied in what is perhaps his best piece of polemical writing. Then, realizing how weak they were without a leader, the Genevan magistrates urged Calvin to return to their city, which he did in 1541. Calvin spent the rest of his life in Geneva. He led in the reform of church government, worship, and every part of the life of the city. He preached several sermons per week. He established schools and the great university of Geneva. He cared deeply for his own native land, both by writing to French churches and ministers and by protecting the Huguenot refugees who came to Geneva. Though considering the desire of the Synod of 1559 to adopt a confession of faith hasty, he helped draft much of the Gallican Confession. He wrote treatises and commentaries, and enlarged the Institutes to its final form. While never quite unopposed, his leadership was well recognized in these years. Although he became a citizen only in 1559, at his death in 1564 a large crowd assembled to pay him homage.
ENTRY TO THE INSTITUTES
This is Calvin’s most revolutionary move: beginning not with various attributes of God, but with the knowledge of God.
“One enters into the Institutes as though into a cathedral, a sort of gigantic edifice where the succession of words, paragraphs, and chapters testifies to the glory of God and the enterprise of man.” (Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography, trans. M. Wallace McDonald [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 309). This work is arguably the greatest theological treatise of all time. A systematic statement of the Christian faith, it is chiefly apologetical in the broadest sense. The first edition, in Latin, contained six chapters of eloquent, Renaissance humanism. Published in Basel in 1536, it was in part a circumstantial response to the attacks of Guillaume Budé, whose Movement from Hellenism to Christianity (1535) was a spirited assault on the Protestant Reformation, particularly, as he saw it, in its disregard for tradition and for the holiness of the Mass. Calvin the lawyer-theologian responded with a volume proving that the Reformed faith was indeed the historic Christian position. His preface, addressed to Francis I, warned the monarch against those who would fill his ears and heart with false calumnies. He asked the king to “give a hearing to our cause.”
The term institute, or institution, derives from the classical tradition of pedagogy. Thus the book was meant for education. The term also was used of popular law manuals of the time. Not unlike Plato’s Republic, the book served as a training manual in the art of living by the proper code, in this case for fallen human creatures redeemed by God’s grace. The church, the state, and indeed every area of life should be lived under the rule of Christ. The form of the first edition was close to that of Luther’s catechism—treating the law, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, and Christian liberty. When Calvin expanded the Institutes in Latin (1539) and then in French (1541), he added more material, moving away from the Lutheran pattern. Significantly, these newer editions begin with the Augustinian, and universal, question of knowledge: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. Some have argued that this is Calvin’s most revolutionary move: beginning not with various attributes of God, or with the doctrine of Scripture, or even with “my only comfort in life and in death,” but with the knowledge of God. From the treatment of God’s revelation, Calvin moves on to underscore and expand on the issues of sin, justification, Christian liberty, predestination, and church life. Other editions followed in Latin (1543, 1550) and in French (1545, 1551). The 1550–1551 versions introduce numbered paragraphs within the chapters.
The third and final complete overhaul was published in 1559, with a French translation in 1560. It was four and one-half times longer than the 1536 edition. While historians have a particular interest in the 1541 edition, because it marked such a clear statement of the Reformed faith for most of Calvin’s lifetime, the final edition contains the full riches of Calvin’s thought. Readers may be struck with its personal and pastoral character in the midst of involved theological statements. They will also take notice of the two stylistic goals Calvin set for himself: clarity and brevity.
This piece is adapted from William Edgar & K. Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics Past & Present (Vol. 2: from 1500): A Primary Source Reader (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 37–41. Used with permission of the publisher.