The French-Swiss Christian theologian John Calvin (1504-1564) was, like Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, a major Protestant reformer. He was the founder of the so-called Calvinist mode of Protestantism, a precursor of modern Protestant Christianity not only in France but in the entire Western world. As ecclesiastical leader in Geneva for several decades, he shaped a very pious and stringent way of civic living. His theology of predestination strongly influenced religious conceptions of time in terms of human salvation.
Life and Works
Calvin was born as Jean Cauvin on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, in the Picardie region of France, as the son of an influential legal assistant to the bishop of Noyon. At the age of 14 he enrolled in the colleges De la Marche and Montaigu, both parts of the University of Paris. Though initially he intended to study theology after he had acquired basic knowledge in Latin and the liberal arts, he prevailed in his decision to study law in the central humanistic law schools Bourges and Orleans, from 1528 to 1531. In Orleans, he attained a doctoral degree. But after the death of his father, Calvin decided to give up jurisprudence and to attend the Royal College in Paris to study Greek and Hebrew languages and the history of antiquity. Here he authored his first published work, a comment on Seneca’s De clementia.
After a Lutheran speech by a friend of his whom he was said to have influenced, Calvin was forced to flee from Paris in 1533. As a matter of principle he renounced the benefices of the Catholic Church in Noyon, arranged by his father. He had to escape a second time when the king authorized the prosecution of (Zwinglian) Protestants.
Upon his arrival in Basel in 1535, the highly intellectual Calvin began to study theology, already influenced by the spirit of Renaissance humanism as embodied in the work of Desiderius Erasmus and other leaders of the Reformation: Luther, Zwingli, and Philipp Melanchthon. Calvin began to write about theology, starting with a preamble to a translation of the Bible into French by his cousin Pierre R. Olivetan. The next year, Calvin himself set out to influence the whole Protestant movement by the release of a first version of his Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutes of the Christian Religion) that, although somewhat immature, nonetheless attracted considerable attention. Within his Institutes, Calvin developed his ideas about predestination.
During 1536, the Protestant Reformer Guillaume Farel insistently asked and finally convinced Calvin to join his enterprise to encourage the Reformation in Geneva. After several months of religious teaching in the Cathedral, he became a priest and soon published a first Catechism. Because they proved to be too restrictive in their postulations in face of the governing council and in their parochial obligations to the citizens, Farel and Calvin were ejected from Geneva in 1538.
Until 1541, Calvin stayed in Strasbourg where the Reformist Martin Bucer had persuaded him to act as lecturer and preacher in a French fold. In 1540, he married the widow Idelette de Bure in defiance of the celibate habits of the clergy and published his Comment on the Letter of Paul to the Romans. In Strasbourg, he met Melanchthon.
Also in 1540, the town council invited Calvin to return to Geneva. Boosted by his meanwhile European-wide role as a major Reformist, Calvin did not accept until the council granted broad rights to him, in particular to impose his reforming but very strict constitution Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Church of Geneva in 1541. A powerful Consistory was established and soon evoked the citizens’ resistance. In the period until 1554, in which he released a second version of his Catechism, Calvin several times feared being banned again from Geneva because of his rigorously religious order. The constitution of the almighty clerical Consistory reflected Calvin’s conviction of the prior authority of the clergy over any secular governance.
Calvin left a lastingly negative impression on many admirers of the Reformation by his betrayal of the Spanish preacher Michael Servetus when he passed through Geneva on his flight from Catholic persecution. Calvin paved the way for Servetus’s conviction to death. This happened to occur in the turbulent year of 1553 when Geneva was struggling with masses of incoming religious refugees. After his election to the town council, Calvin’s predominance was stabilized definitively, leading to and in turn strengthened by a massacre under the leaders of the opposition against his theocratic regime.
During the following years, Calvin concentrated on writing comments to nearly the entire New Testament and on corresponding with the other leading Reformists. Furthermore, he founded the Genevan Academy with the intention to teach young Protestant theologians according to Calvin’s humanism and exegesis of the Bible. The Academy is considered very important in the success of the spread of the Reformation across Europe.
John Calvin died on May 27, 1564, in Geneva, after grave and chronic illness and was buried according to his own wish anonymously and without any ceremony.
The undoubted sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible are central in Calvin’s theology. Human existence arises solely from obedient belief, and humankind is ordained to live in devotion and modesty; with these principles Calvin shaped a source of Puritanism. By his appraisal of modesty and effort and in the belief that economic success shows the goodwill of God, Calvin influenced the economic motivation of Western societies to this day.
Calvin’s doctrine of predestination maintains that some people are destined for salvation whereas others are not, and there is no way to interfere with this predestination. Humility, piety, expiation, and preparation for a spiritual rebirth for the sake of achieving a good future life should dominate the present pursuit of happiness. A sober abnegation of man’s present estate is a consequence of Calvin’s theology.
See also Bible and Time; Christianity; Determinism; Last Judgment; Predestination; Predeterminism; Religions and Time
Calvin, J. (2000). Concerning the eternal predestination of God. London: James Clarke/New Impression. (Original work published 1552)
Parker, T. H. L. (2007). John Calvin: A biography. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Reyburn, H. Y. (1914). John Calvin: His life, letters, and work. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Thornton, J. F. (Ed.). (2006). John Calvin: Steward of God’s covenant: Selected writings. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Vintage Books.