THE “WHOLE SUM OF GODLINESS”
Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. His father planned a career in the church for his son, and he studied successively at the three leading universities of Orleans, Bourges, and Paris, from 1528 to 1533.
He also developed a taste for writing and by age 22, he published a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia.
He suddenly converted to Protestantism, and became the head of the evangelical party in Paris in less than a year after his conversion. For the present he remained in the Catholic Church, hoping to reform it from within.
Then word of Luther’s teaching reached France, and his life made an abrupt turn. He became marked out as a “Lutheran,” and, when persecution arose in Paris he sought refuge in Basel. Calvin was twenty-five years younger than Luther and Zwingli, and had the great advantage of building on the foundation which they had laid. (The first ten years of Calvin’s public career were contemporary with the last ten of Luther’s although the two never met personally).
Calvin and Augustine easily rank as the two outstanding systematic expounders of the Christian system since St. Paul. Melanchthon, who was himself the prince of Lutheran theologians, and who, after the death of Luther, was recognized as the “Preceptor of Germany,” called Calvin preeminently “the theologian.”
Calvin has a good knowledge of Latin, French, Greek and Hebrew.
As a 26 year old, he wrote the first edition of the book “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” which was to affect Western history. It was meant as an elementary manual about the evangelical faith. (It was later enlarged to five times the size of the original).
In The Institutes, Calvin outlined his views on the church, the sacraments, justification, Christian liberty, and political government. His unique and overarching theme is God’s sovereignty. He taught that original sin eradicated free will in people. Only by God’s initiative can anyone begin to have faith and thus experience assurance of salvation.
In this and later editions, Calvin developed the doctrines of predestination, or election. Furthermore, he argued for eternal security for the elect.
Then followed His writing, “The value of such a gift to the Reformation,” which was burnt by order of the Sorbonne at Paris. Its popularity was evidenced by the fact that edition followed edition in quick succession; it was translated into most of the languages of western Europe; it became the common text-book in the schools of the Reformed Churches.
In England the Institutes enjoyed an almost unrivaled popularity, and was used as a text book in the universities. It was soon translated into nine different European languages.
In addition to the Institutes, Calvin wrote commentaries on nearly all of the books of both the Old and New Testaments. He was beyond all question the greatest exegete of the Reformation period. As Luther was the prince of translators, so Calvin was the prince of commentators.
Harse language was used in the Institutes but none of the Protestant writings of the period were as harsh and abusive as were the Roman Catholic decrees of excommunication, anathemas, etc., which were directed against the Protestants. The Protestants were engaged in a life and death struggle with Rome.
CALVIN IN GENEVA
Nicholas Cop, a friend of Calvin was elected Rector of the University, Oct. 10, 1533, and delivered the usual inaugural oration on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, before a large assembly in the Church of the Mathurins.
This oration had been prepared by Calvin. The Sorbonne and the Parliament regarded this academic oration as a manifesto of war upon the Catholic Church, and condemned it to the flames. Calvin had to flee and his rooms were searched and his books and papers were seized by the police. Twenty-four innocent Protestants were burned alive in public places of the city from Nov. 10, 1534, untill May 5, 1535. Many more were fined, imprisoned, and tortured, and a considerable number, among them Calvin and Du Tillet, fled to Strassburg in 1536. For nearly three years Calvin wandered as a fugitive evangelist under assumed names from place to place in southern France, Switzerland, and Italy, till he reached Geneva as his final destination.
The Catholic Church worked as a mighty unit and was seeking to end the different Protestant groups which had arisen in the North. Zwingli tried to unite the Protestants against their common foe. Luther refused to co-operatedue to his different Catholic view regarding communion. Calvin, while working in Switzerland, realized the closeness of the Italian Church and he laboured to keep Protestantism together.
In Geneva, a local church leader William Farel wanted to start a newly formed Protestant church in town. He pleaded with Calvin to stay and even went as far as to swear a great oath that God would curse all Calvin’s studies unless he stayed in Geneva. Calvin’s belief in God’s election has then became theological legacy to the church.
Due to an attempt of Calvin and Farel to enforce a too severe system of discipline in Geneva, it became necessary for them to leave the city temporarily. This was two years after Calvin’s coming.
Calvin went back to Strassburg, in southwestern Germany, where he was warmly received by Bucer and the leading men of the German Reformation. He married Idellete de Bure, the widow of an Anabaptist, who brought with her two children. There he spent the next three years in quiet and useful labors as professor, pastor, and author, and came into contact with Lutheranism at first hand.
By 1541 Calvin’s reputation had spread and he wrote three more books and revised his Institutes.
During his absence from Geneva affairs reached such a crisis that it seemed that the fruits of the Reformation would be lost. Recklessness, gambling, drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, and all sorts of vice also abounded. He was urgently requested by city authorities to return. There he spent the rest of his life trying to help establish a theocratic society.
Calvin believed the church should faithfully mirror the principles laid down in Holy Scripture. In his Ecclesiastical Ordinances he argued that the New Testament taught four orders of ministry: pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. Around these, the city was organized.
In every district, elders kept an eye on spiritual affairs. If they saw that something was wrong, they would first admonished the guilty in a brotherly manner. If the behavior didn’t cease, they reported the matter to the Consistory, the church’s governing body, which would then summon the offender. Excommunication was a last resort and would remain in force until the offender repented.
Social welfare was the charge of the deacons. They were the hospital management board, social security executives, etc. The deacons were so effective, Geneva had no beggars.
The system worked so well for so many years that when John Knox visited Geneva in 1554, he wrote a friend that the city “is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.”
Through Calvin’s work Geneva became an asylum for the persecuted, and a training school for the Reformed Faith.
The Roman Catholic Francis de Sales urged the duke of Savoy, for the suppression of Geneva as the capital of what the Romish Church calls heresy, for it was the gate of France, of Italy, and of Germany. There were people of all nations — Italians, French, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, English, and of countries still more remote. It had magnificent printing establishments, by means of which the city flooded the world with its books.
Another bitter foe of Protestantism, was Philip II of Spain. And when the Duke of Alva was expected to pass near Geneva with his army, Pope Pius V asked him to turn aside and “destroy that nest of devils and apostates.”
Calvin preached, he lectured as the Old Testament professor, he took his place regularly on the Consistory and he was either on committees or being asked for advice about matters relating to the deacons.
He was in no way the ruler or dictator of Geneva. He was appointed by the city council and paid by them.
His was a moral authority, stemming from his belief that, because he proclaimed the message of the Bible, he was God’s ambassador, with divine authority behind him. As such, he was involved in much that went on in Geneva.
The famous academy of Geneva was opened in 1558. During the first year more than nine hundred students, mostly refugees from the various European countries, were enrolled. For more than two hundred years it remained the principal school of Reformed Theology and literary culture.
Calvin was the first of the Reformers to demand complete separation between Church and State. The Swiss Reformers, living in the republic at Geneva, developed a free Church in a free State, while Luther and Melanchthon, and the German Empire, taught passive obedience in politics and brought the Church under bondage to the civil authority.
EXECUTION OF MICHAEL SERVETUS
Calvin’s role in the infamous execution of Michael Servetus in 1553, then, was not an official one.
Servetus fled to Geneva to escape Catholic authorities as he had denied the Trinity, a blasphemy that merited death in the 1500s all over Europe.
Geneva authorities didn’t have any more patience with heresy than did Catholics, and with the full approval of Calvin, they put Servetus to the stake.
Far from urging that the sentence be made more severe, Calvin urged that the sword be substituted for the fire, but was overruled.
Luther and Zwingli were dead at this time and it may be questioned whether they would have approved this execution or not, although Luther and the theologians of Wittenberg had approved of death sentences for some Anabaptists in Germany and Zwingli had not objected to a death sentence against a group of six Anabaptists in Switzerland.
CALVIN IN HIS LATTER DAYS
Calvin drove himself beyond his body’s limits. When he could not walk the couple of hundred yards to church, he was carried in a chair to preach. When the doctor forbade him to go out in the winter air to the lecture room, he crowded the audience into his bedroom and gave lectures there. To those who would urge him to rest, he asked, “What? Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?”
His afflictions were intensified by opposition he sometimes faced. People tried to drown his voice by loud coughing while he preached; others fired guns outside the church. Men set their dogs on him. There were even anonymous threats against his life.
Calvin’s patience gradually wore away. Even when he was patient, he was too unsympathetic sometimes. He showed little understanding, little kindness, and certainly little humor.
However, Calvin lived and died a poor man. His house was scantily furnished, and he dressed plainly. He gave freely to those in need, but he spent little upon himself. The Council at one time gave him an overcoat as an expression of their esteem, and as a needed protection against the winter’s cold. This he accepted gratefully, but on other occasions he refused proffered financial assistance and declined to accept anything in addition to his modest salary. During his last illness the Council wished to pay for the medicines used but Calvin declined the gift, saying that he felt scruples about receiving even his ordinary salary when he could not serve.
Calvin died in the year 1564, at the early age of fifty-five. On the following night and day there was intense grief and lamentation in the whole city. Calvin had expressly forbidden all pomp at his funeral and the erection of any monument over his grave. He wished to be buried, like Moses, out of reach of idolatry.
Calvin finally wore out in 1564. But his influence has not. Outside the church, his ideas have been blamed for and credited with the rise of capitalism, individualism, and democracy.
Protestants who were executed during the reign of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands (1567-1573); the several hundred martyrs who were burned in Smithfield under the reign of bloody Mary; and the repeated wholesale persecutions of the innocent Waldenses in France and Piedmont, which cried to heaven for vengeance.
The Protestants had thrown off the yoke of Rome and in their struggle to defend themselves they were often forced to fight intolerance with intolerance. The Roman Church has lost the power, and largely also the disposition, to persecute by fire and sword.
During the eighteenth century the reign of intolerance was gradually undermined. Protestant England and Holland took the lead in extending civil and religious liberty, and the Constitution of the United States completed the theory by putting all Christian denominations on a parity before the law and guaranteeing them the full enjoyment of equal rights.
In the church, he has been a major influence on leading figures such as evangelist George Whitefield and theologian Karl Barth, as well as entire movements, such as Puritanism.
Day to day, church bodies with the names “Presbyterian” or “Reformed” (and even some Baptist groups) carry forward his legacy in local parishes all over the world.
1 The Swiss Reformation, p. 312.
2 Schaff, The Swiss Reformation, p. 322.
3 The Swiss Reformation, p. 348
4 Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 34.
5 Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 20.
6 Article, The Theology of Calvin, p. 1.
7 The Swiss Reformation, p. 330.
8 Calvin and Calvinism, pp. 8, 374.
9 Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 22.
10 Quoted by James Orr, Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 92.
11 Miscellanies, p. 406.
12 Vie de ste. Francois de Sales, par son neveu, p. 20.
13 John Calvin, The Man and His Ethics, p. 54.
14 The Swiss Reformation, p. 826.
15 John Calvin, The Man and His Ethics, p. 55.
16 History of the Swiss Reformation, II., p. 698.
17 The Creeds of Christendom, I., p. 464.
18 The Swiss Reformation, II., p. 787.
19 See Schaff, The Swiss Reformation, II., p. 778.
20 Doumergue, Article, What Ought to be Known About Calvin, in the Evangelical Quarterly, Jan. 1929.
21 Opera, VIII., p. 461.
22 Calvin’s Calvinism, p. 346.
23 Lectures on Calvinism, p. 129.
*A new edition of Calvin’s Commentaries in English has recently been published (1948) by the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids.