JOHN CALVIN:
THEOLOGIAN OF THE REFORMATION


John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in the town of Noyon in Northern France. As a child, though physically frail, he was not only morally upright but strict in all his duties and appointments, particularly of religious observances. When he was 12 years old, his father Gerald Calvin, who was the secretary to the bishop, managed to persuade the bishop to appoint his son as a chaplain in a small church. Obviously this was a paper position obtained through taking advantage of the corrupt practices common in the church then, but Calvin was paid for it, and it helped pay for his education.


Calvin in France


In 1523, a terrible plague forced most of the priests in Noyon to flee, and Calvin upon his father’s instruction left for Paris to study classics and Latin. This was obviously to prepare him for the priesthood. Providentially, the books of Martin Luther, who had left Wartburg Castle two years earlier, were beginning to arrive at Paris. Calvin was therefore just in time to have his first taste of Protestant theology. Thus a Roman Catholic historian remarked: “Flying from one pestilence, he caught another.” However, Calvin was still steep in Roman Catholicism, and were it not for the Lord’s intervention, he would unlikely have been influenced by the Protestant theology. He was still an unbeliever, and he was studying deeper and deeper into the Roman Catholic doctrines and traditions. It was said that when Calvin was in Paris, there was always a light shining out of Calvin’s windows—deep into the night. It would appear that Calvin hardly slept!


This Lord’s intervention came by way of one of his cousins by the name of Olivetan, who had earlier been convicted of Protestant theology, and had many friendly debates with Calvin. The effect was that Calvin began to doubt the doctrines which he had always believed. He began to examine the validity of the Protestant theology more carefully. Perhaps there was some truth in what they were teaching. But spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and Calvin was still hardened in unbelief. The Lord must intervene again.


Around 1528, Calvin’s father quarrelled with the Bishop, and so he instructed Calvin to leave Paris to study law at Orleans instead. Surely, this is again by the sovereign providence of God. If you have read Calvin’s writings, you will not fail to notice his keen sense of logic and polemics. Could it be that the Lord used this short deviation to law to train Calvin’s mind? But a keen mind without a heart constrained by God’s Word is not enough.


By the Lord’s providence, one day, as Calvin was passing by Paris, he saw the martyrdom of some of the early French Protestants. As he beheld these men enduring the flames, he was impressed with their faith. He said to himself: “these men had peace I do not possess,” and asked himself how he would die under such circumstances. Awakened out of his complacency, Calvin took the advice of his cousin and began to read the Scriptures. That night as he searched the Scriptures into the morning, Calvin experienced a sudden conversion. Years later, he would testify: “My father had intended me for theology from my childhood days… then changing his mind he send me to learning law… until God at last turned my course in another direction by the secret rein of His providence. By a sudden conversion He tamed to teachableness a mind so stubborn for its years, for I was so strongly devoted to the superstitions of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from the depths of mire.”


Returning to Orleans, Calvin’s heart was no longer in law but in Christ. Having received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, Calvin was inflamed with an intense desire to make progress in it. Although he did not leave off other studies, he began to pursue them with less ardour. Before the year was up, he had made so much progress in theology that many who desired purer doctrine were coming to him for counsel. Remarkably, even with less effort, he made such advances in his law studies that he was occasionally called to supply the place of professors. He was considered a doctor rather than a student.


Subsequently, Calvin left Orleans to Bourges where he studied Greek and Hebrew, though still in pursuit of a legal career. Bourges had already came under the influence of Protestant doctrines, and as Calvin’s views were already known before his arrival, he was asked by some Protestants there to be their leader. Calvin at first did not agree as he felt unfit to the greatness of the work, but later under the influence of his Greek professor, he began to preach the Gospel in the surrounding villages and from house to house. Calvin was barely 20 years old.


Two years later, after a prolonged illness, Calvin’s father passed away. Calvin was now free to give up his law career to pursue theology. He headed back to Paris and there, in 1532, published his first book in beautiful Latin: a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementi. This work was an appeal for mercy on behalf of the Protestants who were persecuted, banished, imprisoned and martyred. The next year, Calvin’s close friend, Nicolas Cop, was appointed Rector of the University. Calvin, apparently helped him to draft his inaugural address, which he delivered on November 1, 1533. The message was very evangelical and contained an attack on the old system. When the King of France, Francis I, heard about it, he immediately ordered the arrest of the ‘heretics.’


Cop fled to his father’s house in Basel. Calvin was said to have been lowered down through a window like the Apostle Paul, and escaped. He headed for Orleans, more than 250 miles south of Paris. After wandering for weeks, he arrived at Angouleme. There he found refuge in the home of a certain Louis Du Tillet, a wealthy man with a library of 4,000 volumes. This was where Calvin first begun to collect materials and planned for the greatest book of the Reformation,The Institute of the Christian Religion. Surely the higher hand of God is evident.


That same year, Calvin headed north to Poitiers. There a group of Protestants, including the chief magistrate, gathered around him to discuss the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. Essentially, for two months, Calvin became the pastor of this group. At first they met in a garden, but afterwards they met in a cave near the river for greater safety. The cave became known as Calvin’s Grotto to this day.


Towards the end of the year, however, Calvin and his student and friend Louis du Tillet began to feel that their lives would be in danger if they continued to remain in France, and so they fled to Strasburg, Germany, and then to Basel in Switzerland. Had they stayed a few weeks longer, they could have suffered martyrdom in the hand of King Francis I, who was angered by some radical Protestants who had put up placards condemning the Mass. Many faithful Protestants were tortured and burned alive by the king. Calvin did not simply thank God that he was safe and remained apathetic. He was moved to vindicate the martyrs against French government’s propaganda that they were guilty of sedition and treason. For this purpose, he began with all earnestness to complete the Institutes, and to prepare it for publication. He began to write in January, 1535, and in seven months, he completed the book. By March the next year, the first edition of the Institutes was published. The work was based on the Apostles’ Creed and was aimed at showing that Protestants were thoroughly loyal to the Creed and thus could not be regarded as heretic. Although much smaller than the final edition of 80 chapters, the first edition of 6 chapters was the first really systematic exposition of Reformed theology. As a presentation of Christian doctrine it has never been surpassed. Calvin was just 26 years of age.


Calvin in Geneva


Shortly after the publication of the Institutes, Calvin decided to head for Strasburg where he intended to retire to a life of peaceful scholarship. The most direct route from Basel was, however, shut up because of war and he had to detour to Geneva, Switzerland. There, despite having resolved not to stay any longer than a single night, he stopped by to visit William Farel, a French reformer, 26 years older than him, who was already at work in Geneva. Farel had read the Institute and felt strongly that Calvin ought to stay there to help him in the work of Reformation. Calvin protested that he wanted to retire to some quiet solitude for personal study. Thereupon, Farel, with great vehemence, told Calvin that God would curse his retirement and peace if he did not remain to help in the work in Geneva. Calvin was so taken aback by this “dreadful imprecation,” that he felt as it were that God had from heaven laid His mighty hand upon him to arrest him. He must have felt like Jonah, and with fear and trembling decided then to stay.


Farel and Calvin were powerful preachers. They insisted that the church must live according to the demands of the Scriptures. The people should not be hearers only, but doers also. To bring this about they introduced strict discipline, including debarring from the Lord’s Supper anyone without a credible profession of faith. Soon a group of people called the Libertines who resented Calvin’s teachings and frequently abused him verbally, incited the Genevan government against Farel and Calvin, and both of them were forced to leave without trial. It looked like the Reformation work in Geneva was to end in a shameful failure, but God had other plans.


Calvin in Strasburg


From Geneva, Calvin made his way to Strasburg in Germany where he was determined once again to live in a private station, free from the burden and cares of any public charge. But there he met Martin Bucer who, according to Calvin, employed a similar kind of remonstrance and protestation as that to which Farel had employed before, to challenge him to be the pastor of the French refugees.


Happily, the next three years were to be the happiest ones for Calvin. In addition to being pastor, he was also appointed professor of theology by the town council. He preached four times a week and taught daily from the book of Romans and John. These were transcribed and later became part of the Calvin’s commentaries set. The church at Strasburg was a very discipline one. He had 400–500 members and he trained deacons to assist him in the pastoral duties. He also converted many Anabaptists who yielded to having their infants baptised.


It was also in Strasburg, that Calvin finally found his bride. In a letter to Farel, Calvin revealed what kind of wife he was looking for: “I am not one of those insane lovers who embrace even the vices of those they are in love with, when they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure. The only beauty that allures me is this—that she is chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient, and likely to take care of my health.” In 1540 Calvin married Idelette de Bure, the widow of an Anabaptist. Calvin found in her “the excellent companion of my life, the ever faithful assistant of my ministry and a rare woman.”


Meanwhile, in Geneva, the moral standards of the society had sadly deteriorated. Moreover, a Roman Catholic counter-attack was launched through a certain Cardinal Sadoleto. Sadoleto wrote to try to win the Genevans back to the Roman fold, and there was no one to reply to him. The city council had no recourse but to request Calvin to help. Calvin agreed and wrote such a devastating demolition of Sadoleto’s eloquent arguments that the Genevan government, sensing that Calvin was the only one who could deliver Geneva from her moral and civil disorders, pleaded with him to return.


At first Calvin refused. He felt unequal to the difficulties which awaited him in Geneva, and said “there is no place in the world that I fear more.” Nevertheless, after many private letters urging him to return, Calvin, determined to please the Lord, eventually agreed.


Calvin in Geneva Again


On September 13, 1541, Calvin was welcomed back to Geneva again. The first thing that he did was to call the people to a service at the Cathedral to confess their sins. Then he immediately demanded that the Genevan church be set right according to biblical principles. This would have been difficult to sustain had it not been for the negative experience of the people. Calvin remained in Geneva, for the rest of the 22 years of his life. Under Calvin, Geneva became the first European city ever to be organised so thoroughly for religious purposes.


There, despite all the difficulties that he faced, his life continued to be as productive as when he first came to know the Lord. In addition to his heavy writing load, Calvin also had heavy pastoral duties. He preached regularly and often. At first he preached twice on the Lord’s Day and three times during the week, but from 1549, he preached from the OT on every week day at 6 am, every other week; and every Lord’s Day he preached from the NT in the morning; and Psalms in the afternoons. It was said that he preached, on this schedule, some 4,000 sermons in addition to routine pastoral duties. Calvin also wrote commentaries and tracts; and compiled a Psalter, and still found time to correspond extensively with Reformers all over Europe. In addition, he established the Academy of Geneva which later developed into the University. Through this academy Calvin taught more than 900 young men from all over Europe, including John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism.


By the middle of the 16th century, Calvin had become the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation and all who became convinced of the Reformation looked to him for instruction and guidance. Calvin may rightly be called not only the theologian of the Reformation, but the ‘father’ of the Reformed faith. Under him, the Church was not only reformed in doctrine but in practice as well. The motto:Sola Scriptura, which Luther also subscribed to but never really implemented in the area of worship, was scrupulously applied to reform the manner of worship of the church. Only what is sanctioned in the Word of God was allowed (not as what Luther had taught: that what is not forbidden is allowed). The worship of the Church was thus returned to New Testament simplicity and purity.


Sadly, Calvin was ever in poor health in the midst of his heavy schedule. He was a victim of headache, dyspepsia, and insomnia, yet he never spared himself for the sake of the Gospel. He died on May 27, 1564, completely worn out, at a comparatively young age of 55. According to his wishes, he was buried very simply with no stone to mark his grave at all.


Calvin’s theology centred on the sovereignty of God in every area of life, no matter how insignificant it may appear. He taught, more than others, that our salvation is solely and wholly through the grace of God ministered to us by the Holy Spirit. Such knowledge must surely humble us to the dust, and cause us to want to serve the Lord with all our heart and soul. Our lives are bought with a price; there is no valid excuse for slothfulness in the service of the Lord. This is the basis of Calvin’s life motto: prompte et sincere in opere domini (promptly and sincerely in the work of the Lord). It is said that Calvin did not like to waste a single minute of his time. Even at his death bed, when his friends pleaded with him to refrain from his labours, Calvin retorted: “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?” John Calvin’s work is done. Surely he was received by the Lord with those beautiful words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of the Lord.” What about us? May the last words of Calvin about his service for the Lord put us,—who call ourselves Calvinists or Reformed,—to shame for our sloth; and may it stir our hearts to serve the Lord with greater zeal and love for His sake:

Alas, the will I have had, and the zeal, if it can be called that, have been so cold and sluggish that I feel deficient in everything and everywhere. If it were not for [God’s] infinite goodness, all the affection I have had [from Him] would be nothing but smoke. Truly, even the grace of forgiveness He has given me only renders me all the more guilty, so that only recourse can be this, that being the Father of mercy, He will show Himself the father of so miserable a sinner.


J.J. Lim