A biography of the great Genevan Reformer, John Calvin

He was small in stature, mighty in spirit; delicate of body, stalwart of soul; a refined and gentlemanly scholar, yet piercing in his speeches; a man naturally inclined withdraw from society, yet millions have sought his company and his counsel since his death; he is hated by many and loved by others; maligned, calumniated and despised by the ignorant, highly esteemed and honoured by the wise.

He wanted to be forgotten in death, having expressed dictated to be buried with no indication of a tombstone bearing his name; he only wanted his Master to shine forth, and yet he is a household name for all lovers of Bible truth. He lived and died according to his all-encompassing motto, “Soli Deo sit gloria,” - to God alone be glory. That the will of God alone might be done upon earth, through the church which His Son had redeemed, was the sole motive of Calvin’s life.

He gained a reputation of being stern and stoical, yet nothing could be furthest from the truth: God had given him a pastoral and tender heart for souls. He wept over apostasy and iniquity; his banner appropriately was, Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. (I offer you my heart, Lord, promptly and sincerely).

Romanists (and even some so-called Evangelicals!) have painted him as a tyrant, an autocrat and a heretic: history has vindicated him as a man God mastered, who feared his Maker rather than men, who is undoubtedly the greatest theologian since the days of the apostles.

Early life

Jean Cauvin was his French name, for he was born at Noyon, a city of Picardy, in France, on the tenth of July, 1509. He latinized his name to Ioannes Calvinus; we know him as John Calvin, the international reformer.

Strictly speaking he was a second generation reformer, being only a child of eight when Luther, a man of thirty-four, nailed his famous theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittemberg. Only a man of Calvin’s ability could consolidate the gains of the Reformation and give it a true sense of direction, stability, and a systematic theology, with its churches organised and functioning according to the New Testament pattern, in their beliefs, due administration of the sacraments, and godly discipline.

When only twelve years of age there was secured for him a benefice in the Chapelle de Notre Dame de la Gesine, in the Cathedral of Noyon. In 1523 the plague hit Noyon and the boy John was permitted to depart. He journeyed to Paris to further his studies. Ironically he was for a time in the same school with a Spaniard named Ignatius Layola, who was to be the founder of the Jesuits, the most cruel and unscrupulous persecutors of the Protestants in Europe and elsewhere.

In the University of Orleans Calvin studied law under a famous man named Pierre de l’Etoile, from where he took the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1533.

After the death of his father Calvin turned his mind towards the study of true religion and the spiritual comforts that arises from it. He met his cousin Robert Olivetan, who together with Wolmar, induced John to study the New Testament thoroughly. This he did, but not before publishing a learned commentary on one of the works of Seneca. It shows what an extensive knowledge the young Dr. Calvin had of the ancient Latin and Greek authors.

God taming his heart

No one is quite sure at what point Calvin experienced conversion and took his stand on the side of evangelicals. He was extremely reticent about all matters of a personal nature, but in a letter to Sadoleto, the cardinal, he wrote: “Every time that I looked within myself or raided my heart to Thee, so violent a horror overtook me that there were neither purification nor satisfactions which could in any way cure me. The more I gazed at myself the sharper were the pricks which pressed my conscience, to such a point that there remained no other solace or comfort than to deceive myself by forgetting myself....And there was one thing especially which kept me from believing these people (referring to the Protestants), that was reverence for the Church. But after I had sometimes listened and suffered being taught, I realised that any such fear that the majesty of the Church might be diminished was vain and superfluous. And when my mind had been made ready to be truly attentive I began to understand, as if someone had brought me a light, in what a mire of error I had wallowed, and had become filthy, and with how much mud and dirt I had been defiled. Being then grievously troubled and distracted, as was my duty, on account of the knowledge of the eternal death which hung over me, I judged nothing more necessary to me after having condemned with groaning and tears my past manner of life, than to give myself up and to betake myself to Thy way...”

Evidently Calvin’s wrestling with God is as intense as that of Luther. His sheer horror at the sight of his own depravity, his agitated despair at the impotence of all church-prescribed cures, his initial resistance to the newly-encountered evangelical doctrine, his fear of forsaking the church in which he grew up, his broken-hearted repentance and final submission to God, all come up in his own account.

Furthermore, in his Preface to the Psalms, he grants us another view of his own experience: “God in His secret providence finally curbed and turned me in another direction. At first, although I was so obstinately given to the superstitions of the papacy, that it was extremely difficult to drag me from the depths of the mire, yet be a sudden conversion He tamed my heart and made it teachable, this heart which for its age was excessively hardened in such matters.”

Certainly by 1st November 1533 he had espoused the evangelical cause. Because of his views he was forced to leave Paris, wandering in different parts of France. He went to Poitiers, where he formed a small congregation, then moved to Strasbourg where he was introduced to Martin Bucer. In 1535 he settled in Basle as a refugee and continued his studies.

Calvin’s conversion must be accounted as one of the most momentous events in the history of grace. God moulded him into a theologian of outstanding systematic ability, a Biblical commentator unsurpassed in spiritual penetration and hermeneutical acumen, an organiser who shaped both the civil laws of Geneva and the future course of its university, and a Reformer who moulted the tiny city sate into “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles,” according to John Knox, who tasted the goodness of its doctrine.

The very existence of the term “Calvinism,” signifying his distinctive teachings, as they were nicknamed in the early seventeenth century, testify to his world-wide influence (though he would have hated the fact of God’s truth being named after him). He gave to the church a sound and consistent theology, grounded exclusively on Holy Writ; his morals, his political and philosophical views were embedded in Scripture. His approach to science, history and culture is based on the Infallible Word.

The Institutes

When he reached Basle Calvin had already finished the first draft of his magnificent body of divinity entitled, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. What he had in mind at this stage was to present an elementary manual of doctrine, but an outbreak of persecution in France led him to prepare a clear defence of Reformation beliefs, with a formal dedication to the king of France, Francis I. It has been justly described as “the masterpiece of Protestant theology,” and yet Calvin was not quite pleased with it. Though attracting international attention with its first edition (a mere three-quarters length of the New Testament), he continued polishing it and extending its length to seventeen chapters.

He translated the second edition, which appeared in 1538, into his own native language, for the benefit of French-speaking people. The final product was the edition that came from the press of the distinguished printer, Robert Estienne of Geneva, in August 1559. The original six chapters are now a hefty seventy-nine, divided into four ‘books’ dealing respectively with “The Knowledge of God the Creator,’ “The Knowledge of God the Redeemer,” “The Way in which we receive the grace of Christ,” and “The external means or aids by which God invites us into the Society of Christ and holds us therein.”

No summarised treatment can do justice to the Institutes (cf. Istitutio, the Latin for ‘instruction’ or ‘education’). It is massive, possessing a coherence and an architectural beauty that renders it a timeless classic in Christian literature. The remarkable dynamism of Calvin’s thought is found therein, starting from the opening sentence: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Calvin’s thought became the motive force behind revolutionary changes in several European countries, and later on in the New World and elsewhere. His theology is an agenda for re-structuring culture through the Gospel of grace and at the same time a call to lift up arms against all error and iniquity. Understandably, his doctrine, wherever it penetrates, continues to leave a long-lasting imprint on society.

Though Calvin’s doctrine could hardly be censured, the king of France was adamant in retaining Romanism within his realm. “I would have my own son beheaded if he allowed these new heresies,” he vowed.

Calvin’s travels and settlement in Geneva

The dreadful Roman inquisition was once again busy against evangelical non-conformists. Calvin had no choice but to remove from his home-land and travelled under an assumed name, that of Charles d’Espeville. He departed from Ferrara in Italy, intending to settle either at Basle or Strasbourg. Owing to the fact that war had broken out again between France and Germany, he had to alter his original plan and journeyed instead through Geneva, where he thought to spend the night and move on.

But Guillaume Farel, the foremost reformer of the city, sought him at night and urged him to stay. Calvin replied: “I’m a scholar, not a minister. Besides, I’m too shy and inexperienced for such a work. I plan to devote my energies to private study and writing.”

Farel continued to press him, warning him in a loud voice: “You are following your own wishes, and I tell you in the name of God Almighty, that if you do not help us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for seeking your own interests rather than His.”

Calvin sat trembling in shocked silence, terror-struck. He feared God. Farel’s words came to him as if from a prophet of old. “I felt,” he later admitted, “as if God from on high had stretched out his hand and took hold of me.” He agreed to stay.

From that time Calvin, Farel and another man of God by the name of Viret maintained the Gospel banner in Geneva under circumstances of the greatest difficulty. The battle was not only against Romanism but also against the Libertines. The latter, the anti-Catholic, still wanted to live as they please, in amusements and pleasure of the dance, the theatre, gambling and every other sort of vice then popular in Geneva.

At the Easter Communion these Libertines, high officials of the City Council, presented themselves at the Lord’s Table and demanded that they should partake of the Sacrament. With rare courage, Calvin would not be intimated by their threats or even their weapons which they carried with them. He refused that they should profane the holy ordinance.

Reformation preaching seems to have commenced publicly in Geneva about 1530, and within five years equal liberty of worship was granted to Romanist and Protestant alike. But faithful preaching is not always acceptable, even to many who do not like the Pope. Thus it happened that at this time, due to a civic agitation, Calvin and his fellow-workers were driven into exile from Geneva. They were judged to be too strict and uncompromising.

Family life and further ministry

When Calvin was expelled from Geneva (for his faithfulness to the Word) he went to Strasbourg and published his Commentary on Romans and a small volume of Psalms in French verse.

While there he married Idelette de Bure. Sad to say their marriage, though happy, did not last long. Idelette soon became an invalid and died in 1549. He referred to her as “my excellent life-companion, who if it had been necessary would have faced with me not only exile and poverty, but even death.”

Calvin lectured in theology at the Protestant Academy but received no salary. He lived in comparative poverty on his inherited estate and the sale of his books. On occasions he travelled to take part in discussions between Protestants and Romanists: in Frankfurt, Worms, Ratisbon and other cities.

Crowds of the most learned theological students flocked to hear his sermons and lectures at Strasbourg. The reformer did not know any rest.

Meanwhile, as Romanists detected divisions in the Protestant camp in Geneva determined to win it back to the “Holy See.” Cardinal Sadoleto was chosen to undertake the task of diplomacy. Soon the Genevese discovered to no person could match this bishop in learning and adroitness of speech if not Calvin.

In 1534, the Reformed preachers were invited to return to the city and Farel preached to immense crowds of earnest listeners. The Protestants took possession of the fine cathedral of St. Pierre in Geneva, the mass of the citizens favouring the new doctrines.

On his return, the first Sunday, Calvin entered the pulpit he had previously vacated, and began to expound the Scriptures from the place he had left off . Nothing was said in bitterness, past recriminations were forgotten and the City Councillors accepted the authority of the ministers over the church.

It became apparent that Calvin was the man for the extremely difficult task. By the firmness of his mind, the strength of his character and his intrepid appeals to the Word of God, he re-established the true Christian position in Geneva, so that the church there became the ornament and glory of the age in which he lived.

Holding the fort; sending out warriors

For twenty-four years Calvin laboured in Geneva to maintain the Protestant cause. He delivered several sermons a week and lectured every day.

In 1559 he founded the Geneva Academy which attracted harassed theological students from all over Europe. Here they were trained and sent back to their own people, equipped with the whole armour of God, especially prepared to preach the gospel of pure grace.

Calvin continued to take part in the affairs of other Protestant communities, gave shelter to refugees (among them John Knox who later became the champion of the gospel in his own country of Scotland), maintained a vast correspondence with other reformers, kings and nobles, and wrote extensively. Apart from his monumental Institutes, he produced treatises and Bible commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible. He clarified the doctrine of the Reformation and placed it upon a solid and enduring foundation, going further ahead than Luther in developing the important regulative principle of worship. By this he meant that whatever is not commanded in Scripture is not to be adopted or maintained in the church.

He did more: he carefully revised Olivetan’s New Testament, and just before his home-calling, he published, with the assistance of certain other learned men, Beza and Knox amongst them, the Genevan Bible, which had an immense circulation on the Continent and in Great Britain.

Calvin’s legacy

Being the greatest thinker and soundest theologian of roughly the last two millennia, Calvin stands out conspicuously even amongst a host of brilliant men. He preached to the crowd in Geneva Cathedral, but he later gained the ear of the learned Christian people of Europe, much more than Zwingli, Luther or any other.

His work, broadly speaking, was that of underpinning afresh the foundation of the immense Christian edifice, known as the visible church. He sought to restore the Faith in its purity and integrity as it flourished in apostolic days. The success with which his ministry was crowned is remarkable indeed.

His influence from the powerhouse of Geneva went far beyond it. The French Huguenots organised themselves on a Calvinist basis. In Holland Calvinism was adopted as the state religion in 1662, and the movement advanced through Europe and reached as far as America when the Puritans settled there.

The Presbyterian and Reformed churches of today know their origin to Calvin’s ministry first and foremost. As they adhere faithfully to “sound words,” they can rightly claim to be close to the New Testament pattern. But they must not be high-minded. Like their pioneer in the field, they must rely upon the risen Christ for success, and success, let it be remembered, is not measured by the applause of the world. While Christendom at large is bringing the gospel to disrepute, it becomes us to win back men to the gospel of the sovereign God, who Calvin loved and served.

Calvin’s frail body often suffered from sickness. However he was not to be restrained. Once when he was gravely ill, a friend found he sitting up in bed and writing a letter.

“You need to rest. Put away your work.”

“What!” Calvin exclaimed. “Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”

And truly, his work - or more appropriately, his Master’s work - continues. Soli Deo sit gloria.