The Protestant Reformation

John Calvin

Biographical details

Birth and Youth

Born in 1509 in Noyon, France

Destined for Theology, then Law, by his father. Having been well schooled in the humanists and the classics, his first published work was a commentary on the book On Clemency, by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca.

Sometime around 1533 he underwent a conversion and became known for his Protestant beliefs. He was influential in the giving of a Protestant-tinged lecture by his friend Nicholas Cop in 1533, which caused Cop and Calvin to be accused of heresy, and after the Affair of the Placards in 1534, he left town. By 1536, he found himself leaving France to avoid further persecution.

In 1536 he also published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was a brief statement of the Protestant faith (much smaller than the final 1559 edition), and was accompanied by a bold preface addressed to King Francis I of France. This ruler, who figures so prominently in Reformation history but whom we don't have time to study, had a sister devoted first to the humanist and later to the Protestant cause. She was Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, a truly noble name in church history. Calvin might have believed that someday Francis would come over to the side of the Gospel. But it was not to be. Nevertheless, the book catapulted Calvin into public consciousness both as a thinker and as a French reformer.

His Program in Geneva

The beginnings

Calvin arrived in Geneva "accidentally" -- he was headed for Strasbourg and had to take the long way around because of war-closed roads. It was July, 1536.

William Farel, the Protestant minister in recently-Protestant Geneva (according to Britannica, a town of 10,000 at this time), visited Calvin as he passed through town. He became convinced that Calvin was the man he needed in Geneva to consolidate the fledgling Reformed movement there. He threatened Calvin with God's judgment if he ignored God's leading in the matter. Geneva at this time beset with political and religious difficulties. It was only in February of that year that the "syndics," or councilmen, were elected that were fully supporters of Farel's program. But the job was too large for him alone.

Calvin reluctantly agreed to stay. Within a short time he had devised Articles Concerning the Government of the Church. According to Hillerbrand, these articles "proposed a systematic discipline among all the citizens; a confession of faith on the part of all, because only 'worthy members' of the church could participate in the Lord's Supper; a thorough instruction in the fundamentals of faith to prepare the young for the confession and for a useful Christian citizenship; the singing of Psalms as an embellishment of the divine service; and the establishment of a civil commision to judge matrimonial questoins according to the word of God" (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 269).

We should note the differences between Calvin's belief's here and those of the Anabaptists. Calvin believed in church discipline -- there were certain marks which a Christian should have, and those who flagrantly violate these should be excommunicated. Here he differs from both the Lutherans and the Anabaptists: from the Lutherans because he believes, like the Anabaptists, that the church should have outward marks of godliness; from the Anabaptists in that he not-so-subtly hints that the unrepentant man or woman can and should come under the eye of the magistrate. The end result would be, if possible, a Christian society in which everybody outwardly conforms to the truth, and inwardly the maximum number of people are encouraged to believe savingly in Jesus Christ. For instance, in Calvin's system, if a citizen is excluded from the Lord's Supper, he is not thereby excused from mandatory attendance at the sermons, because he must continue to be instructed if he is to repent of his wayward lifestyle.

Another important difference in Calvin's thinking versus the Lutherans was his strict insistence that the church was to govern itself without any interference from the state. It was all fine if the government approved of what the church was doing, but they were certainly to have no veto power or any influence on the ministers, other than in the maintenance of normal lawful functions.

Calvin wrote the first Genevan Catechism at this time, for instructing the youth of the city.

It wasn't Calvin's theology that got the reformers in trouble. His and Farel's program for the discipline of the community was too much for the city. He and Farel encountered great resistance from the community and the city council, and the two men were forced to leave town in 1538, after only two years of effort. Calvin made his way to Strasbourg where he had been headed in the first place.


Here Calvin was under the influence of Martin Bucer, the master Reformer of south Germany, who inclined to Zwinglian (i.e. Reformed) views rather than the Lutheran style. The government there was especially tolerant for that time period. For a while the Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Catholic parties all coexisted in this district.

Calvin's theology did not change in Strasbourg, but he learned many things from rubbing shoulders with other major figures of the Reformation. He achieved the life of study he so desired, he pastored the French-speaking Protestants in the city, and he attended theological conferences where he met such people as Melanchthon. It was the good life, the life he had desired above all others. But his concern for Geneva continued, and he now believed he had a duty to go back if possible. When Cardinal Sadoleto wrote a book to the citizens of Geneva extolling the Catholic way and inviting Geneva to come back to the fold, Calvin was asked to write a reply, even though still exiled. His reply was published and gained him further attention in Geneva. It was "highly commended by Luther" (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 274).

In August 1540 Calvin married a widow, Idelette de Bure. Her first husband had been an Anabaptist but was converted to Reformed Christianity by Calvin's persuasion. She only lived until March 1549, and their only child died in infancy.


On September 13, 1541, Calvin, having been invited back, entered Geneva, his residence for the rest of his life.

He established a church order in Geneva over the next twenty years, not without serious opposition, especially for the first ten years. He never held a government office, but became the most powerful figure in the city.

His church had four offices: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. New pastors were elected by the existing pastors after approval of the candidates by the government. This last feature was due to Calvin's doctrine that no church leader should ever be installed without the consent of the people. Of course, since "the people" were synonymous with "the citizens," a government review by the elected representative officials was able to function as a congregational review. Thus the clear mixing of the two, even though Calvin insisted on church independence.

The most notorious feature of the Genevan church, at least to its modern detractors, was the consistory, made up of the elders and ministers. This body met once a week to deal with questions of church discipline. "Citizens guilty of opposition to the accepted doctrine, or absence from church services, and of conduct unbecoming Christians were summoned to appear before that body for admonition, reprimande, and correction. In serious cases involving civil jurisdiction and penalties, the accused were turned over to the councils for judgment and punishment" (Hillerbrand, p. 279).

In 1551, the council banished Jerome Bolsec, who had repeatedly attacked Calvin's doctrine of predestination. This controversy, according to Hillerbrand, led Calvin to emphasize the doctrine more than he had been accustomed to. The doctrine was the heritage of all Protestantism (Luther was more Calvinistic than Calvin on this matter), but dissenting voices were beginning to be heard.

Without question, the most notorious event in all of Calvin's time in Geneva was the burning of Michael Servetus, the anti-Trinitarian. He was already condemned in Catholic lands, and had escaped. He had known Calvin 20 years before, and for some reason came to Geneva, even though Calvin had warned him not to. He was recognized and arrested. He was held for some time while other Protestant leaders were consulted. They all agreed that he should receive the death sentence because of his well-known writings against the Trinity. Calvin agreed, even though he recommended another sentence besides burning. Servetus was burned on October 26, 1553, one of the few burnings conducted by Protestants in all the Reformation.

The effect in Geneva was to dramatically increase Calvin's prestige and power. Most political opposition ceased after this time. The effect on history was quite the opposite. Many voices, including Calvin's former pupil, the liberal Sebastian Castellio, condemned Calvin across Europe. Among the proto-Enlightenment thinkers over the next two hundred years, Calvin's name blackened for this act. Nothing demonstrated the superiority of freedom more than this one execution, which was thought to show that even the most enlightened Protestants would stop at nothing if they gained power. The Anabaptists, of course, were not impressed either.

Geneva went on to many great achievements under Calvin. Perhaps the most interesting fact, from our English-speaking perspective, is its role in the English Reformation. When Edward VI died and Queen Mary took the throne in England in 1553 (see next lesson), English Protestant leaders had to flee the country or be burned. Many of the best of them arrived in Geneva, where over the next five years they produced the Geneva Bible, the first really standard English version. Not only did their Bible translation become the standard for the next 75 years, but their theology was carefully refined under the tutelage of Calvin. When the exiles returned to England after Mary's five year reign, they became leaders in various reform efforts in England and Scotland. John Knox, father of Scottish Presbyterianism, was one of these. His comment on Geneva: "The most perfect school of Christ since the days of the Apostles."

Geneva became a scholarly powerhouse. The Geneva Academy was founded, refugees from Europe expanded the scholarly atmosphere, book publishing flourished. The watchmaking trade began late in that century.

Calvin himself died in 1564. As requested, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

His Theology

Calvin's theology was a full-orbed one. It did not consist of the "five points of Calvinism" or any other slogan. He was possibly the greatest Protestant theologian, but his mighty powers were exercised in defending the whole doctrine of the Bible rather than simply a narrow view of predestination. In fact, he was as powerful a Bible commentator as he was a theologian, if not more so. His commentaries are some of the few from the pre-Enlightenment period that modern scholars, liberal and conservative, still benefit from.

His Institutes are a timeless classic that I believe every Christian should attempt to read. Far from being some ivory tower speculations, they are down to earth and powerfully gripping explanations of basic Bible doctrines. In fact, rather than exalting logic to some high position, as Calvinists are often accused of doing, we find Calvin time and again refusing to go beyond the clear teachings of Scripture. His chapter on the Trinity (100 pages) is a miniature masterpiece.

Of course, as we have seen, we do not agree with all his positions. Great as he was, we believe his blind spots are especially in his embracing the Constantinian vision of the established state church with its persecution of heretics, the one true church encompassing all in the community, a now discredited view, with its illegitimate child, infant baptism. But let's not be blind to the oneness of all true theology. What is true in Calvin -- and there is much -- we should embrace. Nor should we be fooled by prejudice or labels. We must investigate him for ourselves and let the clear air of good teaching into our minds.

His Influence

Calvin's influence -- how can that be described in a simple Web page? We have already seen, or guessed for ourselves, his powerful influence on theology. When we divide the early Protestant church into Lutheran and Reformed, we should remember that the great thinker and organizer of the Reformed church was Calvin. When we realize that most later evangelicalism was simply refinements of Reformed theology, we should recognize that we are all indebted to him.

Nor does it stop with theology. Many scholars hold that Calvin and Calvinism were powerful agents in the rise of republican government. With their emphasis on representative bodies - boards of elders - spread throughout Northern Europe, Calvinists became change agents to overthrow the divine right of kings. Not that this was their original intention. But often our influence goes beyond our original design. Generations of people were on the move to create a new society in Northern Europe, a society which culminated in the United States Constitution, with its deep distrust of human nature, its division of powers and its provision for the rightful and orderly succession of rulers.

What about economics? Again, a popular theory holds that Protestants, especially Calvinists of the Dutch, Scottish and English varieties, were the players in the rise of modern capitalism. With the "Protestant work ethic," capitalism thrived in northern Europe, generally rolling over all competing theories either by its superior worth, or simply by the economic power generated by the type of people subscribing to a Calvinist view of work and man. Even when the original religious and theological vision of Calvin was long lost, as it was in men like the Unitarian New England Yankees, the spirit of hard work and duty lived on for hundreds of years. Not until Marxism was a theory found to be as powerful as the Protestant-inspired capitalistic view.

Of course Calvin did not teach or intend these things. But Biblical truth, once discovered and taught, is powerful. It does not just loose the soul from bondage to sin, it also reopens the mind to the exploration of that original dominion mandate that was given in the Garden. Paradoxically, the version of Christianity which is the most supernatural in that it gives all glory and power to God and leaves none to men, is also the version that unleashed the most powerful, sustained, mastery of the world and its knowledge, that has been seen yet on the earth.

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Copyright © 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.