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John Calvin: A Brief Overview of His Life and Influence
You don’t have to attend a Presbyterian, Reformed, or evangelical church very long before you hear the name John Calvin bandied about. In fact, this stalwart hero of Christian history is honored in most protestant churches still today, five hundred years after his death. Dozens of denominations trace their spiritual lineage through this man in some way or another. In fact, in a recent Time Magazine article, the “New Calvinism” was heralded as one of the most influential movements in the world today. Period! In other words, a renewed interest in this man and his teaching is energizing the Christian movement worldwide.
This year we celebrate the 500th birthday of John Calvin. But why is this man so significant? Why is he so popular? Why is he still so influential? Hopefully this article will help you to understand more about this monumental figure in Christian history and why the present writer (a pastor myself) gravitates toward him.
John Calvin was born in Noyon France in 1509. Like most in France at that time Calvin was raised as a Roman Catholic. Displaying a sharp mind from his youth, Calvin was reared and groomed by his father to attain a career as a churchman, perhaps a priest or even bishop. Later, his father changed his mind and switched the young Calvin to the pursuit of a career in law. Calvin had many privileges as a young man, perhaps the most important of which was his formal education at the University of Paris, and the College de Montaigu among others. His acumen for intellectual precision would serve him well in his later years as a theologian, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves just yet.
During his college years, the ideas of a certain German named Martin Luther were sweeping through Europe. One generation younger than Luther, Calvin was soon swept up on the coattails of the Reformation. Of course at the time, Luther did not want to create any new “denomination,” he merely sought the restructure and purity of the existing church. It is difficult to pin down, but at some time during his university years, Calvin would become inflamed with the gospel truths put forth by Luther and his followers. In his own words, he experienced a “sudden conversion.” In a controversial moment, one of Calvin’s dear friends, Nicholas Cop was asked to give an address at the University of Paris. In the address, this bold young man took the opportunity to promote the Reformation gospel. Some suspect, due to the brilliance of the essay, that Calvin himself may have written it for him!
In any case the address was highly controversial and Calvin bolted town, feeling the heat. As you may imagine, to be counted among the “reformed” Christians was a deeply controversial thing in a profoundly Roman Catholic nation such as France. Due to political pressures, many of the Reformed sought out other havens to escape the increasing persecution. Calvin too would soon be seeking refuge elsewhere. In January of 1535, he arrived in Basel Switzerland, a safe haven.
Calvin became increasing consumed by knowing the Scriptures in a comprehensive way. No surface familiarity with Scripture would do. He needed to master them. He was driven by His love for God and His Word. He soon rose above his peers in his ability to know, understand, and articulate the Scriptures. Calvin acquired an immense knowledge of the Biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew (as well as Latin) and began penning a work that would truly become one of the most important Biblical works of theology of all time. He called it “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” At first, the Institutes were a simple book, six chapters. With parallel versions in French and Latin, Calvin’s goal was to show the world (especially the King of France to whom he addressed the preface) that the Reformers taught a biblically pure doctrine—certainly no heresy as they were often accused of propagating. It must be remembered that Calvin wrote to defend the biblical doctrine for which many of his brothers in the faith were literally dying at the stake. To isolate the Institutes from its historical context is to rob it of much of its power today.
Well, to make a long story short, the Institutes were a smashing success. Since Luther was a bold, outspoken (and often brash) man—who spent most of his time putting out the fires of controversy—Calvin neatly stepped into the role of the Reformation’s most excellent, precise, and Spirit-filled theologian. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s immediate successor and closest friend, called Calvin simply “The Theologian.” Luther himself, who never met Calvin, read one of his works on the Lord’s Supper and was deeply impressed, “This is a work that has hands and feet!” Luther boasted in rare fashion.
As with all great men, history would soon foist itself upon Calvin. Enjoying some success with his hot little book, Calvin determined to retire and live the “ivory tower” life of a professional theologian, away from the controversy and excitement of the day. His goal was to move to Strasbourg, a German protestant city. Serendipitously, Calvin was literally and physically deterred from his path to retirement and ease as a scholar. On his way, Calvin was forced to take a detour through Geneva—the armed conflict between France and the German emperor literally blocked his path. He never intended to stay, but on that night a fiery redhead named William Farel heard of Calvin’s brief stop in the equivalent of a Genevan Motel 6. Having heard of Calvin’s now famous work, Farel immediately went to Calvin’s room and proceeded to call down the fires of heaven cursing Calvin’s retirement unless he should stay in Geneva to help establish the Reformation there. Farel himself had already persuaded the city counsel in Geneva of the worth of the Reformed movement; he needed only a partner.
Because of Farel’s insistence (and not a little bit of fear from his imprecation!) Calvin agreed. Here in Geneva, he would find his most important pastoral work. He was made pastor of the Church of St. Peter. There, he worked tirelessly preaching as many as five sermons a week to the gathered people, hungry for God’s Holy Word. One might hope that Calvin could have found the peace he had longed for to work on his Biblical commentaries and the constant revisions of his burgeoning Institutes. Unfortunately, this could not be. Embroiled in a political power struggle with the City Counsel, Calvin and Farel were both soon kicked out of the very city they loved! In Easter of 1538, they were sent away.
For a couple of years, Calvin labored as a pastor to the French refuges in Strasbourg. Surprisingly in 1541, the city counsel of Geneva abruptly changed course and invited the Reformers back, admitteding the error of their ways! Famously, when Calvin returned to Geneva after his expulsion, he resumed his preaching—on the very next verse of the text in which he had left off those months ago!
Soon Calvin became increasingly more powerful in his authority as a Bible expositor. By 1559 the Institutes had reached their full potential and Calvin had now become satisfied at their final form. The once-small pamphlet had become a massive tome that encompasses over 1,300 pages of miniscule type-font in my bedside edition! Each page, of course, was stocked full of the most precise biblical exposition and application imaginable, unfolding a truly comprehensive systematic theology of the Christian faith. Calvin continued to do a few things very well: he preached, taught, instructed seminary students, helped plant churches, and of course, wrote fervently. Calvin wrote massive commentaries of nearly all of the books of the Bible. Just to get an idea: my collection of his works, when setting next to each other on a book shelf, are longer than my leg!
As for his personal life, Calvin married a widow and mother named Idelette de Bure. His bride, however, died leaving him with the step-children that he had gained through marriage. I think it interesting that the world’s most excellent theologian in the last 500 years was also a step-father! Physically, Calvin was born with a frail physique and suffered from his weak condition most of his life. Remaining portraits of Calvin present a man often gaunt and emaciated. Like most men of his era, Calvin suffered immensely with physical conditions that could not be countered by the medical technology of his day. For this reason, working through pain, his production in his writings is absolutely amazing.
As I said earlier, Calvin’s theology is nothing short of brilliant—not for its innovation, but rather for its fidelity to God’s Word. We might be able to summarize his theology accurately under four primary headings. First, as a basic presupposition, Calvin held that the Bible is the very Word of God. While we may take this for granted today, it was not at all certain among those living in the 1500’s! Church tradition, the authority of the Pope, and even “the dreams of fanatics” (a phrase he often used to deride his heretical opponents) all battled for authority against the sacred text of Scripture. He often relied heavily upon this doctrine, “Sola Scriptura,” with his many conflicts against the Roman Catholics as well as against outright heretics like Michael Servetus. If the Bible was not seen to be the Word of God, common ground would be impossible. Calvin worked tirelessly to overthrow all rivals to Scripture itself.
Secondly, Calvin was absolutely consumed by the glory of God. For Calvin, God was the supreme ruler over the entire universe. God is the creator of all things, the writer of all history, and the planner of all events. For this reason, Calvin was consumed by the providence of God as an explanation for all events, including the salvation of the soul. Calvin rightly recognized that, due to the fall of man, human beings are simply incapable of being saved by their own work or efforts. God Himself would have to intervene. God’s chosen way of intervention to redeem humanity was to become a human being Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ’s perfect life and death on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice afforded mankind the only hope of salvation by grace, through faith. Calvin insisted, as all evangelicals rightly do today, that “salvation is found in no one else; for there is no other name given under heaven among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Because of Calvin’s passion for the sovereignty of God, he firmly taught the biblical doctrine of election (or predestination) found in such Biblical texts as Ephesians one and Romans nine. This, for Calvin, was an essential that must be understood, for apart from divine grace through election, mankind was simply unable to “choose” God on his own without God intervening first, to give new birth to the heart. Salvation then, for Calvin, was entirely a matter of God’s work. True, mankind must repent and believe the gospel, this much is certain, but without God’s work through the power of the Holy Spirit to change our hearts (conversion) and give us new life (regeneration) we are simply too blind to recognize the danger of our sinful condition or the necessity of saving faith in Jesus Christ on our own. God would have to do the work of conversion!
Thirdly, Calvin placed a tremendous stress on Christian piety, or holy living. Having been redeemed by grace through faith alone, man can do no other thing that respond in joy and obedience. Having been saved, Christians ought to determine to live lives of joyful obedience and mission. The Law in the Old Testament, Calvin taught, still had three primary purposes for the believer that must be put into effect. First, the Law shows us our weaknesses. Like looking at our dirty faces in the mirror, the commands of the Scripture show us where we constantly need to repent and improve. Second, Calvin taught that the commands of the Bible (especially the Ten Commandments) show us how to live in harmony and unity as the covenant people of God. Even unbelievers ought to be restrained by the promises of a harmonized society and the dangers of punishment for disobedience! But thirdly and most importantly, Calvin stressed that the precepts of the Lord show us how we can truly live lives that please and glorify God! This, Calvin would insist, ought to be the purest motivation for Christian obedience.
A fourth primary heading of Calvin’s theology might be summarized by his ardent stress on the nature of the Church and the mandate of Christian witness in the world. For Calvin, the true Church was defined as a covenant community of believers where the Scripture are proclaimed faithfully as the authoritative Word of God, and the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rightly administered. Surprising to some who are new to Calvin’s works, his longest chapter in the Institutes is not about predestination, but rather on prayer! Yes, the Church and her people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are to be the primary vehicle by which the Kingdom of God is triumphantly proclaimed in the world. For this reason, Calvin’s successors would be ardent missionaries, planting hundreds of churches in France and beyond! Calvin urged his parishioners to live boldly together as the people of God must: bound in submission to the Word of God, yet free to live as Spirit-empowered witnesses in a broken and hurting world.
Because of Calvin’s powerful passion for the unrivaled glory of God, it is no wonder that many of his hearers would rather die for their faith in Jesus Christ than recant their newfound passion for the saving grace of God!
Calvin’s later followers would summarize his teaching in the compact acronym called “TULIP.” While Calvin himself did not invent or use this device, those who read and value his writings have held this to be a faithful representation of his work for several centuries:
Calvin left a huge legacy for us to follow as Christians in general and as pastors in particular. I will briefly summarize this legacy with the following points.
1. First of all, his literary legacy is unmatched. From his Everest-like work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, to his nearly unending series of Biblical commentaries, to his heart-felt letters, and his printed sermons, Calvin left enough Biblical teaching for a lifetime of learning. Considering the age in which he lived, the technology through which he wrote (pen and quill!) and the turmoil in which he fought, Calvin’s attention to every detail of every Greek verb is simply amazing. While reading his works are daunting and sometimes technical, one is always amazed at the way in which Calvin so clearly spoke as a tender pastor, relentlessly concerned for his people.
2. As a pastor, Calvin stands as one of the greatest of all times. I will give just a bit of evidence of this. Even though he fought valiantly on the cutting edge of theological controversy of his day, Calvin took the time to visit all of the sick and even wrote letters to the martyrs who were suffering under French rule. More than that, Calvin counseled compassionately those who were hurting and in despair, even visiting daily those who were sick or dying under his care.
3. Thirdly, Calvin’s vision for church planting was way ahead of his time. While most within the Reformation movement were concerned more with theological faithfulness, Calvin was burdened to begin as many churches as possible. Newer research is showing that more than ever before thought, Calvin’s church and academy in Geneva was responsible for literally planting hundreds of churches in France, Europe—and even one attempt as far away as Brazil! The Genevan Academy under Calvin’s tutelage continually reproduced impassioned Christ-loving pastors ready to go forth from Geneva and die for the faith.
4. Fourth, Calvin’s theology sunk into the daily lives of his hearers in an unusual way. Because of his fixation upon the glory of God, Calvin taught his followers that God must be glorified by every act of our daily lives! One example will suffice. Today, if you have a watch from Geneva (still the source of all of the very best watches, clocks, and timepieces) it is no doubt because Calvin taught his Genevan brothers 500 years ago to aspire towards excellence in all things for the glory of God.
5. Fifth, Calvin, by his very precision as a theologian, has inspired generation after generation of believers to forsake the error of “easy-believe-ism” as strive instead toward a full and rich theology of heart and mind. Some of the best scholar-theologians in history were inspired by the French Master himself; from the English Puritans to the Dutch Reformed; from the Westminster Divines to Jonathan Edwards; from John Owen of Britain to Benjamin Warfield of New Jersey; from the French Huguenots to the American Presbyterians; from pastors living today such as John Piper of Minneapolis to Mark Driscoll in Seattle—Calvin towers above them all and summons them upwards.
In the end, Calvin would probably be a little bit disturbed if not angry to hear of his followers being called “Calvinists.” I am guessing that he would have disdained that terminology. He had no desires or aspirations in this life for fame or glory and would be satisfied only that his followers were Bible-preaching, God-exalting Christians. Dying in May of 1564, Calvin’s final wishes were honored: he was buried in an unmarked grave in a simple pine box. His lasting testimony was that John the Baptist’s words be made manifest in his own life: “He must become greater; I must become less! (John 3:30).
Recommended Reading for Beginning Students of John Calvin
• John Piper, John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God. (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, 2009). A simple and very short 59-page overview of Calvin’s life and ministry by one of the most popular pastors of today.
• Christopher Elwood, Calvin for Armchair Theologians. (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.) A delightful book with some hilarious cartoons (really!) overviewing the life and ministry of Calvin. This book is a good introduction, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t sure if Elwood was really a fan of Calvin or not.
• John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, Edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne. (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House, 2004). This version is a significantly shortened version of the Institutes (thus the slightly altered title). In this condensed presentation, Lane and Osborne present Calvin’s teaching optimistically, that is, they leave out most of his more controversial teaches, especially his attacks on his opponents. For this reason, the book is a good enough sum of what he taught, while leaving out what he taught against.