John Calvin (1509-1564) continues to be read and discussed because he illumines our human experience. Although inseparable from his context, Calvin's theology speaks for itself, thus identifying ways Calvin remains a living voice for those who struggle with the meaning of Christian faith.
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By George Stroup
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Historians have been frustrated in their attempts to write Calvin's biography by his reticence. He tells us little about himself. Unlike Augustine, he left no Confessions; unlike Luther, no one recorded his Table Talk. Beginning in his early twenties, Calvin wrote prolifically (his collected works in the Corpus Reformatorum comprise fifty-nine volumes). Between the publication of his first book in 1532 (when he was twenty-two) and his death in 1564, he wrote theological texts, commentaries on the Bible, sermons, catechisms, plans for church reorganization, and a large number of letters. But with the exception of some of his letters and a few comments elsewhere, he provides few insights into his personal feelings. We do not know his thoughts and feelings about his mother's death when he was very young, his father's request that he give up his studies in theology and turn to law, the excommunication of his father and older brother by the Catholic Church, or any romantic interests he may have had prior to his marriage in 1540 (when he was thirty-one). In his letters he does discuss the death of his wife, Idelette, to whom he was married for nine years, but we know few details about their relationship (except his gratitude she did not hinder his work), his thoughts and feelings on the death of his infant son, or the adultery of his sister-in-law, who lived in his home. His letters provide some insight into his feelings about his expulsion from Geneva in 1538, his struggle over whether to return there in 1541, and his victory over his political opponents in 1555, but not enough for a biographer to reconstruct the emotional life of the man behind the events. Only in a few texts does Calvin write autobiographically and even then somewhat elusively, as though he considered it inappropriate to focus on himself rather than God.
The one text in which Calvin does write about his life is the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, written in 1557 when he was forty-eight and had only seven years left to live. Not surprisingly historians have pored over this text, but with only limited results. Of particular interest is his reference to an event that happened much earlier in his life, a "sudden" or "unexpected" conversion in which God turned his hardened mind to docility and gave him a taste of what he refers to as "true piety." Unlike Augustine, he does not tell us when or where this event occurred or under what circumstances, whether it was a single, dramatic event or a gradual change in his understanding of his vocational calling.
Furthermore, the first biographies of Calvin were written by people who either revered or despised him. Soon after his death in 1564 the debate over Calvin began between those who understood him to be one of the giants in the history of Christian theology, who transformed the city of Geneva into what the Scottish theologian John Knox described as "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles," and those who viewed him as a narrow-minded bigot, legalistic and autocratic, a tyrant, who from 1536 until 1564 subjected the people of Geneva to a reign of religious terror, tolerated no dissent, and because of his role in the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553, had blood on his hands. Theodore Beza, his colleague for sixteen years in Geneva and his first biographer, wrote that "in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate," while a recent, late–twentieth-century biographer describes him as "an unhappy man, with whom it is difficult for the modern reader to feel any great bond of sympathy."
In order to better understand both Calvin and the tradition that bears his name, we cannot help searching for the "historical Calvin," even if he is maddeningly uncooperative in the quest. Although his biographers disagree about the precise dating of events, Calvin's life invites division into four periods: first, from 1509 to 1536, his birth, education, and emergence as a leader of church reform; second, from 1536 to 1538, his first attempt, with Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret, to reform the church and civic life of Geneva and their expulsion; third, from 1538 to 1541, his move to Strasbourg at Martin Bucer's invitation to serve as the minister to a French refugee congregation; and fourth, from 1541 to 1564, his return to Geneva to reform its church and civic life until his death on May 27, 1564, at the age of 54.
Childhood, Education, and Conversion (1509–1536)
Born Jean Cauvin on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, in the region of Picardy in northern France, fifty-eight miles northeast of Paris, he was twenty-five years younger than Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), eighteen years younger than Martin Bucer (1491–1551), and along with Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) and Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), a member of the "second generation" of Protestant Reformers. He was only eight years old in 1517 when Luther wrote his 95 Theses in Wittenberg.
Much of what we know about Calvin's early life comes from the first biographies written about him, and their historical accuracy is uncertain. His father, Gerard Cauvin, was born in 1454 and settled in Noyon in 1481, eventually found employment with the bishop, Charles de Hangest, and became an administrative official for the cathedral chapter of Noyon. Toward the end of his life, Gerard ran afoul of the church over financial disputes and died excommunicated in 1531. Little is known about Calvin's mother, Jeanne Le Franc, except that she died in about 1515 when Calvin was five or six and was known for her piety. Calvin had an older brother, Charles, who received holy orders but was excommunicated and died in 1537, two other brothers, Antoine and François, and two sisters, Marie and one whose name is unknown. What did Calvin look like? Beza describes him as "of moderate stature, of a pale and dark complexion, with eyes that sparkled to the moment of his death, and bespoke his great intellect."
Calvin probably began to learn Latin as a youth at the College des Capettes in Noyon. In 1521, his father obtained his first benefice or scholarship from the cathedral, which helped finance his education for the next thirteen years until he resigned them in 1534. About 1523, when he was perhaps fourteen, Calvin moved to Paris to prepare for university studies and eventually the priesthood. He may have studied for a few months at the College de La Marche with the Latin scholar Maturin Cordier (who some thirty years later Calvin would bring to teach at the academy he established in Geneva). He then moved to the College de Montaigu, which was founded in the early fourteenth century and where both Erasmus and Rabelais had been students. The school had a reputation for its strict academic life and severe living conditions. He studied what today we would describe as "liberal arts" courses, such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic.
In 1527 his father became embroiled in a dispute with the leaders of the cathedral chapter in Noyon and advised his son to change his vocational plans from the priesthood to law. That same year Calvin moved first to Orleans, where he studied with Pierre de l'Estoile, and then in 1529 to Bourges in order to study with the Italian jurist Andrea Alciati and the Greek scholar Melchior Wolmar. Calvin's legal education was not like that of modern law students. Jurisprudence was not the study of case law but a branch of humanist studies, with the emphasis on grammar, philology, and logic. In his formal education, between 1523 and 1531, Calvin learned the tools and methods of humanism, equipment that would later serve him well in Strasbourg and Geneva as a lecturer on Scripture and as a preacher and theologian.
"Humanism" here does not mean a worldview that emphasizes the human and rejects the existence of God. Late Renaissance humanism is not the "godless atheism" so frequently denounced in contemporary American politics, but a style of thinking that values classical languages such as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and the study of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and Roman figures such as Cicero and Seneca. Humanists believed that many important problems were best understood if one could recover the wisdom of the ancients. Perhaps the best known humanists in Calvin's day were Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples (1455–1536) and Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536). In the 1520s the latter published two editions of a commentary on the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca's treatise on clemency, De Clementia. In April 1532, Calvin published his own commentary on that text in an attempt to add material he believed Erasmus had neglected and in so doing establish himself as a rising star in the world of humanist scholarship. Apparently Calvin even paid for the book's publication, which turned out to be an unwise investment. The book was not a success. Although historians have combed it for clues to Calvin's theology, there is no indication in it that he had joined those committed to the reform of the Catholic Church. What is evident is that in 1532, at the age of twenty-two, Calvin was deeply influenced by the humanism of his day. William Bouwsma argues that for the rest of his life, "Calvin inhabited the Erasmian world of thought and breathed its spiritual atmosphere; he remained in major ways always a humanist of the late Renaissance."
In 1533 Calvin returned to Paris; and on November 1, All Saints Day, his friend Nicolas Cop, the new rector of the university, delivered the convocation address for the beginning of the academic year. Cop took as his text the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and argued that Christians are saved by faith and not by their works or merit, a theme identified with Luther and the emerging, controversial movement for church reform. In the furor that followed, both Cop and Calvin fled the city. Although Cop delivered the speech, a copy of it was found in Calvin's handwriting. Did he simply make a copy of the address for Cop or for himself, or did Calvin write part or all of the address? One reason biographers have been so interested in that question is that it is difficult to know precisely when Calvin left the Catholic Church and joined the movement for church reform. Once again, because of Calvin's reticence it is a difficult, perhaps impossible, question to answer.
In 1557, in his preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, Calvin described how some thirty years earlier, he began to experience true piety:
by a sudden conversion [God] subdued and made teachable a heart which, for my age, was far too hardened in such matters. Having thus received some foretaste and knowledge of true piety, I was straightway inflamed with such great desire to profit by it, that although I did not attempt to give up other studies I worked only slackly at them.
Understandably historians want to know what this "sudden conversion" was and when precisely it occurred. Was it a sudden event or simply an unexpected one? Was it a dramatic moment, like that of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus or Augustine sitting in a garden reading Romans 13:13-14, or a more gradual process of change? Was it a conversion of the mind from one way of understanding Christian faith to another, or was it not so much a change of thinking as a clarification of calling and vocation? Over the years Calvin scholars have offered various theories in response to these questions. One thing seems clear. There is a significant change between the young, humanist scholar who wrote the commentary on Seneca in 1532 and the theologian who four years later published the first edition of his Institutes. Although Bouwsma may well be correct that Calvin never left his humanism behind, still the humanist scholar of 1532 had by 1536 become a promising young theologian whose interpretation of Christian faith clearly advocated the reform of the Catholic Church.
In May 1534, Calvin returned to Noyon for the final time. His father had died in 1531, and Calvin returned to resign his benefices from the cathedral. Some of his biographers see this decision as an indication that he had decided to join the movement for reform and that his "conversion" must, therefore, have been prior to May 1534. On October 17 posters or "placards" written by Antoine Marcourt, pastor of Neuchâtel, appeared in several French cities, including the king's bedroom, protesting the Mass and the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist. A severe persecution of "the Lutheran sect" (as Francis I described it) followed, and in January 1535, Calvin fled to Basel where he wrote a preface to his cousin Pierre Robert Olivetan's French translation of the Bible, arguing that the Bible should be read and studied by all people, not just the learned. During this same period he was hard at work on the first edition of what he referred to as his "Latin catechism," the Institution of the Christian Religion, which is dated August 23, 1535, in the Preface but was not published in Basel until seven months later in March 1536.
In the same month the book was published Calvin traveled to Ferrara in Italy and then to Paris, where he settled his affairs and persuaded his brother and sister to follow him abroad. He intended to travel to Strasbourg and there resume his writing and scholarship, but because hostilities had broken out between Francis I and Charles V he was forced to take an extended detour south and east that led him to an evening's stay in Geneva. With the exception of three years in Strasbourg, what began as an evening's stay in Geneva turned into the rest of his life.
First Stay in Geneva (1536–1538)
In the same preface to his Commentary on the Psalms in which he describes his "conversion," Calvin also tells the story of what happened that evening in Geneva. Guillaume Farel, who had been in Geneva for almost four years, heard that Calvin was there and went to visit, urging him to remain and help reform the church and the city. Calvin tried to beg off, pleading that he wanted only to return to his scholarly work in Basel, but Farel insisted, telling him that God would curse him if he refused to stay and assist the cause. Remarkably, Calvin, who was not easily intimidated, reluctantly agreed.
Geneva was a city of approximately ten thousand people, which had only recently (in 1526), with the assistance of Bern, freed itself from the duchy of Savoy and its Catholic bishop, Pierre de la Baume. On May 25, 1536, the people of Geneva declared themselves to be a city of the movement for reform. It was an independent city governed by four "syndics" or magistrates, who were elected by the male citizens of the town, and a series of councils: a Petit or Little Council of twenty-five members, which met three times a week; a Council of Sixty; the Council of Two Hundred, which met monthly and elected the Petit Council; and the General Council, consisting of all male citizens, which met twice a year. This cumbersome political structure is significant because it indicates how inappropriate it is to describe Geneva during Calvin's years there as a theocracy. He was never a member of Geneva's governing councils or political parties. Most Genevans treasured their recently won political independence from Savoy and their ecclesial independence from Rome. Who would determine the structure of the church and how would the church and the city's councils sort out their respective spheres of authority in the lives of its citizens? As Calvin soon discovered these were not questions that would be answered easily or quickly or without great controversy.
Calvin was initially appointed a "reader" or lecturer on the Bible, but soon began to preach, engage in other pastoral tasks, and participate in the reorganization of the church. On November 10, 1536, Calvin and Farel submitted to the Little Council a Confession of Faith which all the citizens and inhabitants of Geneva and the subjects of the country must promise to keep and hold. It identified the church of Jesus Christ as those assemblies in which "his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept" and "his sacraments be properly administered." Furthermore, it declared that because there are always some "who hold God and his Word in contempt ... we hold the discipline of excommunication to be a thing holy and salutary among the faithful, since truly it was instituted by our Lord with good reason." Excommunication served two purposes: it protected the church from being corrupted by unrepentant sinners, and it admonished and brought to repentance those who were unrepentant.
Two months later, on January 16, 1537, Farel and Calvin presented to the Little Council their Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva, which reorganized the church around four issues. The first concerned the Lord's Supper, which the Articles urged should be celebrated every Sunday "at least as a rule"; certainly not merely two or three times a year as had been recent practice in Geneva. Because the Supper should not be "soiled and contaminated by those coming to it," the church should establish "the correction and discipline of excommunication," as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 18, by electing "certain persons of good life and witness" who would urge amendment on any person in whom they saw "any vice worthy of note" and, if rebuffed, report the offender to the ministers.
Excerpted from Calvin by George Stroup. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
2. The Knowledge of God,
3. A Lamp and a Mirror,
4. God's Good Will,
5. The Mediator as Prophet, Priest, and King,
6. The Efficacious Spirit,
7. Mother Church,
8. Calvin and His Children,
Name and Subject Index,