John Calvin Biography and What did John Calvin do?


Who was John Calvin? What did John Calvin do? Information about John Calvin biography, life story, theology, works and reforms.

John Calvin; French theologian and reformer. He was born at Noyon, Picardy, France, on July 10, 1509. He was the fourth son of GĂ©rard Cauvin, notary and secretary to the chapter of. Noyon Cathedral, and his wife Jeanne, daughter of Jean LeFranc, a retired Cambrai innkeeper resident in Noyon. John’s mother, reputed to have been pious and beautiful, died when he was a small child, and his father remarried. Two of his three elder brothers died very young; the other, Charles, became a cleric of Noyon but died excommunicate in 1537. His one younger brother, Antoine, and one of his two half-sisters, Marie, adopted the Protestant faith of Calvin and followed him to Geneva. Calvin Latinized the family name as Calvinus; it was thereafter written in French as Calvin.

Early Life and Education.

As a boy Calvin had good educational opportunities. He was a school companion of the sons of noblemen of the de Hangest family, relatives of the bishop of Noyon, Charles de Hangest. Tutored in the house of Adrien de Hangest, he became a warm friend of the latter’s son Claude, later an abbot at Noyon, to whom Calvin dedicated his first book. With others of this connection he attended the Collège des Capettes, a boys’ school in Noyon. GĂ©rard Cauvin planned to have his brilliant son enter the priesthood. From his twelfth year the boy was aided by a succession of small ecclesiastical benefices without duties attached. At the age of 14, in the company of three de Hangest boys and their tutor, he went to the University of Paris (1523).

He enrolled in the Collège de la Marche. There he was attracted and stimulated by the distinguished Latinist Mathurin Cordier, who was to spend the last years of his long life at the reformer’s side in Geneva. Calvin soon moved to the more celebrated Collège de Montaigu. NoĂ«l Beda, the former head of this school, continued to teach in it and exercised a powerful conservative influence on the faculty of theology in the Sorbonne, which two years earlier under his leadership had condemned Luther. From Beda’s classes in logic Calvin learned the art of argumentation, but he turned away from Beda’s anxious conservatism in theology.

 John Calvin

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Calvin was a highly gifted and exceptionally hard-working student whose associates were somewhat senior to him and men of outstanding talent. His admiring biographer and successor, Theodorus Beza (ThĂ©odore de Bèze), states that he was a severe critic of the faults of his fellow students, but the legend that for his censoriousness he was called the “Accusative Case” cannot be traced earlier than 1633. Despite his undoubted austerity, his friends were numerous and select, and probably few of his fellow students had a more remarkable circle of trusted friends, to some of whom he remained loyal even after religious separation.


Early in 1528 he received the master of arts degree. Instead of continuing in theology, he began the study of law at OrlĂ©ans, where Pierre de l’Étoile, one of the greatest of French jurists, was teaching. The change of plan was dictated by Calvin’s father, who had become involved in a dispute with the cathedral chapter where he was employed. He desired for his son the rewards of a legal career, and Calvin, aged 18 at the time, dutifully obeyed and pursued the study of law with distinguished success. At the same time he began to learn Greek under Melchior Wolmar, a German of Lutheran inclination, and the interests of the new humanism dominated his study. When the Italian humanistic interpreter of the law Andrea Alciati was appointed to the faculty of Bourges, Calvin was among those who traveled from OrlĂ©ans to hear him. But when Alciati unfairly assailed de l’Étoile, Calvin, in a preface he wrote for a book by his friend Nicolas Ducheniin, defended and lauded the OrlĂ©ans scholar.

It is likely that Calvin never inwardly committed himself to the law as a career, and the death of his father in May 1531 left him free to make his own choice. He completed the doctorate in law but afterward devoted himself ardently to the language and literature courses of the newly appointed royal lecturers in Paris. In this environment he published (April 1632) his first independent book, a commentary on Seneca’s De dementia. This work showed a mature familiarity with classical authors, both Latin and Greek. While it resembled in method his later commentaries on the books of Scripture, it made exceedingly little use of the Bible. The view that it was intended to induce King Francis I of France to exercise “clemency” toward the Protestants seems to be an inference from Calvin’s later attitudes. The Seneca commentary yields the impression of a somewhat detached moral humanism, admiring Stoicism but showing a preference for Christianity. It was written in polished Latin, but since it had little application to current issues, it received almost no notice.


Calvin’s life was soon to take a new direction, in an experience that, in an introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms written in 1557, he speaks of as a “sudden conversion” :

Since I was more stubbornly addicted to the superstitions of the Papacy than to be easily drawn out of so deep a mire, God subdued my heart—too stubborn for my age—to docility by a sudden conversion.

The change is simply ascribed to God, and nothing of the circumstances is given. Other sources indicate some of the possibilities and identify some of the personalities whose influence helped to transform the young humanist into an ardent and uncompromising Protestant.

Calvin had had ample opportunity to learn about the religious issues of the age and to observe their growing intensity in France. He had moved in circles of the younger scholars and clerics, disciples and admirers of Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, who had anticipated some of Luther’s doctrines and had been forced to leave Paris when Luther was condemned there. His young followers had hoped, with the favor of Margaret of Angouleme, the King’s sister, to institute a process of reform in the French church. Margaret had been censured by the Sorbonne, but Nicolas Cop, a friend and confidant of Calvin, chosen rector of the university for the term beginning in the autumn of 1533, had won for the Princess a favorable vote in the other faculties. On November 1, Cop delivered as his rectorial address an attack on the censors of the Sorbonne, in which were incorporated passages from Erasmus and Luther. It is unlikely that Calvin, as has been sometimes claimed, had written Cop’s oration, but his known association with Cop exposed him to prosecution. Cop and his abettors were at once forced to flee. This incident marked the failure of the party of Lefevre’s followers and Margaret’s defenders to get a hearing, much less to defeat the Sorbonne. The hopelessness of the cause of reform by the party of tolerant Christian humanism was now apparent, and the incident may well have had a profound effect on Calvin’s mind.

Taking flight from Paris, Calvin spent a period in Angouleme, where he had access to an ample library and the company of scholarly clerics. Early in April 1534 he visited the aged Lefevre, who was at Nerac under the protection of Margaret. Following this conference Calvin crossed the country to Noyon and there resigned his benefices (May 4, 1534), an act that signalized his breach with the unreformed clergy. The “sudden ^conversion” should probably be connected with this chain of events and dated not long before or after his visit to Lefevre.


Calvin had repudiated the papacy and wholeheartedly committed himself to the cause of the zealous minority of persecuted evangelicals. He was now 25 and had 30 years to live. At first he had no thought of public leadership, craving rather the opportunity to read and think, and he seems to have accepted himself as a timid man. Yet he could not be silent. Those who knew of his views thronged to inquire about “the purer doctrine.” Short periods in Paris, Poitiers, Angouleme, and Orleans brought him no escape for the concentrated study he most desired. Ardent prefaces written at this time for the French Bible translation made by his cousin Pierre Robert Olivier, known as Olivetan, for the Waldenses testify to his new scriptural faith, fiarly in 1535 he was in Basel, city of printers and asylum for scholars; and there, in March 1536, appeared the first edition of his Institutio religionis christianae (Institutes of the Christian Religion), written in Latin for scholarly readers in all lands. Its twofold purpose he describes in the eloquent dedication to Francis I:

First, to vindicate from undeserved insult my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord, and secondly, since the same sufferings threatened many pitiable men, that some sorrow and care for these should move foreign peoples.

Before the book was off the press its author was in Italy visiting RenĂ©e, the Duchess of Ferrara, a French princess who was temporarily protecting religious refugees, and who was to come permanently under Calvin’s influence. He soon returned to Paris, and there he made a settlement of the family inheritance. He set out for Strasbourg, planning to resume his writing tasks, but the war between Francis I and Charles V compelled him to detour through Geneva, and there, suddenly and much against his inclination, he was enlisted in the public leadership of the Reformation.

Influence of Farel.

The agent of this fresh change of Calvin’s plan of life was Guillaume Farel, a pupil of Lefèvre, more ardent even than his master and one who had left the influence of the Zwinglian Reformation. With the support of powerful elements in Bern, he had aggressively led an evangelical mission in the French-speaking districts then in the process of becoming attached to Switzerland, and he had won striking success in Geneva. That city had long been engaged in a struggle for independence from the dukes of Savoy and the bishops who relied upon their favor. The bishop of Geneva had taken flight, and the efforts of Savoy to restore him were successfully resisted. During this conflict, Farel had entered Geneva and preached so effectively that by August 1535 the churches had been secured for evangelical preaching. In the following May, the assembled citizens pledged themselves to abandon idolatry, to maintain a school for all children, and to live according to the Word of God. It was two months later, in July 1536, that John Calvin arrived. Farel, in need of help, called upon the traveler at his lodging and laid upon his conscience the work of reform in Geneva with such compelling urgency and spiritual threats that Calvin dared not refuse. It was, said Calvin long afterward, as if God from on high had reached forth His hand. By September, having brought his books from Basel, he began to lecture in the Cathedral of St. Pierre on the Epistles of St. Paul. He was at first designated professor of sacred letters and soon became a member of the group of ministers,! though by what procedure is uncertain.

The following January 16 the Little Council, the city’s chief governing body, adopted a set of articles for the reform of religion prepared by Calvin and Farel. In order to prevent profanation of the Eucharist by the participation of scandalous offenders, “certain persons of good life and repute” were to be appointed to supervise discipline. The document also proposed the use of a short confession of faith and of a little book of instruction (Instruction in Faith, 1537), the training of children in psalm-singing, and a commission on marriages. In these provisions many characteristics of later Calvinism are evident.

Resistance to the discipline, and an attempt by those in Bern to impose certain Bernese rites in Geneva, brought on a crisis in April 1538 that forced Calvin and Farel to leave the city. Some months later Calvin was induced to serve the French refugee colony in Strasbourg. In a fruitful three-year period there he organized the French congregation, taught in Johannes Sturm’s famous school, lectured in theology, and published numerous writings, including a liturgy that became the basis of Calvinist worship and a little book of French psalms with tunes. He accompanied his friend Martin Bucer, the Strasbourg reformer, at three conferences of Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians (1540-1541). In August 1540 he married Idelette de Bure ( d. 1549), widow of Jean Stordeur, a refugee from Liège. She had two children by her former husband; Calvin’s only child died in infancy.

Leader of the Geneva Church.

In Geneva the situation was unstable. When Jacopo Cardinal Sadoleto endeavored by a persuasive letter to bring the city back to the Roman obedience, it was to Calvin that the Genevese turned to secure an effective reply to the cardinal (1539). The magistrates of that city now urgently requested Calvin to return and resume his work. “There is no place under heaven that I am more afraid of,” he wrote, but a year after the first invitation he finally acquiesced. On Sept. 13, 1541, he was welcomed back to the city, to spend there, as it proved, the rest of his life.

The Ecclesiastical Ordinances of November 1541, prepared by Calvin and revised by the Little Council, erected a system of discipline, preaching, worship, and instruction, with a ministry of pastors, teachers ( doctors ), elders, and deacons. The elders and ministers were joined in the consistory, which met weekly as a court of discipline. All cases involving serious penalties, however, went to the council. Calvin had no officially assigned place in the consistory; ordinarily one of the four syndics (chief magistrates) presided there. Yet Calvin’s personal eminence and constant activity made him the leader, and ultimately the master, of the Geneva church, and to a large degree of the city itself.

The discipline of offenders began with “amicable” and “fraternal” admonition. Yet it was watchful and severe, and all ranks were subjected to it. The city’s many sumptuary laws and moral regulations, enacted in pre-Reformation decades and intensified shortly before Calvin first came, were now elaborated and rigidly enforced. Such offences as gambling, drunkenness, and even dancing and singing flippant songs drew grave penalties. Citizens of easy morals and free opinions strongly resented this dicipline, and opposition to Calvin grew, making his position far from secure. He was often insulted and often expected dismissal or physical harm as he survived crisis after crisis, continually preaching, lecturing, writing, and contending, often angrily and harshly, with his opponents. He also encouraged the burning of witches. Only in 1555 did he attain a permanent victory. The battles were fought in the consistory and the council and in the annual elections that were a feature of the city’s life. Calvin took no direct part in the political government and used no police protection, yet his success was partly due to political changes, since at this time a great influx of refugees, mostly French-speaking and already Calvinist tby persuasion, had become a considerable factor in the voting citizenship.

The victims of Calvin’s purposeful leadership included many eminent men. The humanist Sebastianus Castellio, schoolmaster, was refused admission to the ministry for what were then very startling views of the Song of Solomon. The struggle ended in Castellio’s departure with a letter of recommendation for his former service and a complaint of his handling of the Bible. Jacques Gruet was beheaded for blasphemy, treason, and a threat to the ministers. Jerome Bolsec, a physician who assailed Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, was banished. His Life of Calvin (1577) became the source of many defamatory misstatements. One heretic, the renowned Spanish anti-Trinitarian, Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake (1553). He had clashed with Calvin long before, written against him, and engaged in controversial correspondence with him. He came to Geneva when Calvin’s position seemed weak. Calvin had indicated earlier that if Servetus should come there he would do what he could to prevent his getting away alive. Servetus was brought to trial, during which Calvin sought the penalty of death by the sword rather than the flames; the council, however, ruled otherwise. The incident moved Castellio to write a notable treatise against persecution, but Calvin defended the death penalty for heresy, and thereafter always wrote of Servetus and his doctrines with loathing. There was perhaps no spot in Europe where Servetus would have been safe, yet Calvin’s reputation justly suffers from his part in the affair.

The defeat of powerful opponents of the policy of admitting the refugees to citizenship left Geneva virtually under Calvin’s sway (1555). The consistory became more independent of the councils. The laws became more exacting. Free elections were maintained, but political authority was more centralized in the Little Council. The repressive aspects of the regime were balanced by great attention to education. From 1558 the Academy of Geneva became a nursery of Calvin* ism, sending alumni to all parts of Europe.


Until his health failed Calvin occasionally played games or took short excursions for recreation, and despite his intensity and hot temper (the “wild beast,” he called this defect), he could be a genial companion. In his forties he was assailed by a series of painful diseases that increasingly sapped his vitality. He toiled on with all his strength writing commentaries, treatises, and pamphlets and corresponding with rulers, bishops, ministers, students, and troubled men and women everywhere, all the while giving detailed attention to the people and church of Geneva. He continually enlarged the Institutes; the final Latin edition (1559) is nearly five times the bulk of the original of 1536. His works in Latin and in translations were widely circulated and highly influential during and after his lifetime. He died in Geneva on May 27, 1564.


Calvin’s theology rests closely upon the Bible and is everywhere supported by scriptural evidence. It has been charged that he relied almost exclusively upon the Old Testament. But this is widely erroneous, as is shown, for example, by the preponderance of New Testament references in the Institutes. According to a meticulous count made by F. L. Battles, these number 4,330 as against only 2,474 references to the Old Testament. Calvin habitually thinks of the superiority of the New Testament over the Old; yet undoubtedly he did at times employ arguments drawn from a primitive stage of the Hebrew religion.

Calvin frequently explains passages by viewing revelation as a progressive process or by supposing that the sacred writer is accommodating his words to an audience not yet illuminated by the Gospel. He sometimes writes in grateful wonder of the grace of God toward undeserving men. But in Calvin’s view the characteristic idea of God is of awe-inspiring majesty and sovereignty. God is in the spendor of the stars, in all events of history, in every experience of every man.

By the dread decree (decretum horrible) of predestination, He appoints to each soul eternal happiness or woe. Calvin is here indebted to Augustine and to certain 14th century Augustinians.

His doctrine of the church may be described as antipapal catholicity. He stresses the universality of the visible as well as of the invisible church and warns of the sin of willful schism. He cooperated with Bucer and with Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich and corresponded with the English archbishops Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker in support of ecumenical aims. The triumph of the Lutheran opponents of Melanchthon cut off his relations with official Lutheranism. His doctrine of the Eucharist, in contrast with that of transubstantiation as well as that which prevailed in Lutheranism, lays stress on the real presence spiritually appropriated by the worshiper through a mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit. Important in the eucharistic experience are mystical union with Christ and the sense of corporate communion.

His permission to charge interest on money, despite the Old Testament prohibition, was qualified by extraordinary safeguards against oppressive greed. In government he favored a representative system stabilized by an element of aristocracy, and he sought to establish fruitful interaction of church and state. He exercised a ministry of personal counseling both directly and by letter. He did much to develop psalmody and the training of the young in church singing.

Calvin takes high rank as a writer in both Latin and French. His 1541 version of the Institutes is a landmark in early modern French prose. His style in descriptions of God’s handiwork in creation glows with eloquence, and in general he treats theological themes with unusual clarity.


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