John Calvin was born in Noyon, near Paris, on the 10th of July 1509. His father Gerhard, was an apostolic notary and secretary to the Bishop of Noyon. John was quiet, timid and unbelievably smart and he was soon enrolled in school but the cost of his education placed too much of a strain on the meager notary’s salary and Gerhard Calvin procured the position of chaplain of a small church for his 12-year-old son. Two years after his appointment the plague swept through the small village taking with it many of the townsfolk. Gerhard Calvin trembled for the safety of his son and requested that he be allowed to complete his education in Paris while still being entitled to receive his chaplaincy allowance. The request was granted and John soon found himself at La Marche, in Paris where Mathurin Cordier, an eminent scholar, recognized Calvin’s intellectual abilities and took him under his wing, mentoring him for the duration of his time at La Marche. Cordier’s tutelage profoundly impacted Calvin’s skills as a communicator and a scholar, skills that would later make him a master of communicating the truth in the French language. Once he finished his training at La Marche he went on to Montaigu College, where he was steeped in the musty teachings of church dogma and doctrine, a far cry from his training at La Marche and an imperceptible influence that began transforming his worldview.
As the Catholic scholars of Montaigu College assessed the pale-faced and yet remarkably intelligent Calvin they forecasted that he would one day be a firm fixture in the College of Cardinals. He was on a trajectory to becoming one of the brightest theologians the Roman Church had seen but God had other plans for him.
The arrival of his cousin Olivetan in Paris proved to be the catalyst Calvin needed to recalibrate his thinking and change his course. Olivetan was a disciple of the great Protestant theologian and humanist Lefevre, believed by many to be the precursor of the French Reformation.
There are but two religions in the world” Olivetan told Calvin, “the one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is that religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God”
Olivetan quickly began to spar with Calvin, challenging his concepts of Salvation and grace and the role that the church played in the administration of both. “There are but two religions in the world” Olivetan told Calvin, “the one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is that religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God” to which Calvin retorted “ I will have none of your new doctrines! Think you that I have lived in error all my days?” But for all his vehement defense of papal dogma by day, Calvin was a man who struggled fiercely by night. Olivetan’s words cut him to the heart, causing him to question his standing before God.
Up to that point, Calvin’s entire belief system rested on the merit of his own good works but now, faced with the awful realization that his good works might not be good enough, he wrestled to find peace with God. He tried everything the church had to offer, from confession to penance, but he could find no peace. Then one day he witnessed the death of a young Protestant martyr and what struck him most was how peacefully the young man faced death. Calvin realized that the man had a peace he did not have and he asked himself “If I were to face death as they do, with the sting of papal anathema, could I do it as bravely and as peacefully as they do?” Taking Olivetan’s advice Calvin began to study the Bible for himself, hoping to find this peace. What he found there was the gospel, and it irrevocably transformed his life.
“If I were to face death as they do, with the sting of papal anathema, could I do it as bravely and as peacefully as they do?”
After completing his doctorate in law he devoted himself fully to the preaching of the gospel. He first began in the provincial town of Bourges, where he went from house to house, quietly teaching the gospel to families around their fireplaces. Bourges was in a unique position to foster the growth of Protestantism at this time. It’s sovereign was Margaret, Queen of Navarre and Duchess of Berry. Bourges was situated in the province of Berry and so came under the jurisdiction of Margaret. Margaret, like Olivetan, was a disciple of LeFevre and so, when the doctrines of Protestantism were introduced to Bourges she welcomed them with open arms and extended an equally warm welcome to Calvin when he made his way there.
While laboring at Bourges he received news that his father had died and returned at once to Noyon. His departure from Bourges most likely saved him a trip to prison but the work he had begun there was carried on by Michel Simon, a Protestant doctor.
After attending his father’s funeral in Noyon he later traveled to Paris where he continued to preach the Gospel from house to house with a small band of Protestants stationed there. While in Paris he became friends with Nicholas Cop, underground Protestant and rector of the Sorbonne, which was a stronghold of Catholicism.
In 1553 the academic year at the Sorbonne was set to open on the 1st of November and Cop was to give the inaugural oration. Calvin saw this as an opportunity to publicly preach the gospel and he suggested that Cop use the opportunity to this end. Cop was hesitant at first because he didn’t think he could write a speech that would be equal to the occasion, at which point Calvin proposed to write the speech and Cop agreed to the idea. Cop delivered the speech with gusto to an audience who was at first numb with shock and then, depending on their personal spiritual affiliations, were either enraged or delighted. At the end of the speech, Cop was denounced to the parliament which was at that time the national tribunal responsible for trying and sentencing heretics.
He chose to obey the summons, relying on the fact that he was the head of the most prominent university in Christendom as a safety net. However, while he was on his way there a friend made his way through the crowd and whispered in his ear that he was marching to his death. At this point Cop decided that it was better to be safe than sorry and escaped to Basle, effectively escaping his inevitable martyrdom in the Place de Greve.
After Cop had escaped it was whispered throughout Paris that the author of the speech, John Calvin, was still at large in the City. The authorities knew who Calvin was and realizing the potential collateral damage he could inflict on the cause of Catholicism decided to have him burned post haste. They immediately dispatched the lieutenant-criminal John Morin, who had been monitoring Calvin for a while, to apprehend him. Calvin was totally oblivious to the furor that surrounded him and was peacefully sitting in his room in the College of Fortret when a group of his friends rushed over with the news of his imminent apprehension. While they were warning him the soldiers were heard in the corridor outside. In a panic, the group dispatched one of its numbers to distract the officers while the others, grabbing the bed sheets off Calvin’s bed, tied them together and let him down onto the street below through the open window. Calvin escaped to the outskirts of the City and then eventually to the French countryside.
While in the countryside he moved from place to place finally settling for a while in Angouleme in the mansion of a wealthy French family by the name of Du Tillet. Calvin had made friends with one of the young men of the family while he was in Paris and his friend was more than happy to open his comfortable home as a refuge to the reformer. The Du Tillet mansion was home to an amazingly well-stocked library which Calvin made full use of. It is here that he began to read, research and prepare the materials for his most enduring piece of work: The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
While in Angouleme Clavin also paid a visit to the aged Protestant warrior LeFevre who lived not far from where Calvin was staying. When the visit was nearing its end LeFevre grasped Calvin’s hand and said: “Young man, you will one day be a powerful instrument in the Lord’s hands; God will make use of you to restore the kingdom of heaven in France”. The visit provided much-needed encouragement to the young reformer and much-needed inspiration to the older one.
In the aftermath of the debacle of the placards in 1534, Calvin fled France and traveled to Strasbourg and then on to Basel in 1536 where he began to write “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, a systematic presentation of the Protestant message and Calvin’s most significant contribution to Protestantism. Calvin’s work was not to create the Reformation but rather to build on the early achievements of Luther and Zwingli. Having read the work of the two early Reformers, Calvin felt that their approach was too incohesive and as a result unclear. “The Institutes” was written as an attempt to pull together the fragments of Protestantism within a single systematic framework.
Calvin is known for formulating and promoting the concept that a consistent, coherent, theological system could be derived from and defended by the bible and it was this system that he presented in “The Institutes”. One of Calvin’s visions was to create a state that was infused with the religious spirit of the church, essentially to create the ultimate ideal of a modern Theocracy through the joining together of church and state. This was perhaps one of the most significant errors that Calvin promoted and yet God used those elements of his work that advanced Biblical truth to make a deep impression on the Reformation.
Later in 1536, Calvin was passing through Geneva, a city that had recently undertaken religious reform under the guidance of Guillaume Farel, the same Farel that penned the thunderbolt of Protestant polemic that made up the placards. When Farel heard that Calvin was in town he hurried to meet him and to persuade him to stay in Geneva and help set up a new church and champion the cause of social reform in the city. Calvin was reluctant, he preferred to barricade himself in some dusty library in Strasbourg or Basel and continue his writing, but Farel, ever the firebrand, pronounced a curse on his scholarly pursuits and insisted that he stay in Geneva. Calvin heard the voice of God speaking to his soul in Farel’s rebuke and he chose to stay and help him with his work. Calvin was 27 years old when he began his work in Geneva and he labored there for 28 years, playing a key role in the spiritual, social and intellectual reform of the city.
Calvin had a rare gift for system and organization and this helped him a great deal in the work he undertook in Geneva. In addition to preaching the truth from the pulpit Calvin set himself up as a social reformer, introducing what was known as sumptuary laws that forbade swearing, gambling, dancing, partying and excessive drinking. The good citizens of Geneva didn’t quite appreciate the policing of their private lives in this manner and many of them revolted against the laws, forming a movement of resistance and calling themselves the Libertines. What ensued was a game of political tick-tack-toe to determine who, the Calvinists or the Libertines, would gain power in the city council. The Libertines seemed to gain the upper hand and in 1538 Calvin was forced to leave Geneva and head back to Strasbourg where he spent time with the reformer Martin Bucer learning about church organization. One of the primary causes that led to this revolt was the fact that religion was disassociated from morality which meant that while people were happy to hear the preaching of the truth, they preferred that it did not significantly impact the way they conducted their daily lives. In Calvin’s mind and indeed in Farel’s as well, religion and morality were inextricably linked, and grace, though free to all, was the power of God that brought transformation of life and it was around this point that the entire dispute revolved. The Libertines were not really opposed to the ideas promulgated by the reformation, what they did oppose was the proposed application of those ideas in their daily lives.
After spending almost two years in Strasbourg, Calvin was invited back to Geneva by the city council on the 20th of October 1540 and he returned with a determination to carry on and finish the work he had begun. Calvin is credited with introducing the Geneva form of church service, with prayers, a sermon and hymn singing, that make up the core of most Protestant church services today. He also established the Academy of Geneva, which trained young missionaries to take the gospel to the Papal strongholds of Europe and it was here that many of the French Huguenots received their training before being deployed as workers to France. In addition to all this, he preached five times a week, wrote a commentary on almost every book of the Bible and wrote countless articles on various theological topics. His correspondence alone fills eleven volumes. Under Calvin, Geneva displayed marked social and spiritual transformation, becoming a model city of moral uprightness and Protestant ideology in Europe. However, Calvin’s methods and approaches to implementing these changes were not free from error and there were many things he could have done better but despite his weaknesses, God used Calvin as one of the leading champions of the reformation. He crafted a more dynamic form of Protestantism than Luther and in doing so took the reformation one step further on its journey in restoring to the world the full noontide of truth, not only as an ideology but as a reality that could be seen in the transformed life of the believer.