John Calvin

John Calvin

1. John Calvin was born in Noyon, about sixty miles northeast of Paris, on July 10, 1509. In his youth, John enjoyed the friendship of the powerful noble family of Hangest, a friendship which provided him a familiarity with the ways of polite society which few of the reformers enjoyed. Through his father’s influence, John received the income from certain ecclesiastical posts in and near Noyon, though he was never ordained into the Roman priesthood. This, however, provided Calvin with the means to enter the University of Paris in 1523, where he enjoyed the remarkable instruction in Latin given by Mathurin Cordier (1479-1564), to whom Calvin owes the foundation of his brilliant literary style. He then pursued his arts course at the semi-monastic College de Mantaigu, where he was trained in Aristotelian philosophy and nominalist logic, possibly by the Scottish theologian John Major (1470-1550), and graduated with a master of arts in 1528. He then went to the University of Orleans where he began to study Greek and Hebrew, and where humanistic interests strongly attracted him. He took his licentiate in law, and the proceeded to the College de France.

2. At some point between the spring of 1532 and the spring of 1534, Calvin experienced what he later called a “sudden conversion”. Of its circumstances nothing is known for certain, but at its center was the conviction that God, in his secret providence, had turned Calvin’s course in a new direction and was teaching his hardened heart. Religion thereafter held first place in Calvin’s thoughts. Whether Calvin even thought of breaking with the Roman church is doubtful. He was still a member of the humanistic circle in Paris, of which Roussel and his intimate friend Nicholas Cop were leaders. On November 1, 1533, Cop delivered an inaugural address as newly elected rector of the University of Paris, in which he pleaded for reform, using language borrowed from Erasmus and Luther. The commotion which this aroused was great, and King Francis proceeded action against these “Lutherans”. Cop and Calvin had to seek safety, which Calvin found in the home of a friend, Louis du Tillet, in Angouleme. Calvin’s sense of the necessity of separation from the older communion was now rapidly developing. France was becoming too perilous for him, and in January 1535, Calvin was safely in Protestant Basel.

3. In October 1534, Antoine Marcourt posted his scathing theses against the Mass in Paris. This was followed by a sharp renewal of persecution against the seeming reform. One victim of this persecution was Estienne de la Forge, Calvin’s friend. Calvin felt that he must defend his accused friend and therefore rapidly completed a work he had begun in Angouleme, and published it in March 1536 as his Institutes of the Christian Religion, prefacing it with a letter to the French King. The letter is one of the literary masterpieces of the Reformation age. Courteous and dignified, it is a tremendously forceful presentation of the Protestant position and defense of its holders against the royal slanders. No French Protestant had yet spoken with such a clearness, restraint, and power, and with it its author of twenty-six years stepped at once into the leadership of French Protestantism.

4. The Institutes, designed as a catechism of six chapters, were eventually to grow into a monumental treatise of eighty chapters in Calvin’s final edition of 1559, but even in 1536 they were already the most orderly and systematic popular presentation of doctrine and of the Christian life that the Reformation produced. The highest human knowledge, Calvin taught, is that of God and of ourselves. Enough comes by nature, through the testimony of the conscience, to leave us without excuse, but adequate saving knowledge is given only in Scriptures, which the witness of the Spirit in the heart of the believing reader attests as the very voice of God. These divine oracles teach that God is good and is the source of all goodness everywhere. Obedience to God’s will is the primal human duty. As originally created, man was good and capable of obeying God’s will, but he has lost power and goodness through Adam’s fall, and is now absolutely incapable of goodness. Hence, no human work is meritorious before God, and all persons are in a state of ruin meriting only damnation. For this helpless and hopeless condition, some are undeservedly rescued through the work of Christ. He paid the penalty due for the sins of those in whose behalf he died; yet the offer and reception of this satisfaction was a free act on God’s part, so that its cause is God’s love. Since all good is of God, and sinners are unable to initiate or resist their conversion, it follows that the reason some are saved and others are lost is the divine choice — God’s choice of either election (salvation) or reprobation (punishment). It is impossible to seek for God’s reasoning for his choice beyond the all-determining will of God. For Calvin, however, election (or “predestination”) was never a matter of speculation but always a doctrine of Christian comfort. That God had a plan of salvation for a person, a single individual, was an unshakable rock of confidence, not only for one convinced of his own unworthiness, but for one surrounded by opposing forces even if they were those of priests and kings. It made the believer a fellow laborer with God in the accomplishment of God’s will.

5. According to Calvin’s Institutes, three institutions have been divinely established by which the Christian life is maintained: the church, the sacraments, and civil government. In the last analysis, the church consists of “all the elect of God” (4.1.2); but it also properly denotes “the whole body of mankind… who profess to worship one God and Christ” (4.1.7). Yet there is no true church “where lying and falsehood have gained ascendancy” (4.2.1). The New Testament recognizes as church officers only pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons, who enter on their charges with the assent of the congregation they serve. Calvin thus gave to the congregation a voice in the choice of its officers. Similarly, Calvin claimed for the church full and independent jurisdiction in discipline up to the point of excommunication (ie: separation of an individual from the church). Further, however, it could not go, and thus further discipline fell to the responsibility of the civil government. Civil government itself has the divinely appointed task of fostering the church, protecting it from false doctrine, and punishing offenders for whose crimes excommunication is insufficient. Calvin recognized only two sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Regarding the burning question (raised by the earlier Reformers) of Christ’s presence in the Supper, he stood partway between Luther and Zwingli. Like Zwingli he denied any physical (bodily) presence of Christ; yet he asserted in the clearest terms a real, though spiritual, presence received by faith. “Christ, out of the substance of his flesh, breathes life into our souls, indeed, pours forth his own life into us, though the real flesh of Christ does not enter us” (4.17.32).

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
# Everett Ferguson’s: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
# Walker’s: History of Christianity (out of print)

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