Theologian for the Ages: John Calvin

from Oct 28, 2011 Category: Articles

John Calvin (1509–1564) is easily the most important Protestant theologian of all time and remains one of the truly great men who have lived. A world-class theologian, a renowned teacher, an ecclesiastical statesman, and a valiant Reformer, Calvin is seen by many as the greatest influence on the church since the first century. Apart from the biblical authors themselves, Calvin stands as the most influential minister of the Word the world has ever seen. Philip Melanchthon revered him as the most able interpreter of Scripture in the church, and therefore labeled him simply “the theologian” (J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, Vol. 7 [1880; repr., Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 2000], 82). And Charles Spurgeon said that Calvin “propounded truth more clearly than any other man that ever breathed, knew more of Scripture, and explained it more clearly” (C. H. Spurgeon, “Laus Deo,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached by C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. 10 [Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim, 1976], 310).

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, to Gerard and Jeanne Cauvin in the French cathedral city of Noyon, some sixty miles north of Paris. Gerard was a notary, or financial administrator, for the Roman Catholic bishop of the Noyon diocese and, thus, a member of the professional class. At age fourteen, John entered the leading educational institution of Europe, the University of Paris, to study theology in preparation for the priesthood. There, he was immersed in the principles of the Renaissance, humanism, and scholarship. A serious and remarkably learned young man, he graduated with a master’s degree (1528).

Soon after Calvin’s graduation, Gerard fell into a conflict with the bishop of Noyon, and this falling-out with the church caused him to redirect his brilliant son to the study of law at the universities of Orléans (1528) and later Bourges (1529). Calvin learned Greek and sharpened his skills in analytical thinking and persuasive argument, skills he would use with great effect in the pulpit in Geneva. But when Gerard unexpectedly died (1531), Calvin, twenty-one years old, moved back to Paris to pursue his great love, the study of classical literature. He would later return to Bourges, where he completed his legal studies and received his law degree in 1532.

Suddenly Converted

While he was a student at the University of Orléans, Calvin encountered some of the early reform ideas through Martin Luther’s writings, which were widely discussed in academic circles. Subsequently, Calvin was converted to Christ. Calvin recorded a testimony of his conversion in the preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1557):

To this pursuit [of the study of law] I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of His providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. At first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor. (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 1:xl–xli)

In November 1533, Nicolas Cop, rector of the University of Paris and a friend of Calvin, preached the opening address of the winter term at the university. The message was a plea for reformation on the basis of the New Testament and a bold attack on the Scholastic theologians of the day. Cop encountered strong resistance to his “Luther-like” views. Calvin is believed to have collaborated with Cop on the address, as a copy of the manuscript exists in Calvin’s handwriting.  As a result, Calvin was forced to flee Paris before he could be arrested. He withdrew to the estate of Louis du Tillet, a well-to-do man who was sympathetic to the Reformation cause. There, in du Tillet’s extensive theological library, Calvin read the Bible along with the writings of the Church Fathers, most notably Augustine. By hard work, genius, and grace, Calvin was becoming a self-taught theologian of no small stature.

In 1534, Calvin moved to Basel, Switzerland, which had become a Protestant stronghold, in order to study in solitude. In Basel, he penned the first edition of what would become his theological masterpiece and the single most important book written during the Reformation, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, he outlined the fundamentals of the Protestant faith and presented a compelling argument for the Reformed interpretation of Scripture. Amazingly, Calvin began this work at age twenty-five, only one year after his conversion. It was published when he was twenty-six.

In 1536, Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg, in southwest Germany, to further his studies as a quiet scholar. But a war between Francis I and Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, prevented him from taking the most direct route. Calvin was forced to detour to Geneva, where he intended to spend only one night. But when he entered the city, he was immediately recognized as the young author of the Institutes. Those sympathetic to the Reformation took him to meet William Farel, who had led the Protestant movement in Geneva for ten years. Geneva had recently voted to leave the Roman Catholic Church and become a Reformation city, but it was in dire need of a teacher who could articulate Reformed truths. The fiery Farel challenged Calvin to take up the task; when Calvin hesitated, Farel resorted to an imprecatory threat. Calvin reports it this way:

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken. (Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:xliii)

Calvin began his ministry in Geneva as a lecturer, then as a pastor. Along with Farel, he began the task of bringing the life and practice of the church into accord with the teaching of Scripture. Among the reforms he implemented was the exercise of church discipline at the Communion table. This did not sit well with prominent Geneva citizens, many of whom were living sinful lives. This crisis reached the boiling point on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1538, when Calvin refused to administer Communion to certain leading people who were living in open sin. The tensions grew so great that Calvin and Farel were forced to leave Geneva.

Exile and Return

Calvin withdrew to Strasbourg, where he had intended to go two years earlier. His purpose was to escape from the public eye. But Strasbourg’s chief Reformer, Martin Bucer, insisted that Calvin must continue in public pulpit ministry and threatened him much as Farel had earlier. Yielding to Bucer, Calvin became the pastor of nearly five hundred Protestant refugees from France.

However, this theologian-in-exile was also given time and freedom to write in Strasbourg. Calvin wrote his Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and enlarged his Institutes, translating it into French. At this same time, he wrote what has been hailed as the greatest apologetic for the Reformation, A Reply to Sadoleto. After Calvin’s departure from Geneva, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto had written an open letter to the people of the city, inviting them to return to the Roman Catholic Church. The city fathers appealed to Calvin to respond, which he did with his Reply, a compelling defense of the glory of God in the gospel of grace. Also during his time in Strasbourg, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children, who brought him much happiness.

After Calvin had spent three happy years in Strasbourg, the city fathers of Geneva wrote to ask him to return as their pastor. In his absence, the religious and political situation had deteriorated. Initially, Calvin had no intention of returning. In a letter to Farel on March 29, 1540, he said, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over” (John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Vol. 4: Letters, Part I, 1528–1545, ed. Jules Bonnet, trans. David Constable [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009], 175). But Calvin eventually changed his mind, despite the many dangers he knew awaited him in Geneva. Calvin saw his life in Christ entirely and willingly given to God, an attitude depicted in his personal seal—a hand holding a heart, with the motto beneath: “My heart I give Thee, Lord, eagerly and earnestly.” He bowed to what he believed to be God’s will and returned to his pastorate in Switzerland.

Calvin arrived in Geneva on September 13, 1541, after an absence of three and a half years. In his first sermon, he resumed his exposition of Scripture at the next verse after the last one he had covered before being exiled. This continuation was intended as a bold statement that verse-by-verse preaching of the Word would hold the primary place in his ministry.

Calvin’s second Genevan pastorate had two periods. The first was the years  of opposition (1541–1555), when he endured much resistance and difficulty. The opposition began to manifest itself in the form of the Patriots, the oldest, most influential families of Geneva. They disliked Calvin in large measure because he was a foreigner. He also faced the resistance of the Libertines, people within Geneva who were antinomians, living in open sin and immorality. But most demanding by far was the ordeal caused by Michael Servetus in 1553. This known heretic was burned at the stake by the city fathers after Calvin had been called as an expert witness. In other trials during this time, Calvin’s son, Jacques, died only two weeks after his birth in 1542, and Calvin’s wife, Idelette, died in 1549 after only nine years of marriage.

This draining opposition finally subsided, and the last nine years of Calvin’s life (1555–1564) could be described as the years of support. At long last, Calvin gained the support of the city fathers. With this backing, he established the Geneva Academy in 1559, based on the example he had seen in Strasbourg. The academy had a private school for elementary instruction and a public school offering more advanced studies in biblical languages and theology to train ministers, lawyers, and doctors. Also in 1559, the fifth and final edition of the Institutes was released. In 1560, the Geneva Bible was released, an English translation that was the first Bible with theological notes in the margins. This monumental work, produced by men under Calvin’s teaching, presented a worldview of the sovereignty of God over all creation.

Calvin dispatched French-speaking pastors, whom he had trained for the gospel ministry, from Geneva to other French-speaking provinces in Europe. Most went to France, where the Reformed movement grew to encompass about one-tenth of the population. Eventually, thirteen hundred Geneva-trained missionaries went to France. By 1560, more than a hundred underground churches had been planted in France by men sent out from Geneva. By 1562, the number of churches had multiplied to as many as 2,150, with more than 3 million members. The membership of some of the churches numbered in the thousands. This growth produced a Huguenot church that almost overcame the Catholic Counter-Reformation in France. Further, Geneva-trained missionaries planted churches in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and the Rhineland—even Brazil.

A Farewell Address

In early 1564, Calvin became seriously ill. He preached for the last time from the pulpit of Saint Peter’s Cathedral on Sunday, February 6. By April, it was obvious that he did not have long to live. Calvin, age fifty-four, faced death as he had faced the pulpit—with great resolution. The strength of his faith, built on the sovereignty of God, appears in his last will and testament. On April 25, 1564, Calvin dictated the following words:

I render thanks to God, not only because he has had compassion on me, His poor creature, to draw me out of the abyss of idolatry in which I was plunged, in order to bring me to the light of His gospel and make me a partaker of the doctrine of salvation, of which I was altogether unworthy, and continuing His mercy He has supported me amid so many sins and short-comings, which were such that I well deserved to be rejected by Him a hundred thousand times—but what is more, He has so far extended His mercy towards me as to make use of me and of my labour, to convey and announce the truth of His gospel. (John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Vol. 7: Letters, Part 4, 1559–1564, ed. Jules Bonnet, trans. Marcus Robert Gilchrist [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009], 365–366)

Three days later, on April 28, 1654, Calvin called his fellow ministers to his bedchamber and issued his farewell address to them. He cautioned them that the battles of the Reformation were not over, but only beginning: “You will have troubles when God shall have called me away… . But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that He will protect it” (Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Vol. 7, 375). With that, he passed the torch from his feeble hands to theirs.

Calvin died on May 27, 1564, in the arms of Theodore Beza, his successor. Calvin’s last words—“How long, O Lord?”—were the very words of Scripture (Pss. 79:5; 89:46). He died quoting the Bible he had so long preached. Appropriately, this humble servant was buried in a common cemetery in an unmarked grave—at his own request.


Excerpted with edits from Pillars of Grace, © 2011 by Steven J. Lawson. Published by Reformation Trust Publishing, a division of Ligonier Ministries.

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