Jean Calvin (1509 – 1564)
Born: Noyon, Picardy (France)
Role: Author, theologian, lecturer, pastor, Reformer
Protested against: Catholic sacramentalism, papacy
Emphases: glory and sovereignty of God; salvation by grace, through faith in Christ alone; lectio continua preaching; predestination; Reformed church governance and discipline
Jean Calvin was significantly younger than Luther and Zwingli, being born a mere 8 years before the nailing of the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door. Whereas it fell to the older Reformers to instigate and persistently drive reform movements which spread from Germany and Switzerland to other parts of Europe and the world – Calvin’s role was different. The French Reformer, who spent most of his ministry in Swiss Geneva, was the great systematiser of Reformed theology and helped consolidate the gains and emphases of the Protestant Reformation through his writing and preaching.
After years of education in preparation for either an ecclesiastical or legal career, Calvin became increasingly drawn into the Protestant movement and dedicated himself to propagating its theology. He had a conversion experience of some sort around the age of twenty (1529) and by 1533-1534 he was already working on the first edition of what became his theological masterpiece Institutes of the Christian Religion.
While he had hoped to live in relative reclusion and affect church and society through his writing ministry, this plan was interrupted by those that others had for him. William Farel twisted Calvin’s arm to remain in Geneva – a small Swiss city he was merely passing through on his way elsewhere – in order to be involved in the frontline of reform, rather than writing from a distance. Calvin took on pastoral duties in the city and worked with Farel to reform the faith and worship of the Genevan Christians, through preaching, Bible teaching and other Word-based ministries. Calvin modelled a kind of verse-by-verse preaching of the Bible, commonly known as lectio continua in his church ministry.
Calvin’s ministry in Geneva was anything but quiet and peaceful. He and Farel endured expulsion by the city council over a controversy involving the Lord’s Supper, which saw Calvin station himself elsewhere for an extended period of time, until the Genevans eventually pleaded with him to return. As part of the conditions of his return, Calvin was able to enact further reform in areas that were previously hindered by resistance. Nevertheless, he still faced a degree of hostility from certain factions within the city’s power structure for a number of years, until eventually his allies gained a certain level of dominance in civic affairs.
Calvin is not personally responsible for the execution of the heretic Michael Servetus, as is commonly alleged (this lies with the Genevan civil authorities), though he did testify against him during his trial for heresy. Calvin accepted the verdict against Servetus, but pled first with Servetus to recant his heretical views and then with the Genevan authorities to employ a more humane method of execution than burning at the stake. That his request was denied is proof enough that he was not the person calling the shots with respect to the administration of justice at Geneva during this period.
Calvin is best known for his articulation of a variety of Christian soteriology (doctrine of salvation) known as “Calvinism.” This system – which emphasises God’s role in the election and salvation of Christians, rather than notions of human free-will and human contributions to their own salvation – has found a home in numerous branches of Protestant Christianity: especially in Scottish Presbyterianism and Dutch Reformed Christianity, but also in sections of Anglicanism, Congregationalism and Baptist churches. Presbyterian and Reformed churches typically institutionalised many other theological and practical emphases of Calvin, such as his ideas on baptism, church structure and discipline and interpretation of biblical Law and covenants.
While Calvin’s particular views on predestination, election and the extent of Christ’s atonement have made him far less popular and celebrated than Luther amongst some sections of Protestant and evangelical Christianity, more 21st Century Protestants are indebted to him than realise it. While on one hand, Calvin is revered amongst reformed Christians of various stripes, who see him as a theological ancestor – many of those groups who reject his emphases would not exist in the way they do today if Calvin’s ideas were not so prevalent and developed or debated by the founders of their particular denominations and churches.
Main sources: T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin (1975); “Calvin” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals; Wikipedia