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The Life of Calvin
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
Through a series of providences, God guided the little town of Geneva onto the scene of the Reformation to house one of the most influential theologians in the history of Christendom – John Calvin. There were a number of social, economic, political and religious matters that pressed the city to reform, and Calvin was involved in each area of this reform. Adult literacy was common, and Calvin’s pen reached across the socio-economic barriers to affect all classes with sound teaching, especially through a renewed academic interest in the teachings of Augustine. This trend of “learning” was already in motion before Calvin was ever born, and the ripe time of his commencement in ministry was providential as well. This new literacy began to overrun the priestly ignorance of those who obtained the position of priest, but were not formally trained well. Though Calvin was not the most extroverted of people, the force of his theological and pastoral writing and preaching overthrew his demure countenance.
Calvin’s educational life commenced in his tenure at the university of Paris. He attended the College de la Marche at the age of 14, then moved to the College de Montaigu, though some historical evidence is lacking to piece together exactly how these educational movements shifted, or if there is insufficient evidence to make the case that he ever attended Montaigu in the first place. It seems a summary of his stay in Paris may be said to 1) have taught Latin grammar for a time, 2) then may have been formally affiliated with the College de Montaigu, and 3) studied arts (philosophy) there. It is sure that Calvin’s father initially wanted him to study theology in Paris, but then moved him to study law instead for future financial reasons. He was influenced greatly with Aristotelian philosophy here, something he would carry with him into his theological formulations seen in his commentary of Seneca’s de Clementia, and in his Institutes, as well as being introduced into the school of Augustine’s thought, which later carried over into the Institutes. There is overall, an uncertainty as to the exact nature of Calvin’s sojourn in Paris, though through his writings and through the accounts of his life (especially Beza’s) traces can be found to piece together a possible coherent “life of Calvin” during this period.
Calvin left Paris sometime in the 1520’s with his degree in the arts in order to start his work at the university of Orleans in law (where he came face to face with an aspect of humanism that would shape his thinking for the rest of his life). The University of Orleans was not a collegiate university, and only had a course of study surrounding law (with a stress upon civil law) which had undergone radical revisions in 16th century France under the writings of men like Guillaume Bude. The humanism encountered here was not that of the 21st century “man is the measure of all things without God” concept. Rather, it was “how ideas were obtained and expressed” with an emphasis on going “back to the sources” (ad fontes) concerning the meaning of a given thing. For instance, Erasmus, in his Enchiridion, said that the church ought to go back to the scriptures and the early fathers in order to reform itself (i.e. back to the sources). It was not, however, the intention for Calvin, at this time, to go back to commentaries, or the Latin text of the Bible, but the original sources, the Greek and Hebrew text. Calvin’s first formulations from these influences would demonstrate themselves after he had graduated Orleans in 1531, and then dedicated two years of his life to researching and writing his commentary of Seneca’s de Clementia.
Calvin moved from humanist to reformer by a “sudden conversion” (subita conversione as Calvin calls it). It was both revelatory for him (as with the manner in which he parallels his conversion with the Apostle Paul’s in many ways) and enigmatic for any researcher of his life since little is given on that subject in his own writings. He left Paris after another stay for a time, went to Noyon, and then quit Noyon for Basel, thinking it wise to leave France for a time due to a tumultuous air surrounding the reformation that was underway through other reformers. Here, in his hermit-style retreat in Switzerland, he penned the first edition of the Institutes for French evangelicals. After this, he was forced to move back to France for a time in order to settle family affairs. He then decided to set out for Strasbourg, but the road there was hindered and he stopped over in the little city of Geneva to stay the night.
Reformation, at this time in history, was a city phenomenon. First there was a sense of community in a given geographical area, second, economic and social struggles saw victory in partaking in the freedom of the Reformation (purported by Thomas Brady’s analysis of Strasbourg), and thirdly, urban communities centered upon the doctrine of justification by faith alone. There was a pressure to have a social change due to the circumstances of time. It was not as though the “Hollywood” version of the stalwart reformer who stormed the city for the cause of reformation had historical veracity. Political, economic, social and military considerations were the cause of many of the Swiss Cantons to begin to embrace the “symbiotic” relationship of city and reformer. In like manner, Geneva, for instance, would have such a relationship with Calvin as the Magistrate and Council would move ahead for the good of the political-religious state under the guidance of Calvin’s theological-socio-economic writings and counsel. And Geneva was primed and ready for this kind of relationship based on the history of a Swiss confederacy coming to light over the last sixty years before Calvin ever arrived, and then adopting many of the same reformation principles other Swiss cantons had already implemented. Farel, the city’s former “reformer,” cornered Calvin on his stay and convinced him to remain and continue the work. Unfortunately, his first tenure there did not go well and in 1538 he was exiled (along with Farel and Courault) due to a practical difference in implementing the Lord’s Supper to wayward and unruly members of the city, though the Council insisted. Calvin spent three years in exile (1538-1541) where he wrote a new version of the Institutes, as well as a tract against the Catholics for intruding into Geneva in his absence in his Reply to Sadoleto. In 1541 he returned reluctantly, again by Farel’s pressure to continue what God had started through him.
Calvin, upon return to Geneva after his Strasbourg exile, formulated a church-state relationship with the Magistrate of the city, or the senate, much like the Graeco-Roman city state. The Institutes remain his theological powerhouse of reform, but his Ecclesiastical Ordinances (written in 1541 for the express purpose of structuring discipline and orderliness in Geneva) was the “backbone of the his ecclesiastical organization.” This consistory was created in order to “police” religious orthodoxy. Such trials as the “Servetus affair” demonstrated the civil-religious power of the Consistory when they burned him at the stake for heresy, and this has certainly “colored” Calvin’s posthumous character for the last 450 years. However, as other countries and cantons had acted in thus manner with heretics, so the Genevan Council felt obligated to uphold the same religious convictions with Servetus. Yet, Calvin’s role in all this was more akin to “technical advisor or expert witness” rather than the prosecutor that was left in the hands of Geneva’s civil authorities. Though this mark upon “the Reformation” stands in the sight of its critics, Calvin can be said to be exceedingly successful in his subsequent work during his time in Geneva (over the paralleled work of Vadian in the city of St. Gallen who had a different idea of reformation, though similar circumstances as Calvin).
The reformation was primarily the work of God through the Word of God. This idea was Calvin’s maxim of success. Though he wrestled with the theological idea of accommodation (i.e. that God accommodates ideas to us as the Word of God in order to allow finite creatures to understand an infinite deity of incomprehensible dimensions) he concluded that God knows his audience, and thus adjusts his language accordingly for such an audience to apprehend (not comprehend) truths about Him. For Calvin, he used three aspects of God as father, teacher and judge to communicate to us His divine person. As a result, Calvin published many works attempting to help the people of God understand theology, especially in the French tongue (in which he published his Institutes in 1541 eclipsing the work of Luther, Melancthon and Zwingli as “the document” of the Protestant Reformation).
Concerning the message of Calvin’s Christianity found in the Institutes, one does not find a basic central core doctrine from which all others emerge. Calvin’s main doctrine is not predestination, for instance. Rather, Calvin’s Institutes demonstrate a cogency about biblical doctrine as a whole, and the Bible as a whole affecting the Christian’s view of Jesus Christ and every doctrine connected to Christ. Christ, then, should be said to be the center of Calvin’s thought, but many doctrines surround Him as the central figure of God’s redemptive history. Book 1 demonstrates the idea of how human beings can know anything about God. Book 2 demonstrates how human beings know God surrounding the person and redeemer Jesus Christ. Book 3 demonstrates how human beings obtain favor, blessing, grace, benefits and effects of grace through the redeemer Jesus Christ. Book 4 centers around the remaining theological issues of the church itself, and the outward means by which the church is called into fellowship with Jesus Christ.
Though Calvin did not return to France he did affect the country for the Reformation in a variety of ways. Calvin, along with the city of Berne, attempted to press French diplomats to remove persecution of evangelicals. Geneva subsequently became a haven for over six thousand refugees from France to the single city of Geneva itself. Certainly Calvin’s influence over the entire country remained primarily within the writings he published in French, affecting a number of socio-levels from 1540-45. Geneva even supplied pastors to needful French pastorates and by 1562 Calvinism was a dominant force throughout Protestant France.
Calvin became ill in 1564 with “migraines, gout, pulmonary tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, thrombosed hemorrhoids, and irritated bowel syndrome.” He died on Friday April 28, 1564. However, though Calvin was dead, his influence lived on – by 1575 Calvinism was established “as an international religion.” Though Luther affected the Reformation at its start, Calvin continued to hold the torch for years afterward primarily through his Institutes. Geneva itself became internationally known especially in light of its academic standing based on Calvin’s work previously accomplished there. Here then we find Calvinism coming to light (a term first used by Joachim Westphal to refer primarily to the sacramental views of difference between the Reformed and the Lutherans) and culminating a great appeal thorough the systematization of the Biblical record and defended itself well against Roman Catholicism – the premier theological force against Protestantism of the day. Calvin’s influence became more recognized by the Institutes around his doctrine of salvation seen in both election and the doctrines of Grace, otherwise formulated by the synod in Dordtrecht in the acronym TULIP (Dordt convened from 1618 to 1619 against Remonstrant influences built upon Romish Doctrines and popularized by Jacobus Harmenszoon).
Since Calvinism was a thoroughly biblical attempt to explain the Bible, it is impossible that I should neglect its affect in a global scope. It affects people in practical situations to minister the Word of God in a way that helps those struggling see Christ more clearly and His will for their life. Interesting enough Calvinism also affected the merchant trade in its capitalistic endeavors, though Calvin did not necessarily like capitalism. There was a struggle in Geneva around the affect of Calvinism on capitalism that parleyed between tradition and progress. Though various parties desired their own course of action based on class and status, there was a growing need to create “independent sources of capital” and a need to maintain “political independence” in the city. Calvinism, then, harnessed industry, though Calvin did not develop a kind of “economic theory.” Later, during the 17th century, Calvinism and capitalism “were virtually coextensive.” Weber maintains that this was due to the Calvinistic doctrine of “calling” (not “effectual calling,” but of vocation (i.e. what would a Christian do in God’s calling for his life)). This idea was placed in a more concrete position through federal theology which emphasized not only the salvation of the individual through grace in Christ, but also what that individual would do in laboring before God and unto God in the world.
Calvinism has had a profound affect on the nations of the West, especially on culture. Three aspects stand out: 1) the international character of the movement affecting religious, economic and political issues in those countries; 2) the “world affirming character” of Calvin’s theology especially as developed later by the Puritans; 3) even in the midst of its dematerialization amidst secular culture, its residue remained to influence secular society. Even American religious communities, as they came over from both Dutch and English countries, settled in America to create godly commonwealths under a covenant with God. Thus, since Calvinism touches upon every sphere of society, to study the movement is not to lean upon its historical past, but to study current political, social, and religious events and further observe its impact on culture throughout the world.