So, my daughter, Anya, comes home from school and tells me that she learned about John Calvin in school. I ask whether he was portrayed as a good guy or a bad guy. Bad guy, she responds. John Calvin is much misunderstood. He certainly was not perfect, and he has a terrible blemish, but he is massively influential to evangelical thought.
John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. When he was fourteen his father sent him to study theology at the University of Paris. But when his father fell out of favour with the church, he told John to study law. John did this at Orleans and Bourges. When Calvin’s father died, when John was twenty-one, he felt free to study classics.
We don’t know a lot about Calvin’s conversion to evangelical faith. However, in 1533, his friend Nicholas Cop gave a speech as rector of the University of Paris that was considered to influenced by Lutheran ideas. It is suspected that Calvin may have written this speech. The speech threw the university into uproar, and Calvin was among those who had to flee the city as a result of the clampdown.
The young reformer found exile in the Swiss city Basel. There he wrote the first edition of his masterpiece, ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion.’ This was published in March 1536. Calvin later said that what motivated him in his writing was the thought of people being burned alive for their faith back in France. He wanted to vindicate the faith for which these people were being martyred for.
Calvin did not want to become a pastor, but rather to enjoy the ‘tranquillity of … of studies.’ However, events would lead him into the church. In 1536 France gave a temporary amnesty to those who had fled. Calvin returned to put things in order at home, then took his brother Antione and sister Marie with him to go to Strasburg. However, the road to Strasburg was blocked by fighting between the French and Spanish armies. So, Calvin had to take a detour to Geneva. Calvin intended to spend only one night.
Geneva was a town of around 10,000. It had recently gone from being under the control of the Roman Catholic Church to that of the reformed faith. However, this shift in allegiance was more to do with hostility to the bishop than any conviction of faith. The fiery leader of the reformation in the city was a man called William Farel. Farel knew that he needed someone to shape the city’s religious institutions.
When Farel heard that Calvin was in the city, he sought him out. Farel encouraged Calvin to stay and help establish the work there. Calvin protested, saying that he had special studies that he wanted to pursue. So, Farel turned up the heat, claiming that Calvin was only following his own wishes and that the Lord would punish him if he did not give himself to his work in Geneva.
Calvin was terror stricken by Farel’s threats. He was a bit antisocial and shy, and this was not the life he wanted. But he felt he had no choice. The city offered the role of Professor of Sacred Scriptures, but within four months he was made pastor of Saint Peter’s Church, one of the three parishes in the city.
Calvin began his time in Geneva by drawing up a confession of faith to be accepted by everyone who wished to be a citizen. He planned an education system for all. He insisted on excommunication, particularly exclusion from the Lord’s Supper, for anyone who was not serious about godliness. Gambling, drunkenness, adultery and dancing were prohibited. It was all a bit more than the city fathers had hoped for. There was disquiet among many of the people. There was tension between the church and the city magistrates over who had the power to excommunicate. After less than two years, in April 1538, Calvin and Farel had to leave.
Calvin went to Basel again, and thought again of having a peaceful life as a scholar. However, when Martin Bucer found out he was there he urged Calvin to come to Strasburg. Bucer used tactics of persuasion similar to Farel. He suggested that it was God’s will for him to go to Strasburg and that he must not behave like Jonah, in running from this call.
Strasburg turned out to be the happiest years of Calvin’s life. For about three years he served as pastor to about five hundred refugees in the French church of the city.
Calvin was now in his thirties and several people decided to try and find him a wife. Numerous women had shown interest in him. Calvin told his friend Farel, who was acting as a matchmaker, ‘the only beauty which allures me is this—that she be chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient, likely to take care of my health.’ He settled on a widow named Idelette Stordeur. Idelette, her husband and children were members of the French church at Strasburg. Her husband died of plague. Calvin and Idelette were married a few months later.
Return to Geneva
Back in Geneva the city leaders had a change of mind about Calvin. Calvin’s allies had gained power. The city magistrates now considered him to be a great man of God. The issued him with an invitation to return. This left Calvin with an agonizing choice. He knew that life in Geneva would be full of controversy and danger. But on September 13, 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva for his second period on ministry. It would not all be plain sailing. He would face opposition, but he always had a strong support base in those who had fled France as religious exiles. He would be there until his death in 1564.
Calvin and Idelette’s son was born premature and died he was two weeks old. Further tragedy would follow. Idelette’s health never fully recovered. There may have been a few daughters all of whom died in infancy. His Roman Catholic opponents took these deaths as being a sign of God’s judgement, but Calvin responded that he was content to have sons in the faith. Idelette cared for Calvin during his many illnesses, faithfully visited the sick and afflicted, and made her home a refuge for those who fled to Geneva because of their faith. Though she survived the plague when it ravaged Geneva, she died after a lengthy illness in 1549. In case you get the impression that Calvin had no romantic feelings towards his wife, listen to what he wrote to a friend: ‘and truly, mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it not been ordained, would have willingly shared not only my poverty but even my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the whole course of her illness …’
Calvin never married again. It was probably just as well as he was consumed with his work. He explained in a sermon that he did not marry in part ‘because I know my infirmity, that perhaps a woman might not be happy with me’. It is not certain whether that infirmity is a reference to his frequent ill health or his irritability. He abstained from marriage to give him more time to serve God, but he insisted that he did not believe such abstinence made him more virtuous than anyone else.
Calvin was an extremely hard worker and struggled with poor health. His ministry was not easy. He had treats made to his life, and he was not unfamiliar with mobs outside his house threatening to throw him into the river. The threat of invasion from French troops loyal to the Roman Catholic Church was constantly in the background, and from time to time he would ponder the sorts of tortures he would have to endure if Geneva was overthrown.
One of the constant sources of trouble for Calvin was ensuring discipline around the serving of the Lord’s Supper. The men of Geneva, like their counterparts around Europe, liked to have a mistress or two. When Calvin started his ministry in Geneva there had been a law in that city that said that a man could keep only one mistress. Despite Calvin’s efforts, sexual immorality remained a problem. There were those who claimed that Christian freedom implied that they could do as they wished. Things came to a head in 1553 when an influential man was forbidden the Lord’s Supper. He made a claim to the council of the city, who overturned the decision of the church. Calvin would have rather died than compromise the Lord’s Supper. When the man came forward to be served communion, Calvin flung his arms around the sacramental vessels as if to protect them from sacrilege. His voice ran through the building, ‘these hands you can crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours—you may shed it, but you shall never force me to give these holy things to the profaned, and dishonour the table of my God.’ After that, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated with profound silence and awe.
The great blemish
There is one very dark blemish that is held against Calvin. That is his role in the trial of Michael Servetus. It would be wrong to try to defend his actions here. Although some points can put them in context.
These very harsh times. There was tough enforcement of law in Geneva. For example, a conspiracy of men and women were discovered to be intentionally spreading the plague. As a result, fifteen women were burned at the stake. Some of the men were treated even more severely in prison. Even when these conspirators were in prison, their co-conspirators smeared the door locks of people’s homes with their poisonous ointments.
In those days, ideas of the separation of church and state, and the issue of religious freedom were not seen the way they are today. Calvin was working within a cultural framework that he had not set up. Also, within that framework Calvin sought for a degree of mercy.
So, what happened?
Michael Servetus was a Spaniard medical doctor, lawyer and a theologian. His doctrine of the Trinity was unorthodox. In 1553, Servetus published his views and was arrested in France. He managed to escape. He arrived in Geneva. However, he was tried in Geneva as a heretic. Calvin served as chief prosecutor. Servetus was sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake.
Calvin had spent hours with Servetus during the trial, trying to persuade him to recant. When the death sentence was passed, Calvin requested that Servetus be beheaded—in order that he would have to endure less suffering, but his request was denied.
When Servetus had arrived, Calvin had been at a low ebb in his influence in the city and was facing major opposition. However, two years later Calvin’s position was secure. From that time until his death, he had no serious opposition.
Calvin considered Geneva to be a refuge for persecuted Protestants, an example of a discipled Christian community and a centre for ministerial training. People from all over Europe visited to Geneva to learn about what had happened there and see how it might be put in place in other parts. Geneva did have representative assemblies, and Calvin stressed their right to resist the tyranny of monarchs. As such, Geneva played a role in the development of modern constitution governments.
Why we need Calvin today
Calvin was motivated by a passion for God’s glory. In a letter to an opponent, Calvin wrote, that he should set before men and women, ‘as this prime motive of [their] existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God’ (letter to Cardinal Sadolet). Our goal as Christians, as we are open about our sin and so display his mercy, and seek to become like Jesus, and so display his transforming power, is to demonstrate God’s beauty to the world. The reason why Calvin felt so strongly about the adoration of Mary was that it took away from the adoration of Jesus. The reason why he opposed the Mass as a sacrifice was that it suggested that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not sufficient. The reason he hated the idea of calling of ‘saints’ to intercede for us before the Father is that it took away from the fact that Jesus is the only mediator that we need. He was passionate about justification by faith because ‘whenever the knowledge of [justification be faith] is taken away, the glory of God is extinguished’ (Sadolet).
His passion for the glory of God led him to preach book by book through the Bible. So, the Sunday after he returns to Geneva, having been exiled for three years, Calvin preaches the very next verse after that which he had been expounding on the Sunday before he was expelled from the city. He said, ‘we owe to Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it.’ Calvin was not denying that the Scriptures were given through human agency, but he is highlighting that there was nothing human in Scripture that would corrupt it. He almost entirely ignored Christmas and Easter in his preaching plan, because he did not want to get in the way of systematically working through Bible books. He spent four and a half years working through Acts. He wrote commentaries of every New Testament book except for Revelation. He believed that working our way verse by verse through Bible books was the best way to ensure that we teach what God wants to say rather than simply giving people what we want to tell them and choosing our own favourite topics.