Knowledge of God and Ourselves: The Life of John Calvin (Seminary Papers)

(The following is my term paper for History of Christianity II at Reformed Theological Seminary, submitted Winter 2020. Formatting not retained.)

This paper will summarize the life and ministry of Jean Cauvin, also known as John Calvin, based on the biography of his life by T.H.L Parker. John Calvin was a French Protestant who would make significant contributions and developments to the Protestant Reformation, and is among the first of the “second generation” of Reformers after Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. In addition to his work as a pastor and Reformer in Geneva, Switzerland, he is also known for his immense library of commentaries, treatises, letters, and his Magnus opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Although his life and ministry was full of controversy and strife, his brilliant insight into the Word of God and his desire to see the Word rightly believed and obeyed continues to influence and inform Protestants to this very day.

Childhood and Conversion

Jean Cauvin (hereafter John Calvin) was born to Gérard and Jeanne Cauvin née le Franc on July 10th, 1509 in the town of Noyon in the Picardy providence of France. John’s family was not indigenous to Noyon, as Gérard would migrate to the town in 1480 to work in the ecclesiastical court as a notary and registrar. It is believed that Gérard’s father worked as a boatman in the river town of Pont-l’Evêque, and Gérard’s departure to Noyon was an attempt to find success outside the family trade. Gêrard’s successful transition would allow him to join the French bourgeois, or upper-middle class, which would then prepare him to marry Jeanne le Franc around 1497. Twelve years later, John and his brother Charles and Antoine would be born into a comfortable French home, and apart from the tragic death of Jeanne in around 1515, John would have a typical French upbringing in the late Medieval Ages.

Gérard, like many fathers in that time, wanted his sons to enter the service of the church and become priests, and John began his trajectory to the priesthood at a young age. As young as 12 years old, John would win the patronage of a wealthy French family, which would afford him the opportunity to leave Noyon for the University of Paris, where he would begin working on his Bachelor of Arts degree. During this time, John would learn Latin and receive a substantial philosophical education, although as Parker notes, this philosophical education would be diametrically opposed to the philosophical underpinnings of his later theological works; John would eventually require a re-education on his education. By the time he is sixteen or seventeen years old, John will receive his Master of Arts degree, having performed the required supplemental work upon his Bachelor’s degree to achieve this honor at a remarkably young age.

It is at this point that we must anchor John’s current life and trajectory in the broader events of the Protestant Reformation, as the effects of the Reformation undoubtedly influenced John’s next major transition. In 1525 or 1526, John’s educational trajectory would abruptly change, and Gérard would send John to the University of Orléans to begin studying civic law in preparation to become a lawyer. Although no explicit reasoning for this transition exists, John and his colleague Theodore Beza would speculate that this decision was made because the Reformation was the writing on the wall for the end of the financial viability of the priesthood; a career change to being a lawyer was to John and the elderly Gérard’s financial advantage. By 1525, Luther’s Reformation was in full swing, and Zwingli would begin dealing with the Anabaptist problem in Zurich. Luther’s writings enjoyed initial popularity in France, but his excommunication from the Catholic Church would be wholeheartedly endorsed by the Catholic French court. Despite state suppression and persecution, however, Lutheranism – and the Reformation as a whole – would continue to cause enough disturbance in France that Gérard’s conclusion is not entirely unwarranted, although history would later prove his concerns unwarranted.

Regardless of the reasons for Calvin’s transition to the University of Orléans, we must recognize the providential hand of God in John’s life in preparing him for his future ministry, as his skillset as a lawyer will prove very helpful and impactful at many points in John’s ministry and writing. Calvin would spend several uneventful years at the University of Orléans before transitioning to the University of Bourges in 1529, and the following 18-month stay would change his entire life. In addition to studying and learning Koine Greek, which was seen as the “language of heretics” by the Latin-based Catholic Church, John would convert to Christianity thanks to the influence of several Reformist friends. John describes his conversion as “sudden”, and a desire would begin to grow in him to increase in the knowledge of true godliness. It is believed that shortly after his conversion he began preaching, although exact records of John’s activity begin to become sparse around this point and will remain so until 1533, where Calvin returns to Paris that October.

In Preparation for Geneva

Upon Calvin’s return to Paris, the tensions between the Reformation (in cooperation with the humanist movements of the time) and the Catholic Church begin to increase. John would be implicated in an offensive speech given by his friend Nicholas Cop, who called for reform and renewal in the Catholic Church, and would spend the next year in hiding with his friend Louis du Tillet. He could not stay in hiding forever, and the infamous Affair of the Placards in October 1534 would force John and du Tillet to flee to the city of Basel a few months later. 

John’s time in Basel would be short, but immensely productive. In addition to assisting with the production of a French translation of the Scriptures (of which his knowledge of Greek would be immediately relevant), Calvin would the competition of the first edition of his masterpiece, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which would be published in March of 1536In addition to being a resource aimed at the comprehensive discipleship of Christian believers, it was also meant to be a defense offered to King Francis and the other French leaders outlining the beliefs of the French Reformers, and Calvin’s training as a lawyer would allow him to make a powerful case for how these beliefs were more faithful to biblical Christianity than current Catholic doctrine. The impact of the Institutes – both the 1536 version and subsequent versions – cannot be overstated. Although it would ultimately fail to influence the King and other French leaders to the Protestant faith, it would regularly sell out wherever it was made available, and it would be the platform for which John would add and revise material based on his own studies and insights.

Upon publication of the Institutes, John would spend a brief amount of time in Ferrara, Italy, and then in June he would return to Paris to assist his brother Antoine in burying Gérard and tending to his estate. He would not stay there long, however, as the Edict of Coucy gave John six months to reconcile to Rome or face punishment. Sensing the door was closed in France, John leaves for Strasbourg in August, but a detour forces him to lodge in Geneva. Unbeknown to anyone other than God, this single detour – brought on by military activity en route – to Geneva would change the entire trajectory of his life, and in many ways, the trajectory of the Reformation.

In (And Out) Of Geneva

Geneva was, at the time, a fortress of merchants, situated France, Swiss, and Savory territories. This made Geneva not only politically valuable territory for whoever controlled it, but culturally valuable as well, able to reach both into Switzerland and into surrounding nations all at once. Guillaume Farel, another Reformer already working in Geneva, recognized it’s need for another Reformer to come alongside him and reform the church in the city, and Farel would make immediate haste to John’s lodging after his detour from Strasbourg. John had no intentions of staying long in Geneva – some account suggest he was only staying a single evening, others several days – but Farel would not let John leave without imploring John to consider staying to help reform the Genevan church. After much pleading (and some pious fear mongering) from Farel, John reluctantly agreed to stay, and in 1536 John would begin his lifelong work to transform the city of Geneva from being a fortress of merchants to a city ruled by the Word of God.

We do not know what exactly position John initially took upon agreeing to stay in Geneva, but we do know that at some point in 1537 he becomes a pastor, and begins officiated weddings and baptisms in addition to his other responsibilities and duties. In 1537 he and Farel present the “Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship at Geneva”, which would outline a number of changes to the churches in Geneva regarding the Eucharist, excommunication, subscription to a confession of faith drafted by Farel, liturgical developments, and more. Although the council would accept the document, its implementation would be fraught with difficulty on both sides. The council was hesitant to enforce some of the more strenuous demands of the articles, namely the requirement for subscription to the confession of faith, and this would anger the two Reformers and cause several major debates in the council over the lax implementation and enforcement of what the council had agreed to do. French interest (and interference) with Genevan affairs would also cast doubt on the genuineness of both John and Farel, and the two Frenchmen were suspected of being spies by some of the more patriotic Genevans.

The tensions would explode on the question of the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, as the ally city of Bern was pressing for this change to bring uniformity to ceremonies. When mandated by the council to use unleavened bread for the Easter Eucharist, John and Farel respond by not serving the Eucharist at all! After a riot ensued, the council asked John and Farel to leave Geneva, and the two men took up residence again in Basel while waiting for direction from Zurich and Bern to help settle the dispute. Unfortunately, despite some mediation from Bern, the Genevan council would not welcome the two men back, and John and Farel would end their ministry in Geneva by going their separate ways. As Farel began his new position to lead the church in Neuchâtel, John would complete his detour to Strasbourg – several years later than he had initially planned.

The Detour in Strasbourg

John’s sudden and disappointing departure from Geneva did not slow him down at all. Sensing the door was closed on his previous ministry, he immediately begins his new work on Stausbourg, preaching and lecturing for several hundred people at the French church in the city. He also begins working on two major works – a revised version of the Institutes, and his Commentary on Romans. The second edition of the Institutes, published in 1539, would be a significant overhaul of the first, with over three times the amount of material and a new structure. A year later, in 1540, he publishes his Commentary on Romans, which will lay the foundation and template for future commentary publications.

Another major event would take place in 1540, one that is not tied to any of John’s active ministry at the time – John marries Idelette de Bure, an Anabaptist widow with two children from her first marriage. John’s decision to marry was largely prompted by the urging of his friends, who all made attempts to set him up with several potential suitors. We do not have much knowledge of John and his marriage with Idelette, but given the praise John gives of her after her passing nearly a decade later, it was clear that John esteemed her highly, and she was a godly wife and helpful to him in his ministry. 

Meanwhile, back in Geneva, things were beginning to fall apart. Political tension arose as Bern and Geneva began disputing control of land, straining an otherwise tight alliance, but more urgently, church life was seriously declining. As Parker writes, “The Genevese had got the sort of ministers they thought they wanted, without moral or intellectual weight, unable to exert authority”[1], and the resulting deterioration, some of the people who approved of John’s exile from Geneva began to desire to have him back. The question, of course, was how this council going to get John to come back? John was under no obligation to return, and his life and ministry in Strasbourg was going just fine, and yet he opens himself to Geneva’s pleas and is willing to consider the possibility of returning. After assisting the city in rebuffing Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto’s attempt to call the city back to Catholicism, John enters into negotiations and planning with the city about what it would look like, and what would need to happen, for him to return. After some healing of harms and clearing of the air, John returns to Geneva in 1541, where he will remain until his death. If he thought his life and his ministry had been intense up to this point, he was about to find it all had been just the beginning.

Geneva to the End

While negotiating his return to Geneva, John made one point very clear: if he returns, he is bringing his reforms with him, and Geneva does not want to implement his vision for the city, then he would not come. Geneva, having learning their lesson the first time, now saw and understood the significance of what John wanted to do in the city, and was more than eager to make it happen. In November of 1541, Geneva passes the Ecclesiastical Ordinances outlining the four ministerial offices that will serve the city of Geneva: preaching and administering the Sacraments belongs to the pastors, teaching and instructing the faith belongs to the doctors, discipline is the responsibility of the elders, and care for the poor will be handled by the deacons. The Ordinances also call for the creation of a special ecclesiastical court of lay elders and ministers that would assist the city in judging ecclesiastical matters and determining the appropriate sentence. This court, known as the Consistory, would be a major battleground for John in the coming years, but it would remain one of the lasting features of his transformational work in Geneva.

It is impossible to understand John’s ministry in Geneva without understanding the amount and breadth of his preaching. As Parker outlines, John would preaching hundreds upon hundreds of sermons over the course of his ministry, working through single books at a time for multiple years if it was required. Initially John preached twice on Sundays and three additional times during the week, but this was eventually lessened to once on Sunday. We do not have much of his preaching prior to 1549, but the record we have from 1549 onward is breathtaking: nearly two hundred sermons on Acts, Ezekiel, and Deuteronomy, nearly three hundred fifty on Isaiah alone, and several hundreds in other series and sets from other books. Parker notes “it was preaching which, for all its liveliness, passion and clarity, made heavy demands on the congregation. In no way were they a passive audience; they were gathered into participation”[2], and John’s confidence in his study and preaching would come to be a distinguishing mark of his preaching and the preaching style of those who are heavily influenced by the Calvinist tradition as a whole.

Despite John’s remarkable ministry and accomplishments during his second stay in Geneva – many of which are omitted here due to space – he would also encounter significant pushback and opposition from the wealthy and influential families of Geneva. Initially scattered and disarrayed in their opposition to John, soon they would coordinate their opposition to the point John is able to identify this opposing movement as the “libertines”, men and women who believed God’s free gift of grace removed the requirement of submission to the law, whether civil or ecclesiastical. Space does not permit to detail of the constant back-and-forth between John and his opponents, most of which makes for an intriguing political thriller, but it will be said the libertines steadily gained influence and power over the decade, culminating in the summer of 1553. Battered, beaten, and stripped of much of his power and influence, John requests to resign for his duties and leave Geneva once again; the libertine-controlled council refused, desiring to keep their opponent in a state of powerless humiliation. Yet just a few months later, the libertines would bring about their own undoing while at the height of their powers through their handling of the trial and execution of Michael Servetus.

Michael Servetus, a scientist and Protestant theologian, had a long and active publishing career where he openly protested against Christian orthodoxy, specifically the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus and John would regularly dialogue, but Michael refused to receive correction from John or any of the other Reformed leaders who spoke with him, and would regularly publish material aimed at promoting anti-orthodox views or responding to Reformed leaders and their works. In 1553, the publication book The Restoration of Christianity, in which he rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and other doctrines agreed upon by both Catholics and Protestants, will result in his arrest and examination by the French authorities. He escapes from prison, and the Catholic authorities condemn him to death in his absence. In a remarkable move, Servetus stops in Geneva during his escape to hear John preach, where he is quickly recognized and arrested. The libertines take the chance to use this arrest and trial to harass John, but would run into difficulty when faced with the fact that Servetus had already been condemned as a heretic by Catholic authorities, and many other influential cities throughout Europe were eager to see this heretic punished. The council would then seek the opinion of other Swiss cities, thinking they would be able to use their responses against John, and Servetus’s desire for the trial to take place in Geneva was largely due to his awareness of the council’s opposition to John. On October 20th, however, the Swiss cities – Zurich, Basel, and Bern, among others – were universal in condemning Servetus to death, and the following day he is sentenced to burning at the sake, which was carried out nearly a week later. 

The Servetus incident is a tragic and unfortunate episode, one that often offends our modern sensibilities about the freedom of the individual to inwardly determine what they believe, but such assumptions are foreign to the late medieval world, and regrettably the Servetus incident is used to paint a negative picture of John and his ministry in Geneva. It must be understood that this incident occurred in part due to the fact that John’s authority was at its lowest, and his opponents were glad to use Servetus as a pawn against him. Yet this would backfire; the execution of Servetus would boost John’s reputation as a defender of Christianity, and would spell the beginning of the end for his libertine opponents. Over the course of the next two years, support for the libertine opposition would decrease, crumbling rapidly in the spring of 1555, where several failed coups and other insurrectionist scares led to the banishment or execution of the remaining libertine leaders. 

With his opposition quelled, John’s ministry in Geneva would reach its peak impact over the next nine years. Geneva would become a model city that would attract curious attention from all over Europe, a shelter for Protestant refugees and exiles (especially from England under the reign of Bloody Mary), and the home base for renewed efforts for the reformation of France. His preaching and publishing would continue onward and establish him as a Reformer of equal importance and significance as Martin Luther, and John would work to bring unity to the Reformation and it’s leaders with mixed success. In 1559 he publishes his final edition of the Institutes, which is considered the authoritative text used today, although at nearly twice the size of the previous edition, appreciation and use for prior editions is gaining ground, such as Robert White’s recent translation of the French 1541 version. Space does not permit a recollection of John’s other accomplishments in the city and in his ministry, but needless to say, the last nine years of his life proved to be among the most fruitful and productive of his life.

On February 6th, 1564, John preached his final sermon. In addition to the health issues that plagued his entire life, he had dealt with the severe fever, violent coughing, and kidney stones over the prior years, culminating in the busting of a blood vessel in his lungs. Near the end of April, sensing his end was near, he wrote his will, and began saying his farewells, writing goodbyes to the men he had labored with, such as Farel, and making his goodbyes to the Genevan leadership. On May 27th, 1564, John would pass away at the age of 54. John wished to be buried in an unmarked, common grave, and after a day of interning his body for the public and seeing the overwhelming response to his death, John was buried a day later in the unmarked grave, fulfilling his request.

Bibliography

Parker, T.H.L. “John Calvin: A Biography.” Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.


1: Parker, T.H.L. “John Calvin: A Biography.” Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, 103

[2]

Parker, T.H.L. “John Calvin: A Biography.” Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, 122

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