Wow, we’ve now arrived to the top three in our Top Ten Theologians series. Whether you consider yourself a 5-point Calvinist, 4-point Calvinist, Arminian or something else; John Calvin should be a hero in your life. In order to appreciate Calvin we need to have a working knowledge of his world.
A Post-Reformation World
The world was forever changed on October 31st, 1517AD. While John Calvin was only 8 years old, a 33 year old German priest posted 95 grievances he had with his church. No human being could have anticipated the actions stemming from one monk, Martin Luther, who wanted to reform his church.
All people will agree the 15th century church needed reformation. The church of the day started to contradict itself in many areas. A crack had been developing for quite some time.
Martin Luther was a brilliant troubled man. He excelled scholastically but found no relief for his soul. Much like Bunyan’s character “Christian” in Pilgrim’s Progress, Luther had a burden of sin he couldn’t unload. Getting rid of his burden became the occupying passion of his life.
Luther tried over and over to attain righteousness. There were many religious ways in the 15th century to supposedly attain righteousness from sin. Luther tried them all to no avail. He eventually discovered how to be righteous. Only one way could remove his burden of sin. Righteousness was not attained. It could not be attained. It only came as a gift through faith in Christ. Luther was now a free man.
The institutionalized church made a drastic error one day when they sent a guy to raise money from Luther’s congregation. They were told money given would quicken the time their dead relatives would spend in the pain of Purgatory. Do you want your grandma in heaven? Give me $1,000. If you give me just $100 it will help, but if you want your grandma in heaven faster give me $1,000. The sale of these indulgences absolutely infuriated Luther. His congregation couldn’t afford what they gave. Their hearts were in the right place, but they were simply led astray. Luther knew their money made no difference. Luther’s 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle were 95 reasons why the sale of indulgences was an idiotic scheme from a church in dire need of reform.
The twenty years following October 31st, 1517 were unexpected by all. It was as if Luther’s 95 theses was a spark which set the world on fire.
Luther’s fear of God and of unwarranted innovation were such that he had hesitated to take the concrete steps that would follow from his doctrine.1 With Luther hidden in a castle to prevent his death by the church, Luther’s thoughts were quickly taken to an extreme by others. In 1524, a peasant rebellion broke out in Germany under the name of Luther and the Reformation. The peasants wanted religious reform, but they equally sought economic reform. The motives and actions of everyone involved cannot be known. The aftermath is known. More than 100,000 peasants were killed in Germany.
In 1527, right after these events, troops from Spain and Germany sacked the city of Rome. Since many of these troops were part of the reformation the sack of Rome took on a heavily religious tone. How would the church survive? All over Europe reforms were taking place. Some reforms took place inside of the church, many outside of the traditional church. The Protestant church was being born. What would the church look like?
Luther brought great reform but still held to beliefs which other reformers thought unbiblical. Erasmus wanted great reform but didn’t want to leave the church. Zwingli wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch. Zwingli and Luther met to try to bring unity. They couldn’t agree on a unified Reformed church. Other reformers from all over Europe were leading people into many differing directions. Had we lost true North? Could all the various Protestant teachings be brought into a cohesive whole? Would the Reformation die from a lack of unity?
John Calvin arrived to provide the much needed theological stability and unity for the Reformed church. While Luther was the trumpet call of the Reformation, Calvin provided the symphony.
John Calvin was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. Calvin’s mother, sadly, died a few years after his birth from a breast disease. His father held a prosperous administrative position working at the cathedral. His father, initially, desired for all his sons to join the priesthood. His connections allowed much of Calvin’s schooling to be paid by the Noyon church.
By age 12, Calvin was studying Latin about 70 miles north of his home town from one of its great teachers at the University of Paris.2 Upon completing his studies in Latin he became a philosophy student.
Around 1526, at the age of 17, his dad pulled him away from a path of theological studies to study law. This was possibly due to a conflict between the priests at Noyon and Calvin’s father.3 His father believed his academically gifted son would make more money through a career in law.4
Calvin entered the University of Bourges. Bourges is a French town 200 miles north of Noyon. Here he would learn from humanists who stressed classical studies. He would also become familiar with the thoughts of pre-reformers Wycliffe, Huss and also Luther.5 Of this time he later declared, “I was stubbornly tied to the superstitions of the papacy.”6 Calvin would learn Greek at Bourges, equipping him to study the New Testament.7
In 1533, at the age of 24, Calvin experienced a religious conversion. He writes about it in his Commentary on the Book of Psalms:
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, yet I pursued them with less ardour.8
Calvin’s conversion experience corresponded with a distinct break from the Roman Catholic Church. On May 4th, 1534 he resigned from the clerical benefits that had been provided for him during his childhood, which officially broke off relations with the unreformed church and clergy.9 From this time forward, he would never cease from tireless work in support of the Reformed Church.10
On the Run
The atmosphere of France had changed by 1535. The country was not safe for leaders of the new Reformed movement. At the age of 26, Calvin decided to leave his country behind. He traveled 360 miles southeast to Basel, Switzerland looking for a safe retreat where he could devote his time to study. Gonzalez explains, “What he sought was not to become one of the leaders of the Reformation, but rather to settle in a calm environment where he could study Scripture and write about his faith.”11
Institutes of the Christian Religion
While in Basel, Calvin heard of horrific events transpiring back home in France. Reports reached him of the “many burnings” taking place in France and the perverse explanations given for these. What was being burned? People were being burned alive; people who led the Reformation. These people’s views were being terribly misrepresented. Calvin sensed more horror would come if he didn’t do something. McNeill explains:
Calvin decided that silence on his part would entail a just charge of cowardice and treachery. He could not be silent while those who had suffered death for their faith, and whom he regarded as faithful and “holy martyrs” were so grossly misrepresented, and while many still living were similarly imperiled. Some of the sufferers were his personal friends, notably the Paris merchant, Etienne de la Forge…who was burned alive February 15, 1535. He felt bound, as he says, to “vindicate from undeserved insult my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord.”12
John Calvin, as his friends literally burned at the stake in his home country, sat down and wrote certainly with a lump in his throat and a heart on fire to redeem those paying the ultimate price. To show everyone these people were living out the true Christian faith. The reformation was not a newly invented heresy; it was orthodox biblical Christianity rooted in the Ancient church. Although he certainly had already been working on his book, he labored intensely from January until August of 1535. The work was published in Basel in March of 1536. Calvin was only 26 years old.
The 16th century did not care about short pithy titles. The Latin title of his first edition can be translated:
The Institute of the Christian Religion, Containing almost the Whole Sum of Piety and Whatever It is Necessary to Know in the Doctrine of Salvation. A Work Very Well Worth Reading by All Persons Zealous for Piety, and Lately Published. A Preface to the Most Christian King of France, in Which this Book is Presented to Him as a Confession of Faith. Author, John Calvin, of Noyon. Basel, MDXXXVI13
His work was presented to the King of France to convince him to stop the burning of his reformed friends. Hopefully the Institutes would provide the badly needed systematic defense of the reformed faith.
Until the publication of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion most Protestant literature had dealt exclusively with specific points of discussion. Most literature said little regarding the Trinity, the Incarnation, and many other important doctrines. Calvin sought to fill this vacuum with his short manual.14 The first edition consisted of only six chapters totaling 516 pages. Gonzalez explains the book’s reception:
Calvin would continue updating his Institutes for the rest of his life.
The 6 chapters would grow to 80. The entire work shows a profound knowledge, not only of Scripture, but also of Christian literature – particularly the works of Augustine – and of the theological controversies of the sixteenth century.16
While Calvin respected the leaders of the Reformation, he was convinced his gifts were not that of the pastor or the leader, but rather those of the scholar and author.17 Calvin made a decision in 1536, shortly after the publication of the Institutes, which would drastically change his plans. He decided a move to Strasbourg, Switzerland would help his study and writing. In order to get to Strasbourg, Calvin would pass through the city of Geneva.
Calvin arrived at Geneva in 1536 planning simply to stop there for no more than a day, and then continuing on his journey. A 47 year old man named William Farel happened to hear the author of the Institutes was in town. Here’s what happened:
Farel, who “burned with a marvelous zeal for the advancement of the gospel,” presented Calvin with several reasons why his presence was needed in Geneva. Calvin listened respectfully to the other man, some fifteen years older. But he refused to heed Farel’s plea, telling him that he had planned certain studies, and that these would not be possible in the confused situation Farel was describing. When Farel had exhausted his arguments, and failed to convince the young theologian, he appealed to their common Lord, and challenged Calvin with a dire threat: “May God condemn your repose, and the calm you seek for study, if before such a great need you withdraw and refuse to help.” Calvin responds: “these words shocked and broke me, and I desisted from the journey I had begun.”18
It’s not every day someone threatens God’s condemnation on your soul if you don’t do what they want. Farel probably wanted Calvin to become minister in the church of Geneva right way, but Calvin was unwilling to do that even though he had agreed to stay.19 Calvin’s biblical knowledge, theological insight, legal training and his zeal for reform quickly made him the leader of the Reformation in Geneva. Farel gladly became the number two guy.
The City Council ran into an issue with Calvin. Calvin wanted the church to be able to discipline its members, if necessary. The city council, however, wanted to retain the ultimate right to excommunicate someone from the church. Calvin did not suggest the church is in control of the state. He was simply asking that the church be in charge of the church and not under the state when relating to the church’s own particular responsibilities.20 Calvin’s issue with the City Council did not go how Farel and Calvin anticipated. After just twenty-one months Calvin was fired as pastor. He was twenty-eight years old and apparently a pastoral failure.21 Calvin went back to his initial plans, and moved to Strasbourg.
While in Strasbourg, Calvin preached or taught every day with two sermons on Sunday. He published his second edition of the Institutes in 1539 and published his Commentary on Romans in 1540. Around this time Calvin’s friends pressured him to get married. Calvin reluctantly agreed to marry a young noble lady on the one condition that she learned French. The wedding was planned for March. He later wrote that he would never think of marrying her, “unless the Lord had entirely bereft me of my wits.”22 Instead, in August, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children from her first marriage.23
Return to Geneva
In September of 1540, one month after getting married, the Geneva city council voted to invite Calvin back to pastor. Calvin’s first reaction, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross on which I had to perish daily a thousand times over.”24 Farel came once again to the rescue of Geneva. Farel convinced Calvin to return. Calvin did not hurry. It took him a year to arrange his affairs, but in August 1541 he arrived back in Geneva.25 Godfrey writes, “In 1541 Calvin was a more mature and patient man than he had been in 1538. Although he was still only thirty-two, he had learned the value of waiting and determined to try to work with those who had opposed him.”26
Calvin would spend the rest of his life with his family in Geneva. He would reform Geneva to be what he considered an ideal city of the Reformation. He would preach sermons every day with three on Sunday.
Calvin’s health began to fail after 1559. Farel paid his friend a last visit. Calvin died on May 27, 1564.
A great asset to all Christians coming after Calvin is the depth, breadth, passion and clarity of his writing.
The Word of God is central to the vast thoughts of Calvin. The medieval church treasured the Bible as the very Word of God. It believed the Bible was true and invested much time and manpower in copying the Bible by hand. But the medieval church had no confidence that the Bible could be understood by those who read it. Calvin rejected the medieval church’s approach to the Bible where it was honored, kissed, and carried in procession but was seldom opened or read by the people.27
Calvin clearly sees the Word of God as the lifeblood for every believer. He writes:
For, if we consider the mutability of the human mind, how easy its fall into forgetfulness of God; how great its propensity to errors of every kind; how violent its rage for the perpetual fashioning of new and false religions, it will be easy to perceive the necessity of heavenly doctrine being committed to writing, that it might not be lost in oblivion, or evaporate in error, or be corrupted by the presumption of men.”28
David Mathis explains the unique thoughts of Calvin:
Led by Scriptures, he rethought as much of reality as he was able, consciously appropriating God’s revelation of himself in the Bible and in the person of his Son. In a day when many saw human reason and divine revelation as equals, the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura – not Scripture as the only authority, but Scripture as the only ultimate authority – changed everything for Calvin. It captured him as a reality so massive that it would take more than a few weeks and a quiet place of study to work out its implications.(Mathis, With Calvin in the Theater of God, p21-22)
Calvin lived and wrote as a man constantly aware of a big sovereign God.30 He made sure the person interacting with his thoughts on God would only continue reading if the thoughts were leading to appropriate worship and obedience. The secret of his mental energy lies in his piety; its product is his theology, which is his piety described at length.31 The piety and mental energy of Calvin has had incredible influence.
Karl Barth dramatically explains the influence of John Calvin by saying:
Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin. 32
Biographer Steven J. Lawson writes:
Towering over the centuries of church history, there stands one figure of such monumental importance that he still commands attention and arouses intrigue, even five hundred years after his appearance on the world stage. Called “one of the truly great men of all time,” he was a driving force so significant that his influence shaped the church and Western culture beyond that of any other theologian or pastor. His masterful expositions of Scripture laid down the doctrinal distinctive of the Protestant Reformation, making him arguably the leading architect of the Protestant cause33.
The greatest foible consistently brought up in the life of John Calvin is his involvement in the death of Michael Servetus. Servetus was a notable Spanish doctor. He was also interested in theology and wrote a number of works. He argued, among other provocative things, that the Council of Nicea had offended God.
Servetus had recently escaped from the prisons of the Catholic Inquisition in France, where he was being tried for heresy, and was passing through Geneva when he was recognized.35 Calvin wrote up a list of 38 accusations against him. The city government asked the advice of leaders throughout Switzerland, all agreed that Servetus was a heretic, not only by Catholic standards, but also by Protestant ones. The laws at the time were for heretics to be burned at the stake. Calvin argued for a less cruel death, but without having any formal governmental power Calvin was overruled and Michael Servetus was burned to death in Geneva.
It is important to note Calvin was operating in a lenient way compared with the atmosphere of his day. All of 16th century Europe would have burned Servetus at the stake.
Calvin’s Effect on Us
Those who spend time with Calvin walk away with a big God. We are told to make sure we live a holy life while meditating on our holy God. We are kept from seeking our salvation in any form of works. We have our hearts stirred to receive the entirety of God’s revelation.
As heirs to the Reformation, do our churches today have the same confidence in the truthfulness and authority of God’s Word?36 We have the Word of God on our shelves, computers, our phones, our iPads, but do we have it in our hearts and in our churches? Calvin scholar Robert Godfrey laments:
The worship of the church has become a feel-good experience, rather than a meeting with the holy God of the universe. Exciting music has become the new sacrament mediating the presence of God and his grace. Sermons have become pop psychology, moralistic exercises in self-help.37
Calvin’s big, biblical vision of God changes everyday life. If you really want to be practical, don’t reach for gimmicks, checklists, and self-helps, but come with Calvin to the Bible and get to know the most important realities in the universe: God, creation, sin, heaven, hell, Jesus, his cross and resurrection, the Holy Spirit. The biblical vision of the glory of God in Christ is the most practical reality in the universe. (Mathis, With Calvin in the Theater of God, p21-22)
The 21st century church is in great need of depth; a stirring of the head and heart. The sheep have been fed a steady diet of junk food for too long. John Calvin must be allowed to play an important role mentoring new shepherds in leading the church back to greener pastures for the glory of God.
What do you think of John Calvin? Please comment below on our #3 Top Ten Theologian. Up next,the second most influential theologian of Church History…
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