The John Calvin Center
The Meeter Center for Calvin Studies
John Calvin Resources on the Internet
John Calvin The Theologian
Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism
A Summary of John Calvin's Defense of Paedobaptism
Institutes of the Christian Religion
Institutes of the Christian Religion
Institutes of the Christian Religion
French theologian John Calvin was, after Martin Luther, the guiding spirit of the
Protestant Reformation. If Luther sounded the trumpet for reform, Calvin orchestrated the score by which the
Reformation became a part of Western civilization.
Calvin was born in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509. He received formal instruction for
the priesthood at the Collège de la Marche and the Collège de Montaigue, branches of
the University of Paris. Encouraged by his father to study law instead of theology, Calvin
also attended universities at Orléans and Bourges. Along with several friends he grew
to appreciate the humanistic and reforming movements, and he undertook studies in the
Greek Bible. When his father died in 1531, Calvin returned immediately to the
study of the classics and theology. Between 1526 and 1531, he experienced a distinctly Protestant
conversion. "God," he wrote much later, "at last turned my course in another direction by the secret rein of
his providence." Calvin's first published work was a commentary on Seneca's De Clementia (1532). A profusion of
influential commentaries on books of the Bible followed.
His position in France became precarious when in 1533 his friend Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, gave a public address supporting reform. Eventually Calvin was forced to flee in 1535 to Basel, Switzerland. There he produced a small book about his new reformed beliefs. It was designed to offer a brief summary of essential Christian belief and to defend French Protestants, who were then undergoing serious persecution, as true heirs of the early church. This first edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) contained only six brief sections. By the last edition (1559), it had grown to 79 full chapters. The Institutes presents with unmatched clarity a vision of God in his majesty, of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, of the Holy Spirit as the giver of faith, of the Bible as the final authority, and of the church as the holy people of God. Its doctrine of predestination is Calvin's deduction from his belief in human sinfulness and God's sovereign mercy in Christ.
After the publication of the Institutes, Calvin fully intended to devote his life to further study. On a trip to Strasbourg in July 1536, however, he was forced to detour through Geneva where he hoped to stay only one night. The fiery Guillaume Farel, who had labored long for the reform of that city, had other plans. Threatening Calvin with a curse from God, Farel persuaded him to remain. The next 2 years were difficult, as Calvin's rigorous plans for reform of church and city clashed with Geneva's long-standing moral indifference. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were expelled from the city. Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg where he spent the most enjoyable years of his life as pastor of the city's French congregation. While in Strasbourg, Calvin produced an influential commentary on the Book of Romans, oversaw the preparation of a liturgy and a psalm book that he would use later in Geneva, and married the widow Idelette de Bure. In 1541 Genevans prevailed upon Calvin to return and lead them again in reforming the church. He remained in that city for the rest of his life, except for brief journeys in the interest of church reform. His wife died in 1549, and he did not remarry. Although he received a house and stipend from the government, he did not hold office in the government, and he did not even become a citizen of Geneva until 1559. Until the defeat of the Perrin family in 1555, there was significant opposition to Calvin's leadership in the city.
Calvin drafted the new ordinances that the government modified and adopted as a constitution for Geneva governing both secular and sacred matters. Calvin also supported development of a municipal school system for all children, with the Geneva Academy as the center of instruction for the very best students. In 1559 the academy was begun, with Theodore Beza as rector of what soon became a full university.
Calvin sought to improve the life of the city's citizens in many ways. He supported good hospitals, a proper sewage system, protective rails on upper stories to keep children from falling from tall buildings, special care for the poor and infirm, and the introduction of new industries. He encouraged the use of French in churches, and he personally contributed to its formation as a modern language by his vernacular writings. But Some Genevans then, and many critics later, considered Calvin's morality absurdly severe, with its banning of plays and its attempt to introduce religious pamphlets and psalm singing into Geneva's taverns. Others have admired the courage of his conviction that all of life should glorify God.
According to Calvin, the Bible specified the nature of theology and of any human institutions. Thus, his statements on doctrine began and ended in Scripture, although he frequently cited the church fathers and important medieval Catholic thinkers. He sought to minimize speculation on divine matters and instead to draw on the Word of God. He also urged the church to recover its original vitality and purity.
In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin sought to articulate biblical theology in a sensible way, following the articles of the Apostles' Creed. The four books in the definitive edition focus on the articles “Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit,” and “Church.”
On the Father
Knowledge of God is bound up with self-knowledge. In the world and in the human conscience, spiritual demands are manifest. God created the world and made it good. Since the fall, however, humanity, by its own powers, has been able to apprehend God only rarely and imperfectly. On their own, human beings can never achieve a true religious life based on the knowledge of God. In God's grace, however, conveyed through Jesus Christ as described in the Bible, the Creator resolved this destructive dilemma and enabled humanity to gain a clear view of revelation. Those people who learn the truth about human depravity—that even the best deeds are tainted and none is pure—can repent and depend on God the Father for salvation.
On the Son
Human sin, inherited from Adam and Eve, produces in each person an “idol factory.” All individuals deserve destruction, but Jesus Christ served as prophet, priest, and king to call the elect into eternal life with God. Christ summons the chosen into new life, interceding for them in his atonement, and he reigns at God's right hand. Calvin took pains to emphasize the continuity of his doctrines with Christian orthodoxy as expressed in the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds.
On the Spirit
God's Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, gives power to the writing and the reading of Scripture, to the devotional life of believers, and to Christian growth in Christ (sanctification). It also permits faith that God's resurrection of the dead will bring the saved into perfection in God's presence. Any assurance of election to grace is given by the Spirit, and even the condemnation of the damned according to God's justice works by the power of the Spirit.
On the Church
God's church and the sacraments are also given in God's grace for the edification of the elect and the good of the world. The church, one through all time, can be known by the preaching and hearing of God's Word and the proper administration of the sacraments. Although the true church is known only to God, the visible church is thoroughly related to it on earth. Officers and leaders in the church should be those individuals who try responsibly to follow in Christian discipleship, but their authority cannot depend on their righteousness. The offices should be only those designated in the New Testament. Sacraments (baptism and the Eucharist) should be celebrated as mysteries in which Christ is spiritually present; in the Eucharist he believed that Christ is present both symbolically and by his spiritual power, which is imparted by his body in heaven to the souls of believers as they partake of the Eucharist. This position, which has been called "dynamic presence," occupies a middle ground between the doctrines of Luther and Zwingli.
Calvin stressed the sovereignty of God, the nature of election and predestination, the sins of pride and disobedience, the authority of Scripture, and the nature of the Christian life. Calvin shared Martin Luther's belief in the Bible as the unique rule for the life of faith and the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but differed from his fellow reformer in defending the subjugation of the state to the church. His theology has been recognized as lying in the Pauline-Augustinian tradition; Calvin tried to steer what he perceived to be a middle course between an exclusive emphasis on divine providence and an exclusive emphasis on human responsibility.
Many of the tenets of Calvinism have had profound social implications—in particular, that thrift, industry, and hard work are forms of moral virtue and that business success is an evidence of God's grace. Because these views helped to create a climate favorable to commerce, Calvinism played a role in the overthrow of feudalism and the establishment of capitalism.
Calvinism remains an important strain within Protestant thought. In the 20th century, the influential Swiss theologian Karl Barth placed great emphasis on the Calvinist doctrine of God's supremacy, beside which all human activity is seen as worthless.
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