John Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. From the beginning, young Calvin was steeped in the ecclesiastical structure and tradition of the Catholic Church. Calvin’s father had planned a life in the clergy for his son, who became a chaplain at the Cathedral of Noyon at twelve. He went on to study intensive theology, Latin, and philosophy at Collège de la Marche and Collège de Montaigu, both in Paris. In 1528, Calvin’s father suddenly told his son to pursue a career as a lawyer instead. Calvin obliged and studied law in Orleans. After completing his law degree, in 1531 Calvin returned to Paris.
Calvin has been described as a Christian stoic; he wrote very little about himself and was much less prone to spiritual outbursts than, for example, Luther was. As a result, we have only limited knowledge of his rejection of the Catholic Church and his acceptance of Protestant Christianity. Calvin was still a child when Luther famously wrote his 95 Theses, so by the time he had completed his education, the Reformation was already in full swing. The teachings of the Reformation were a hotly debated issue in Paris. Soon after his return, Calvin accepted the ideas of the Reformation, most importantly Luther’s idea of salvation through grace alone, and joined other notable French reformers in protesting the corruption of the Catholic church. After being suspected of supporting Nicholas Cop’s speech pleading for tolerance of Protestant Christianity in France, Calvin was forced to flee the Catholic Church’s persecution. He fled to Basel, Switzerland, and at age 26 he began to write one of the most influential treatises on systematic theology in Protestant Christianity.
That treatise was Institutes of the Christian Religion, or simply the Institutes. In the Epistle to the Reader, Calvin said, “My object in this work was to prepare and train students of theology for the study of the Sacred Volume, so that they might both have an easy introduction to it, and be able to proceed in it, with unfaltering step.” Just as Luther believed that access to translations of the Bible in the vernacular would spread Protestant thought, Calvin recognized that if Christians had more information about the specifics of Protestant theology, they would be much more willing to become Protestant. Calvin’s objective in writing the Institutes was apologetic as well as instructional: by providing a systematic manual explaining the Protestant understanding of the Bible, he hoped to spread the Reformation to Catholic France and convince those in political power it was their biblical duty to provide tolerance to Protestants.
The Institutes was powerful, not because the ideas in it were new, but because Calvin systematized, defined, and expanded the ideas clearly. He emphasized allowing Scripture to inform all facets of the Christian’s life, not just the spiritual. He believed that the purpose of government was to enforce God’s sovereign will on earth. Indeed, the striking focus throughout the Institutes was God’s sovereignty over mankind. Calvin’s explanation of concepts such as predestination and assured salvation to the elect provided Protestants with a renewed sense of security in their salvation during religious and political turmoil during the Reformation. The idea that God had sovereign control over mankind and the implied idea that the Reformation was God revitalizing the church perpetuated and strengthened the Reformation.
After writing the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin wanted to move to Strasbourg, Germany to continue quietly studying and writing. Along the way, in Geneva, he met a passionate reformer named William Farel, who persuaded Calvin to stay and teach in Geneva. Interestingly, Calvin’s belief in the connection of church and state paralleled Catholic tradition and informed his leadership in Geneva. Heresy was punishable by death since it was a crime not only against the church, but also against the state. Although this intolerance is now rightly perceived as being just the kind of intolerance Calvin saw and argued against in Catholic countries, Calvin’s conviction and commitment to his ideas are what made his theology so influential and enduring. During his time in Geneva, he continued to write, expanding the Institutes and writing extensive commentary on Scripture. He died in 1564, having left an indelible mark on Christianity.
Corrie Anna Campbell is a junior in her second year with the Potter’s School. She lives in Denver, Colorado. This year, she is taking College British Literature, AP US History, AP Calculus AB, Spanish, and Theology Matters with TPS. She has an insatiable curiosity and especially enjoys learning about science, history, and other cultures, so she enjoys reading and traveling. She has also been a violinist for twelve years and enjoys playing violin and listening to classical music.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002.
Durant, Will. The Reformation. New York, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1957.
Hanko, Prof. Herman. “The Relation Between the Lutheran and Calvin Reformation.” Hope, www.hopeprc.org, hopeprc.org/pamphlets/the-relation-between-the-lutheran-and-calvin-reformation/.
Woollin, David. “The Development and Impact of John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’.” Reformation Today, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Aug. 2013, www.reformation-today.org/articles-of-interest/the-development-and-impact-of-john-calvins-institutes-of-the-christian-religion/.
Yrigoyen, Jr. Charles, and John B. Payne. “John Calvin.” Christianity Today, 8 Aug. 2008, www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/john-calvin.html.
Holbein, Hans. “Portrait of John Calvin”. Hekman Digital Archive, http://library.calvin.edu/hda/node/2384.