Artist’s depiction of John Calvin in his study
John Calvin (1509-1564) came to saving faith in Jesus Christ in his early twenties, not many years after the Protestant Reformation spread to his homeland of France. When persecution broke out against French Protestants early in 1535, Calvin sought refuge in the Protestant city of Basel, Switzerland. He desired to pursue the quiet career of a contemplative scholar. To that end, during the summer of 1536 he sought to travel to Strasbourgh to continue his studies there.
But God providentially led Calvin instead to Geneva where he was recruited by a zealous Reformer named William Farel to stay and help advance the Protestant Reformation then taking place in that city. Calvin threw himself into that endeavor and some good initial progress was made. But opposition arose to those Reformation efforts, and in 1538 Calvin was ordered to leave Geneva by the city government.
After spending three happy, peaceful years in Strasbourgh, however, Calvin’s supportive acquaintances back in Geneva gained greater influence in their city and urged him to return to resume his reforming ministry there. Upon doing so in 1541, Calvin prepared a series of Ecclesiastical Ordinances that were approved by the city government with some modifications. Those ordinances placed the governance of the church in Geneva mostly in the hands of the Consistory, which was made up of the church’s five pastors and twelve lay elders. The Consistory, led by Calvin, sought to maintain high moral standards for the citizens of the city, who were also the members of the church. Punishable offenses included such transgressions as absences from public worship, blasphemy, adultery, drunkenness and gambling.
Artist’s depiction of John Calvin refusing the Libertines communion
Not surprisingly, not a few in Geneva resented and opposed Calvin and the Consistory’s strict standards. This was true of some of the influential families in Geneva’s high society who called themselves Libertines. For the better part of fifteen years after Calvin returned to Geneva, the church Consistory and the city government repeatedly clashed. On a number of occasions Calvin’s position of leadership became quite precarious. But he continued to hold his ground against the Libertines by refusing them the right to participate in the church’s communion services.
In the meanwhile, throughout Calvin’s second residence in Geneva, some 6,000 Protestant refugees, most of them from his native France, settled in the city, thus strengthening his base of support. Finally in 1555 the Libertines had to flee the city after overplaying their hand by fomenting an armed riot against French immigrants. After that, for the final nine years of his life, Calvin’s leadership and the church regulations he and the Consistory had established were no longer challenged.
In 1559 one of Calvin’s longtime desires was realized in the opening of the Genevan Academy. The school was under the direction of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s eventual successor as Geneva’s theological leader. Students at the academy included not only youth from Geneva but also students from various parts of Europe who later returned to their native lands, taking Calvinistic principles with them. Among those who spent some time training in Geneva was John Knox, the fiery Scottish Reformer. Knox called Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ since the apostles.”
Throughout Calvin’s years in Geneva, his work output was enormous. He presented daily sermons and lectures, from which he produced a series of commentaries (the first of their kind) on most of the books of Scripture. Calvin’s Commentaries, comprising twenty-two substantial volumes, are still widely and profitably used to the present day. Calvin also generated a steady stream of theological treatises and maintained a massive correspondence. Four secretaries at a time were kept busy assisting him with his workload. In addition, he labored in Geneva’s Consistory court, counseled many individuals and entertained endless visitors.
Reformation Wall in Geneva. From left – William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox
Calvin accomplished all this despite being plagued by a number of health problems. In the closing years of his life he suffered from chronic indigestion, headaches, gallstones, hemorrhoids, gout, fever and asthma. Despite those ailments, he pushed himself relentlessly, sleeping only four hours a night. Likely his poor health and early death at age fifty-four were due in part to his excessive labors and insufficient rest.
John Calvin stands with Martin Luther as the two most influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Both the Reformed (Calvinistic) and Lutheran branches of Protestantism have spread throughout the world. The influence of Calvin and Luther continues to this day, not only in Reformed and Lutheran circles but in other denominations as well.
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Sources used: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 2, pp. 61-69; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 274-281; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Calvin,” James I. Packer (Moody, 1988), pp. 206-215.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie