John Calvin is commonly acknowledged as the Reformation’s supreme Bible teacher and the primary systematizer of Reformation theology. He also provides an outstanding example of embracing God’s call on one’s life, even when it involves personal sacrifice to do so, and as a result to be greatly used of the Lord.
Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. By age twenty-one he had earned the B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Paris. At his father’s wishes, he then studied law at the universities of Orleans and Bourges, earning the B.A. and licentiate in law at the former university. Following his father’s death in 1531, Calvin returned to Paris to study the classics, desiring to pursue the quiet career of a contemplative scholar.
In his early years of study he was “stubbornly tied to the superstitions of the papacy.” But over time he was exposed to early Reformation teachings that had reached France. This led to what he called his “unexpected conversion,” when he came to personally embrace such Protestant tenets as the ultimate authority of Scripture and justification through faith in Christ alone.
Early in 1535, after Protestants in France began to face persecution, Calvin sought refuge in the Protestant city of Basel, Switzerland. There he wrote the first edition of his highly influential work Institutes of the Christian Religion. Over the next twenty-five years Calvin issued several subsequent editions of that volume, expanding it each time. The final edition consisted of eighty chapters. Church historian Bruce Shelley calls Calvin’s Institutes “the clearest, most logical, and most readable exposition of Protestant doctrine that the Reformation age produced.” The work has been translated into numerous languages and continues to be read and studied with benefit to this day.
During the summer of 1536, at age twenty-seven, Calvin determined to move to Strasbourgh to continue his studies there. While taking a roundabout route in order to skirt a local war, he was providentially brought to Geneva. In recent years a fiery reformer named William Farel had been leading the Protestant cause there. Hearing that the scholarly young author of the Institutes was in town for the night, Farel went to convince him to stay on in Geneva to help out with the Reformation there. When Calvin demurred, Farel pronounced a divine curse on his intended life of quiet studies if he would not stay to help them with the Lord’s work there! Stunned and convicted, Calvin agreed to remain.
The city council offered Calvin a position as “Professor of Sacred Scriptures,” and he earnestly took up his new responsibilities. He prepared a confession of faith to be accepted by anyone who wished to be a citizen, promoted daily gatherings for psalm singing and expository preaching, and called for an autonomous church court for censuring or, if necessary, excommunicating (usually by exclusion from the Lord’s Supper) delinquent members.
Not surprisingly, influential families in Geneva’s high society (who ominously called themselves Libertines) opposed Calvin’s strict standards. In 1538 the city magistrates refused to accept Calvin’s contention that church leaders should be granted the authority to excommunicate unrepentant church members. Calvin was ordered to leave Geneva, and Farel chose to go with him, thus showing his support for his highly-capable young colleague.
Calvin was able at last to make his way to Strasbourg. There he spent what may have been the three happiest years of his life. Martin Bucer, the highly respected and influential leader of the Reformation in Strasbourg, asked Calvin to pastor the French congregation that had formed there. Calvin produced a French liturgy and translated several Psalms and hymns into French for singing by the French exiles.
In 1540 Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children. They were happily married, though only for nine years, as Idellete died of illness in 1549. Calvin called her “the best friend of my life.”
By 1541 Calvin’s supporters had again regained power in Geneva. They urged him to return to once again lead the Reformation there. Doubtless with a significant degree of trepidation he agreed to do so. [To be continued in a future Perspective.]
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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