Calvin, John


Calvin, John
( 1509-1564 )
   founder of the Reformed stream of Protestantism
   One of the principle intellectual and organizational leaders of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, John Calvin was the fountainhead of one of the two major streams of Reformation life. His thought helped define the Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist churches. Calvin can also be viewed as the inspiration for Arminianism, ultimately leading to Methodism.
   Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. His father directed him toward a career in the church and sent him to Paris to be schooled. After he completed his bachelor's degree, his father decided that law was better and sent him to Orleans and then to Bourges, where he completed work in 1531. He became an enthusiastic student of the Christian humanists of his day, and after his father's death in 1531 moved back to Paris to study with the likes of Jacques LeFevre d'Etaples.
   In 1533, Calvin was identified with a speech given by his friend Nicolas Cop espousing Protestant ideas for reform. The pair took refuge in Basel, Switzerland, where Calvin set to work on his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), the first systematic book-length presentation of Protestantism. Later that year, he moved to Geneva and accepted the offer of William Farel to assist in the reform of the city, but negotiations with the city council quickly came to a standstill. Calvin left for Strasbourg, where reformer Martin Bucer was leading the Reformation cause. While there, he wrote a commentary on the book of Romans, and developed his characteristic ideas on predestination for the second edition of the Institutes.
   In 1541, he accepted the invitation to return to Geneva, which would be his home for the rest of his life. The cathedral became his pulpit, and he preached twice every Sunday. His insistence on a strict moral code was popular, and his followers were elected to city offices. He aimed to work with the government, while keeping control of the church out of state hands. He placed the administration of the church into the hands of presbyters (elders), of which there were two kinds, preaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders (laypeople).
   The most important challenge to Calvin's authority came from Michael Servetus (1511-53). Calvin was offended by Servetus's attack on the Trinity and saw to his arrest and execution. This has remained the major blemish on his character from the historical viewpoint.
   The crucial points in Calvin's theology were the affirmation of the authority of the Bible, the sovereignty of God, salvation as God's gift, and the predestination and election of the saved. He worked out a position on the Lord's Supper that mediated between the Lutheran understanding of the real presence and Ulrich Zwingli's understanding of a memorial meal. Most of the Reformed church leaders of Calvin's time accepted his position. Calvin's legal background is reflected in his concept of the three uses of the law. in the hands of the state, the law constrains evil. In the hands of the church, it convicts people of sin and calls for repentance. In the hands of the regenerated Christian, it provides guidance for living the Christian life.
   Calvin wrote voluminously, including a set of biblical commentaries. He opened Geneva to many Protestant leaders who had fled persecution in their homeland, providing a place for them to learn and prepare for their return when a more favorable climate dawned. By harboring many of the Marian exiles, Calvin was an important force in the development of English Puritanism and in the eventual import of Reformed ideas and practices into Elizabeth I's via media, the platform of Anglicanism.
   Calvin died on May 27, 1564, and was buried in an unknown plot, on his own instructions.
   Calvin's writings have gone through many editions, and works about him are voluminous. The H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College/Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has since 1998 posted a running bibliography on new Calvin material at its Web page, http://www.calvin.edu/meeter.
   Further reading:
   ■ William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)
   ■ Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin, trans. by David Foxgrover and Wade Provo (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987)
   ■ W. Stanford Reid, John Calvin: His influence in the Western World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982)
   ■ David C. Steinmetz, Calvin in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
   ■ François Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1963; reprint, Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1987).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.