Continued exposure to popular American evangelical religion has revealed to me once again how completely ahistorical modern Christianity has become. People use terms with no understanding of their origin or meaning and strongly react to what they mistakenly think is the truth. This could not be more apparent than when reference is made to John Calvin. It is akin to a “curse word” in some circles to be called a Calvinist. Who was this man John Calvin?
JOHN CALVIN: THE MAN
John Calvin, one of greatest Christian thinkers ever, was born July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, the second of five children. His father. Gerard Chauvin, was a man of some means and secretary to the bishop of Noyon. John became a chaplain at the ripe old age of 12! He later exchanged this office for a higher paying position. While still in his teen years he became aware of the Reformation in Germany which was led by the former Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483–1546). Calvin’s mother, Jeanne la France, died while he was still young. Thus at the age of 14 John was sent away to the University of Paris for study to become a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1528 the university granted him his M. A. degree, before he reached the age of 19. His father demanded that he take up the study of law (due to a conflict with the bishop of Noyon). He obtained a doctor of law degree in 1531, the year of his father’s death. His first book was a commentary on Senecca’s De Clementia, published in 1532. He was a well-read scholar and even after his conversion encouraged the reading of pagan writers who had God-given skills which could profit believers. Insight into this aspect of his thinking can be seen in a comment appearing in Calvin’s commentary on Titus where he writes: “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”
Calvin’s conversion to saving faith in Christ was sometime between 1532 and 1534. (He later wrote that before his conversion to Christ he had “an obdurate attachment to papistical superstitions.”) In his own words, written in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, he says simply, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.” In 1534, seemingly as a result of his conversion to Christ, he surrendered his lucrative clerical office and began to write as a Christian scholar. His first book, De Psychopannychia (On the Sleep of the Soul), was a polemical treatment of the heretical soul sleep doctrine of radical Anabaptists. He also wrote a preface to Olevitan’s French translation of the Scriptures.
In 1533 Calvin became a friend of Nicholas Cop, who was to become rector of the University of Paris. The two advocated a more spiritual church, advancing many principles of the Reformation. Eventually they had to flee for their lives! Such was the life of a faithful reformer in that time. The Catholic Church would later write of Calvin, “[He was] the most daring, subtle, adroit, [and] successful enemy of the church of God [i.e., Rome].” Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, where he studied the fathers of the church and early Christian theology. For the next three years he was forced to travel about, mostly for personal safety, in France, Switzerland and Italy.
By 1539 he clearly understood the work of reformation, displaying his burden in A Reply to Cardinal Sadolet, a book in which he stated his willingness to lay down his life for the truth of the Gospel. Luther referred to this book as one which “has hands and feet.”
HIS GREATEST WORK: THE INSTITUTES
His greatest written His greatest written work was to be The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic theology of the Bible which is erudite, yet profoundly clear and devotional. The first edition, which has only seven chapters, appeared in 1536 before Calvin reached his twenty-eighth birthday! This work was addressed to the King of France, Francis I, as a defense of the Biblical faith. The final revision was made in 1559 and is more than five times longer than the first edition, containing 79 chapters. If you have never read it I strongly urge you todo so. You may feel put off by the size or the title but believe me, this is life-changing material. (Purchase the two-volume set published by John Knox/Westminster Press in the Library of Christian Classics edition, edited by the late Ford Lewis Battles.) Calvin wrote a catechism, Instruction in the Faith, and a liturgy for the reformation of public worship, The Form of Ecclesiastical Prayers and Hymns. He also wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, covering the entire New Testament, except 2 and 3 John and Revelation. (It interests me how many wise men in the history of the church have struggled with Revelation while so many lesser men in our time are so “sure” they fully comprehend it!)
After completing the first edition of the famous Institutes Calvin appears to have desired a career of writing for reformation from the academic tower of scholarship. Providence dictated otherwise, for which I am profoundly grateful. He left Basel to go to Strasbourg where the wealth of his family would sustain him in writing. Due to warfare between Francis I and the Emperor Charles V he had to detour for a single night in Geneva. Here he was met by William Farel who desperately needed a younger man to help in the reforming efforts ongoing in the city. He threatened Calvin by saying, “I speak in the name of Almighty God. You make the excuse of your studies. But if you yourself refuse to give yourself with us to this work of the Lord, God will curse you, for you are seeking yourself rather than Christ.” Wow! How would you sleep after such counsel?
Calvin spent a sleepless evening, and Ronald Wallace adds that he “was stricken with terror,” as if the “hand of God from heaven” were arresting him. He submitted to Farel and became his pastoral associate in Geneva. The government later opposed them because they demanded a more Biblical pattern of public worship. This necessitated that they flee the city. Calvin finally got to Strasbourg where he met Martin Bucer, who had a profound theological impact upon him. Here he lectured and ministered to a small congregation as pastor. Here he also interacted with Lutheran Reformers and Roman Catholic scholars. In 1540, at the age of 31, he married Idelette de Bure, the widow of a former Anabaptist, who died only nine years after they were married. She gave birth to three children as John’s wife, all of whom died in infancy. In addition to these pains Calvin himself suffered physically throughout his entire life. His personal hardships were incredible. Lesser men would have quit. (The story of Idelette has been written by Mrs. Edna [John] Gerstner. and is in print from Soli Deo Gloria, PO. Box 451, Morgan, Pennsylvania 15064, for those who would like to read about this remarkable woman.)
THE RETURN TO GENEVA TO COMPLETE THE REFORMATION
In September 1541 the church in Geneva, again under Farel’s leadership, begged him to return when the situation had changed for the better. He knew hardship awaited him. It was his conviction that God wanted him to go as “a sacrifice to the Lord.” He went, remaining until his death, May 27, 1564, at the age of 54, having literally burned himself out. During these later years he continued to experience incredible opposition to reformation. Only from 1555 till his death did he see some measure of fruitfulness in his reforming cause. His health grew so bad that in his final years he was sometimes carried to the pulpit to preach. Yet he loved the Gospel and labored in preaching it almost every day in Geneva!
John Calvin was noted, by those who knew him, for eminent humility, teachableness and a willingness to forgive others who had wronged him. He was also quick to ask for forgiveness. He confesses he had a fiery temper at times. In writing to Bucer he noted: “My struggles are not greater against my vices, which are very great and numerous, than against my impatience; and my efforts are not wholly useless. I have not, however, been able yet to conquer that ferocious animal.”
He was a pastor who loved his people tenderly. He wrote of piety itself: “True piety consists … in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences Him as Lord, embraces His righteousness, and dreads offending Him worse than death.” He believed the Christian life was to be a life of self-denial, of resignation to the sovereign will and purpose of God! Bearing the cross of Christ should manifest itself in personal concern for the things of God. He was given to much prayer and spoke of it as “the principal exercise which the children of God have” and that prayer is “the true proof” of saving faith. He was neither a Pietistic escapist nor a joyless legalist, as the following makes plain: “We are nowhere forbidden to laugh, to be satisfied with food … or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.”
Further, Calvin was a great evangelist and missionary leader. He personally labored to bring many to faith in Christ. He would frequently distribute tracts in the open air and speak with people directly. He trained and sent hundreds of missionaries, especially into his native France. Of all the Protestant Reformers, Calvin had the clearest missions vision and heart.
“WILL THE REAL JOHN CALVIN STAND UP?”
Calvin was by no means right in all that he did or taught. No one is. He made some bad decisions, including consenting to the death of the infamous Servetus (a heretic). He also developed a reforming pattern that was at times more rigid than a proper New Covenant emphasis would warrant. But he has been so maligned by modern writers and preachers that the true story of one of the church’s greatest saints has been virtually lost to modern believers. I can still remember when I first heard the name of John Calvin. I deduced, quite falsely, that here was a man who was “austere, overly rigid, and the promoter of the kind of predestination doctrine that kills missions and evangelism. Here was a man who surely set back the cause of piety and revival.”
My view in those early years was given to me by others. This view is captured in the words of a famous evangelist who said of John Calvin, some years ago, “Calvin has…caused untold millions of souls to be damned.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, a generally helpful source, comments falsely that Calvin was “the virtually unopposed dictator of Geneva.” Yet Charles H. Spurgeon, admittedly the greatest preacher of the past century and a soul-winner who stands above all others, wrote, “The longer I live the clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s system is the nearest to perfection.” French philosopher Montesquieu wrote that the people of Geneva “should bless the birthday of Calvin.” I ask, then, will the real John Calvin please stand up?
I introduce you to Calvin’s life for a specific reason. To be labeled a Calvinist is not an awful thing, especially if it is understood what a Calvinist really is. Calvin himself did not create a system of theology; even the system often attributed to his name developed after his death. He did powerfully rediscover the great Pauline truths of God and grace in the clearest manner in his age. Read him for yourself. Don’t let men keep you from this vast treasure of solid Biblical truth. If you read Calvin, not simply about him from those who write about him, you will be led along by a careful teacher who deeply loves Christ and grasps the full-orbed God-centeredness of divine revelation.
Calvin’s symbol which can still be seen in Geneva, is an outstretched hand holding a burning heart, offered up to God with the motto: “My heart, O Lord, I offer as a sacrifice to God — promptly and sincerely.”
Interestingly, when he died, Calvin’s lone request was that he be buried in an unmarked grave. His request was honored. Thus we have, even in his last actions, a display of his genuine humility before a gracious, sovereign and glorious God. How unlike most who influence the church in our man-centered era.
VALUABLE RESOURCES WHICH WILL HELP YOU
In addition to the aforementioned works of John Calvin, I encourage those who are interested in the life of this great Reformer to purchase several useful books, including:
W. Gary Crampton, What Calvin Says. The Trinity Foundation: Hobbs, New Mexico, 88240, P O. Box 1666, 1992. An excellent overview. Much of what I have shared above came from reading Crampton’s introduction to John Calvin.
Graham Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom: An Anthology Arranged Alphabetically. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1992. The best volume of its kind. Highly recommended to the general reader for seeing Calvin’s overall wisdom in almost any area of interest.
John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Old Paths Publications: 223 Princeton Road, Audubon, New Jersey 08106. With an introduction by my friend, Dr. Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Theological Seminary West, this volume is a great little book which will get you into some of Calvin’s important teaching that is so desperately needed today.
Ronald Wallace, Calvin: Geneva and the Reformation. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1988. An extremely useful volume of essays, both biographical and theological.
Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin. Blackwell: Oxford, 1990. An important academic work that should be read after you have read the other books mentioned.
There are other valuable books that might be out of print, including Jean Cadier, The Man God Mastered, and T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography.
I have not given an exhaustive list. I have tried to give extensive information to lead you in the right direction. You can always call my friend, Fred Huebner at Cumberland Valley Bible Book Service (717) 249-0231 for in-print books and further help. His address is P.O. Box 613, Carlisle, Pennsylvania 17013.
I heartily recommend that you get your Calvinism from the Bible and from John Calvin’s writings, not from his critics and even from some friends who zealously misrepresent his theology. You will be a stronger and better Christian if you get to know this man.
John H. Armstrong is director of Reformation & Revival Ministries, Inc.
Reprinted from Reformation & Revival Update, March–April 1995.