John Calvin is one of my favorite dead guys. Over the years, I’ve made an effort to read both Calvin’s writings and writings about Calvin. Probably the best thing written about Calvin is Bruce Gordon’s excellent biography appropriately entitled Calvin. A while back I was re-reading my notes on the book and realized once again the vast richness of information the book contains on Calvin’s life.
Let me share some of my notes from the book with you. I’ll share some unconventional John Calvin facts. I only picked 9, but I could have picked way, way more. Calvin was an interesting dude.
9 John Calvin Facts You (Probably) Didn’t Know
In no particular order. All quotes are from Gordon’s biography.
1. His name is not John Calvin.
At least not at birth. He was born as “Jean Cauvin.” We don’t know when and why Calvin changed his name, but we know that “Name changing was a commonplace among humanists of the sixteenth century.”
So, yes, you can call him John Calvin. But I find it interesting that he was born with a slightly different name.
2. Calvin was shy and awkward.
If you read Calvin’s work, you’ll notice something: He hardly ever writes about himself. He was private and shy. He did not provide much self-disclosure through his books. Sometimes he was timid, at others times, he could be bashful. He described himself as shy and awkward. The closest thing we have to an autobiography is his commentary on the Psalms.
This is interesting because he is ruthless, unapologetic, and committed to excessive accuracy. People like this aren’t usually shy, but Calvin was.
3. Calvin often only got four hours of sleep at night and skipped dinner to study theology.
He died at age 55, but he was pretty much a skeleton at age 50. He worked himself to death. I’m glad he produced a lot of material for the church, but you shouldn’t mirror his life. As one of my professors says, “Calvin is a man to be admired, but not emulated.”
Here’s the quote that shows his study habits: “He often stayed up till midnight to study and ate hardly any supper in eagerness for his work. Each morning when he woke, he would stay in bed for a few moments while he recalled to mind all that he had studied the previous day and mull it over, so to speak.”
4. Calvin found it difficult to make friends.
He had good friends like Philip Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer, and William Farrel (for a while). Yes, he had some good friends. But considering his personality, making friends didn’t always come easy for Calvin. He sometimes bullied, intimated, and manipulated people. But some of these same people stayed loyal to him, even being there for him on his deathbed.
How does Calvin view friendship? “All his life,” Gordon writes, “Calvin would define friendship in terms of a commitment to a common cause; it was within that framework he was able to express fraternity and intimacy.”
5. Calvin’s insatiable desire for knowledge started at his conversion.
Calvin writes: “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein. . .”
This voracious dedication to knowledge would last until death.
6. Calvin never sought a platform.
That’s one of the things I like most about Calvin. He never sought fame or money or accolades or success or notoriety. He saw himself with a “special calling” — to interpret the Bible. Calvin viewed all of his studies and writings as devotion to the church, not to promote himself.
Gordon reminds us: “Calvin was not looking to become a reformer or to head a church. He sought another place like Angoulême, where he could continue his studies and writing.”
Calvin desired a private, quiet, solitary life where he could devote himself to study and writing. He wanted to be a scholar-theologian, but never a preacher or a pastor. I don’t have the space to explain the full story here. But basically, he was somewhat forced into the role of the pastorate by William Farrel who said that God would curse his studies if he didn’t oblige to Farrel’s request. Calvin obeyed. And the rest is, as they say, history.
7. Calvin wrote the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion at age 25. He was converted at age 24.
Some say he was 26 when he wrote the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. And he re-wrote it over and over again throughout his life. Either way, it’s impressive that he wrote a foundational, theological text at such a young age.
But how was Calvin able to write such a text after only one year of being a Christian?
I’m not sure I have an answer.
Apparently, neither does Gordon: “How this beautifully crafted expression and interpretation of God’s loving power appeared from the hand of twenty-five-year-old exile who had never formally studied theology cannot be adequately explained by historical circumstances.”
8. Calvin was a small town pastor.
In our day, there’s been lots of talk about church planting in cities. This is needed. But we must never overlook small towns or small town pastors because if we do, we’d overlook Calvin himself. Even more, we must never overlook small town heroes because if we do, we overlook Jesus himself. God loves and cares for the people in the country.
Gordon writes: “Geneva was a middling urban community of approximately 12,000 inhabitants, most of whom lived within walls rebuilt during 1530’s . . . in most respect, there was nothing remarkable about the city.”
You don’t have to live in a big city to make an impact for Jesus.
9. Calvin was not eager to be married, though he loved his wife, Idelette de Burre, dearly.
Calvin needed a wife, his friends told him. They mentioned women with beauty or wealth, but Calvin declined. They mentioned a particular woman who was godly, and Calvin said he would at least consider it.
Before marriage, Calvin admits, “I have never married, and I do not know whether I ever will. If I do, it will be in order to be freer from many daily troubles, and thus freer for the Lord. Lack of sexual continence would not be the reason I would point to marrying. No one can charge me with that.”
Gordon tells us that Calvin was growing tired of his friends pressuring him to marry.
Calvin says: “I am not one of those insane kind of lovers, who, once smitten by the first glance of a fine figure, cherishes even the faults of his lover. The only beauty that seduces me is of one who is chaste, not too fastidious, modest, thrifty, patient, and hopefully, she will be attentive to my health.”
Talk about being picky. Nevertheless, he married Idelette de Burr — a woman who was converted through his preaching — and was married to her for 9 years before she passed. He loved her dearly. Contrary to what others have said, Calvin was a good husband and loved Idelette well.
These are just nine observations from the book. There’s plenty more we can say. If you haven’t read a biography on Calvin, I suggest you do so. You will find great encouragement when you study the great saints of the past, and few are greater than the guy named Jean from Geneva.
Michael Horton on John Calvin
If you like learning about John Calvin, check out this video. Michael Horton speaks on Calvin and his ailments. I found this video encouraging.
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