John Calvin is associated with someone’s death. He wrote one of the most influential Christian theological books of all time. Privately, he was shy and awkward. In public, he moved around with stunning confidence. He was impatient and bashful, yet pastoral and caring. We have never seen — and probably will never see — anyone like him.
Who is John Calvin, you ask? I have intentionally studied Calvin’s life over the years. This post is somewhat of a brief biography of his life. Let’s start with the early years.
First thing’s first: his name is not John Calvin. Well, 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, as Bruce Gordon tells us, “Name changing was a commonplace among humanists of the sixteenth century.”
Calvin was born on July 10th, 1509 in Noyon, France. He was the first of four children. His mother died when he was a child. Calvin had brothers named Antoine and Charles, and a half-sister named Marie. His father, Gerard Cauvin, was over 50 when Calvin was born, and he eventually died of testicular cancer but was an influence in Calvin’s life. He (Calvin’s dad) remarried after his first wife died, although little is known about either one. While Calvin did not write much about his personal life, he respected his father.
John Calvin’s intellectual abilities were quickly noticed by his father and others. Calvin was on track to study theology and move forward into a position within the church. However, in 1526, his dad directed him to abandon his theological studies and to begin studying to become a lawyer. And he did, studying in Orleans and Bourges until 1531. His studies in law would later help him as a thinker and writer. However, John Calvin did not become a lawyer, but a pastor, and that was soon after his conversion.
Calvin was eventually converted to Christ between ages 20-24. Historians and theologians do not agree upon the date and method of conversion. While Calvin did not write much about himself (unlike today, it was uncommon to speak about one’s personal life back then) the closest thing we have to an autobiography of his life is his commentary on the Psalms, in which he briefly mentions part of his conversion:
“When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose . . . but God, by the sweet guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course . . . God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame . . .”
He continues, “Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein . . . In short, whilst my one great object was to live in seclusion without being known, God so led me about through different turnings and changes, that he never permitted me to rest in any place, until, in spite of my natural disposition, he brought me forth to public notice.”
Calvin and the Institutes
It is estimated that Calvin wrote the first six chapters of the Institutes of the Christian Religion one year after his conversion, probably around the age of 26. This small book quickly became popular and distinguished Calvin as a thinker and theologian. He would add to it and re-write it the rest of his life. The book is known for its remarkable clarity, organization, and theological precision. John Calvin was an intellectual genius with remarkable administrative abilities, and it shows in this book. Many can attest to this book as one of the most popular theological books ever written. It is what Calvin is primarily known for. 500+ years later and lives are stilling being transformed by Calvin’s thoughts.
John Calvin and His Call to Ministry
Calvin landed a job in Strasbourg where he was going to work with Martin Bucer. On his way to Strasbourg, however, he realized that the Hapsburg-Valois War was disturbing his normal route. So he called an audible, and decided to go through Geneva to get to his destination.
In Geneva, Calvin signed into a local inn. He was only planning to be there for a single night. Guillaume Farel (aka William Farel), a fiery man, had heard of the young John Calvin and decided to visit him in Geneva. Farel wanted Calvin to stay in Geneva to help him with pastoral duties. Calvin declined. He was shy and did not want to be a pastor. He wanted to be a scholar. Most of all, he wanted to be left alone where he could focus on his study and writing. But God had other plans.
Farel, being the fiery, bold, and blunt man that he was, promised that God would curse Calvin’s studies if he did not agree to stay. Reluctantly, through Farel’s tactics, Calvin agreed. To say it another way, Calvin believed that God used Farel to call him into the ministry.
Calvin writes, “Farel detained me at Geneva not so much by counsel and exhortation as by a dreadful curse which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me . . .”
Calvin and Pastoral Ministry
So Calvin is now in Geneva. He is in pastoral ministry, working alongside the fiery Farel to reform the city of Geneva. Calvin never went to seminary. He probably was never ordained, although he was God’s man for the task. There were many political and theological issues that made Calvin’s pastorate difficult, not to mention his impatience and his tendency to be bashful. While he accomplished some things in his initial pastorate, Calvin was eventually fired at the age of 28 when him and Farel “refused to administer the Lord’s Supper according to Bernese prescriptions, which required unleavened bread. Irate city magistrates banished both Calvin and Farel, ordering them to leave Geneva within three days.”
Calvin left Geneva for Strasbourg, the place he wanted to go to all along. He eventually accepted the call to pastor a French congregation and serve as a Professor of theology at the Strasbourg Gymnasium.
Calvin, in Strasbourg, writes his famous commentary on Romans, participated in many theological discussions, and of course revised his Institutes. Here in Strasbourg, Calvin began a strong friendship with Martin Bucer, who he would later refer to as “my much-honored father in the Lord.” Calvin became known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit. He also wrote much on providence and predestination, two topics that struck a nerve with people in a city that was unpredictable and in constant distress.
Bucer played a huge role in Calvin’s life. As Willem Van ’T Spijker says, “Calvin became himself because of his friendship with Bucer.” Martin Bucer’s impact on Calvin was major, so much so that if it wasn’t for Martin Bucer’s influence, as I’ve heard someone say, Calvin would just be another footnote in Church history. Instead, he’s one of the most influential Christians to ever live.
John Calvin and Marriage
Up to this point, John Calvin is single. He needed a wife, his friends told him. Apparently, they were worried about his tendency to overwork, and they thought a wife would slow him down. 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.
Calvin says, “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.”
He adds, “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.”
Nevertheless, in Strasbourg is where John Calvin met and married Idelette de Burr — a woman who was converted through his preaching — and was married to her for 9 years before she passed. She was the widow of a prominent Anabaptist. Along with marrying her came two kids that she had in her previous marriage, although Calvin and Idelette never had kids.
Her death was tough on Calvin who, after his wife died, wrote: “May the Lord Jesus Christ support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly overcome me, had not he, who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretch forth his hand from heaven to me.”
Calvin Returns to Geneva
Calvin is reported to say, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over.” He said this in relation to going back to Geneva after they called him back to be their pastor. But after three years in Strasbourg, he did. In Geneva, Calvin continued on in the ministry and added to what would become his lasting impact on the church.
Calvin’s Lasting Impact
John Calvin was an influential and afflicted and misunderstood figure. Michael Horton captures this well when he writes, “In short, Calvin has been given too much blame by his critics and too much credit by fans.”
Whether you praise him or hate him, here are some of his lasting contributions to the Christian faith:
- His books. Namely, his Institutes and his commentaries. They have been a blessing to the church for hundreds of years and will continue to be until Jesus returns.
- Very active in working to make things like interest payments better. He was very active in social justice.
- Unemployment in Geneva should have been higher, but it wasn’t because of Calvin’s efforts to help people find jobs.
- Exegetical preaching. It is believed that he started this style of preaching that Calvinists love, preaching through the text verse by verse. He didn’t use sermon notes. He just worked from the Greek and Hebrew. Knowing that he was intimidating, he tried not to look people in the eye when he preached, trying his best to remove all stumbling blocks for the Word.
- John Calvin was the first to argue for a Prophet, Priest, and King theology, which is very popular amongst Reformed Christians today.
- He was the first to develop the Three Uses of the Law — namely to (1) Restrain evil (2) Show us our sin and lead us to Christ and (3) Guidance.
- His writing on predestination. Calvin is often associated with the doctrine of predestination. Strangely, he didn’t write much about it, although that is how some exclusively think about him.
- The theology of the Lordship of Christ in all of life. Namely, that one’s relationship with the Lord affects all that one does.
- Started a seminary that enjoyed over 150 graduates.
- Known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit and the theologian of self-denial. On the latter point, Calvin is quick to point out that the Christian life is about bearing one’s cross.
John Calvin died on May 27th, 1564. He died in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 55, although he became a skeleton at age 50 as he worked himself to death. We do not know where is buried. That’s because he desired to be buried in an unmarked grave. He desired to avoid the spotlight when he lived and also when he died. He understood the human heart. Indeed, he knows all too well that “there is nothing that man’s nature seeks more eagerly than to be flattered.”
Calvin’s death bed found some of his friends there, hurting with grief. The announcement of his death caused weeping throughout the city. Even though he was a man with many shortcomings, God used his superior intellectual abilities to influence the lives of many. And today, few things have changed as his work is still being read by thousands. Even though his physical body is gone, his brilliant work continues on.
John Piper about John Calvin in Geneva
Here is a video of John Piper speaking on John Calvin that may interest you.
Here are the sources that have helped me the most in writing this article. Many (if not all) of the quotes above come from one of these resources. If this post helped you, these resources are to receive credit:
- Calvin by Bruce Gordon
- Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever by Michael Horton
- Church History, Volume Two by John D.Woodbridge and Frank A.James III
- John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by Michael Godfrey
- I also found some (but not all) of the info on the John Calvin Wikipedia page helpful.
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