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Calvin, John

(July 10, 1509–May 27, 1564). 1. B. Picardy; son of a fiscal official employed by the local bishop. As a young man he began studies for the priesthood at Paris, but soon transferred to law, studying Orléans and Bourges. He early came in contact both with humanism and with the ev. movement initiated by Luther. The exact details of his conversion to Protestantism are absent from his writings, but it is apparent that it occurred no later than 1533. As a result of espousing the Prot. cause, he fled Fr., arriving Basel 1535, where he planned to devote himself to scholarship.

2. Aroused by the persecution of the Prots. in Fr., he issued 1536 a treatise in their behalf, addressed to Francis I. This was the famous lnstitutio religionis christianae (tr. as Institutes of the Christian Religion), the classic exposition of Calvin's theology. A 2d ed. appeared 1539, and the first Fr. ed. 1540. The Institutes, which show a close dependence on Luther, present Calvin's theol. in lucid, systematic, and exhaustive form and established him at the age of 27 as a theol. of the first rank.

3. While passing through Geneva in 1536, Calvin was prevailed upon by the local Prot. leader Farel* to remain. His first major accomplishment there was Articles concernant l'organisation de l'eglise et du culte a Genève, 1537. With Farel he prepared a confession of faith (which they expected all to accept) and a catechism. This created wide resentment, and Calvin was forced to leave Geneva when the city council turned against him. He planned to return to Basel, but at the insistence of Bucer he went instead to Strasbourg.

4. Calvin was impressed by Bucer's emphasis on the community character of the ch. in Strasbourg. Under Bucer's influence, too, his doctrinal views concerning predestination and ch. order came to maturity during his Strasbourg sojourn. There, too, in 1541, he married a widow, Idelette de Bure, whom he called “the excellent companion of his life.” She died 1549, leaving Calvin to rear two stepchildren. Calvin's natural austerity was accentuated by domestic troubles.

5. Meanwhile, in 1541, Calvin was called back to Geneva, where Farel's Prot. party had succeeded in regaining control of the city. As a condition of his return, Calvin insisted on complete authority as leader of the Genevan “theocracy.” Under him Geneva became the “city of God.”

6. At Calvin's direction, 4 ch. orders were est.: ministers, elders, teachers, deacons. The former 2 constituted the ecclesiastical consistory, with full power of ch. discipline. Calvin was unyielding in his efforts to extirpate heresy; in a notable case, the city council in 1553, at Calvin's insistence, executed M. Servetus* on charges of heresy.

7. Calvin's authority in Geneva was now unquestioned and his influence spread throughout Europe. Though subject to a chronic illness, he engaged in prodigious work. He lectured and preached several times a week; wrote exegetical and homiletical commentaries, besides innumerable theol. tracts and opinions; carried on a voluminous correspondence; and supervised successive eds. of Institutes. In 1559 he founded the Academy of Geneva, which attracted thousands of students from all parts of Europe. Always frugal and plain in his manner of life, he usually slept no more than 4 hrs. a night. He died in the arms of his friend Beza.*

8. Calvin was a systematic theol. and the Institutes bear the impress of his logical and comprehensive theol. method. This work originally contained 4 main chapters: Commandments, Creed, Prayer, and Sacraments. He continued to revise and expand the Institutes, so that the final definitive ed. of 1559 contains 80 chapters divided into 4 books: Of the Father; Of the Son; Of the Holy Spirit; Of the Church.

9. His theol. orientation is consistently Biblical, and Luther's influence on his doctrinal formulations is undeniable. There existed, nevertheless, a distinct difference bet. the two reformers, characterized by Calvin's predominantly formal and legalistic approach to Christianity in contrast to Luther's warm and ev. spirit. “Luther stresses the glory of God's love; Calvin stresses God's love of glory.”

10. The idea of the sovereignty, honor, and glory of God is paramount in Calvin's system. He emphasizes God's love of “docility” and speaks of Him as “spiritual legislator.” In the doctrine of justification, Calvin is close to Luther, though his approach is more intellectual and judicial. He accepts the Bible as the sole and infallible source of divine truth. Man, since the fall of Adam, is totally depraved and is redeemed only by the blood of Christ, whom he must accept through faith engendered by the Holy Spirit. He conceives of the church as the total number of the elect and insists on the 4 orders of ch. govt. (see 6 above; Polity, Ecclesiastical, 7). He believes the 2 sacraments to be efficacious means of grace. He understands the real presence of Christ in a spiritual sense. The state is God's instrument, subject to His sovereignty, and its laws must conform to His; thus Calvin regards every mem. of the state as also under the discipline of the church.

11. In his doctrine of predestination, the “horrible decree,” Calvin is swayed by logic: Since only some are elect, he deduces that the others must be reprobate. The Scripture passages on universal grace he applies only to the elect. Concerning this doctrine he asserts that “God will be glorified in His own way.” See also Double Predestination.

12. The influence of Calvin spread throughout Switz., and in 1549 the Consensus Tigurinus (see Reformed Confessions, A 8) provided a doctrinal basis for the unification of Zwinglians and Calvinists in that country. From Geneva Calvinism branched out into all parts of Eur. and gave rise to the Fr. Huguenots,* the Dutch Reformed (see also Netherlands; Reformed Churches, 2, 4), the Scotch Presbyterians (see also Presbyterian Churches, 1), and the Eng. Puritans.* TC

T. Beza, “Life of John Calvin,” J. Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Reformation of the Church, tr. H. Beveridge, I (Edinburgh, 1844), reprint with addition of hist. notes and introd. by T. F. Torrance (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1958), lvii–cxxxviii; J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. F. L. Battles, ed. J. T. McNeill, The Library of Christian Classics, XX–XXI (Philadelphia, 1960); W. Walker, John Calvin (New York, 1906); J. Mackinnon, Calvin and the Reformation (New York, 1962); G. Harkness, John Calvin; the Man and His Ethics (New York, 1931).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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