Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
John Calvin was a church reformer par excellence. He was a church reformer only because God made him a church reformer, for the church is God’s and reformation is God’s work. When the church of God apostatizes from His truth and the biblical pattern for the church, then reform is required. The church must be re-formed, that is, formed back to the Bible.
Church reformation is a spiritual work, and thus reformation begins with the Spirit changing the hearts of the members. God Himself determines the man who will work mightily to lead the church back to the Bible. God not only knows the need for reform, He sovereignly determines the man who will lead the reform of His church. God plans all the circumstances of his life, and thus molds and fits the man to be a reformer.
Such a man was John Calvin. God ordained Martin Luther to destroy the foundations of the apostate church of Rome, and then to begin erecting anew. God chose Calvin to build on the foundation of Luther, and to continue the reform of God’s church back to the Bible.
The purpose of these articles is first to sketch the life and work of John Calvin. But the further goal is to show how God specially created Calvin and then molded him for the work. What about Calvin made him to be the church reformer as regards his personality, training, and experiences? We cover Calvin’s life in this article, and take up the rest in the second article.
John Calvin’s Life
John Calvin was a Frenchman, born on July 10, 1509 in Noyon, Picardy. Calvin’s family was a respectable family of middle rank. His father worked on legal and financial matters for the clergy in and around Noyon.
John Calvin’s mother died in 1515, when John was only six years old. On account of this, he lived for long stretches with some aristocratic families of Noyon. His father later remarried. All told, John had three brothers and two half-sisters.
With the children of these aristocratic families, Calvin was sent off to Paris to study in some of the best schools in Europe. This was in 1523, when John was about fourteen. The goal, initially, was a solid education directed towards church office. John was following the path of his older brother, Charles, who did enter the priesthood.
After four or five years, John’s father instructed him to change schools in order to study law. This change was probably tied to his father’s troubles with the church, eventually resulting in his excommunication. Calvin followed his father’s wishes, applied himself diligently, and eventually did complete his studies and obtain a degree in law.
But law was not his first love, and after his father’s death in 1531, John Calvin returned to his original goal of studying theology. He immersed himself in the classic literature of Greece and Rome as well as of the ancient church fathers. He learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew thoroughly. All that was a solid foundation for an intensive study of theology.
To this point in his life John Calvin was still devoted to the Romish Church. Obviously, studying in the great universities in Paris, he would have heard about Martin Luther and the great stir he was creating. The Reformation was already fourteen years old when Calvin returned to the study of theology. The Reformation was sweeping across Europe. The printing presses were churning out books and diatribes of Luther and his followers, as well as of his opponents. But Calvin indicates that he rejected these new ideas for some time. He was stubbornly devoted to the Church and to her doctrine. His conversion was sudden. He gives evidence that it was a struggle, not unlike that of Luther, though not as prolonged. Like Luther, he could not find peace in a salvation that included his own works. God changed John Calvin’s heart and mind.
After his conversion, Calvin committed himself wholly to the Reformed truths with his customary diligence. So much was this the case, that he soon had other Reformed believers coming to him for instruction.
Calvin had friends in Paris who were of the same conviction. This came out publicly in a speech delivered by a close friend, Nicholas Cop. Cop set forth Reformation truths, especially justification by faith alone. That speech was quite possibly written by Calvin, or with his help.
The speech caused such an uproar that Cop and anyone close to him with sympathies for the Reformation were forced to flee. Thus Calvin fled Paris in 1533, leaving his life as a university student behind. Thus began a new chapter in his life.
For the next three years, Calvin lived in various cities, finding refuge in the homes of several influential people. These various residences afforded him not only protection, but also access to excellent libraries where he could continue his study of theology. Another benefit for Calvin was that he met other Reformation theologians with whom he could discuss his newfound faith.
Calvin made his break from Rome official in 1534 by resigning his benefices. A benefice was something akin to a scholarship, and it committed the scholar to return to the service of the church after his studies were completed.
Calvin moved to Basle in 1535. There he completed his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was published in 1536, when Calvin was but twenty-six years old.
Calvin made a trip to Italy, but his name was known to the Inquisition there, and he soon left the country. He passed through Geneva, Switzerland in 1536 on his way to Basle. There the fiery Reformed preacher William Farel detained him and compelled Calvin to remain and assist Farel in Geneva.
A new phase: Pastor
Calvin’s life as a pastor can be divided into three distinct parts—his first stay in Geneva (for less than two years); his ministry in Strasburg (for three years); and his second stay in Geneva (until his death in 1564).
Geneva: July 15
Although initially Calvin’s work in Geneva was that of a lecturer on Scripture, Calvin was soon ordained a minister and began preaching regularly. This first stay was marked by controversy and turmoil. The city of Geneva had decided to forsake Rome, but was far from embracing the Reformation as Calvin and Farel taught it. Their labors in Geneva ended abruptly when the city council voted to expel Calvin, Farel, and another faithful pastor, Pierre Viret.
Strasburg: September 1538—September 1541
Calvin, relieved to be free of the responsibilities in Geneva, now intended to return to the life of the scholar. But Martin Bucer prevailed upon Calvin to come to Strasburg to shepherd a church of French refugees in that German-speaking city.
The next three years were one of the happiest periods of John Calvin’s life. He worked exceedingly hard—preaching, teaching, and seeing to the needs of his flock. In addition, he wrote several commentaries and revised his Institutes. His congregation flourished under his diligent labors. They appreciated him much.
During this time Calvin married a widow named Idelette de Bure. Every indication was that John and Idelette Calvin had a happy marriage. Sadly, they had but one (living) child born to them, and he survived only a few days. Their marriage lasted a brief nine years before Idelette died. Calvin never remarried.
Meanwhile, back in Geneva things had gone very badly in the church and the city. Eventually the city fathers became convinced that they had made a mistake, and they began asking Calvin to return. He ignored or rejected their overtures for a year, and then, in spite of his dread, he returned to Geneva under the conviction that God called him to labor there.
Geneva: September 1541—May 27, 1564
The first fourteen years in his second pastorate in Geneva were a time of almost unbearable pressure and strife. Calvin had enemies inside the church, including deficient, untrustworthy fellow pastors. The majority on the city council were enemies of Calvin and resisted all his efforts to reform the church. He was attacked by heretics, by Lutherans, by the theologians of Rome, and by Anabaptists. Within the city Calvin was reviled and reproached. One Genevan citizen named his dog “Calvin” so that he could have the pleasure of kicking him. Calvin fully expected to be put out of Geneva a second time.
But by 1555 most of his powerful enemies had died, been executed, or left Geneva for various reasons. The majority of the city council supported him. Finally, Calvin had some peace. In this time, reform in Geneva flourished. Geneva became the center of the Reformation, to which thousands of refugees fled. The Academy was established, and many hundreds of pastors were trained and sent out into Europe and beyond.
During these last years of his life, Calvin continued to work hard, preaching and teaching. He had time to write and further to refine his theology. He breathed his last on May 27, 1564 and was buried in an unmarked grave. The work of John Calvin, the church reformer, was finished. That, in brief, is John Calvin’s life. But we have not examined the man that God formed and molded to be the great reformer that he was. That next time.