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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Theologians > John Calvin


John Calvin
Father of the Reformed faith
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

 1 of 3


John Calvin
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"I labored at the task [writing The Institutes] especially for our Frenchmen, for I saw that many were hungering and thirsting after Christ and yet that only a few had any real knowledge of him."

With his brother and sister and two friends, John Calvin fled Catholic France and headed to the free city of Strasbourg. It was the summer of 1536; Calvin had recently converted to the "evangelical" faith and had just published The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which articulated his Protestant views. He was a wanted man.

The party put up at an inn in Geneva, and word quickly passed to local church leader William Farel that the author of The Institutes was in town. Farel was ecstatic. He was desperate for help as he strove to organize a newly formed Protestant church in town. He rushed to the inn and pleaded with Calvin, arguing it was God's will he remain in the city.

Calvin said he was staying only one night. Besides, he was a scholar not a pastor. Farel, baffled and frustrated, swore a great oath that God would curse all Calvin's studies unless he stayed in Geneva.

Calvin, a man of tender conscience, later reflected on this moment: "I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course—and I was so terror stricken that I did not continue my journey."

To this day, Calvin's name is associated, for good and for ill, with the city of Geneva. And Calvin's belief in God's election is his theological legacy to the church.

The "whole sum of godliness"

Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. His father, a lawyer, planned a career in the church for his son, and by the mid-1520s, Calvin had become a fine scholar. He spoke proficient Latin, excelled at philosophy, and qualified to take up the intensive study of theology in Paris.

Suddenly, though, his father changed his mind and decided John should achieve greatness in law. John acquiesced, and the next five or six years saw him at the University of Orleans, attaining distinction in a subject he did not love. During these years, he dipped into Renaissance humanism. He learned Greek, read widely in the classics, and added Plato to the Aristotle he already knew. He developed a taste for writing so that by age 22, he had published a commentary on Seneca's De Clementia.

Timeline

1488

First complete Hebrew Old Testament

1497

Savonarola excommunicated

1506

Work begins on new St. Peter's in Rome

1509

John Calvin born

1564

John Calvin dies

1611

King James Version of Bible published

Then word of Luther's teaching reached France, and his life made an abrupt turn, though his own account is reticent and vague:

"He [God] tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years—for I was strongly devoted to the superstitions of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, captionhough I did not give them up captionogether."

He became marked out as a "Lutheran," and, when persecution arose in Paris (where he had returned to teach), he sought refuge in Basel. There he penned the first edition of a book that was to affect Western history as much as any other.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion was intended as an elementary manual for those who wanted to know something about the evangelical faith—"the whole sum of godliness and whatever it is necessary to know about saving doctrine." Calvin later wrote, "I labored at the task especially for our own Frenchmen, for I saw that many were hungering and thirsting after Christ and yet that only a very few had any real knowledge of him."




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