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The Life of John Calvin:


A.            Calvin's Early Life and Education (1509-1536)


1.             Home Life - Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, at Noyon in Northeastern France. Unlike Luther, Calvin was born into the professional class and received an excellent early education. [His name has come to us via a process: Cauvin is French; Calvinus is the Latinized form; Calvin is the Anglicized form.]


2.             His University Training - At the age of 13/14 he attended the University of Paris where he came under the influence of 3 men: 1) Nicolas Cop; 2) Olivetan (both of whom had a positive impact on him with respect to his eventual break with Rome); and 3) John Major, an anti-reformer who ironically introduced Calvin to the writings of Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther. He received his masters degree in 1528 and then studied law at the University of Orleans under pressure from his father and because of a growing discontent with the RCC. In 1532, at the age of twenty-two, he received his doctorate in civil law. He later studied Classics in Paris and was also well-educated in theology, ancient languages and rhetoric.


3.             His Conversion - Some place his conversion as late as 1534 and others as early as 1527-28. Unlike Luther, his was not a dramatic experience, but not for that reason any less revolutionary. He does describe his move from the teachings of Rome to biblical Christianity as a change "from papal superstitions to evangelical faith, from mechanical ceremonies to trust and faith, and from scholastic traditionalism to biblical simplicity" (Schaff, VIII:306).


At another point he calls it a "sudden conversion" but not in the sense of a Damascus road experience. Rather it was the climactic fall of a city by a final assault following a long siege. When "I was obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy," he writes, "God subdued and reduced my heart to docility." Speaking of the sovereignty of God's work, he writes: "Thou didst shine upon me with the brightness of Thy Spirit. . . . Thou didst arouse my soul."


Calvin did not at first desire a break with Rome, but envisioned a purification of the church from within. This was not to be. Calvin's friend, Nicolas Cop, was elected Rector of the University on Oct. 10, 1533 and delivered the inaugural lecture on All Saint's Day, Nov. 1, before a large assembly. The speech, written primarily by Calvin, was a plea for reformation and an attack on both Catholic theology and theologians. Of the latter Calvin wrote: "They teach nothing of faith, nothing of the love of God, nothing of the remission of sins, nothing of grace, nothing of justification; or if they do so, they pervert and undermine it all by their laws and sophistries. I beg you, who are here present, not to tolerate any longer these heresies and abuses."


The reaction was violent. Cop fled to Basel. Calvin is reported to have descended from a window by means of bed-sheets and escaped from Paris disguised as a vine-dresser with a hoe upon his shoulder. His rooms were ransacked and his papers seized.


4.             His Life as a Wanderer - He was influenced by friends and colleagues to break completely with Rome, which he did in 1534. The next two years were spent as a wandering student and evangelist. He settled in Basel, hoping to spend his life in quiet study. There he began writing The Institutes under the assumed name of Marianus Lucanius (either to avoid publicity or persecution). In March of 1536 the first edition, which contained only 6 chapters (an exposition of the Decalogue, the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer, with brief comments on baptism and the Lord's supper, the other sacraments, Christian liberty, church government, and church discipline) was ready for publication. He became famous overnight.


B.            His First Genevan Ministry (1536-1538)


1.             Calvin and Farel - Calvin returned to Paris in 1536 to settle some old financial matters. He decided to go from there to Strasbourg to be a scholar, but as he later explained it: "God thrust me into the game!" He was detoured during the journey to Geneva because of the war then raging between Francis I and Charles V. An old friend, du Tillet, recognized him in the hotel and immediately informed William Farel (1489-1565). The encounter that ensued between Calvin and Farel is surely one of the more dramatic and significant in history.


"You are not leaving, that's off!" shouted Farel. "There is much for you to do here."


"What do you mean?" asked Calvin. "I am sorry, but I cannot remain any longer than one night."


Farel paid no attention. With great eloquence he described the miraculous work of God in the city of Geneva and the need for a man of Calvin's stature and skill to come to teach. Calvin protested, expressing his desire to spend his time writing in the safety of some remote city.


"Leisure, learning -- when it is a matter of acting!" shouted Farel in indignation. "Do you want to desert the Reformation of this city? I am at the point of breaking down under the load and you will deny me your assistance!"


"Don't take it as ill-will," said Calvin. "My health is not the best; I need a rest."


"What rest!" cried Farel. "Nothing except death brings rest to the servants of Christ! Do you dare put your personal interests ahead of the kingdom of God?"


Calvin quivered. The reproach of putting his personal comfort ahead of the service of Christ caused him severe qualms of conscience. The storm had begun in Calvin's soul, as the two men wrangled throughout the night. Farel was determined to break his resistance. Forgetting all formality, Farel shouted: "For the last time, do you want to follow the call of God, or don't you?"


"No! No! No!" shouted Calvin.


Farel's stature became erect; his eyes hurled lightning. "You are concerned about your rest and your personal interests. Therefore, I proclaim to you in the name of Almighty God whose command you defy: Upon your work there shall rest no blessing! Therefore, let God damn your rest, let God damn your work!"


Wide-eyed, Calvin stared at the small lips which had pronounced this horrible curse. He trembled as it all suddenly became clear to him. Farel was only an instrument, a vessel through whom the Lord himself was speaking. A feeling overtook him as bitter as death. He saw himself suddenly torn out of the path which had opened up before him, and found himself stationed in battle and unrest -- in the front line. As if under searing fire, Calvin's defiance melted. And as he offered his hand to the preacher, a tear rolled over his caved-in cheek. "I obey God!" was his cry.


2.             His Ministry in Geneva - Upon arriving in Geneva, he began to lecture on the Pauline epistles, wrote a constitution for the church, introduced congregational psalm singing, wrote a confession of faith, a children's catechism, and insisted on the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper (but eventually had to settle for monthly).


Trouble erupted when he and Farel sought to administer both church and civil discipline. The two were literally kicked out of town in April of 1538. Calvin was determined to return to Basel and resume his studies, but Martin Bucer (who was won to the Reformation while listening to Luther at the Leipzig debate) persuaded him to go to Strasbourg.


Evidently Bucer was having a difficult time at first persuading Calvin to come to Strasbourg. He sent word to Farel, asking his advice on how to deal with the matter: "Pronounce the wrath of God," said Farel. In a thunderous letter to Calvin, Bucer wrote: "God will know how to find a rebellious servant, even as he found Jonah!" Frightened by the comparison with Jonah, Calvin reluctantly said yes and went to Strasbourg.


C.            Interlude at Strasbourg (1538-1541)


1.             His Ministry - He taught theology and trained candidates for the ministry while working on a revision of the Institutes and writing a commentary on Romans. He also pastored the church there and was convinced Strasbourg would be his permanent home.


It was during his stay in Strasbourg that Calvin wrote one of his most influential treatises, Reply to Sadoleto. Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547) had written to the magistrates in Geneva to persuade them to return to the Roman Catholic fold. Calvin's reply was a masterful defense of the reformation.


2.             His Marriage - Calvin often said he didn't care what a wife looked like as long as she was of a Christian spirit and could interact with him intellectually. In another place he wrote:


"I am none of those insane lovers who embrace also the vices of those they are in love with, when they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure. This only is the beauty which attracts me: if she is chaste, if not too nice or fastidious, if economical, if patient, if there is hope that she will be interested about my health."


He finally married Idelette de Bure in 1540 who brought two children with her from a previous marriage (her first husband was an Anabaptist whom Calvin had led to the Lord). She died in 1549. They had three children, all of whom died in infancy.


D.            Second Genevan Ministry (1541-1564)


1.             His Re-call to Geneva - The situation in Geneva had deteriorated. The political forces sympathetic to Calvin regained power and issued him an urgent call to return. He declined. Farel again intervened and Calvin found himself once more in Geneva, although he said of it: "There is no place under heaven of which I have greater dread." In a statement to the leaders of the city he warned:


"If you desire to have me for your pastor, correct the disorder of your lives. If you have with sincerity recalled me from my exile, banish the crimes and debaucheries which prevail among you. I cannot behold without the most painful displeasure . . . discipline trodden under foot and crimes committed with impunity. I cannot possibly live in a place so grossly immoral. . . . I consider the principal enemies of the Gospel to be, not the pontiff of Rome, nor heretics, nor seducers, nor tyrants, but bad Christians. . . . I dread abundantly more those carnal covetousnesses, those debaucheries of the tavern, of the brothel, and of gaming. . . . Of what use is a dead faith without good works? Of what importance is even truth itself, where a wicked life belies it and actions make words blush? Either command me to abandon a second time your town and let me go and soften the bitterness of my afflictions in a new exile, or let the severity of the laws reign in the church. Reestablish there pure discipline" (cited in Beza, Life of Calvin, n. 1, pp. 25-6).


2.             The Period of Conflict (1541-1555)


a.              His reforms in Geneva - Upon his return, Calvin was given a free hand. He drafted a document containing rules for ecclesiastical operations called Church Order. This attempt to enforce discipline would again threaten his position in the city.


b.             His Opposition


1)             The Patriots or Children of Geneva - These belonged to the oldest and most influential families of Geneva. They resented Calvin's efforts at moral reform and viewed them as encroachments on personal freedom (Calvin resisted such practices as dancing and late-night carousing). They disliked the fact that Calvin was a foreigner (he did not become a citizen until 1559) and resented the refugees of religious persecution that flocked to him for shelter.


2)             The Libertines - These lobbied for the very vices Calvin resisted. Being somewhat gnostic, they appealed to the freedom of the spirit as an excuse for indulging the flesh. Calvin described them as "the most execrable and pernicious sect the world has ever known." The libertines boasted in their license. For them, the "communion of saints" meant the common possession of all goods, even other men's wives. They engaged in adultery and widespread sexual immorality while claiming the right to sit at the Lord's table


3)             Discipline and the Lord's Supper - Calvin believed that only Christians should be admitted to the table. He employed strict measures of examination that angered the unbelieving community. On one occasion those who had been excommunicated, principal among whom were the libertines noted above, entered the church bearing arms, seeking to force their admission to the Lord's Supper. They threatened Calvin's life when he refused their demand to participate. As they rushed the communion table, Calvin flung his arms around the elements to protect them from sacrilege, crying aloud: "These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God." They withdrew.


4)             The Anti-Trinitarians and Michael Servetus - A Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, was an outspoken unitarian whose views were similar to Arius (he had earlier [1531] written a book entitled Seven Books on the Errors of the Trinity). Calvin had become aware of Servetus and his views through private correspondence with the heretic. If ever Servetus comes to Geneva, Calvin declared to Farel in a report of their communications, "I will not suffer him to get out alive.' Servetus was initially captured by leaders of the Catholic Inquisition, from whom he subsequently escaped. Out of sheer curiosity he travelled to Geneva where he was spotted in attendance at one of Calvin's worship services! He was immediately arrested and convicted of heresy.


Although Calvin preferred that he be beheaded ("by sixteenth-century standards a more dignified and humanitarian punishment" [Ozment, 371]), Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 while the reformer knelt in church praying for him. Melancthon and Bucer also strongly advocated his execution. Servetus' last words were carefully chosen: "Have mercy on me Jesus, Son of the Eternal God," not "Jesus, Eternal Son of God." As Lindberg has noted, "in that time a misplaced adjective could be fatal" (269). The execution of Servetus, observes Ozment,


"has overshadowed everything else Calvin accomplished and continues to embarrass his modern admirers. . . . For many, Calvin's role in the death of Servetus attached the same reactionary stigma to Protestantism that the Inquisition's later treatment of Galileo brought to the Catholic Church" (369).


Lindberg's comments on this incident are worth pondering:


"In 1903 Calvin's heirs erected a monument of atonement at the place of Servetus's execution which reads: 'We, devout and grateful sons of Calvin, our great reformer, yet condemning an error which was the error of his century, and firmly devoted to the freedom of conscience according to the true principles of the Reformation and the Gospel, have erected this monument of atonement on October 27th 1903.' . . . In a certain sense this is curious because Zurich had been drowning Anabaptists since the 1520s and at the very time Servetus was executed so were Calvin's followers in France. And in the decades after Servetus, the streets and fields of France would be soaked with Calvinist blood. The modern toleration of religious pluralism is anachronistic for the sixteenth century" (270).


3.             The Period of Triumph (1555-1564) - Surprisingly, Calvin gained influence because of the execution of Servetus. His opponents were discredited for seeking to defend a man whom all regarded as a heretic. Calvin also benefited from the influx of refugees who sought his aid and counsel after suffering intense persecution. As these supporters were made citizens of Geneva, Calvin's power base increased. In the ten-year period, 1549-59, over 5,000 refugees were admitted to Geneva; over 1,700 came in the single year 1559 (many of whom were from England: the "Marian exiles"). He continued, however, to suffer vicious attacks. It is said that his enemies vilified him by naming their dogs "Calvin".


Jerome Bolsec, an ex-Carmelite friar who embraced the reformed faith in Paris, settled in Geneva and served as a physician. He publicly attacked Calvin's doctrine of predestination, was banished from Geneva, and eventually returned to catholicism. His "revenge was to publish in 1577 a scurrilous biography of Calvin, accusing him among other things of sodomy, which continued to be an arsenal for anti-Calvinist polemics for the next two centuries" (Lindberg, 266).


In 1559 a ministry training school was opened, called the Academy of Geneva, under the leadership of Theodore Beza. After a few years more than 160 students had enrolled.


E.             His Ministries and Maladies


Calvin's afflictions read like a medical journal. He suffered from painful stomach cramps, intestinal influenza, and recurring migraine headaches. He was subject to a persistent onslaught of fevers that would often lay him up for weeks at a time. He experienced problems with his trachea, in addition to pleurisy, gout, and colic. He suffered from hemorrhoids that were often aggravated by an internal abcess that would not heal. He had severe arthritis and acute pain in his knees, calves, and feet. Other maladies included nephritis (acute, chronic inflammation of the kidney caused by infection), gallstones, and kidney stones. He once passed a kidney stone so large that it tore the urinary canal and led to excessive bleeding.


Due to his rigorous preaching schedule (he preached twice on Sunday and every day of the week, every other week) he would often strain his voice so severely that he experienced violent fits of coughing. On one occasion he broke a blood-vessel in his lungs and hemorrhaged. When he reached the age of 51 it was discovered that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, which ultimately proved fatal. Much of his study and writing was done while bed-ridden. In the final few years of his life he had to be carried to work.


His friends and physicians insisted he ease off the pace of ministry. "What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?" He preached his last sermon on February 6, 1564. He had to be carried to and from the pulpit. He dictated his will on April 25th. It read, in part, as follows:


"In the name of God, I, John Calvin, servant of the Word of God in the church of Geneva, weakened by many illnesses . . . thank God that He has shown not only his mercy toward me, His poor creature, and . . . has suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is more, that He has made me a partaker of His grace to serve Him through my work, . . . I confess to live and die in this faith which He has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than His predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which He has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of His suffering and dying that through them all my sins are buried."


Calvin's coat of arms, a hand holding a heart, is testimony to his compassionate and self-sacrificial spirit. It is encircled by his motto: Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. Freely translated it means: "My heart for Thy cause I offer Thee, Lord, promptly and sincerely."