Special thanks to Matthew French for this series of articles.
This is our last look at the historical figures that played a part in the Protestant Reformation that began 500 years ago. For this final entry in the series, we will look at one of the most influential people in the history of Christianity, a man who was referred to by B.B. Warfield (one of the greatest minds to ever work at Princeton) as “the Theologian of the Holy Spirit”, and who has an entire form of Christianity named after him (likely against his will). That man is, of course, John Calvin.
John Calvin was born on the 10th of July, 1509, in Picardy, France. His mother died while he was a child, leaving his father (who was a notary for the cathedral) to care for him and his brothers. In his preteen years, Calvin was able to gain the patronage of the Montmors, an influential family who paid for his education. Because of their aid, Calvin was able to attend College in Paris, where he learned Latin, and in 1525 went on to study Law at the University of Orleans. In 1529, Calvin enrolled in the University of Bourges, where he learned Koine Greek (the Greek that the Bible manuscripts were originally written in). In 1532 he received his license to practice law, which he began doing.
Not long after he received his license, Calvin experienced a religious conversion, coming about after much personal study and inner turmoil. He became “immediately inflamed” with this new truth he had found, realizing that he could no longer accept the Roman Catholic Church as a valid form of Christianity. Calvin was forced into hiding when a close friend of his, Nicolas Cop, delivered a public address stating the Roman Catholic Church needed renewal and reform, which caused the Catholic authorities to seek to punish Cop and anyone associated with him. Calvin eventually fled from France after the Affair of the Placards (an incident where unknown reformers posted placards throughout numerous cities that were critical of the Catholic Mass, which led to outbreaks of violence against non-Catholics), initially moving to Basel, Switzerland before then moving to Geneva. While in Basel, however, Calvin published his most influential and famous work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that was a systemic defense of the Christian faith. He would edit and add on to this work throughout his life, leading to several more editions.
Upon arriving in Geneva, Calvin assisted in the ministry of the church there at the behest of his friend William Farel. At first, Calvin’s ministry mostly consisted of being a “reader”, or someone who would give expository lectures on the Bible. Sometime in 1537, he was chosen to be a pastor, performing weddings, baptisms, and church services for the first time. Unfortunately, in September 1538, Calvin had to leave Geneva due to political issues and inner-church quarrels, and so he relocated to Strasbourg where he would continue ministering for several years, only to finally relocate once more in 1541 back to Geneva, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He would continue his ministry until the last few weeks of his life in May of 1564. He died from a combination of illnesses, including a high fever and a burst blood vessel in his lungs.
Calvin spent most of his adult life ministering to others, and preached every single day that he was in Geneva, usually multiple times a day. He wrote a library’s worth of books and letters, including dozens of commentaries and a full 80 chapters for his final edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin believed in and taught on the Sovereignty of God, and is most known for (and often vilified for) his teaching on Predestination. All of the Protestant Reformers taught and believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation, but Calvin was the one why systematized it, and so became known for his views on the subject. Geneva became, under Calvin’s care, a safe haven for persecuted Christians throughout Europe, and he established a Seminary in Geneva where people would come from all over Europe to “sit at the feet of Calvin.” All Protestant Christians (except for Lutherans) during the Reformation came to be called Reformed, which became synonymous with Calvinism. Calvin’s legacy exists to this day, with an entire branch of Protestant Christianity (who have been heavily influenced by Calvin and his teaching) calling themselves “Reformed Christians”. The most common denominations that fall under this umbrella term would be Reformed Baptists, Presbyterians, Moravians, Dutch Reformed, and others. Both the Puritans and the Pilgrims were Reformed, and thus owe much of their understanding of Scripture to John Calvin. Some of the greatest evangelists and preachers the world has ever known are a part of the legacy of Calvin, to include George Whitefield, David Livingstone, Isaac Watts, Charles Spurgeon, and William Wilberforce. The world would look markedly different indeed had God not given John Calvin to the Church.