History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.
Calvin, John (1509-1564)
Few historical figures have made such a major impact, yet are as maligned and often caricatured (at least outside religious circles) as John Calvin. The French reformer’s long lasting legacy goes back 500 years, with 2009 being the quincentennial of his birth (July 10).
Next to Martin Luther, there is no more prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation, than Calvin. Yet, most Americans know little about either man. This shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve become a nation that prides itself on pop culture, and the minutiae of the mundane, not historical tenets tied to our nation’s birth.
The summer of 2001 was a seminal time for me. Having left a job in May, and underemployed during the languid days that make up a Maine summer, I read voraciously, taking advantage of the one resource I had—the luxury of time. I didn’t waste it, poring through a variety of classic books, including Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. A monumental work, by one of the Christianity’s great thinkers and theologians, Calvin’s ideas have had a profound effect in the shaping of western thought and ideas beyond theology.
The theology of Calvin, including his much maligned doctrine of predestination, came to America via the Mayflower. George Bancroft, a prominent 19th century American historian, calls Calvin “the father of America,” adding, “He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”
The earliest leadership among the Pilgrims, and later, the Puritans, were all avowed Calvinists in their theology. John Endicott, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, the second governor of that Colony, Thomas Hooker, the founder of Connecticut, and John Davenport, the founder of the New Haven Colony, were all Calvinists. It has been reported that at the time of the American Revolution, two-thirds of the colonial population had been trained in the theology of Calvin. More than one-half of all the soldiers and officers of the American Army during the Revolution were Calvinists. All of the colonels of the Colonial Army except one were Presbyterian elders. The war for Independence was spoken of in England as “The Presbyterian Rebellion.” While not the kind of stuff found in public school history classes, apparently Bancroft knew something about Calvin’s role in the founding of our nation.
John Richard Green, author of the eight volume, History of the English People, and also an Anglican, had the following to say in the third volume. “It is in Calvinism that the modern world strikes its roots; for it was Calvinism that first revealed the dignity and worth of man. Called of God and heir of heaven, the trader at his counter and the digger in his field finally rose into equality with the noble and king.
John Calvin was born July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, in Picardy, one of the country’s 26 regions. Charlemagne was first crowned emperor at the cathedral at Noyon.
Calvin was born into a respectable family of middle rank. Jerome Bolsec, an adversary of Calvin, who publicly challenged Calvin’s views on predestination, published his unflattering Life of Calvin, in which he provided a glimpse of both Calvin’s father, one who was “a most execrable blasphemer of God,” and young Calvin, who Bolsec wrote had been “surprised in or convicted of the sin of sodomy” and branded with a hot iron, in lieu of being burned at the stake as Bolsec intimated that he deserved.
While Bolsec’s biography makes for interesting reading, much more so than many of the hagiographical accounts of Calvin, his work rests largely upon unsubstantiated anonymous oral reports. Many modern scholars (including biographer Alister McGrath) consider Bolsec’s accounts of questionable merit.
Calvin studied law at two universities: Orléans and Bourges. At both places, he was enveloped bh the spirit of humanism that was prevalent in France, led by the teachings of Erasmus. His background in law (Bernard Cottret mentions Calvin as having the “soul of a lawyer), particularly the habits of thought related to the law would serve him well later, in his role as a Protestant reformer.
After graduating from Orléans in 1531, he moved to Paris in the summer of that year, planning to make his mark as a humanist scholar. He finished up a commentary of Seneca’s On Clemency, and self published it in April of 1532. It brought him neither the recognition that he sought, nor profit, instead resulting in a financial disaster, requiring him to borrow money from friends.
Reform in France was not looked upon kindly. The theological faculty in Paris spoke vehemently against the reforms of Luther and humanist philosophy. A man named Nicholas Cop, elected as rector of the University of Paris, gave an inaugural speech on November 1, 1533, embracing moderate reform. It caused a firestorm. Some believe that Calvin wrote the speech, and while unsubstantiated, Calvin was close enough to Cop to realize he was in danger, and he began moving around the French countryside. In May, 1534, he resigned his positions he held in the Catholic Church, which had supported him while in school. Now squarely in the camp of the Protestants, Calvin was associated with Protestants that had posted placards throughout France, attacking the Catholic way of celebrating communion, with one of these being posted on the King’s door. Reaction was swift and 200 arrests made, leading to many executions. Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, beginning an exile that would last the rest of his life, save for a few brief excursions to his home country. It was in Basel that Calvin completed his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
The Reformation shattered the world of medieval Christianity. There may be no other watershed event so grand in the continuum of history, and yet so misunderstood today by a soundbite culture, arrogant in its ignorance of the past. This would include many that call themselves practicing Christians.
A way of viewing Calvin is by comparing him to Luther. They were a study in contrasts. Luther, a rotund man, staunch defender of German liberties and wild appetites, and Calvin, ascetic, given to fasting; gaunt in visage. Luther would be someone that you would relish having a beer with, talking sports. Calvin would be eating alone, hardly touching his food, reading a book.
While in Italy with a friend, Calvin once again found himself needing to make a quick exit, when a scandal related to matters of reform broke out. He escaped arrest, by returning to France to settle some legal affairs, before heading to Geneva, where he hoped he’d have some peace. The city, French-speaking, had been engaged in throwing off the rule of the house of Savoy, and the politically appointed Catholic bishop.
With newfound freedom, Geneva would now be run by councils. Calvin, however, was walking into a volatile situation, with Savoy loyalty still running strong, and a significant portion of the city opposed to religious reform.
After being appointed as Reader of Holy Scripture, and later, as Geneva’s pastor by civil authorities, Calvin, along with his friend William Farel, drew up a confession of faith, which was approved by Geneva’s three councils. As had been the case, time and time again, things did not go smoothly for Calvin in Geneva. A man named Pierre Caroli accused Calvin with heresy, the charge being that of Arianism (a teaching that Christ was not God). Also, elections had been held and some of the new council members were not in favor of Calvin’s theological views. Refusing to have civil authorities dictate his theology, particularly around how communion would be celebrated, Calvin, along with Farel, was exiled from the city.
Calvin spent a brief time in Basel, and then he was invited to come to Strasbourg, France, to minister to French refugees in the city. It was in Strasbourg, where Calvin became the man that history remembers.
Bearing a new, thoroughly revised edition of the Institutes, Calvin’s theology was now fully formed, presenting a clear departure from Luther, Zwingli, and other reformers. His time in the city allowed him to write extensively, producing some of his best material. Calvin now saw the Institutes, more than anything else, as the guide for the proper reading of the Bible. His work presented a broad understanding of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the church. As McGrath wrote in A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, Calvin’s work had “a new clarity of expression and breadth of vision.
Politics in the 16th century resembled politics in our own time in this way—parties came into power and consequently, fell out of power. Those who opposed Calvin, hastening his period away from Geneva, were gone. The council extended a hand to Calvin, requesting his return in 1541.
Calvin’s Geneva has become a place both revered, as well as vilified. It would be easy to write an equal amount of words detailing life in the city, after Calvin set up a church-based system of rule. That’s not the point of these historical exercises, with this one having gone on well beyond the point of whetting appetites.
Calvin died on May 27, 1564, months shy of his fifty-fifth birthday. His body was placed in an unmarked grave in accordance with his own wishes.
The stereotypes about Calvin continue to this day, though recent scholarship has been surprisingly kind to him, particularly in debunking many of the myths that have portrayed him as the “tyrant of Geneva.” There are those that argue that even the execution of Servetus, when viewed in the context of Calvin’s time, doesn’t seem as vicious as critics of Calvin make it out to be.
Regardless on one’s assessment of the theologian, pastor, and great Protestant mind, there’s no denying the historical force commanded by Calvin over five centuries.