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John Calvin
July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564

 


Born

10 July 1509, in the town of Noyon in the Picardy region of France.

He was the first of four sons who survived infancy.

His father, Gérard Cauvin, had a prosperous career as the cathedral notary and registrar to the ecclesiastical court and his mother, Jeanne le Franc, was the daughter of an innkeeper from Cambrai who died a few years after Calvin's birth from breast disease

Education

Jean was particularly precocious and by the by age of 12 he was employed by the bishop as a clerk and received the tonsure, cutting his hair to symbolise his dedication to the Church.

He also won the patronage of an influential family, the Montmors.

Through their assistance, Calvin was able to attend the Collège de la Marche, in Paris, where he learned Latin from one of its greatest teachers, Mathurin Cordier.

Once he completed the course, he entered the Collège de Montaigu as a philosophy student.

In 1525 or 1526, Gérard withdrew his son from the Collège de Montaigu and enrolled him in the University of Orléans to study law believing his son would earn more money as a lawyer than as a priest.

After a few years of quiet study, Calvin entered the University of Bourges in 1529.

He was intrigued by Andreas Alciati, a humanist lawyer.

Humanism was a European intellectual movement which stressed classical studies.

During his 18-month stay in Bourges, Calvin learned Greek, a necessity for studying the New Testament.

During the autumn of 1533 Calvin experienced a religious conversion.

 

In March 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutio Christianae Religionis or Institutes of the Christian Religion.

The work was an apologia or defense of his faith and a statement of the doctrinal position of the reformers.

He also intended it to serve as an elementary instruction book for anyone interested in the Christian religion.

The book was the first expression of his theology.

Calvin updated the work and published new editions throughout his life.

Shortly after its publication, he left Basel for Ferrara, Italy, where he briefly served as secretary to Princess Renée of France.

By June he was back in Paris with his brother Antoine, who was resolving their father's affairs.

Following the Edict of Coucy, which gave a limited six-month period for heretics to reconcile with the Catholic faith, Calvin decided that there was no future for him in France.

In August he set off for Strasbourg, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire and a refuge for reformers.

Due to military manoeuvres of imperial and French forces, he was forced to make a detour to the south, bringing him to Geneva.

Calvin had only intended to stay a single night, but William Farel, a fellow French reformer residing in the city, implored a most reluctant Calvin to stay and assist him in work of reforming the church there – it was his duty before God, Farel insisted.

Calvin, for his part, desired only peace and privacy but it was not to beand Farel though not before his having had recourse to the sternest imprecations.

Calvin recalls the rather intense encounter:
'Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city. And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need.

Terrified by his words, and conscience of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.'

Calvin accepted without any preconditions on his tasks or duties.

The office to which he was initially assigned is unknown.

He was eventually given the title of "reader", which most likely meant that he could give expository lectures on the Bible.

Sometime in 1537 he was selected to be a "pastor", although he never received any pastoral consecration.
For the first time, the lawyer-theologian took up pastoral duties such as baptisms, weddings, and church services.

Falling Out

On 16 January 1537, Farel and Calvin presented their Articles concernant l'organisation de l'église et du culte à Genève (Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship at Geneva) to the city council.

The document described the manner and frequency of their celebrations of the eucharist, the reason for and the method of excommunication, the requirement to subscribe to the confession of faith, the use of congregational singing in the liturgy, and the revision of marriage laws.

The council accepted the document on the same day.

Throughout the year, however, Calvin and Farel's reputation with the council began to suffer.
The council was reluctant to enforce the subscription requirement, as only a few citizens had subscribed to their confession of faith.

On 26 November, the two ministers heatedly debated the council over the issue.

France was taking an interest in forming an alliance with Geneva and as the two ministers were Frenchmen, councillors began to question their loyalty.

Finally, a major ecclesiastical-political quarrel developed when Bern, Geneva’s ally in the reformation of the Swiss churches, proposed to introduce uniformity in the church ceremonies.

One proposal required the use of unleavened bread for the eucharist.

The two ministers were unwilling to follow Bern's lead and delayed the use of such bread until a synod in Zurich could be convened to make the final decision.

The council ordered Calvin and Farel to use unleavened bread for the Easter eucharist; in protest, the ministers did not administer communion during the Easter service.

This caused a riot during the service and the next day, the council told the ministers to leave Geneva.
Farel and Calvin went to Bern and Zurich to plead their case.

The synod in Zurich placed most of the blame on Calvin for not being sympathetic enough toward the people of Geneva.

However, it asked Bern to mediate with the aim of restoring the ministers.

The Geneva council refused to readmit the two men, who took refuge in Basel.

Subsequently Farel received an invitation to lead the church in Neuchâtel.

Calvin was invited to lead a church of French refugees in Strasbourg by that city's leading reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito.

Initially Calvin refused because Farel was not included in the invitation, but relented when Bucer appealed to him.

By September 1538 Calvin had taken up his new position in Strasbourg, fully expecting that this time it would be permanent; a few months later, he applied for and was granted citizenship of the city.

Married

Calvin's friends urged him to marry. Calvin took a prosaic view, writing to one correspondent:
'I, who have the air of being so hostile to celibacy, I am still not married and do not know whether I will ever be. If I take a wife it will be because, being better freed from numerous worries, I can devote myself to the Lord.'
Several candidates were presented to him including one young woman from a noble family.
Reluctantly, Calvin agreed to the marriage, on the condition that she would learn French.
Although a wedding date was planned for March 1540, he remained reluctant and the wedding never took place.
He later wrote that he would never think of marrying her, "unless the Lord had entirely bereft me of my wits".
Instead, in August of that year, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow who had two children from her first marriage

Recall to Geneva

Geneva reconsidered its expulsion of Calvin.

Church attendance had dwindled and the political climate had changed; as Bern and Geneva quarrelled over land, their alliance frayed.

When Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the Catholic faith, the council searched for an ecclesiastical authority to respond to him.

At first Pierre Viret was consulted, but when he refused, the council asked Calvin.

He agreed and his Responsio ad Sadoletum (Letter to Sadoleto) strongly defended Geneva's position concerning reforms in the church.

On 21 September 1540 the council commissioned one of its members, Ami Perrin, to find a way to recall Calvin.

An embassy reached Calvin while he was at a colloquy, a conference to settle religious disputes, in Worms.

His reaction to the suggestion was one of horror in which he wrote, "Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross on which I had to perish daily a thousand times over."

Calvin also wrote that he was prepared to follow the Lord's calling.

A plan was drawn up in which Viret would be appointed to take temporary charge in Geneva for six months while Bucer and Calvin would visit the city to determine the next steps.

However, the city council pressed for the immediate appointment of Calvin in Geneva.

By summer 1541, Strasbourg decided to loan Calvin to Geneva for six months.

Calvin returned on 13 September 1541 with an official escort and a wagon for his family.

End of Opposition

Calvin was acclaimed a defender of Christianity, but his ultimate triumph over the libertines was still two years away.

He had always insisted that the Consistory retain the power of excommunication, despite the council's past decision to take it away.

During Servetus's trial, Philibert Berthelier asked the council for permission to take communion, as he had been excommunicated the previous year for insulting a minister.

Calvin protested that the council did not have the legal authority to overturn Berthelier's excommunication.
Unsure of how the council would rule, he hinted in a sermon on 3 September 1553 that he might be dismissed by the authorities.

The council decided to re-examine the Ordonnances and on 18 September it voted in support of Calvin—excommunication
Berthelier applied for reinstatement to another Genevan administrative assembly, the Deux Cents (Two Hundred), in November. This body reversed the council's decision and stated that the final arbiter concerning excommunication should be the council.

The affair dragged on through 1554.

Finally, on 22 January 1555, the council announced the decision of the Swiss churches: the original Ordonnances were to be kept and the Consistory was to regain its official powers.

The libertines' downfall began with the February 1555 elections.

By then, many of the French refugees had been granted citizenship and with their support, Calvin's partisans elected the majority of the syndics and the councillors.

The libertines plotted to make trouble and on 16 May they set off to burn down a house that was supposedly full of Frenchmen.

The syndic Henri Aulbert tried to intervene, carrying with him the baton of office that symbolised his power.

Perrin made the mistake of seizing the baton, thereby signifying that he was taking power, a virtual coup d'état.
The insurrection was over as soon as it started when another syndic appeared and ordered Perrin to go with him to the town hall.

Perrin and other leaders were forced to flee the city.

With the approval of Calvin, the other plotters who remained in the city were found and executed.

The opposition to Calvin's church polity came to an end

Authority

Calvin's authority was practically uncontested during his final years, and he enjoyed an international reputation as a reformer distinct from Martin Luther.

Initially, Luther and Calvin had mutual respect for each other. However, a doctrinal conflict had developed between Luther and Zurich reformer Huldrych Zwingli on the interpretation of the eucharist. Calvin's opinion on the issue forced Luther to place him in Zwingli's camp.

Calvin was dismayed by the lack of unity among the reformers and took steps toward rapprochement with Bullinger by signing the Consensus Tigurinus, a concordat between the Zurich and Geneva churches.

He reached out to England when Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer called for an ecumenical synod of all the evangelical churches.

Calvin praised the idea, but ultimately Cranmer was unable to bring it to fruition.

Died

In Autumn 1558, Calvin became ill with a fever.

Since he was afraid that he might die before completing the final revision of the Institutes, he forced himself to work. The final edition was greatly expanded to the extent that Calvin referred to it as a new work.

The expansion from 21 chapters of the previous edition to 80 was due to the extended treatment of existing material rather than the addition of new topics.

Shortly after he recovered, he strained his voice while preaching, which brought on a violent fit of coughing.

He burst a blood-vessel in his lungs, and his health steadily declined.

He preached his final sermon in St. Pierre on 6 February 1564.

On 25 April, he made his will, in which he left small sums to his family and to the collège.

A few days later, the ministers of the church came to visit him, and he bade his final farewell, which was recorded in

Discours d'adieu aux ministres.

He recounted his life in Geneva, sometimes recalling bitterly some of the hardships he had suffered.
Calvin died on 27 May 1564 aged 54




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