AKA Jean Chauvin
Birthplace: Noyon, Picardy, France
Location of death: Geneva, Switzerland
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Cimetière des Rois, Geneva, Switzerland
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: French Protestant Reformation
Swiss divine and reformer, was born at Noyon, in Picardy, on the 10th of July 1509. His father, Gérard Cauvin or Calvin, was a notary-apostolic and procurator-fiscal for the lordship of Noyon, besides holding certain ecclesiastical offices in connection with that diocese. The name of his mother was Jeanne le Franc; she was the daughter of an inn-keeper at Cambrai, who afterwards came to reside at Noyon. Gérard Cauvin was esteemed as a man of considerable sagacity and prudence, and his wife was a godly and attractive lady. She bore him five sons, of whom John was the second. By a second wife there were two daughters.
Of Calvin's early years only a few notices remain. His father destined him from the first for an ecclesiastical career, and paid for his education in the household of the noble family of Hangest de Montmor. In May 1521 he was appointed to a chaplaincy attached to the altar of La Gésine in the cathedral of Noyon, and received the tonsure. The actual duties of the office were in such cases carried out by ordained and older men for a fraction of the stipend. The plague having visited Noyon, the young Hangests were sent to Paris in August 1523, and Calvin accompanied them, being enabled to do so by the income received from his benefice. He lived with his uncle and attended as an out-student the Collège de la Marche, at that time under the regency of Mathurin Cordier, a man of character, learning and repute as a teacher, who in later days followed his pupil to Switzerland, taught at Neuchâtel, and died in Geneva in 1564. In dedicating to him his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, as "eximiae pietatis et doctrinae viro", he declares that so had he been aided by his instruction that whatever subsequent progress he had made he only regarded as received from him, and "this", he adds, "I wish to testify to posterity that if any utility accrue to any from my writings they may acknowledge it as having in part flowed from thee." From the Collège de la Marche he removed to the Collège de Montaigu, where the atmosphere was more ecclesiastical and where he had for instructor a Spaniard who is described as a man of learning and to whom Calvin was indebted for some sound training in dialectics and the scholastic philosophy. He speedily outstripped all his competitors in grammatical studies, and by his skill and acumen as a student of philosophy, and in the college disputations gave fruitful promise of that consummate excellence as a reasoner in the department of speculative truth which he afterwards displayed. Among his friends were the Hangests (especially Claude), Nicolas and Michel Cop, sons of the king's Swiss physician, and his own kinsman Pierre Robert, better known as Olivétan. Such friendships testify both to the worth and the attractiveness of his character, and contradict the old legend that he was an unsociable misanthrope. Pleased with his success, the canons at Noyon gave him the curacy of St. Martin de Marteville in September 1527. After holding this preferment for nearly two years, he exchanged it in July 1529 for the cure of Pont L'Évêque, a village near to Noyon, and the place to which his father originally belonged. He appears to have been not a little elated by his early promotion, and although not ordained, he preached several sermons to the people. But though the career of ecclesiastical preferment was thus early opened to him, Calvin was destined not to become a priest. A change came over the mind both of his father and himself respecting his future career. Gérard Cauvin began to suspect that he had not chosen the most lucrative profession for his son, and that the law offered to a youth of his talents and industry a more promising sphere. He was also now out of favor with the cathedral chapter at Noyon. It is said also that John himself, on the advice of his relative, Pierre Robert Olivétan, the first translator of the Bible into French, had begun to study the Scriptures and to dissent from the Roman worship. At any rate he readily complied with his father's suggestion, and removed from Paris to Orleans (March 1528) in order to study law under Pierre Taisan de l'Étoile, the most distinguished jurisconsult of his day. The university atmosphere here was less ascetic than at Paris, but Calvin's ardor knew no slackening, and such was his progress in legal knowledge that he was frequently called upon to lecture, in the absence of one or other of the regular staff. Other studies, however, besides those of law occupied him while in this city, and moved by the humanistic spirit of the age he eagerly developed his classical knowledge. "By protracted vigils", says Theodore Beza, "he secured indeed a solid erudition and an excellent memory; but it is probable he at the same time sowed the seeds of that disease (dyspepsia) which occasioned him various illnesses in after life, and at last brought upon him premature death." His friends here were Melchior Wolmar, a German schoolmaster and a man of exemplary scholarship and character, François Daniel, François de Connam and Nicolas Duchemin; to these his earliest letters were written.
From Orleans Calvin went to Bourges in the autumn of 1529 to continue his studies under the brilliant Italian, Andrea Alciati (1492-1550), whom Francis I had invited into France and settled as a professor of law in that university. His friend Daniel went with him, and Wolmar followed a year later. By Wolmar Calvin was taught Greek, and introduced to the study of the New Testament in the original, a service which he gratefully acknowledges in one of his printed works. The conversation of Wolmar may also have been of use to him in his consideration of the doctrines of the Reformation, which were now beginning to be widely diffused through France. Twelve years had elapsed since Martin Luther had published his theses against indulgences -- twelve years of intense excitement and anxious discussion, not in Germany only, but in almost all the adjacent countries. In France there had not been as yet any overt revolt against the Church of Rome, but multitudes were in sympathy with any attempt to improve the church by education, by purer morals, by better preaching and by a return to the primitive and uncorrupted faith. Though we cannot with Beza regard Calvin at this time as a center of Protestant activity, he may well have preached at Lignières as a reformatory Catholic of the school of Erasmus. Calvin's own record of his "conversion" is so scanty and devoid of chronological data that it is extremely difficult to trace his religious development with any certainty. But it seems probable that at least up to 1532 he was far more concerned about classical scholarship than about religion.
His residence at Bourges was cut short by the death of his father in May 1531. Immediately after this event he went to Paris, where the "new learning" was now at length ousting the medieval scholasticism from the university. He lodged in the Collège Fortet, reading Greek with Pierre Danès and beginning Hebrew with François Vatable. It was at this time (April 1532) that Calvin issued his first publication, a commentary in Latin on Seneca's tract De Clementia. This book he published at his own cost, and dedicated to Claude Hangest, abbot of St. Éloi, a member of the de Montmor family, with whom Calvin had been brought up. It was formerly thought that Calvin published this work with a view to influence the king to put a stop to the attacks on the Protestants, but there is nothing in the treatise itself or in the commentary to favor this opinion.
Soon after the publication of his first book Calvin returned to Orleans, where he stayed for a year, perhaps again reading law, and still undecided as to his life's work. He visited Noyon in August 1533, and by October of the same year was settled again in Paris. Here and now his destiny became certain. The conservative theology was becoming discredited, and humanists like Jacques Lefèvre of Étaples (Faber Stapulensis) and Gérard Roussel were favored by the court under the influence of Margaret of Angoulême, Queen of Navarre and sister of Francis I. Calvin's old friend, Nicolas Cop, had just been elected rector of the university and had to deliver an oration according to custom in the church of the Mathurins, on the feast of All Saints. The oration (certainly influenced but hardly composed by Calvin) was in effect a defense of the reformed opinions, especially of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is to the period between April 1532 and November 1533, and in particular to the time of his second sojourn at Orleans, that we may most fittingly assign the great change in Calvin which he describes (Praef. ad Psalmos; opera xxxi. 21-24) as his "sudden conversion" and attributes to direct divine agency. It must have been at least after his Commentary on Seneca's De Clementia that his heart was "so subdued and reduced to docility that in comparison with his zeal for true piety he regarded all other studies with indifference, though not entirely forsaking them. Though himself a beginner, many flocked to him to learn the pure doctrine, and he began to seek some hiding-place and means of withdrawal from people." This indeed was forced upon him, for Cop's address was more than the conservative party could bear, and Cop, being summoned to appear before the parlement of Paris, found it necessary, as he failed to secure the support either of the king, or of the university, to make his escape to Basel. An attempt was at the same time made to seize Calvin, but, being forewarned of the design by his friends, he also made his escape. His room in the Collège Fortet, however, was searched, and his books and papers seized, to the imminent peril of some of his friends, whose letters were found in his repositories. He went to Noyon, but, proceedings against him being dropped, soon returned to Paris. But desiring both security and solitude for study he left the city again about New Year of 1534 and became the guest of Louis du Tillet, a canon of the cathedral, at Angoulême, where at the request of his host he prepared some short discourses, which were circulated in the surrounding parishes, and read in public to the people. Here, too in du Tillet's splendid library, he began the studies which resulted in his great work, the Institutes, and paid a visit to Nérac, where the venerable Lefèvre, whose revised translation of the Bible into French was published about this time, was spending his last years under the kindly care of Margaret of Navarre.
Calvin was now nearly twenty-five years of age, and in the ordinary way would have been ordained to the priesthood. Up until this time his work for the evangelical cause was not so much that of the public preacher or reformer as that of the retiring but influential scholar and adviser. Now, however, he had to decide whether, like Roussel and other of his friends, he should strive to combine the new doctrines with a position in the old church, or whether he should definitely break away from Rome. His mind was made up, and on the 4th of May he resigned his chaplaincy at Noyon and his rectorship at Pont l'Évêque. Towards the end of the same month he was arrested and suffered two short terms of imprisonment, the charges against him being not strong enough to be pressed. He seems to have gone next to Paris, staying perhaps with Étienne de la Forge, a Protestant merchant who suffered for his faith in February 1535. To this time belongs the story of the proposed meeting between Calvin and the Spanish reformer Servetus. Calvin's movements at this time are difficult to trace, but he visited both Orleans and Poitiers, and each visit marked a stage in his development.
The Anabaptists of Germany had spread into France, and were disseminating many wild and fanatical opinions among those who had seceded from the Church of Rome. Among other notions which they had imbibed was that of a sleep of the soul after death. To Calvin this notion appeared so pernicious that he composed a treatise in refutation of it, under the title of Psychopannychia. The preface to this treatise is dated Orleans 1534, but it was not printed until 1542. In it he chiefly dwells upon the evidence from Scripture in favor of the belief that the soul retains its intelligent consciousness after its separation from the body -- passing by questions of philosophical speculation, as tending on such a subject only to minister to an idle curiosity. At Poitiers Calvin gathered round him a company of cultured and gentle men whom in private intercourse he influenced considerably. Here too in a grotto near the town he for the first time celebrated the communion in the Evangelical Church of France, using a piece of the rock as a table.
The year 1534 was thus decisive for Calvin. From this time forward his influence became supreme, and all who had accepted the reformed doctrines in France turned to him for counsel and instruction, attracted not only by his power as a teacher, but still more, perhaps because they saw in him so full a development of the Christian life according to the evangelical model. Renan, no prejudiced judge, pronounces him "the most Christian man of his time", and attributes to this his success as a reformer. Certain it is that already he had become conspicuous as a prophet of the new religion; his life was in danger, and he was obliged to seek safety in flight. In company with his friend Louis du Tillet, whom he had again gone to Angoulême to visit, he set out for Basel. On their way they were robbed by one of their servants, and it was only by borrowing ten crowns from their other servant that they were enabled to get to Strasbourg, and from there to Basel. Here Calvin was welcomed by the band of scholars and theologians who had conspired to make that city the Athens of Switzerland, and especially by Oswald Myconius, the chief pastor, Pierre Viret and Heinrich Bullinger. Under the aupices and guidance of Sebastian Münster, Calvin now gave himself to the study of Hebrew.
Francis I, desirous to continue the suppression of the Protestants but anxious, because of his strife with Charles V, not to break with the Protestant princes of Germany, instructed his ambassador to assure these princes that it was only against Anabaptists, and other parties who called in question all civil magistracy, that his severities were exercised. Calvin, indignant at the calumny which was thus cast upon the reformed party in France, hastily prepared for the press his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he published "first that I might vindicate from unjust affront my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord, and, next, that some sorrow and anxiety should move foreign peoples, since the same sufferings threatened many." The work was dedicated to the king, and Calvin says he wrote it in Latin that it might find access to the learned in all lands. Soon after it appeared he set about translating it into French, as he himself attests in a letter dated October 1536. This sets at rest a question, at one time much agitated, whether the book appeared first in French or in Latin. The earliest French edition known is that of 1540, and this was after the work had been much enlarged, and several Latin editions had appeared. In its first form the work consisted of only six chapters, and was intended merely as a brief manual of Christian doctrine. The chapters follow a traditional scheme of religious teaching: (1) The Law -- the Ten Words, (2) Faith -- the Apostles' Creed, (3) Prayer, (4) the Sacraments; to these were added (5) False Sacraments, (6) Christian liberty, ecclesiastical power and civil administration. The closing chapters of the work are more polemical than the earlier ones. His indebtedness to Luther is of course great, but his spiritual kinship with Martin Bucer of Strasbourg is even more marked. Something also he owed to Scotus and other medieval schoolmen. The book appeared anonymously, the author having, as he himself says, nothing in view beyond furnishing a statement of the faith of the persecuted Protestants, whom he saw cruelly cut to pieces by impious and perfidious court parasites. In this work, though produced when the author was only twenty-six years of age, we find a complete outline of the Calvinist theological system. In none of the later editions, nor in any of his later works do we find reason to believe that he ever changed his views on any essential point from what they were at the period of its first publication. Such an instance of maturity of mind and of opinion at so early an age would be remarkable under any circumstances; but in Calvin's case it is rendered peculiarly so by the shortness of the time which had elapsed since he gave himself to theological studies. It may be doubted also if the history of literature presents us with another instance of a book written at so early an age, which has exercised such a prodigious influence upon the opinions and practices both of contemporaries and of posterity.
After a short visit (April 1536) to the court of Renée, Duchess of Ferrara (cousin to Margaret of Navarre), which at that time afforded an asylum to several learned and pious fugitives from persecution, Calvin returned through Basel to France to arrange his affairs before finally taking farewell of his native country. His intention was to settle at Strasbourg or Basel, and to devote himself to study. But being unable, in consequence of the war between Francis I and Charles V, to reach Strasbourg by the ordinary route, he with his younger brother Antoine and his half-sister Marie journeyed to Lyons and so to Geneva, making for Basel. In Geneva his progress was arrested, and his resolution to pursue the quiet path of studious research was dispelled by what he calls the "formidable obtestation" of Guillaume Farel. After many struggles and no small suffering, this energetic spirit had succeeded in planting the evangelical standard at Geneva; and anxious to secure the aid of such a man as Calvin, he entreated him on his arrival to relinquish his design of going farther, and to devote himself to the work in that city. Calvin at first declined, alleging as an excuse his need of securing more time for personal improvement, but ultimately, believing that he was divinely called to this task and that "God had stretched forth His hand upon me from on high to arrest me", he consented to remain at Geneva. He hurried to Basel, transacted some business, and returned to Geneva in August 1536. He at once began to expound the epistles of St. Paul in the church of St. Pierre, and after about a year was also elected preacher by the magistrates with the consent of the people, an office which he would not accept until it had been repeatedly pressed upon him. His services seem to have been rendered for some time gratuitously, for in February 1537 there is an entry in the city registers to the effect that six crowns had been voted to him, "since he has as yet hardly received anything."
Calvin was in his twenty-eighth year when he was thus constrained to settle at Geneva; and in this city the rest of his life, with the exception of a brief interval, was spent. The post to which he was thus called was not an easy one. Though the people of Geneva had cast off the obedience of Rome, it was largely a political revolt against the duke of Savoy and they were still (says Beza) "but very imperfectly enlightened in divine knowledge; they had as yet hardly emerged from the filth of the papacy." This laid them open to the incursions of those fanatical teachers, whom the excitement attendant upon the Reformation had called forth, and who hung mischievously upon the rear of the reforming body. To obviate the evils thence resulting, Calvin, in union with Farel, drew up a condensed statement of Christian doctrine consisting of twenty-one articles. This the citizens were summoned, in parties of ten each, to profess and swear to as the confession of their faith -- a process which, though not in accordance with modern notions of the best way of establishing men in the faith, was gone through, Calvin tells us, "with much satisfaction." As the people took this oath in the capacity of citizens, we may see here the basis laid for that theocratic system which subsequently became peculiarly characteristic of the Genevan polity. Deeply convinced of the importance of education for the young, Calvin and his coadjutors were solicitous to establish schools throughout the city, and to enforce on parents the sending of their children to them; and as he had no faith in education apart from religious training, he drew up a catechism of Christian doctrine which the children had to learn while they were receiving secular instruction. Of the troubles which arose from fanatical teachers, the chief proceeded from the efforts of the Anabaptists; a public disputation was held on the 16th and 17th of March 1537, and so excited the populace that the Council of Two Hundred stopped it, declared the Anabaptists vanquished and drove them from the city. About the same time also, the peace of Calvin and his friends was much disturbed and their work interrupted by Pierre Caroli, another native of northern France, who, though a man of loose principle and belief, had been appointed chief pastor at Lausanne and was discrediting the good work done by Pierre Viret in that city. Calvin went to Viret's aid and brought Caroli before the commissioners of Bern on a charge of advocating prayers for the dead as a means of their earlier resurrection. Caroli brought a counter-charge against the Geneva divines of Sabellianism and Arianism, because they would not enforce the Athanasian creed, and had not used the words "Trinity" and "Person" in the confession they had drawn up. It was a struggle between the thoroughgoing humanistic reformer who drew his creed solely from the "word of God" and the merely semi-Protestant reformer who looked on the old creed as a priceless heritage. In a synod held at Bern the matter was fully discussed, when a verdict was given in favour of the Geneva divines, and Caroli deposed from his office and banished. He returned to France, rejoined the Roman communion and spent the rest of his life in passing to and from the old faith and the new. Thus ended an affair which seems to have occasioned Calvin much more uneasiness than the character of his assailant, and the manifest falsehood of the charge brought against him would seem to justify. Two brief anti-Romanist tracts, one entitled De fugiendis impiorum sacris, the other De sacerdotio papali abjiciendo, were also published early in this year.
Hardly was the affair of Caroli settled, when new and severer trials came upon the Genevan Reformers. The austere simplicity of the ritual which Farel had introduced, and to which Calvin had conformed; the strictness with which the ministers sought to enforce not only the laws of morality, but certain sumptuary regulations respecting the dress and mode of living of the citizens; and their determination in spiritual matters and ecclesiastical ceremonies not to submit to the least dictation from the civil power, led to violent dissensions. Amidst much party strife Calvin perhaps showed more youthful impetuosity than experienced skill. He and his colleagues refused to administer the sacrament in the Bernese form (with unleavened bread), and on Easter Sunday, 1538, declined to do so at all because of the popular tumult. For this they were banished from the city. They went first to Bern, and soon after to Zürich, where a synod of the Swiss pastors had been convened. Before this assembly they pleaded their cause, and stated what were the points on which they were prepared to insist as needful for the proper discipline of the church. They declared that they would yield in the matter of ceremonies so far as to employ unleavened bread in the eucharist, to use fonts in baptism, and to allow festival days, provided the people might pursue their ordinary avocations after public service. These Calvin regarded as matters of indifference, provided the magistrates did not make them of importance by seeking to enforce them; and he was the more willing to concede them, because he hoped thereby to meet the wishes of the Bernese brethren whose ritual was less simple than that established by Farel at Geneva. But he and his colleagues insisted, on the other hand. that for the proper maintenance of discipline, there should be a division of parishes -- that excommunications should be permitted, and should be under the power of elders chosen by the council, in conjunction with the clergy -- that order should be observed in the admission of preachers -- and that only the clergy should officiate in ordination by the laying on of hands. It was proposed also, as conducive to the welfare of the church, that the sacrament of the Lord's Supper should be administered more frequently, at least once every month, and that congregational singing of psalms should be practiced in the churches. On these terms the synod interceded with the Genevese to restore their pastors; but through the opposition of some of the Bernese (especially Peter Kuntz, the pastor of that city) this was frustrated, and a second edict of banishment was the only response.
Calvin and Farel betook themselves, under these circumstances, to Basel, where they soon after separated, Farel to go to Neuchâtel and Calvin to Strasbourg. At the latter place Calvin resided until the autumn of 1541, occupying himself partly in literary exertions, partly as a preacher and especially an organizer in the French church, and partly as a lecturer on theology. These years were not the least valuable in his experience. In 1539 he attended Charles V's conference on Christian reunion at Frankfurt as the companion of Bucer, and in the following year he appeared at Hagenau and Worms, as the delegate from the city of Strasbourg. He was present also at the diet at Regensburg, where he deepened his acquaintance with Philipp Melanchthon, and formed with him a friendship which lasted through life. He also did something to relieve the persecuted Protestants of France. It is to this period of his life that we owe a revised and enlarged form of his Institutes, his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, and his Tract on the Lord's Supper. Notwithstanding his manifold engagements, he found time to attend to the tenderer affections; for it was during his residence at Strasbourg that he married, in August 1540, Idelette de Bure, the widow of one Jean Stordeur of Liége, whom he had converted from Anabaptism. In her Calvin found, to use his own words, "the excellent companion of his life", a "precious help" to him amid his manifold labors and frequent infirmities. She died in 1549, to the great grief of her husband, who never ceased to mourn her loss. Their only child Jacques, born on the 28th of July 1542, lived only a few days.
During Calvin's absence disorder and irreligion had prevailed in Geneva. An attempt was made by Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547), Bishop of Carpentras, to take advantage of this so as to restore the papal supremacy in that district; but this design Calvin, at the request of the Bernese authorities, who had been consulted by those of Geneva, completely frustrated, by writing such a reply to the letter which the bishop had addressed to the Genevese, as constrained him to desist from all further efforts. The letter had more than a local or temporary reference. It was a popular yet thoroughgoing defense of the whole Protestant position, perhaps the best apologia for the Reformation that was ever written. He seems also to have kept up his connection with Geneva by addressing letters of counsel and comfort to the faithful there who continued to regard him with affection. It was whilst he was still at Strasbourg that there appeared at Geneva a translation of the Bible into French, bearing Calvin's name, but in reality only revised and corrected by him from the version of Olivétan. Meanwhile the way was opening for his return. Those who had driven him from the city gradually lost power and office. Farel worked unceasingly for his recall. After much hesitation, for Strasbourg had strong claims, he yielded and returned to Geneva, where he was received with the utmost enthusiasm (September 13, 1541). He entered upon his work with a firm determination to carry out those reforms which he had originally purposed, and to set up in all its integrity that form of church polity which he had carefully matured during his residence at Strasbourg. He now became the sole directive spirit in the church at Geneva. Farel was retained by the Neuchâtelois, and Viret, soon after Calvin's return, removed to Lausanne. His duties were thus rendered exceedingly onerous, and his labour became excessive. Besides preaching every day in each alternate week, he taught theology three days in the week, attended weekly meetings of his consistory, read the Scriptures once a week in the congregation, carried on an extensive correspondence on a multiplicity of subjects, prepared commentaries on the books of Scripture, and was engaged repeatedly in controversy with the opponents of his opinions. "I have not time", he writes to a friend, "to look out of my house at the blessed sun, and if things continue thus I shall forget what sort of appearance it has. When I have settled my usual business, I have so many letters to write, so many questions to answer, that many a night is spent without any offering of sleep being brought to nature."
It is only necessary here to sketch the leading events of Calvin's life after his return to Geneva. He recodified the Genevan laws and constitution, and was the leading spirit in the negotiations with Bern that issued in the treaty of February 1544. Of the controversies in which he embarked, one of the most important was that in which he defended his doctrine concerning predestination and election. His first antagonist on this head was Albert Pighius, a Romanist, who, resuming the controversy between Erasmus and Luther on the freedom of the will, violently attacked Calvin for the views he had expressed on that subject. Calvin replied to him in a work published in 1543, in which he defends his own opinions at length, both by general reasonings and by an appeal to both Scripture and the Fathers, especially Augustine. So potent were his reasonings that Pighius, though owing nothing to the gentleness or courtesy of Calvin, was led to embrace his views. A still more vexatious and protracted controversy on the same subject arose in 1551 Jerome Hermes Bolsec, a Carmelite friar, having renounced Romanism, had fled from France to Veigy, a village near Geneva, where he practised as a physician. Being a zealous opponent of predestinarian views, he expressed his criticisms of Calvin's teaching on the subject in one of the public conferences held each Friday. Calvin replied with much vehemence, and brought the matter before the civil authorities. The council were at a loss which course to take; not that they doubted which of the disputants was right, for they all held by the views of Calvin, but they were unable to determine to what extent and in which way Bolsec should be punished for his heresy. The question was submitted to the churches at Basel, Bern, Zürich and Neuchâtel, but they also, to Calvin's disappointment, were divided in their judgment, some counselling severity, others gentle measures. In the end Bolsec was banished from Geneva; he ultimately rejoined the Roman communion and in 1577 avenged himself by a particularly slanderous biography of Calvin. Another painful controversy was that with Sébastien Castellio (1515-1563), a teacher in the Genevan school and a scholar of real distinction. He wished to enter the preaching ministry but was excluded by Calvin's influence because he had criticized the inspiration of the Song of Solomon and the Genevan interpretation of the clause "he descended into hell." The bitterness thus aroused developed into lifelong enmity. During all this time also the less strict party in the city and in the council did not cease to harry the reformer.
But the most memorable of all the controversies in which Calvin was engaged was that into which he was brought in 1553 with Michael Servetus. After many wanderings, and after having been condemned to death for heresy at Vienne, whence he was fortunate enough to make his escape, Servetus arrived in August 1553 at Geneva on his way to Naples. He was recognized in church and soon after, at Calvin's instigation, arrested. The charge of blasphemy was founded on certain statements in a book published by him in 1553, entitled Christianismi Restitutio, in which he animadverted on the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, and advanced sentiments strongly savoring of pantheism. It must be noted here that the struggle was something more than a doctrinal one. The cause of Servetus was taken up by Calvin's Genevan foes headed by Philibert Berthelier, and became a test of the relative strength of the rival forces and of the permanence of Calvin's control. That Calvin was actuated by personal spite and animosity against Servetus himself may be open to discussion; we have his own express declaration that, after Servetus was convicted, he used no urgency that he should be put to death, and at their last interview he told Servetus that he never had avenged private injuries, and assured him that if he would repent it would not be his fault if all the pious did not give him their hands. There is the fact also that Calvin used his endeavor to have the sentence which had been pronounced against Servetus mitigated, death by burning being regarded by him as an "atrocity", for which he sought to substitute death by the sword. It can be justly charged against Calvin in this matter that he took the initiative in bringing on the trial of Servetus, that as his accuser he prosecuted the suit against him with undue severity, and that he approved the sentence which condemned Servetus to death. When, however, it is remembered that the unanimous decision of the Swiss churches and of the Swiss state governments was that Servetus deserved to die; that the general voice of Christendom was in favor of this; that even such a man as Melanchthon affirmed the justice of the sentence; that an eminent English divine of the next age should declare the process against him "just and honourable", and that only a few voices here and there were at the time raised against it, many will be ready to accept the judgment of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that the death of Servetus was not "Calvin's guilt especially, but the common opprobrium of all European Christendom."
Calvin was also involved in a protracted and somewhat vexing dispute with the Lutherans respecting the Lord's Supper, which ended in the separation of the evangelical party into the two great sections of Lutherans and Reformed, -- the former holding that in the eucharist the body and blood of Christ are objectively and consubstantially present, and so are actually partaken of by the communicants, and the latter that there is only a virtual presence of the body and blood of Christ, and consequently only a spiritual participation thereof through faith. In addition to these controversies on points of faith, he was for many years greatly disquieted, and sometimes even endangered, by the opposition offered by the libertine party in Geneva to the ecclesiastical discipline which he had established there. His system of church polity was essentially theocratic; it assumed that every member of the state was also under the discipline of the church; and he asserted that the right of exercising this discipline was vested exclusively in the consistory or body of preachers and elders. His attempts to carry out these views brought him into collision both with the authorities and with the populace, -- the latter being not unnaturally restive under the restraints imposed upon their liberty by the vigorous system of church discipline, and the former being inclined to retain in their own hands a portion of that power in things spiritual which Calvin was bent on placing exclusively in the hands of the church rulers. His dauntless courage, his perseverance, and his earnestness at length prevailed, and he had the satisfaction, before he died, of seeing his favorite system of church polity firmly established, not only at Geneva, but in other parts of Switzerland, and of knowing that it had been adopted substantially by the Reformers in France and Scotland. The men whom he trained at Geneva carried his principles into almost every country in Europe, and in varying degree these principles did much for the cause of civil liberty. Nor was it only in religious matters that Calvin busied himself; nothing was indifferent to him that concerned the welfare and good order of the state or the advantage of its citizens. His work embraced everything; he was consulted on every affair, great and small, that came before the council, -- on questions of law, police, economy, trade, and manufactures, no less than on questions of doctrine and church polity. To him the city owed her trade in cloths and velvets, from which so much wealth accrued to her citizens; sanitary regulations were introduced by him which made Geneva the admiration of all visitors; and in him she reverences the founder of her university. This institution was in a sense Calvin's crowning work. It added religious education to the evangelical preaching and the thorough discipline already established, and so completed the reformer's ideal of a Christian commonwealth.
Amidst these multitudinous cares and occupations, Calvin found time to write a number of works besides those provoked by the various controversies in which he was engaged. The most numerous of these were of an exegetical character. Including discourses taken down from his lips by faithful auditors, we have from him expository comments or homilies on nearly all the books of Scripture, written partly in Latin and partly in French. Though naturally knowing nothing of the modern idea of a progressive revelation, his judiciousness, penetration, and tact in eliciting his author's meaning, his precision, condensation, and concinnity as an expositor, the accuracy of his learning, the closeness of his reasoning, and the elegance of his style, all unite to confer a high value on his exegetical works. The series began with Romans in 1540 and ended with Joshua in 1564. In 1558-59 also, though in very ill health, he finally perfected the Institutes.
The incessant and exhausting labors to which Calvin gave himself could not but tell on his fragile constitution. Amid many sufferings, however, and frequent attacks of sickness, he manfully pursued his course; nor was it until his frail body, torn by many and painful diseases -- fever, asthma, stone, and gout, the fruits for the most part of his sedentary habits and unceasing activity -- had, as it were, fallen to pieces around him, that his indomitable spirit relinquished the conflict. In the early part of the year 1564 his sufferings became so severe that it was manifest his earthly career was rapidly drawing to a close. On the 6th of February of that year he preached his last sermon, having with great difficulty found breath enough to carry him through it. He was several times after this carried to church, but never again was able to take any part in the service. With his usual disinterestedness he refused to receive his stipend, now that he was no longer able to discharge the duties of his office. In the midst of his sufferings, however, his zeal and energy kept him in continual occupation; when expostulated with for such unseasonable toil, he replied, "Would you that the Lord should find me idle when He comes?" After he had retired from public labors he lingered for some months, enduring the severest agony without a murmur, and cheerfully attending to all the duties of a private kind which his diseases left him strength to discharge. On the 25th of April he made his will, on the 27th he received the Little Council, and on the 28th the Genevan ministers, in his sick-room; on the 2nd of May he wrote his last letter -- to his old comrade Farel, who hastened from Neuchâtel to see him once again. He spent much time in prayer and died quietly, in the arms of his faithful friend Theodore Beza, on the evening of the 27th of May, in the fifty-fifth year of his age. The next day he was buried without pomp "in the common cemetery called Plain-palais" in a spot not now to be identified.
Calvin was of middle stature; his complexion was somewhat pallid and dark; his eyes, to the latest clear and lustrous, bespoke the acumen of his genius. He was sparing in his food and simple in his dress; he took but little sleep, and was capable of extraordinary efforts of intellectual toil. He had a most retentive memory and a very keen power of observation. He spoke without rhetoric, simply, directly, but with great weight. He had many acquaintances but few close friends. His private character was in harmony with his public reputation and position. If somewhat severe and irritable, he was at the same time scrupulously just, truthful, and steadfast; he never deserted a friend or took an unfair advantage of an antagonist; and on befitting occasions he could be cheerful and even facetious among his intimates. "God gave him", said the Little Council after his death, "a character of great majesty." "I have been a witness of him for sixteen years", says Beza, "and I think I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an example of the life and death of the Christian, such as it will not be easy to depreciate, such as it will be difficult to emulate."
Though Calvin built his theology on the foundations laid by earlier reformers, and especially by Luther and Bucer, his peculiar gifts of learning, of logic and of style made him preeminently the theologian of the new religion. The following may be regarded as his characteristic tenets, though not all are peculiar to him.
The dominant thought is the infinite and transcendent sovereignty of God, to know whom is the supreme end of human endeavor. God is made known to man especially by the Scriptures, whose writers were "sure and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit." To the Spirit speaking therein the Spirit-illumined soul of man makes response. While God is the source of all good, man as a sinner is guilty and corrupt. The first man was made in the image and likeness of God, which not only implies man's superiority to all other creatures, but indicates his original purity, integrity and sanctity. From this state Adam fell, and in his fall involved the whole human race descended from him. Hence depravity and corruption, diffused through all parts of the soul, attach to all men, and this first makes them obnoxious to the anger of God, and then comes forth in works which the Scripture calls works of the flesh (Gal. v. 19). Thus all are held vitiated and perverted in all parts of their nature, and on account of such corruption deservedly condemned before God, by whom nothing is accepted save righteousness innocence, and purity. Nor is that a being bound for another's offense; for when it is said that we through Adam's sin have become obnoxious to the divine judgment, it is not to be taken as if we, being ourselves innocent and blameless, bear the fault of his offense, but that, we having been brought under a curse through his transgression, he is said to have bound us. From him, however, not only as punishment overtaken us, but a pestilence instilled from him resides in us, to which punishment is justly due. Thus even infants, whilst they bring their own condemnation with them from their mother's womb, are bound not by another's but by their own fault. For though they have not yet brought forth the fruits of their iniquity, they have the seed shut up in them; nay, their whole nature is a sort of seed of sin, therefore it cannot but be hateful and abominable to God (Instit. bk. ii, ch. i. sect. 8).
To redeem man from this state of guilt, and to recover him from corruption, the Son of God became incarnate, assuming man's nature into union with His own, so that in Him were two natures in one person. Thus incarnate He took on Him the offices of prophet, priest and king, and by His humiliation, obedience and suffering unto death, followed by His resurrection and ascension to heaven, He has perfected His work and fulfilled all that was required in a redeemer of men, so that it is truly affirmed that He has merited for man the grace of salvation (bk. ii. ch. 13-17). But until a man is in some way really united to Christ so as to partake of Him, the benefits of Christ's work cannot be attained by him. Now it is by the secret and special operation of the Holy Spirit that men are united to Christ and made members of His body. Through faith, which is a firm and certain cognition of the divine benevolence towards us founded on the truth of the gracious promise in Christ, men are by the operation of the Spirit united to Christ and are made partakers of His death and resurrection, so that the old man is crucified with Him and they are raised to a new life, a life of righteousness and holiness. Thus joined to Christ the believer has life in Him and knows that he is saved, having the witness of the Spirit that he is a child of God, and having the promises, the certitude of which the Spirit had before impressed on the mind, sealed by the same Spirit on the heart (bk. iii. ch. 33-36). From faith proceeds repentance, which is the turning of our life to God, proceeding from a sincere and earnest fear of God, and consisting in the mortification of the flesh and the old man within us and a vivification of the Spirit. Through faith also the believer receives justification, his sins are forgiven, he is accepted of God, and is held by Him as righteous, the righteousness of Christ being imputed to him, and faith being the instrument by which the man lays hold on Christ, so that with His righteousness the man appears in God's sight as righteous. This imputed righteousness, however, is not disjoined from real personal righteousness, for regeneration and sanctification come to the believer from Christ no less than justification; the two blessings are not to be confounded, but neither are they to be disjoined. The assurance which the believer has of salvation he receives from the operation and witness of the Holy Spirit; but this again rests on the divine choice of the man to salvation; and this falls back on God's eternal sovereign purpose, whereby He has predestined some to eternal life while the rest of mankind are predestined to condemnation and eternal death. Those whom God has chosen to life He effectually calls to salvation, and they are kept by Him in progressive faith and holiness unto the end (bk. iii. passim). The external means or aids by which God unites men into the fellowship of Christ, and sustains and advances those who believe, are the church and its ordinances, especially the sacraments. The church universal is the multitude gathered from diverse nations, which though divided by distance of time and place, agree in one common faith, and it is bound by the tie of the same religion; and wherever the word of God is sincerely preached, and the sacraments are duly administered, according to Christ's institute, there beyond doubt is a church of the living God (bk. iv. ch. 1, sect. 7-11). The permanent officers in the church are pastors and teachers, to the former of whom it belongs to preside over the discipline of the church, to administer the sacraments, and to admonish and exhort the members; while the latter occupy themselves with the exposition of Scripture, so that pure and wholesome doctrine may be retained. With them are to be joined for the government of the church certain pious, grave and holy men as a senate in each church; and to others, as deacons, is to be entrusted the care of the poor. The election of the officers in a church is to be with the people, and those duly chosen and called are to be ordained by the laying on of the hands of the pastors (ch. 3, sect. 4-16). The sacraments are two -- Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism is the sign of initiation whereby men are admitted into the society of the church and, being grafted into Christ, are reckoned among the sons of God; it serves both for the confirmation of faith and as a confession before men. The Lord's Supper is a spiritual feast where Christ attests that He is the life-giving bread, by which our souls are fed unto true and blessed immortality. That sacred communication of His flesh and blood whereby Christ transfuses into us His life, even as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow, He in the Supper attests and seals; and that not by a vain or empty sign set before us. but there He puts forth the efficacy of His Spirit whereby He fulfils what He promises. In the mystery of the Supper Christ is truly exhibited to us by the symbols of bread and wine; and so His body and blood, in which He fulfilled all obedience for the obtaining of righteousness for us, are presented. There is no such presence of Christ in the Supper as that He is affixed to the bread or included in it or in any way circumscribed; but whatever can express the true and substantial communication of the body and blood of the Lord, which is exhibited to believers under the said symbols of the Supper, is to be received, and that not as perceived by the imagination only or mental intelligence, but as enjoyed for the aliment of the eternal life (bk. iv. ch. 15, 17).
The course of time has substantially modified many of these positions. Even the churches which trace their descent from Calvin's work and faith no longer hold in their entirety his views on the magistrate as the preserver of church purity, the utter depravity of human nature, the non-human character of the Bible, the dealing of God with man. But his system had an immense value in the history of Christian thought. It appealed to and evoked a high order of intelligence, and its insistence on personal individual salvation has borne worthy fruit. So also its insistence on the chief end of man "to know and do the will of God" made for the strenuous morality that helped to build up the modern world. Its effects are most clearly seen in Scotland, in Puritan England and in the New England states, but its influence was and is felt among peoples that have little desire or claim to be called Calvinist.
Wife: Idelette de Bure (m. 1540)
Son: Jacques (b. 28-Jul-1542, d. several days later)
University: University of Paris
Risk Factors: Asthma, Gout, Tuberculosis, Hemorrhoids
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