Introduction

When one thinks of John Calvin, many things come to mind. Many people immediately think in a positive manner of his expository preaching prowess or his laborious reform in Geneva. On the other hand, some immediately have a negative thought of the Servetus affair. Whether a positive or negative thought is given, it is always important to consider the “giants of the faith” fairly, with the remembrance that they were, clay-footed sinners who, though mightily used by God, were still imperfect sinners. John Calvin was no exception to this rule. While history remembers him as a theological, cultural, and political giant, he was a frail and sickly man beset by many trials and ailments. My aim in this article will be to examine a few key events and time periods of Calvin’s life that will help to shed light on the life and work of one of the most eminent theologians of the Reformation. I have found biography to be immensely helpful to my Christian walk, and I am hopeful this brief biographical overview of some of the times and events in Calvin’s life will prove edifying and helpful to the reader who comes across this article.

1: Early Life of Calvin

John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in the Roman Catholic city of Noyon France. His father worked as a secretary to the Bishop in the Catholic church, and not much is known about his mother. Calvin’s father and brothers were all involved with the church, but the family developed a turbulent history with the church. As a result of Calvin’s father falling out of grace with the church, Calvin would be sent to law school in Orleans at the suggestion of his father in 1528. It was during this time that Calvin became broadly educated in the sciences as well as philosophy and law.

During these years Calvin mastered Greek, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in law. His father died in May of 1531, when Calvin was 21. Calvin felt free at that time to turn from law to his first love, which had become the classics. He published his first book, a Commentary on Seneca, in 1532, at the age of 23.[1] Shortly after publishing his Latin work on Seneca, Calvin came into contact with the teachings of Reformed Protestantism. At first, these teachings were offensive to a man who had been born and raised in a Catholic home and was by large degree intimately acquainted with the workings of the Roman Catholic Church. His conversion was not a dramatic conversion that is recorded anywhere, but it was a miraculous shift from darkness to light. Calvin would write of his conversion,

“Offended by the novelty (of reformed protestant teaching), I lent an unwilling ear, and at first, I confess, strenuously and passionately resisted… to confess that I had all my life long been in ignorance and error… I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, in what a sty of error I had wallowed, and how much pollution and impurity I had thereby contracted. Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen . . . as in duty bound, [I] made it my first business to betake myself to thy way [O God], condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.[2] God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame… Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress”.[3]

And so, it was around the year 1533 that John Calvin was converted and began his Christian life. We do not know much more about Calvin’s conversion than Calvin’s brief explanation of the event, and there are no other writings either by Calvin or his biographer and predecessor Beza on the matter. This period of awakening in the mind and soul of Calvin would mark the beginning of a tempestuous spiritual life marked with trial, pain, and suffering. This life would, by the grace of God, however, be a life that was so influential to the reformation that his legacy and writings have survived hundreds of years and been immensely formative in the life of the church.

2: Affair of the Placards

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Psalm 116:15

One of the most famous and well known theological works ever written is Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. What is not famous or well-known, however, are the events that sparked the inspiration for this great work. The King of France at this time was a man named Francis. He was a Roman Catholic and was the same king to whom Calvin’s prefatory letter in the Institutes is addressed. He was no friend of the Protestants yet up until 1534 was no great enemy either. He detested monks and pious Catholicism and desired a more moderate Catholicism without the influence of the Pope halting or diminishing his power. This moderate attitude toward Protestants all changed after the early morning hours of October 18, 1534.

In the evening of October 17th, a decision was made to widely distribute an inflammatory placard denouncing the papacy, mass, and several other Roman Catholic ordinances and institutions.[4] The title of this placard was “TRUTHFUL ARTICLES CONCERNING THE HORRIBLE, GREAT, AND UNBEARABLE ABUSES OF THE POPISH MASS, INVENTED DIRECTLY AGAINST THE HOLY SUPPER OF OUR LORD, THE ONLY MEDIATOR, AND ONLY SAVIOR, JESUS CHRIST.” This placard spread far and wide throughout France and even reached the king himself. This caused such a stir and agitation among the people and the king, that on the 26th of October an order went out from Parliament to round up and arrest all participants of the so-called “Affair of the Placards”. Thus began a persecution so harsh and so broad that thousands of Protestants were either killed or imprisoned before it simmered down. Protestants in France would not regain any semblance of rights or liberty until the Edict of Nantes was issued some 64 years later in 1598.

Now, if you are wondering at the significance of this even to the life of John Calvin, you must understand how close to home these events took place and the lasting impact it had on his life. This persecution caused the widespread killing and imprisonment of many Protestants while thousands of others were forced to flee the country to save their lives. Calvin lost many dear friends to this persecution including a man by the name of Etienne de la Forge who discipled Calvin when he was newly saved. Calvin would write that one of his primary reasons for writing the institutes was to vindicate his falsely accused and martyred brethren and to plainly and boldly proclaim the faith they died trying to defend. He wrote the following in his commentary on the Psalms:

“But lo! whilst I lay hidden at Basle, and known only to a few people, many faithful and holy persons were burnt alive in France; and the report of these burnings having reached foreign nations, they excited the strongest disapprobation among a great part of the Germans, whose indignation was kindled against the authors of such tyranny. In order to allay this indignation, certain wicked and lying pamphlets were circulated, stating that none were treated with such cruelty but Anabaptists and seditious persons, who by their perverse ravings and false opinions, were overthrowing not only religion but also all civil order. Observing that the object which these instruments of the court aimed at by their disguises, was not only that the disgrace of shedding so much innocent blood might remain buried under the false charges and calumnies which they brought against the holy martyrs after their death, but also, that afterwards they might be able to proceed to the utmost extremity in murdering the poor saints without exciting compassion towards them in the breasts of any, it appeared to me, that unless I opposed them to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery. This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institute of the Christian Religion. My objects were, first, to prove that these reports were false and calumnious, and thus to vindicate my brethren, whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord; and next, that as the same cruelties might very soon after be exercised against many unhappy individuals, foreign nations might be touched with at least some compassion towards them and solicitude about them. When it was then published, it was not that copious and labored work which it now is, but only a small treatise containing a summary of the principal truths of the Christian religion, and it was published with no other design than that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed by those flagitious and perfidious flatterers.[5]

In many ways, Calvin’s life and work were forged in fiery events that followed the Affair of the Placards. While these events were terribly violent, they would eventually help to fan the flames of the Reformation, albeit indirectly, across the entire continent of Europe. After fleeing France, Calvin would spend two years in Protestant controlled Basel Switzerland where he devoted much time to studying and writing. It was here that he mastered Hebrew and wrote the first edition of The Institutes.

In 1536 under the terms of a religious amnesty, he would return to France to visit family and put his affairs in order. Many of his friends were no longer living as several had given their lives for the faith. His dear friend and mentor de la Forge had been martyred along with his entire family. The cost of truth in France was indeed bloody and great. Calvin would leave France in 1536 never to return again. Calvin departed France intending to travel to Strausburg to begin a life of scholarly study and writing in peace and quiet.

In an extraordinary providence, Calvin was blocked from his intended destination of Strausburg due to war maneuvers between King Francis and King Charles V. This forced him to stop in the city of Geneva Switzerland, and it was in this city that Calvin’s life would be forever altered through an encounter with a fellow French reformer named William Farel.

3: Farel & Geneva

Ironically, following the Affair of the Placards and the dispersion of French Protestants, Calvin would run into a familiar face in Geneva though not of any intention of his own. A fiery and zealous reformer by the name of William Farel had lived in France at the same time as Calvin before the Affair of the Placards, and many had thought Farel was behind the writing of those infamous placards that had caused widespread Protestant persecution in France. He also was forced to flee the country and settled in Geneva Switzerland. There he began pastoral work in the reformed church and became an influential voice of the Protestant Reformation.

In 1536, following his departure from France, Calvin would stop in Geneva on a detour to Strasbourg. At this time, The Institutes had begun to spread, and Calvin had gained some notoriety as a prominent theologian for the Protestant cause. This word had reached Farel, and upon hearing of Calvin’s presence in Geneva, he insisted upon meeting “the Theologian.” Calvin tells us of his meeting with Farel in his own words in the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms:

“As the most direct road to Strasburg, to which I then intended to retire, was shut up by the wars, I had resolved to pass quickly by Geneva, without staying longer than a single night in that city. A little before this, Popery had been driven from it by the exertions of the excellent person whom I have named, and Peter Viret; but matters were not yet brought to a settled state, and the city was divided into unholy and dangerous factions. Then an individual who now basely apostatized and returned to the Papists discovered me and made me known to others. Upon this, Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken; but sensible of my natural bashfulness and timidity, I would not bring myself under obligation to discharge any particular office.”[6]

Driven by the intense weight of conviction that Farel’s words brought, Calvin would indeed remain in Geneva. He began his ministry there as a teacher and would be named to a pastorate within three months of his arrival to the town. Calvin’s ministry in Geneva would be a turbulent one. The peace and quiet of the ivory tower that Calvin craved would largely avoid him at every turn. Far from peace and quiet, Calvin faced factions and divisions among the people, resistance to his reform by the magistrates, and threats of violence and harm from virtually all parties.

It is important to understand all of the reformers according to their times. This is not to excuse bad behavior but to understand their behavior and reasoning in its proper context. The reform of Calvin in Geneva was an attempt to unite both the church and the state and to bring the state under the authority of the church. Rather than the separation of church and state that America knows, Calvin sought to unite the church and state under the authority of the church and the authority of God’s word. Calvin and Farel enjoyed a honeymoon period of sorts from 1536 to 1538 as Geneva adapted to the reform. In 1538 however, things began to sour between the magistrate and the Reformers, and they were banished from the city.

4: Strausburg, Marriage, and Back to Geneva

This banishment would serve as another act of divine providence in the life of Calvin. At the request of Martin Bucer, Calvin journeyed to Strausburg to pastor a church of around 500 people. It was while he was in Strausburg that Calvin began to look for a wife. This was a difficult task as many recommendations were made, but Calvin was not interested in any of the women. Calvin seemed more economically minded when it came to a wife as he remarked to Farel:

“Always keep in mind what I seek to find in her; for I am not one of those insane lovers who embrace even the vices of those they are in love with, when they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure. The only beauty which allures me is this—that she be chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient, likely to take care of my health.”[7]

 After turning down multiple suggestions, Calvin would marry a widow in the church named Idelette de Bure. They were married in August of 1540, and she would have a son in the spring of 1541. Sadly, this child died in infancy and this greatly affected Calvin. However, in the midst of this great tragedy, his belief in the sovereignty of God was strengthened. He wrote regarding the loss:

“The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But He is Himself a Father and knows best what is good for His children.”[8]

Idelette had two children of her own and Calvin cared for them as his own. Sadly, however, she and Calvin would lose two more children in infancy, and she would not have any more children for the remainder of their marriage.

In the spring of 1541, the council of Geneva requested that Calvin and Farel return to the city to resume reform as the city had drifted into chaos. The city turned about-face on their former position and viewed Calvin and Farel as men of influence who could exercise control and restore order. Upon receiving this request, Calvin would write to his pier Peter Viret:

“There is no place under heaven of which I can have a greater dread, not because I have hated it, but because I see so many difficulties presented in that quarter which I do feel myself far from being equal to surmount. Whenever the recollection of former times recurs to my mind, I cannot but shudder throughout with heartfelt alarm at the thought, that I may be forced to expose myself a second time to these sort of contests.”[9]

This quote provides a view into the humanity of Calvin. Often, he is thought of as an ironclad reformer who stood fearlessly against Rome, but there was an understandable human fear and apprehension about returning to a city that had previously threatened his life and ran him out of town. Calvin would ultimately concede to the Genevan’s request. He would write to Farel:

“When I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord. Therefore, there is no ground for your apprehension that you will only get fine words. Our friends are in earnest, and promise sincerely. And for myself, I protest that I have no other desire than that, setting aside all consideration of me, they may look only to what is most for the glory of God and the advantage of the Church.”

Calvin’s remarkable obedience to God and his desire for God to be glorified would be hallmarks of his pastoral ministry. Setting aside his own flesh, he set out for Geneva to minister to a people for their good and God’s glory, and he would remain in Geneva until his death in May of 1564.

5: Geneva: The Final Years

The final years of Calvin were spent in Geneva, and for a few years following his return, he dealt with several controversies. Most namely was the controversy in the city of the administration of the Lord’s Supper. He also dealt with the death of his wife in 1549 which greatly broke his heart. Calvin would write the following to his confidante Viret following her death:

“You know well how tender, or rather soft, my mind is. Had not a powerful self-control been given to me, I could not have borne up so long. And truly, mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordained, would have willingly shared not only my poverty but even my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the whole course of her illness, but was more anxious about her children than about herself. As I feared these private worries might upset her to no purpose, I took occasion three days before she died, to mention that I would not fail in discharging my duty towards her children.”

While outwardly many of our impressions of Calvin are that of a firm reformer, privately he demonstrated a softness and a genuine humility that was uncommon in his day among church leaders and especially in Geneva. Calvin was firm yet humble, and bold, yet gentle. The defining mark of Calvin’s ministry would be his dedication to the exposition of the word of God. Calvin had a reverence and love for the word that was unrivaled in his day. Piper writes regarding Calvin:

“Everything was exposition of Scripture. This was the ministry unleashed by seeing the majesty of God in Scripture. The Scriptures were absolutely central because they were absolutely the Word of God and had as their self-authenticating theme the majesty and glory of God. But out of all these labors of exposition, preaching was supreme.”[10]

Calvin sought to reform the church to the time of the early church fathers. To do this, he would methodically preach through books of the Bible in an expository manner. Parker writes of Calvin’s preaching,

His method was that of Zwingli and some of the Church fathers. Not for him the single text or even the isolated passage, he preached steadily through book after book of the Bible. On Sundays, he took always the New Testament, except for a few Psalms on Sunday afternoons. During the week, apart from occasional high festivals, it was always the Old Testament. He began at the beginning of a book and expounded it passage by passage, clause by clause, day after day, until he came to the end. Then he started on another book.”[11]

Calvin was a man who took the word of God seriously and sought to make it accessible to lay people on as frequent a basis as possible. He believed that the Scriptures had been veiled to the common people by the Roman church and this was a great affront to God and a great disservice to the people. To add to the genius of Calvin, it has been reported that he would mount the pulpit with only his Greek or Hebrew text and translate the text in his mind with no notes and exposit it to the audience.

Added to the expository ministry was the conviction that this ministry needed to be replicated and sent out through missionary endeavors to bear fruit across the world. Calvin would establish a theological seminary during his last decade in Geneva to train and raise up pastors to do this work. According to the Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva, the city also sent out “missionary” preachers to France and Piedmont, often to meet persecution and martyrdom.[12] Calvin was a man thoroughly acquainted with martyrdom, and he was, in fact, looked up to as a father figure by many of the men who would be martyred for the Reformed cause. In 1554, Calvin would write a stirring letter to 5 young men who were imprisoned and awaiting execution by Rome. He writes:

Since it pleases him to employ you to the death in maintaining his quarrel, he will strengthen your hands in the fight, and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be spent in vain. And though the fruit may not all at once appear, yet in time it shall spring up more abundantly than we can express. But as he hath vouchsafed you this privilege, that your bonds have been renowned, and that the noise of them has been everywhere spread abroad, it must needs be, in despite of Satan, that your death should resound far more powerfully, so that the name of our Lord be magnified thereby. For my part, I have no doubt, if it please this kind Father to take you unto himself, that he has preserved you hitherto, in order that your long-continued imprisonment might serve as a preparation for the better awakening of those whom he has determined to edify by your end. For let enemies do their utmost, they never shall be able to bury out of sight that light which God has made to shine in you, in order to be contemplated from afar.”[13]

6: Conclusion

John Calvin was a sickly man for many years of his life. He had terrible fits of coughing blood, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, and gout. Through all of this, he pressed on in the pulpit and writing. He is one of the most prolific preachers and writers who ever lived, and he only lived to be 55 years of age.

Calvin was a man who was forged in the fires of persecution in France and molded in the fires of Geneva. His ministry fanned the flames for revival and reformation across Europe, and it was not without a heavy cost.

This past year marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We must continue to remember the reason why the Reformation was necessary. In short, the light of God’s word was hidden under a basket by Rome, the means of grace were dreadfully perverted, and those who insisted on returning to the old paths of the Christian faith were viciously persecuted. Instead of the word of God being faithfully preached, the darkness of dead tradition and blasphemous teaching descended upon and nearly consumed the church.

The Reformation is celebrated in part because of the grace of God in raising up such men as Huss, Luther, Zwingli, Knox, and Calvin to bring back the light of God’s word to his church. Flawed and sinful as they were, we celebrate the courage that these men demonstrated time and again to stand in the face of threats and death, and boldly state that their consciences were captive to the word of God and that they could do no other. We celebrate because the means of grace were brought out of the shackles of Rome and given back to the common people. We celebrate the example of faithful expository preaching and pastoral ministry that Calvin boldly dedicated his life to, and we celebrate that men like the martyrs of Lyon did not die in vain, but the light which God made shine in them (and many other martyrs), is indeed contemplated from afar!

May we never forget the depths of where the church once was, the grace which God bestowed upon us, and the men who gave their all for the righteous cause of reforming the institution that is most precious in the eyes of God. May we recognize the sins of our heroes and learn from them, the strengths of our heroes and emulate them, and may God be pleased to continue to graciously reform his church in these last days.

“He who testifies to these things says, Yes I am coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. – Revelation 22:20-21

Maranatha!

[1] Piper, John. “The Divine Majesty of the Word.” Desiring God, 4 Feb. 1997, www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-divine-majesty-of-the-word.

[2] Calvin, Jean, and John Dillenberger. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings. 114, Scholars Press, 1975.

[3] Calvin, Jean, and John Dillenberger. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings. 15, Scholars Press, 1975.

[4] “John Calvin: A Gallery of Calvin’s Supporters and Opponents | Christian History Magazine. “Christian History Institute, 1986, christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/calvin-gallery-of-calvins-supporters-and-opponents/.

[5] Calvin, John. “Commentary on Psalms – Volume 1.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.vi.html.

[6] Calvin, John. “Commentary on Psalms – Volume 1.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1 June 2005, www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.vi.html.

[7] Parker, T. H. L. “Number Eleven: Rue Due Chanoines.” Portrait of Calvin, 1954, pp. 78–79.

[8] Parker, T. H. L. “Number Eleven: Rue Due Chanoines.” Portrait of Calvin, 1954, pp. 79.

[9] Calvin, John. “Letters of John Calvin.” www.gutenberg.org pp. 230

[10] Piper, John. “The Divine Majesty of the Word.” Desiring God, 4 Feb. 1997, www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-divine-majesty-of-the-word.

[11] Parker, T. H. L. “Minister of the Word of God.” Portrait of Calvin, 1954, pp. 88.

[12] “No Quiet Place.” Sword and Trowel, 1998, p. 24.

[13] Calvin, John. “Letters of John Calvin.” Volume 2, The Five Prisoners of Lyons, pp. 406