Born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, Picardy, in northern France, John Calvin was raised in a family of deeply committed Roman Catholics. Calvin would long remember his mother taking him on pilgrimages to see the relics of the saints, while his father, the financial administrator of the cathedral of Noyon, sought to arrange things so that John would become a priest like his older brother Charles (d.1537). At the age of fourteen, in 1523, Calvin went up to Paris to realize his father’s dream. After initial study at the Collège de la Marche, Calvin went on to the formidable Collège de Montaigu. It is noteworthy that another key figure of this era, namely the Counter-Reformation leader, Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), as equally renowned as Calvin for his disciplined life, also studied at this college, though just after the Frenchman.
The Road to Christ
The 1520s were a time of great religious turmoil in France. The evangelical teachings of Martin Luther (1483–1546), the German Reformer, were winning adherents throughout France, especially in Paris—but Calvin was too closely tied to the Roman Church to pay them any heed. His father, though, fell afoul of the church in Noyon and was excommunicated by the bishop, which may well have led Calvin to begin to mentally question the practices of the Roman Church. Probably as a result of his quarrel, Calvin’s father instructed John to go into law and move to Orléans to study at—what was then—the pre-eminent French university for legal studies. Calvin later described this sudden change in his life thus: “When he [Calvin’s father] saw that the science of law made those who cultivate it wealthy, he was led to change his mind by the hope of material gain for me. So it happened that I was called back from the study of philosophy to learn law.”
Calvin studied first at Orléans from 1528 to 1529 and then transferred to Bourges for two more years of legal studies from 1529 to 1531. It was probably two years after the end of these studies—although there is debate about the exact dating of Calvin’s conversion—that Calvin was converted and embraced the Reformed faith. Over the next three years, Calvin so matured in his faith that he began to teach others.
The Pathway to Ministry
In 1536 Calvin had published in Basle the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became an instant bestseller and would lead Luther’s co-worker, Phillip Melanchthon (1497–1560), to dub Calvin “the theologian”. A second edition appeared in 1539, which was three times as large as the first edition, while the final edition (Geneva, 1559), which was the fifth edition, was almost five times larger than the first edition. This significant growth of this classic work of theology reveals an essential characteristic of Calvin the theologian: his profound teachability.
The same year in which this Christian classic appeared, Calvin was forced to leave France—he would never return—for the sake of the gospel. He was headed for Strasbourg, but had to go by way of Geneva, where he hoped to spend but one night. But God had different plans.
Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), through whose ministry reformation had come to the church in Geneva, learned that Calvin was in town. He went to meet him, convinced that Calvin was the very sort of man to help him in Geneva, especially since Farel was more of a pioneer and evangelist than pastor and teacher. But Calvin rejected his appeals since he was determined to find a place of seclusion where he could devote himself to academic pursuits.
Failing to persuade Calvin to stay and help him, Farel, according to Calvin, “proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse [his] retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which [he] sought, if [he] should withdraw and refuse to give assistance.” Calvin said he was so stricken with terror that he felt ‘as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me.’ So Calvin stayed in Geneva. It was certainly not the normal way God calls men to pastoral ministry!
Calvin stayed for two years and regularly preached in the church of St. Pierre. In 1538, though, opposition to the gospel in the town prevailed, and Calvin was expelled. He went to Strasbourg until 1541. During this three-year hiatus from Geneva, he served as a pastor to French refugees, a charge so tranquil that he was determined never to return to Geneva. But when the Council of Geneva requested that he return, he did so. He would remain in Geneva until his death on May 27, 1564.
Calvin regarded his life work in Geneva primarily, as “proclaiming the Word of God” and “instructing believers in wholesome doctrine”. He was, of course, involved in pastoral work, but the center of his ministry was the preaching of gospel. By this means, Calvin reiterated time and again, God reveals himself in judgement and mercy, turning hearts to obedience, confirming the faith of believers, building up and purifying the Church.
Until 1549 he preached twice a Sunday: one of the two services in the morning and one at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. He would also speak three times or so during the week. Calvin’s method was true expository preaching, the method of the Swiss Reformer, Huldreich Zwingli (1484–1531), and some of the Church Fathers. He preached steadily through book after book of the Bible. On Sundays, he always took the New Testament, except for a few Psalms on Sunday afternoons. During the week, it was nearly always the Old Testament. He began at the beginning of a book and expounded it passage by passage, clause by clause, week after week, until he came to the end. Then he started on another book. As a Calvin scholar, T. H. L. Parker has noted: “Those in Geneva who listened Sunday after Sunday, day after day, and did not shut their ears, [they] received a training in Christianity such as had been given to few congregations in Europe since the days of the fathers.”
The sermons of Calvin that we have we owe to the labors of a French evangelical by the name of Denis Raguenier. Raguenier, following an elaborate system of stenography, devised by the pastors of the congregation, copied down all that Calvin preached. Initially, his sermons were copied into folio volumes and entrusted to the care of the deacons for anyone who wanted to read them. Later some of them were published, and many were translated, especially into English. A copy of Calvin’s sermons on Ephesians was later found at the bedside of John Knox (the Scottish Reformer) after the latter’s death in 1572.
As a result of Raguenier’s labors, there are now, in manuscript or in print, around 2,040 of Calvin’s sermons. An additional 263 sermons were preserved through other means. In them we hear the actual voice of the Reformer, speaking a plain, colloquial, but metropolitan French, and ranging over, as he spoke, the whole counsel of God, as well the major theological issues of his day.
Calvin and the Scriptures
Now, what was the reason for such monumental preaching? Well, first, Calvin viewed the Scriptures as “the pure Word of God”, “free from every stain or defect”, and “the certain and unerring rule”. As such, the Bible alone is a sure and certain guide for the believer’s life and thinking. Calvin thus was faithful to the Reformation re-discovery of that central biblical principle: Sola Scriptura. He assumed that Scripture, rightly interpreted, will not be found to make false assertions. This was the basic presupposition of all his exegesis and preaching.
Then, for Calvin, as for the other Reformers, hearing is the key sense of the Christian man and woman. Genuine faith, he once said, “cannot flow from a naked experience of things, but must have its origin in the Word of God.” Medieval Roman Catholicism had majored on symbols and images as the central means of teaching. The Reformation, coming as it did hard on the heels of the invention of the printing press, turned back to the biblical emphasis on “words”, both spoken and written, as the primary vehicle for cultivating faith and spirituality.
Geneva, as a missionary center, was not a large city. During Calvin’s lifetime, it reached a peak of slightly more than 21,000 by 1560 A.D., of whom a goodly number were religious refugees. Nevertheless, it became the missionary center of Europe in this period of the Reformation. Calvin sought to harness the energies and gifts of many of the religious refugees so as to make Geneva central to the expansion of Reformation thought and piety throughout Europe. This meant training and preparing many of these refugees to go back to their native lands as evangelists and reformers.
Understandably, Calvin was vitally concerned about the evangelization of his native land, France, and his countrymen. It has been estimated that by 1562 some 2,150 congregations had been established in France with around 2 million members, many of them converted through the witness of men trained in Geneva. But Calvin was concerned for, not only France, but also for the reformation of the Church in places like Scotland, England, Spain, Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands.
To further this work of Reformation evangelism, there was also need for Christian literature and the Scriptures. In fact, by Calvin’s death, his interest in Christian publishing meant that there were no less than 34 printing-houses in Geneva. This included Bibles in various European languages, like the Geneva Bible, the bedrock of early English Puritanism. Calvin’s missionary vision for Europe thus had a deep impact on the European continent.
In the heart of his Institutes, Calvin defined Christian discipleship as essentially a life of good works marked by self-denial, the conviction that the Christian does not belong to him or herself, but belongs totally to God and is to live for God’s glory. In Calvin’s words:
“Even though the law of the Lord provides the finest and best-disposed method of ordering a man’s life, it seemed good to the Heavenly Teacher to shape his people by an even more explicit plan to that rule which he had set forth in the law. Here, then, is the beginning of this plan: the duty of believers is “to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him.””
Where in the history of the Church is there such an example of devotion to Christ? Though not a man without sins, Calvin well shows us what it means to be “consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may hereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory.”