Read the introduction to this series – 50 people you need to know: Church History 101
He is still one of the most discussed theologians almost 500 years after his death, but who exactly was John Calvin (1509-1564)? You do not have to be a Calvinist to recognize and appreciate the contributions he made in church history.
Who was John Calvin?
Born as Jehan Cauvin on 10 July 1509 in France, Calvin seemed destined for Catholic priesthood. During his study, however, he moved away from priestly training to law, where he became intrigued by the growing humanist movement. Different from what we think of with humanism today, at that time, it was an emphasis on classical studies and original languages.
In 1533, he said he had a “sudden conversion.” He left the Roman Catholic Church and began to be a part of the growing Reformation movement. This led to his being forced to leave France. He wanted to settle in Germany, but a war forced him to travel through Geneva, Switzerland. A fellow Reformer all but forced him to stay and help with the church there.
There in Geneva, Calvin had an on-again, off-again relationship with the city leaders. At times, he was allowed to enact church and government reforms. Other times, he was forced out due to disagreements with city leadership. For almost the last decade of his life, Calvin increased in influence and reputation within Geneva and around Europe. While he disagreed with fellow Reformers on some issues (particularly the eucharist or Lord’s Supper), he stressed unity among them.
When he died on May 27, 1564, church leaders originally had his body laid in state. But because so many came to see him, they worried it would lead to veneration and the development of a new saint’s cult. So they buried him in an unmarked grave, the exact location of which remains unknown.
Why do you need to know him?
If that question were not obvious enough, John Calvin continues to influence Christian theology and practice today, particularly through the understanding of salvation that became known as Calvinism and the Presbyterian system of church governance.
What we know today as Calvinism was formulated officially in the Synod of Dort in the early 1600s. In that meeting between the leadership of the Reformed church, they settled on five points to sum up their agreed upon theology (in opposition to another theological branch called Arminianism) that drew from the writings of Calvin, Augustine and others. In English, the five ideas form an acrostic TULIP.
I will try to briefly explain the points below. For a more thorough examination, including the objections to Calvinism and my own thoughts, you can read a post I wrote several years ago, Tiptoeing Through the Tulip: Calvinism in Brief. But for now, here are the five points:
- Total depravity – Every aspect of humanity is tainted by sin, removing our ability to ever choose God ourselves.
- Unconditional election – Through His will alone, God has graciously chosen to save some individuals.
- Limited atonement – Christ died only for the sins of those who were elected by God for salvation.
- Irresistible grace – Those who are elect cannot ultimately refuse God’s salvation.
- Perseverance of the saints – Everyone who is truly a Christian will remain so.
There is a question of whether Calvin himself would qualify as a Calvinist, with there being some debate over his position on limited atonement. But regardless, the work he did still echoes today.
Calvin is known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which grew out of a simple teaching tool early in his ministry to his magnum opus – a gigantic multi-volume work of systematic theology.
He also published commentaries on most books of the Bible and many of his later sermons were published.
“The whole life of Christians ought to be an exercise of piety, since they are called to sanctification.” – Institutes
“Holiness is not a merit by which we can attain communion with God, but a gift of Christ, which enables us to cling to him, and to follow him.” – Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life
“We should not insist on absolute perfection of the gospel in our fellow Christians, however we may strive for it ourselves.” – Golden Booklet
“Indeed, a Christian ought to be disposed and prepared to keep in mind that he has to reckon with God every moment of his life.” – Golden Booklet
Calvin was engaged to a woman, but broke it off and said he would never think of marrying her, “unless the Lord had entirely bereft me of my wits.” Later that year, however, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow who had two children from her first marriage.
Two years later, they had a son who was born prematurely and died shortly thereafter. When Idelette died in 1549, Calvin said he had been “bereaved of the best friend of my life.”