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John Calvin was born in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509. He is best known for being a French theologian, church reformer, humanist, and pastor. Protestant denominations in the Reformed tradition regard him as a major formulator of their beliefs. He went to school starting at age fourteen. He received his formal education for priesthood at the College de la Marche and the College de Montaigue. These colleges were branches from the University of Paris. He also studied at the universities in Orleans and Bourges. He studied law as well as theology. His father wanted him to study law rather than theology.
Calvin became engaged in the spiritual renewal of his time to a high degree. He continued, improved, and completed the work of Zwingli and gave it a wider significance. He became the chief founder and consolidator of the Reformed Church of France and French Switzerland. He had a real passion in the proper functioning of the government, but recognized no power except that which derived from God. He held the belief that all authority was ordained by God.
In 1532 he published a commentary of Seneca’s De Clementia, proving his skills as a humanist scholar. His association with Nicholas Cop, the newly elected
rector of the University of Paris, forced both to flee when Cop announced his support in 1535 of Martin Luther. Although he seldom spoke of it, Calvin underwent a personal religious experience about this time.
Within the next two years, Calvin moved around frequently, avoiding church authorities while he studied, wrote, and formulated from the Bible and Christian tradition the primary tenets of his theology. In 1536 he published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a concise and provocative work that thrust him into the forefront of Protestantism. Calvin sought to articulate biblical theology in a sensible way, following the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. The work focused on the articles of “Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit,” and “Church.”
Calvin published the “Institutes” at a rapid rate, and took pains to present himself as the defender of the Reformed people in France. This is when Calvin became widely recognized. Calvin’s role in the “Institutes” was of special importance. He was the defender on behalf of his French fellow believers, pleading their innocence against the charges that they were Catabaptists who were dangerous to the state.
The second edition of the “Institutes” came out in 1539, in which Calvin broadened the understanding of the place of Scripture. It reflected the influence of the official and practical experience of Calvin’s first years in Geneva.
In 1532 the city council in Geneva introduced the Reformation. Calvin visited Geneva on his way to Strasbourg and was asked by Guillaume Farel to assist in the city’s reformation movement. Calvin was the man to complete the work of reformation in Geneva. The council gave Calvin the position of teacher of the interpretation of scripture. In August of 1536, Calvin began his service in Geneva as lecturer in Holy Scripture. Soon after he also preached there. He sought to bring about purity in both doctrine and the life of the city. He had a definite purpose in mind.
Calvin completed his interrupted journey to Strasbourg and participated in that community’s religious life until September 1541. Calvin had a unique proposal for the
city of Geneva. Ha wanted to attempt to make Geneva a model community, a “city of
God.” Calvin wanted to secure the freedom of the Church from the state. Calvin was there to reform the whole city, to make everyone a Christian. He thought that even the government should be Christian; and that there should be a law if you weren’t a Christian you could be thrown into jail.
While in Strasbourg Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow. The couple had one child, who died in infancy. Their marriage only lasted eight years because of
Idelette’s death in 1549. He did not get remarried. At Strasbourg, Calvin also published his Commentary of Romans (1539), the first of his many commentaries on books of the Bible.
The Genevans, in 1541 prevailed upon Calvin to return and lead them in reforming the church. He stayed in that city for the rest of his life, except for some short journeys in the interest of church reform. He received a house and gratuity from the government, he did not hold office in the government and he did not even become a citizen of Geneva until 1559. There was also opposition to Calvin’s leadership in the city until the defeat of the Perrin family in 1555.
Calvin’s health was never strong. He had illnesses such as chronic asthma, indigestion, and catarrh, which affected his air passages. In 1558 he became overwhelmed with a quartan fever. He died on May 27, 1564, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Geneva.
Calvin supported the development of a municipal school system for all children, with the Geneva Academy as the center of instruction for the best students. The academy was begun in 1559 with Theodore Beza and eventually became a full university.
Calvin improved the life of the city’s citizens in several ways. He supported hospitals, a proper sewage system, protective rails on upper stories to keep children f
from falling from tall buildings, special care for the poor and infirm, and the
introduction of new industries. He also encouraged the use of French Language in churches.
To Calvin, the Bible specified the nature of theology and of any human institutions. Since he believed in this, his statements on doctrine began and ended in
Scripture, although he did frequently use church fathers’ ideas. He wanted to minimize
speculation on divine matters and instead wanted to go to the word of God. He also
urged the church to recover its original vitality and purity.
Calvin stressed the sovereignty of God, the nature of election and predestination, the sins of pride and disobedience, the authority of Scripture, and the nature of the Christian life. Each of these teachings has been seized upon at some time by those following him as the central doctrine of Calvinism. Calvin tried to steer what he perceived to be a middle course between an exclusive emphasis on divine providence and an exclusive emphasis on human responsibility.
Calvin’s writings ended up being his greatest contribution to the church. He wrote many hymns and also encouraged others to do so. He wrote an influential catechism, hundreds of letters to fellow reformers, and commentaries on almost all books of the Bible. Many of his sermons and manuscripts have been collected and can be found in many languages.
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