John Calvin

Published October 14, 2017 by Daniel Scheiderer in Reformation Theology

by Mike Miller

John Calvin remains today a controversial figure in history. He was born at Noyon, France in 1509, and grew up in a Catholic home with his lawyer father who was possibly the treasurer for the church.  His mother would die when Calvin was young. He studied at the University of Paris to become a priest, but his father’s trouble in the church would force him to a career as a lawyer. The change of career path guided him to the University of Orleans where he studied law and read the classic Greek authors. He moved back to Paris to teach but would leave to escape persecution to the Lutherans. The normal route to Basel was blocked so he went to Geneva where William Farel lived. During a meeting with Calvin, Farel was initially unsuccessful at persuading Calvin to remain in Geneva to pastor instead of the academic life Calvin wanted so badly. So Farel threatened to curse Calvin’s studies if he did not stay in Geneva. Cavin finally gave in and remained there until the city council ran Calvin and Farel out of the city in 1538. During his exile, he went to Strasburg seeking refuge with Martin Bucer, another reformer, and also married Idelette de Bure while there. Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and would remain there until his death in 1564.

Calvin helped rediscover many key doctrines. Most famously, he continued Augustine’s thoughts on God’s sovereign rule, especially in salvation. Augustine battled Pelagius on God’s sovereignty and human free will. Augustine correctly argued that salvation comes from the Lord. Calvin upheld God’s sovereignty in salvation against Catholic teaching of merits and penance.  Calvin does not neglect human responsibility either. He teaches that sinners receive their just punishment because they chose to sin and not believe God. Calvin also taught much about the Holy Spirit. In his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, he does not devote a chapter or a series of chapters on the Holy Spirit. Instead, the Holy Spirit appears throughout the Institutes. The Spirit first shows up in Calvin’s treatment of the Scripture. When discussing the attributes of God and the Trinity, Calvin discusses the nature of the Spirit. Books 3 and 4 explain the work of the Holy Spirit within salvation and works of creation and providence.

Calvin has two main works: The Institutes and his commentary set on the Bible. Calvin intended the Institutes as an introduction to Christian piety and designed it to be used with his commentaries. He imagined people reading through the Institutes and referring back to the commentary to better understand the verses used in the latter. As for some biographies, W. Robert Godfrey’s, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, which seeks to understand Calvin both as a person and his theology. Bruce Gordon’s book, Calvin, and T.H.L. Parker’s John Calvin: A Biography, move towards the technical aspect of biographies but they have become the standards in Calvin studies. [The book titles are links so you can purchase them yourself]

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