Calvin was trained to be a lawyer. He studied under some of the best legal minds of the Renaissance in France. Part of that training involved the newer humanistic methods of exegesis, which dealt with a text directly via historical and grammatical analysis as opposed to indirectly via layers of commentators. This legal and exegetical training was seminal for Calvin for, once convinced of the evangelical faith, he applied these exegetical methods to the Scripture.
Calvin self-consciously molded his thinking along biblical lines. He labored to preach and teach what he believed the Bible taught. Just as anyone else, however, he stood in the midst of a history and culture from which he could never fully extricate himself.
While Reformers such as John Huss and Martin Luther may be seen as somewhat original thinkers that began a movement, Calvin was a great logician and systematizer of that movement, but not an innovator in doctrine. Calvin was well familiar with the writings of the early church and the great Medieval schoolmen. He was also in debt to earlier Reformers. It is inaccurate to say that Calvin rejected the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages; rather, he made use of it and reformed it in accordance with his understanding of the Bible.
Calvin had a great commitment to the absolute sovereignty and holiness of God. Because of this, he is often associated with the doctrines of predestination and election, but it should be noted that he differed very little with the other magisterial Reformers regarding these difficult doctrines. The Five points of Calvinism are a reflection of the thinking of the great Reformer, but were not articulated by him, and were actually a product of the Synod of Dort, which issued its judgments in response to five specific objections that arose after Calvin's time.
Calvin's theological thought has obviously been highly influential, but his impact can also be seen in other areas. For example, he placed a high premium on education of the youth of Geneva. He founded the Academy of Geneva in 1559 which was a model for other academies around the world. Calvin's academy would eventually become the University of Geneva. Calvin's thought in the area of church polity was seminal as well, giving rise to various Reformed and Presbyterian systems of church government. The Consistory of Geneva, with Calvin at its helm, was influential in sending out scores of missionaries, not only to France, but also to countries as far off as Brasil. Finally, Calvin, knowing the benefits of business, was instrumental in founding and developing the silk industry in Geneva, by which many Genevans reaped monetary blessings.
Writings by Calvin
At the age of twenty-six, Calvin published several revisions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a seminal work in Christian theology that is still read today. It was published in Latin in 1536 and in his native French in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 (Latin) and in 1560 (French).
He also produced many volumes of commentary on most of the books of the Bible. For the Old Testament, he published commentaries for all books except the histories after Joshua (though he did publish his sermons on First Samuel) and the Wisdom literature other than the Book of Psalms. For the New Testament, he omitted only the brief second and third epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. (Some have suggested that Calvin questioned the canonicity of the Book of Revelation, but his citation of it as authoritative in his other writings casts doubt on that theory.) These commentaries, too, have proved to be of lasting value to students of the Bible, and they are still in print after over 400 years.
In the eighth volume of Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, the historian quotes Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (after whom the anti-Calvinistic movement Arminianism was named) with regard to the value of Calvin's writings:
- Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.
Although nearly all of Calvin's adult life was spent in Geneva (1536-38 and 1541-64), his publications spread his ideas of a properly reformed church to many parts of Europe and from there to the rest of the world.
John Calvin had been exiled from Geneva because he and his colleagues, namely William Farel and Antoine Froment, were accused of wanting to create a "new papacy." Thus, he went to Strasbourg during the time of the Ottoman wars and passed through the Cantons of Switzerland. While in Geneva, William Farel asked Calvin to help him with the cause of the Church. Calvin wrote of Farel's request, "I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course." Together with Farel, Calvin attempted to institute a number of changes to the city's governance and religious life. They drew up a catechism and a confession of faith, which they insisted all citizens must affirm. The city council refused to adopt Calvin and Farel's creed, and in January 1538 denied them the power to excommunicate, a power they saw as critical to their work. The pair responded with a blanket denial of the Lord's Supper to all Genevans at Easter services. For this the city council expelled them from the city. Farel travelled to Neuchâtel, Calvin to Strasbourg.
For three years Calvin served as a lecturer and pastor to a church of French Huguenots in Strasbourg. It was during his exile that Calvin married Idelette de Bure. He also came under the influence of Martin Bucer, who advocated a system of political and ecclesiastical structure along New Testament lines. He continued to follow developments in Geneva, and when Jacopo Sadoleto, a Catholic cardinal, penned an open letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the mother church, Calvin's response on behalf of embattled Genevan Protestants helped him to regain the respect he had lost. After a number of Calvin's supporters won election to the Geneva city council, he was invited back to the city in 1540, and having negotiated concessions such as the formation of the Consistory, he returned in 1541.
Upon his return, armed with the authority to craft the institutional form of the church, Calvin began his program of reform. He established four categories of offices based on biblical injunctions:
- Doctors held an office of theological scholarship and teaching for the edification of the people and the training of other ministers.
- Ministers of the Word were to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise pastoral discipline, teaching and admonishing the people.
- Deacons oversaw institutional charity, including hospitals and anti-poverty programs.
- Elders were 12 laymen whose task was to serve as a kind of moral police force, mostly issuing warnings, but referring offenders to the Consistory when necessary.
Critics often look to the Consistory as the emblem of Calvin's theocratic rule. The Consistory was an ecclesiastical court consisting of the elders and pastors, charged with maintaining strict order among the church's officers and members. Offenses ranged from propounding false doctrine to moral infractions, such as wild dancing and bawdy singing. Typical punishments were being required to attend public sermons or catechism classes. Whereas the city council had the power to wield the sword, the church courts held the authority of the keys of heaven. Therefore, the maximum punishment that the consistory could decree was excommunication, which was reversable upon the repentance of the offender. However, the officers of the church were considered to be the state's spiritual advisors in moral or doctrinal matters. Protestants in the 16th century were often subjected to the Catholic charge that they were innovators in doctrine, and that such innovation did lead inevitably to moral decay and, ultimately, the dissolution of society itself. Calvin claimed his wish was to establish the moral legitimacy of the church reformed according to his program, but also to promote the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Recently discovered documentation of Consistory proceedings shows at least some concern for domestic life, and women in particular. For the first time men's infidelity was punished as harshly as that of women, and the Consistory showed absolutely no tolerance for spousal abuse. The Consistory helped to transform Geneva into the city described by Scottish reformer John Knox as "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles." In 1559 Calvin founded the Collège Calvin as well as a hospital for the indigent.
Calvin and power
Engraved from the original oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, this is considered Calvin's best likeness.
Some allege that Calvin was not above using the Consistory to further his own political aims and maintain his sway over civil and religious life in Geneva, and, it is argued, he responded harshly to any challenge to his actions. Calvin was reluctant to ordain Genevans, preferring to choose more qualified pastors from the stream of French immigrants pouring into the city for the express purpose of supporting his own program of reform. When Pierre Ameaux complained about this practice, some contend that Calvin took it as an attack on divinely ordained authority and persuaded the city council to require Ameaux to walk through the town dressed in a hair shirt and begging for mercy in the public squares.
Jacques Gruet sided with some of the old Genevan families, who resented the power and methods of the Consistory. He was implicated in an incident in which someone had placed a placard in one of the city's churches, reading:
- Gross hypocrite, thou and thy companions will gain little by your pains. If you do not save yourselves by flight, nobody shall prevent your overthrow, and you will curse the hour when you left your monkery. Warning has been already given that the devil and his renegade priests were come hither to ruin every thing. But after people have suffered long they avenge themselves. Take care that you are not served like Mons.Verle of Fribourg [who was killed in a fight with the Protestants, while endeavoring to save himself by flight]. We will not have so many masters. Mark well what I say.
Gruet's views on religion were well known in Geneva, and he wrote verses about Calvin and the French immigrants that were "more malignant that poetic" (Audin). As Gruet had been heard threatening Calvin a few days earlier, he was arrested in connection with the anonymous placard and was tortured. He confessed to the placard and to writing various other heretical documents that were found in his house, and he was beheaded.
Calvin's acceptance of torture in particular is reprehensible to modern sensibilities, but in this view, he was in accord with the prevailing attitude of that age. Few persons of any position or religious denomination were critical of the practice, though there certainly were exceptions such as Anton Praetorius and Calvin's previous good friend Sebastian Castellio.
Calvin and Servetus
In 1553, the Spanish scholar Michael Servetus, who is viewed by many Unitarians as a founding figure, was sentenced to death on the stake for the heresy of Antitrinitarianism with Calvin's approval (and that of other Reformers, including Bullinger, Farel, Beza, Peter Martyr, and Melancthon), although he counselled the magistrate without success to mitigate the legal penalty by substituting the sword for the fire. Ironically, Servetus had arrived in Geneva while fleeing from a similar fate at the hands of the French Inquisition. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, without attempting to exonerate the opinion of Calvin and the others in his time, said of the execution, "If ever a poor fanatic thrust himself into the fire, it was Michael Servetus. He was a rabid enthusiast, and did everything he could in the way of insult and ribaldry to provoke the feeling of the Christian church."
Calvin had long supported Servetus' execution. On 13 February 1546 Calvin had written his friend, Farel: "If he Servetus comes Geneva, I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight."  It was Calvin who reported Servetus to Catholic authorities and sent them documents supporting their trial against him. Calvin wrote to his colleagues in Geneva, "I have to speak frankly . . . one should not be content simply to put to death such men [as Servetus], but they should be most cruelly burned." Shortly after Servetus' arrest, however, Calvin wrote to Farel: "I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated." Calvin always maintained that the execution was just. Some have argued that Servetus' trial and execution were a form of personal revenge for his having snubbed Calvin in a debate years earlier while both men were students at the University of Paris, but evidence is lacking to support this claim.
Calvin and witchcraft
John Calvin and the other reformers (as well as Catholics in middle Europe) believed that they should not permit the practice of witchcraft, in accord with their understanding of passages such as Exodus 22:18 and Leviticus 20:27. Calvin comments on these passages under his analysis of the first of the Ten Commandments, which he understands to condemn the practice of other religions. Of witchcraft in particular, he says, "God would condemn to capital punishment all augurs, and magicians, and consulters with familiar spirits, and necromancers and followers of magic arts, as well as enchanters. And… God declares that He 'will set His face against all, that shall turn after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards,' so as to cut them off from His people; and then commands that they should be destroyed by stoning." Following this understanding of the Old Testament law, in 1545 twenty-three people were burned to death under charges of practicing witchcraft and attempting to spread the plague over a three–year period.
- The character Calvin in Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes was named after John Calvin. It is thought that this reflects the young male character's belief in predestination (as justification for his behavior), while his stuffed tiger Hobbes shares Thomas Hobbes's view of human nature.
- The 1979 film Hardcore has a discussion between George C. Scott's Jake VanDorn and the prostitute Niki about Calvin's teachings concerning predestination and salvation.
- In His Dark Materials, the trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman, the protagonists spend a considerable amount of time in a parallel universe where Calvin became Pope, moved the Church's center of power to Geneva, and abolished the Papacy upon his death.
- Five points of Calvinism
- International Museum of the Reformation
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
- Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Calvin's Commentaries on the Bible
- St Peter's Cathedral in Geneva
- Works by John Calvin at Project Gutenberg
- Other writings of Calvin at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library; includes sermons in Latin and French, "On the Christian Life," and "On Prayer."
- John Calvin's Works Answering Today's Questions
- History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation. by Philip Schaff
- An Account of the Life of John Calvin by John Foxe
- Roland Bainton (1974). Women of the Reformation in England and France. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-5649-9.
- Bernard Cottret, Calvin, a Biography, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 2001. ISBN 0-567-08757-3
- John Farrell, "The Terrors of Reform," chapter five of Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau. Cornell University Press, 2006.
- Goldstone, Nancy & Lawrence, Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World. Broadway Books: New York, 2002. ISBN 0767908376
- Robert M. Kingdon, Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620, Andrew Pettegree et al., eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-43269-3 (Chap.2, "The Geneva Consistory in the Time of Calvin,")
- Robert M. Kingdon, Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin: Volume 1, 1542-1544, Grand Rapids, Mich., Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. ISBN 0-8028-4618-1 Reviewed by the PROTESTANT REFORMED THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
- Bonnet, Jules,(1820-1892) Letters of John Calvin, Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980. ISBN 0-85151-323-9
- Calvin's letter to the Protector Somerset, October 22, 1548. Two Kinds of Rebels that "Deserve to be Repressed by the Sword."
- Prohibition of Swearing - Corpus Reformatorum, (Opera Calvini, 59 vols.), (Braunschweig: 1863-90) vol. 48, cols. 59-62.
- Jean Calvin, Théodore de Bèze, Tracts relating to the Reformation Containing Treatises on the Sacraments; Antidote to the Council of Trent, vol. 1, by J. Calvin, with his life by Theodore Beza, tr. by H. Beveridge, Edingurgh, The Calvin Translation Society, 1844. – Google Books
- John Calvin, Tracts relating to the Reformation Containing Treatises on the Sacraments; Catechism of the Church of Geneva; Forms of Prayer and Confessions of Faith, Vol. 2, tr. by Henry Beveridge, Edingurgh, The Calvin Translation Society, 1849
- Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, (with Calvin's dedication to Edward vi), Rev. John Owens tr., Edingurgh, The Calvin Translation Society, 1855.
- Hugh Young Reyburn, John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work, London, New York, Hodder and Stoughton, 1914.
- Jules Bonnet, Lettres de Jean Calvin, (Lettres Francaises - French Letters), 2 vols., vol. 2 (Tome Second) , Paris, Librairie De. Ch. Meyrueis et Compagnie, 1854
- David W. Hall. A Heart Promptly Offered: The Revolutionary Leadership of John Calvin. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2006. ISBN 1581825056
- Stefan Zweig The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin translated by Eden and Cedar Pal. The Viking Press, 1936
- Virgil Vaduva (2005-04-05). "The Right to Heresy: A Critical look at Calvin's Geneva". Retrieved on 2006-10-30.
- John Calvin, James Lillie, tr., Calvin on Secret Providence, New York, Robert Carter, 1840
- ^ Philip Schaff. “Constitution and discipline of the Church of Geneva.”, History of the Christian Church. Retrieved on October 2006.
- ^ Smyth, Thomas. “Appendix 5: Origin of the Calumny that Calvin Wished to Abrogate the Lord's Day”, Calvin and his Enemies. Retrieved on October 2006.
- ^ ^ Bonnet, Jules,(1820-1892) Letters of John Calvin, Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980, p. 82. ISBN 0851513239
- ^ Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Out of the Flames, Broadway, 2002, pp. 321-322.
- ^ Calvin to William Farel, Aug. 20, 1553, Bonnet, Letters of john Calvin, p.159
- ^ ^ Goldstone, Out of the Flames
- ^ Schaff, HCC
- ^ ^ http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/characters.phtml