John Calvin (July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564) was a French Protestant theologian during the Protestant Reformation and was a central developer of the system of Christian theology called Calvinism. Calvin derives from the Latin version of his name, Calvinus.
Calvin was born Jean Chauvin (or Cauvin) in Noyon, Picardie, France, to Gérard Cauvin and Jeanne Lefranc. In 1523, Calvin's father, an attorney, sent his fourteen-year-old son to the University of Paris to study humanities and law. By 1532, he had attained a Doctor of Law degree at Orléans. Calvin's first published work was an edition of the Roman philosopher Seneca's De Clementia, accompanied by a thorough commentary.
In 1536, he settled in Geneva, Switzerland. After being expelled from the city, he served as a pastor in Strasbourg from 1538 until 1541, before returning to Geneva, where he lived until his death in 1564.
After attaining his degree, John Calvin sought a wife in affirmation of his approval of marriage over clerical celibacy and asked friends to help him find a woman who was "modest, obliging, not haughty, not extravagant, patient, and solicitous for my health." In 1539, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow, who had a son and daughter from her previous marriage to a converted Anabaptist in Strasbourg. Calvin and Idelette had a son who died after only two weeks. Idelette Calvin died in 1549. Calvin wrote that she was a helper in ministry, never stood in his way, never troubled him about her children, and had a greatness of spirit.
Calvin's health began to fail when he suffered migraines, lung hemorrhages, gout and kidney stones, and at times he had to be carried to the pulpit. According to his successor, influential Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza, Calvin took only one meal a day for a decade, but on the advice of his physician, he ate an egg and drank a glass of wine at noon. His recreation and exercise consisted mainly of a walk after meals. Towards the end Calvin said to those friends who were worried about his daily regimen of work, "What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?"
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.