Chapter 21

John Calvin: Swiss Reformer


When Karl Barth was preparing a series of lectures on John Calvin, he wrote to a friend:

Calvin is a cataract . . . . I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

No one can possibly question the assertion that John Calvin is the greatest reformer of all time. More books have been written about him and his theology than about any other figure in the history of the church. All those who in the last 450 years have cherished the doctrines of sovereign grace have claimed Calvin as their spiritual father. And all who confess a theology thoroughly Biblical and embodied in all the great creeds of the 16th and 17th centuries call their theology Calvinism. Other than the sacred Scriptures themselves, there are few if any books that have exerted the influence on subsequent centuries that Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion has had down to the present.

Yet, Calvin never, after he began his life's work, strayed far from Geneva, a relatively small city in French Switzerland. It was here he came on a stormy night; it was here he stayed frightened by the threat of William Farel; it was here he did all his work. But now his work has circled the globe. The only explanation for it can be that God, through Calvin, brought reformation to his beleaguered church.

Background in Switzerland

The part of Switzerland which is of interest to us was called French Switzerland, because it bordered on France and the French language was spoken there. It was composed of the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and NeŻchatel. In the canton of Geneva was the city by the same name on the shore of a lake also called Geneva.

The government of Geneva requires a brief explanation because it was to play a major role in the Reformation there. The citizens of the city met annually in the General Assembly to choose four syndics and a treasurer. The citizens were in turn ruled by a Little Council of 25 which included the current syndics and those of the previous years. The Council of 60, appointed by The Little Council, decided matters of larger policy. In 1527 a Council of 200 was added which included The Little Council and 175 others chosen by The Little Council. It was especially this latter body which gave Calvin many of his problems.

The Reformation had come to Germany not only, but had spread to other parts of Europe. In Switzerland Zwingli had done the majority of the work, and in Geneva the way for Calvin had been prepared by the fiery and radical reformer, William Farel.

Berne, to the north of NeŻchatel, had joined the Reformation in 1528 and sent ministers into French Switzerland to preach the gospel there. Farel was the leader and a more powerful figure could scarcely be found.

Farel's entire work was carried on with struggle and in turmoil and in 1532 Farel was driven from the city. In 1534 he returned and through disputations and preaching won a bit of breathing room for the Protestants who were converted under his preaching. But in his favor was the fact that, because Geneva was so small, it was technically under the rule of Basel, and Basel supported the Reformation. Gradually the priests, monks and nuns began to leave the city, and the Reformation was officially established in 1535 and 1536. But the city remained the heir of Roman Catholicism: a place of frightening moral conditions.

Calvin's Youth

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France, 26 years after Luther's birth. While Luther was born in a part of the church were piety and religion were emphasized, Calvin was born into a part of the church which treasured education and culture. Little is known of his mother; his father was apostolic secretary to the bishop of Noyon, but fell into financial difficulties, became an embarrassment to the church, and was excommunicated.

Almost from the start Calvin was destined for the clergy, and in his 12th year he received part of the revenue from a chaplaincy which supported him in his studies. His studies, while in various schools, were mainly in Paris. Perhaps they all can best be summed up by the following description of his work in the CollŤge de Montaigu

a famous school known for its stern discipline and its bad food. Erasmus, who studied here a few years before Calvin, later complained of the spoiled eggs he was forced to eat in the refectory. Calvin's lifelong problems with indigestion and insomnia probably derived from the rigid fare and his penchant for burning the midnight oil at Montaigu. Later legend has it that during these years, his fellow students awarded Calvin the nickname of "the accusative case." While this is not true, Beza, in his adoring biography, acknowledged that the young scholar was indeed "a strict censor of every thing vicious in his companions." While his classmates were cavorting in the streets or running off to wild parties, Calvin was busied with the niceties of nominalist logic or the quaestiones of scholastic theology.

All in all, Calvin received one of the best educations in the humanities available at that time and emerged from his education a thorough-going humanist. He had made theology the object of his studies, switched to law, and then returned to theology. In 1532, still seemingly untouched by grace, he wrote a commentary on the old pagan Roman Seneca's essay, "On Mercy."

Calvin's Conversion and Early Work

But God had begun His work in Calvin. Already the first influences of any beneficial sort were from two professors, one named Cordier who was later to become a Protestant, and the other Wolmar by name, a Lutheran in profession.

Unlike Luther, Calvin was always reticent about himself and his conversion. Beza tells us that Calvin's father persuaded him to study theology because Calvin "was naturally inclined [to theology]; because even at an early age, he was remarkably religious, and was also a strict censor of everything vicious in his companions." Calvin, in an autobiographical note found in his letter to Cardinal Sadolet wrote:

When, however, I had performed all these things (satisfaction for offenses and fleeing to the saints), though I had some intervals of quiet, I was still far off from true peace of conscience; for, whenever I descended within myself, or raised my mind to thee, extreme terror seized me -- terror which no expiations nor satisfactions could cure.

That sounds a lot like Luther.

Calvin came to Paris at the very time when Reformational ideas were altering the thinking of many. In ,1533 Nicholas Cop became rector of the University in Paris and delivered a plea for reformation in his inaugural address, which some claim was prepared by Calvin. Persecution broke out when a paper, sharply critical of the mass, was widely distributed in Paris and a copy nailed to the palace door. Cop and Calvin were forced to flee for their lives. And so Calvin was brought to the point where he repudiated the church of Rome and wrote his first theological work, a paper on, of all things, soul sleep.

For about three years Calvin wandered as an evangelist in Southern France, Switzerland, and Italy. Part of the time he was under the protection of Queen Marguerite of Navarre, sister of the king of France; part of the time he was in Ferrara of Italy in the court of the Duchess of Renee; and part of the time he visited Basel where he came into contact with some of the Swiss reformers.

These must have been years of intense study in the Scriptures because Calvin began his work on the Institutes during this time, the first edition of which was published in 1536.

But whether Calvin liked it or not, Geneva was to be his home for the remainder of his life. It all started when Calvin, on his way to Basel, was forced to detour through Geneva. In this city he spent the night thinking that he would come and go unobserved. But his presence was noted and Farel was informed. Farel immediately visited Calvin and implored him to stay in Geneva and help with the work of reformation. Calvin was adamant in his refusal. Shy by nature and determined to devote his life to scholarship and study, Calvin wanted no part of the turmoil which would result from efforts to make Geneva a city devoted to the truth of Scripture. But after calling down from heaven curses upon Calvin should he refuse, Farel persuaded Calvin that his place was indeed in the city.

First Stay In Geneva

And so Calvin's work in this city began. The date was September 5, 1536.

The city, with the effects of many centuries under Roman Catholicism woven into the fabric of its life, was filled with every vice and required great labor to bring its citizens under the yoke of the gospel. To accomplish this, Calvin began teaching, convinced that instruction in the truth was the only road to reformation. He began expository lectures on Paul and the New Testament, and a year later was ordained a pastor.

Together Farel and Calvin drew up a confession of faith and rules of discipline which were approved by the Council. In fact, the Council supported all the efforts for reform in doctrine, liturgy and morals.

But that did not mean that the opposition had been persuaded. Gradually Calvin's enemies were able to marshall their forces. Their opposition was especially against the Catechism and the laws which had been passed against prevalent sins. As they gained strength, they gained numbers on the Council and were able to moderate the efforts towards reform.

Two issues especially brought things to a head. The Council of 200 decided to instruct the reformers to practice open communion so that no one could be barred from the Lord's table. This was a death blow to Calvin's discipline. The second issue was a decision by the Council to make use of Bernese liturgy in the worship. Calvin did not object as such to the liturgy used in Berne, but he did object strenuously to the right of the Council to decide such matters for the church. Neither would budge and the result was that the Council passed a decision to expel Farel and Calvin from the city.

Calvin in Strassburg

After a brief stay in Basel, Calvin went to Strassburg, a city in southern Germany where the Swiss reformation had already taken root. The three years he spent in this city were probably the happiest years of his life. He had no need to fight a Council, no need to oppose a stubborn people at every turn of the way, no need to do battle with enemies on every side. He had peace and quiet, time for study and writing, opportunity to do work in the fields of liturgy and church polity.

Calvin was appointed to the faculty of the University in the city and was called to be pastor of a church of French refugees. He had occasion to meet with Lutheran theologians and sharpen his own theological views. He worked on revisions of his Institutes and developed his views on church polity, the basic principles of which are incorporated in our own "Church Order of Dordrecht." He developed a liturgy for the church which included an order of worship (much like the order of worship we still use), liturgical forms, and versions of Psalms.

These were productive years. Calvin engaged in a voluminous correspondence with all the leading figures of Europe. He wrote a number of his important works, one of which was his letter to Sadolet. Sadolet was a Roman Catholic cardinal who wrote a letter to the people of Geneva in an effort to win them back to Rome. It was, from a certain human point of view, a masterful and persuasive piece of work. Calvin's response was without any bitterness or rancor against the Genevans, but was instead the clearest and most helpful defense of the reformation which could be found anywhere. It is "must" reading to anyone who wishes to know why reformation in the 16th century was necessary.

Calvin even married during his stay in Strassburg. His wife was Idelette de Bure, the widow of a prominent Anabaptist whom Calvin had converted to the true faith and who had died in the pestilence. She was the mother of several children, but poor and in feeble health. Calvin took responsibility for her children as well as for her, but lived with her only nine years. Calvin remained single the rest of his life. With Idelette Calvin had one son who died in infancy, a loss which Calvin bore the remainder of his life.

Second Stay In Geneva

But the happy years in Strassburg were soon to come to an end. The situation in Geneva steadily deteriorated. Three parties were vying for power and the city was sinking into anarchy.

In 1541 Calvin was formally asked to return. Strassburg was reluctant to let him go. Calvin was even more reluctant to leave his happy life in Strassburg and take on the horrors of Geneva. But compelled by God, he returned to the whirlpool (Calvin's word) of struggle and controversy where he stayed until death took him to the church triumphant.

One evidence of the stature of the man was his conduct upon his return. The first Sunday he entered the pulpit of Saint Pierre before a huge crowd gathered partly to hear him again, but partly to listen to him lambast his opponents and smugly proclaim "I told you so." But in a letter to Farel, Calvin tells what he did. "After a preface, I took up the exposition where I had left off -- by which I indicated that I had interrupted my office of preaching for the time rather than that I had given it up entirely." Nothing could have been more prosaic and yet more effective. It was as if Calvin resumed his ministry with the words: "As I was saying . . . ."

The struggles with the Council were not over for a very long time, and the efforts to subdue the city so that Christ's rule was present did not cease until many who opposed Calvin left for other places. His enemies were hateful and not afraid to show it. People called their dogs by Calvin's name, openly reviled him in the streets, sometimes threatened his life, disturbed him in his studies, and vowed to do harm to his family. Through it all Calvin endured, preaching, teaching, writing, bearing the yoke of Christ's suffering for the cause of the gospel. Money and pleasure meant nothing to him. He repeatedly refused more money offered him by the Council. He lived sparingly and without luxury. He was willing even to sell his beloved books when it became necessary. The pope himself was so impressed with Calvin's total lack of covetousness that he expressed his firm conviction that if he had in his retinue only a dozen men like Calvin, he could conquer the world.

Calvin preached regularly in the church in Geneva, sometimes as often as five times a week; his sermons were taken down in longhand, and many have been published. They make for some very fine reading. He established the famous Academy in Geneva which became a center of learning for students from all over Europe who, having received their education in Geneva, returned to their own lands to spread the gospel of the Reformation to their own people. John Knox studied in Geneva, and it was he who remarked that the most perfect school of Christ which could be found on earth since the days of the apostles was the city of Geneva. In the Academy he lectured, and his commentaries, still some of the best, were the results of these lectures. I rarely, if ever, prepare a sermon without checking what Calvin had to say on a given text.

Calvin's Controversies

Within the city itself Calvin's struggles were with a party called Patriots. They were the descendants of the original citizens of the city, dyed-in-the-wool Roman Catholics when Calvin came, and much given to riotous living. As refugees streamed into Geneva from all over Europe to escape persecution, the Patriots resented the fact that the control of the city was passing into foreign hands. They hated Calvin and did all in their power to destroy him. When the church was able finally to excommunicate the leaders for their licentiousness and the Council approved, these men fled.

But Calvin's theological controversies were the most important. Calvin wrote against the papacy to show its evils and demonstrate how far it had departed from the doctrines of Christ. He had to fight to defend the truths of the trinity and the divinity of Christ against many who attacked these doctrines, not the least of whom was Servetus, burned at the stake in Geneva for blasphemy.

But especially his controversies swirled around his defense of the truths of sovereign and particular grace in the work of salvation. And, as is usually the case, the most vicious attacks are concentrated against the doctrine of sovereign predestination. Many hated this doctrine and sought to destroy it. Perhaps the most interesting controversy over this doctrine was with the heretic Bolsec. Bolsec interrupted the preaching of one of Geneva's pastors to get up in the middle of the sermon and make a speech against the truth of predestination. What Bolsec did not know was that Calvin had entered the sanctuary and was listening to Bolsec's tirade. After Bolsec finished, Calvin mounted the pulpit and, in a masterful sermon, extemporaneous but an hour long, explained the doctrine and proved it from Scripture.

But Bolsec was not deterred and continued to fight against this truth publicly in Geneva. He was arrested for his opposition to the church and Council and was tried for heresy and public defamation of the ministers. The advice of the other Swiss reformers and churches was sought before Bolsec was condemned. To Calvin's bitter disappointment, not one church or reformer, with the exception of Farel, could be found to back Calvin's position completely and without compromise. Their caution or disagreement was concerning Calvin's doctrine of predestination.

Nevertheless, Calvin persevered and Bolsec was condemned and banished from the city. From the controversy emerged one of Calvin's most important works, "A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God," a work which, along with another work on Providence, has been published in the book, "Calvin's Calvinism."

Calvin's Death and Importance

Calvin departed to be with his Lord on May 27, 1564. He had suffered many infirmities prior to his death, so many in fact that one wonders how he could surmount them all. One student of church history claims that Calvin had no less than 12 major illnesses at the end of his life, many of which involved excruciating pain.

On May 19 Calvin summoned the pastors of Geneva and spoke his farewell to them. From that time he remained in bed, although he continued to dictate to a secretary. Farel, now 80 years old, came to see his old friend, although Calvin urged him not to come. He spent his last days in almost continual prayer and his prayers were mostly quotations from the Psalms. Although is voice was broken by asthma, his eyes and mind remained strong. He saw all who wished to come, but asked that they rather pray for him. As the sun was going down around 8:00 he fell into a calm sleep from which he did not awake until he awoke in glory. He had lived 54 years, 10 months, 17 days.

Calvin is the proof that God uses men according to His own good pleasure. Weak and shy by nature, Calvin was cast into the enter of the maelstrom of the reformation. It was a role he never wanted, and which he called his daily cross. But he knew as few men know that discipleship is exactly characterized by denying one's self, taking up his cross, and following the Lord.

And so God used him as the key figure in the Reformation and in subsequent church history. Although, with the exception of the doctrine of the sacraments, Luther and Calvin agreed on all points of doctrine, Luther was ordained by God to smash the imposing and seemingly indestructible citadel of Roman Catholicism. Calvin was divinely appointed to build on the ruins, a new house, a glorious temple, the church where God makes His dwelling.

Calvin was a man of iron will. Almost his entire stay in Geneva he was ill. Yet he surmounted all his ailments and never permitted sickness and pain to interfere with his work. He worked incessantly with little or no sleep until even his wife in exasperation asked for a bit of time to see him.

Calvin was above all a preacher and expositor of Holy Scripture. His preaching was his strength and remains of unparalleled influence to the present. His theology was rooted in exegesis because God's Word was the standard for him of all truth and right. His commentaries are still the very best available, and modern "scholarly" commentaries, so many of which are really sell-outs to higher criticism, seem scarcely worthy of notice in comparison.

Calvin's influence spread throughout Europe and ultimately throughout the world. And that influence was not only his theology, but also his liturgy, his church polity and his piety. The heritage of Calvin is also, let it never be forgotten, the heritage of genuinely Reformed piety. It would be well if a book were written only on that aspect of Calvin's life

Calvin was not the dramatic personality which was Luther. Nor did Calvin "wear his heart on his sleeve," as Luther did. Especially in his old age, Luther became something of a crab and spoke far too vehemently in his opposition to those who did not agree with him on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. But Calvin always respected Luther for the great work Luther did in the work of reformation. He told others, not so generous towards Luther, that even if Luther would call him a devil, he would still honor him as God's chosen vessel.

But Calvin could appreciate Luther for what Luther did because Calvin's life was consumed by the glory of God. His enemies called him a God-intoxicated man -- drunk with God! What more wonderful thing could be said of a man? The deepest principle of his theology was God's glory and the real essence of all he wrote was this great truth. But it was also Calvin's life. He lived and died with God's glory his deepest desire. He is one in this cloud of witnesses whose voice shouts to us down the corridors of time.