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Who was John Calvin?

Updated: May 29, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

John Calvin (1509-1564 AD) was a lay Catholic from Paris who was swept along by the "reforming" teachings of "Fr." Martin Luther. Calvin did not live in Germany, but in France, and he followed a group of "reforming" teachers like Bullinger or Bucer. This group of teachers were called the "Reformed" tradition, and were one of the first split-offs from Luther and Lutheranism.

Now, unlike Luther, Calvin was a very serious person. Luther had a certain charisma for audiences, with his crude humor and massive temper, but Calvin was the opposite. He was more of an introverted scholar and calm preacher.

Calvin converted from Catholicism to the Reformed tradition in the 1530's, and his main claim to fame came in 1536 AD. In that year, he published a book covering all major tenets of the "reformed" fait. Similar to a catechism, it was very systematic and orderly. Calvin wrote it at the young age of 25 years old, and named it the Institutes of the Christian Religion, giving a summary of Reformed thought only 15 years after Luther had been excommunicated. His main thesis was that Catholicism had departed from the early Church rather quickly.

The most widely-known doctrine of his was of God's eternal decree. This decree was foreordained by God that some should receive Eternal Life (the elect), and others should receive Eternal Damnation (the damned). This "double predestination" meant that man's will was not free, he could not do anything to change whether he would go to Heaven or Hell, for God had already actively chosen it.

Calvin was very influential in the city of Geneva (approx. 10,000 people), of which about 1/3 had recently become Protestant. He didn't intend to teach there, however. For he had just been passing through the city one night, sleeping there, and intending to leave by the next day. But a man named Farel convinced him to stay long-term. For Calvin was well known due to his book.

Calvin then attempted a sort of "theocracy" in 1537, where the church and state would be married. Calvin wanted the entire city of Geneva to follow his teachings, and so he wrote out the Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship in Geneva. This proposed a rigid law-system that garnered much opposition, and even some violence towards Calvin. Since Calvin's model did not seem to work all that well, the city council members had Calvin put in exile. Calvin went to Strasbourg, and enjoyed teaching over there. About three years later, though, Geneva got into some really bad shape, and the council members had a change of heart towards Calvin. They invited him and his orderliness back to Geneva in 1541 AD.

Calvin then wrote out his work: The Ecclesiastical Ordinances. Those ordinances stated very strict moral living. For instance, the people living in Geneva could not dance or sing. They had to go to the Calvinist "worship" service every Sunday, and no shops could be open. The women had to have a certain length of hair, and various crimes were punishable by death (ex. striking a parental figure). Calvin's city of Geneva had a number of excommunications, imprisonments, and executions. For example, there man named Michael Severtus wrote against the Trinity. Severtus was then burned at the stake.

Calvin wrote letters with those trying to overthrow Catholicism, such as John Knox in Scotland (Presbyterianism), and Thomas Cramner in England (Anglicanism). Calvin started a university in Geneva, and men all over the world went there to study to ultimately become Reformed pastors. Calvin honestly kind of replaced the authority of the Pope to himself. He died at the age of 54.

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