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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Doctrines of Grace

"The Life of John Calvin"
By Fred Butler

Before embarking upon a study of the doctrines of Grace, otherwise known as “Calvinism,” it is important to have some background to the life of the man after whom the theology is named. 


Early Life:


John Calvin was born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France (about 60 miles NE of Paris).  He was one of 7 children.


Calvin came from lowly stock.  His Dad’s father was a barrel maker and boatman; his mother’s father an innkeeper.


John’s father, Gerard, had improved his lot to become a successful lawyer.  His practice brought him into the company of the local cathedral clergy.  Gerard became the secretary to the Bishop and served also as an attorney in the diocese.


John was much like his father, intelligent and a serious student.  Because of this, Gerard desired him to have a good education.


At the age of 14, John was sent to the University of Paris.  There he studied theology, classics, law, and language in preparation for the priesthood. (1523).  However, Gerard thought it would be better if John became a lawyer, so at his father’s request, John went to the University of Orleans to study law (1528).  He also spent time at the University of Bourges in 1529 but continued at Orleans until 1531.

In 1531, Gerard died, and John, having no real love for law, returned to Paris to finish his theology.  After 9 long years studying, John became an ordained Catholic priest.  He had a flourishing career a head of him. 


Calvin’s conversion:


The exact time of John’s conversion is not known.  The only personal account is found in the preface of John’s commentary on Psalms.  That account, however, is a tad vague.  We can learn a few things from it:


1.        John was in college when it happened suddenly.  (Quite possibly at Orleans).

2.        His account indicates that he was “religious” and “churched.”  John says of himself that he was steeped in the superstitions of the papacy.

3.        He also admits to being stubborn and full of youthful pride.

4.        John says his studies cooled, though he did not give them up entirely.  If John was at law school in Orleans when he was converted, it is easy to see why he returned to Paris for theology study after his father’s death.

5.        John also states that within that first year, many Christians who longed for the “purer” doctrine of the faith came to him for learning, even though he considered him self a “beginner and a raw recruit.”


Though the exact time of his salvation is unclear, by the mid-1520’s Martin Luther’s protestant position was clear and gaining a strong following in many countries.  These Lutherans were also in Paris and Orleans and it was these individuals who influenced a young John Calvin. 


John’s first, true protestant sympathies came in 1532 when he published a book, A Commentary on Seneca’s Treatise on Clemency.  In it he defended the principle of tolerance and urged the King of France to practice the same toward Protestants.


When John returned to Paris, after his father’s death, he joined a Protestant Bible study and soon became a leader.  He began to teach his evangelical views.

John also met a pastor named Nicolas Cop.  They became close friends.  On All Saint’s Day, 1533 at the University of Paris, Nicolas delivered a message entitled “Christian Philosophy.”  He and John worked on it together, and its delivery caused opposition to the point of driving both men from Paris.



Calvin’s year of travel:


In 1534, Calvin traveled to the small town of Nerac where he met with Jacques Lefevre D’etaples, a biblical scholar among the French Protestants.  This man had a profound influence upon Calvin.  Lefevre believed the sole source of authority for the church was the Bible.  He advocated a rigorous view of predestination and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Young Calvin came away from the meeting believing true reform would not happen in the RCC.

Calvin returned to his hometown Noyon and resigned his church office as priest.  He was promptly locked up as an apostate, but was shortly released.


Upon his release, Calvin went to Angouleme where he studied with another pastor friend, Louis du Tillet.  He also met again with Lefevre, before his death in 1536.  Calvin also spent time in Strausburg and other places in Northern Italy.  Then in 1535, Calvin, who by now was marked out as a “Lutheran,” settled in Basel where he studied in seclusion, studying Hebrew and preparing the French Bible for publication.


Calvin’s Institutes:


While in Basel, Calvin composed an elementary manual for general readers who wanted to know something about the evangelical faith.  His first edition was 6 chapters:


The Law: An explanation of the Decalogue


Prayer: An exposition of the Lord’s Prayer

The Sacraments

The five false sacraments

Christian Freedom, Ecclesiastical power, and political administration.


John published this first edition in March of 1536 at the age of 27.

The book quickly became popular among the evangelical Protestants.

His institutes continued to be updated during his lifetime, with a final edition published 1559.


Calvin in Geneva (1536-1538):


Calvin meets Farel


Geneva was in the midst of a struggle for independence.  There wasn’t one strong leader for the people to rally behind. 

A young reformer, William Farel, had led the city to independence from French RCC control.  However, he was unprepared to take on all the pastoral responsibility for this newly formed Protestant city. 

In July 1536, John Calvin was on his way to Strausburg with his brother, his sister, and some other friends.  They stopped at Geneva for an overnight stay.


Farel heard that the author of the “Institutes” was in town.  He went straight to the Inn to meet Calvin, and began at once to insist that John stay to help with the work in Geneva.

John was a scholar and writer, not a pastor or administrator, so he refused the invitation.

Farel was so insistent that Calvin must stay that he swore an oath that God would curse Calvin’s studies.

John was so moved to terror at the fiery Farel, that he stayed. 


The New Geneva:


Calvin took the office of pastor.  He and Farel quickly began to organize the new town.

The preaching and teaching of the word of God became a central focus.

The Lord’s Table was to be administered monthly. (Calvin wanted it weekly)

Sadly, however, Calvin’s new role was sometimes too harsh.



·         He required all citizens to make a profession of faith. (It would identify who was on the Lord’s side).

·         Calvin established a concise statement of faith all citizens were to sign in order to take communion.  In 1537, he banished all who would not sign.

·         A system of discipline was put in place to report on moral delinquencies.

·         Calvin was notorious for having a quick temper.  It apparently showed itself often. (This was a fleshly struggle for him all his life).


He basically produced a theocratic government with strong control.




Many in Geneva believed Calvin was too strong, basically a dictator.  One particular fellow, John Philippe lead a small, but vocal group to the town council in order to force Calvin out.

He was successful, and Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva in November 1537. 


Calvin in Strassburg 1538-1541:


Upon his removal from Geneva, Calvin left for Strassburg.  Calvin viewed his banishment as God mercifully releasing him from pastoring.  He wished to return to his studies and pick up with his writing.  

However, God had to mature Calvin in his people/pastoring skills.


While in Strassburg, Calvin lodged with a warm-hearted pastor, Martin Brucer.  Martin asked Calvin to take care of the French speaking, Protestant refugees that attended his church.

It was with this group of people that Calvin matured in his skills as a shepherd. 


Calvin was also married while living in Strassburg.  He had always desired to be married, but there were no ladies who suited his tastes.  A couple, Jean and Idelette de Bure Stordeur (Anabaptists) joined the congregation Calvin pastored.  The family came to be good friends with John.


In the spring of 1540, Jean Stordeur was stricken with the plague and died.  Idelette was left a widow with two children.  Martin Brucer suggested Idelette as a wife for Calvin and he agreed.  They were married in August 1540.  They remained married until Idelette’s death in 1549.  They were married only 9 years.  They had no children together, though Calvin took care of her two, raising them as his own after her death.


Calvin’s Return to Geneva (1541-1564)


Meanwhile, the city of Geneva bordered on anarchy during Calvin and Farel’s exile.  The town folk were experiencing much strife.  The ministers who remained offered poor leadership and there was a decline in religion and morality.


The town council sent a delegation to ask Calvin to return.  With much reluctance, he did in October 1541. 


Upon his return:

·         Calvin had a better attitude with pastoring.  Being married helped him deal better with people, as well as calm his temper.

·         He returned to preaching and teaching the scriptures.  Lectures and teaching were held everyday of the week, twice on Sundays.  A company of 18 pastors influenced the church pulpits.

“Preaching is a visitation from God,” wrote Calvin, “through which he reaches out his hands to draw us to Himself.”

·         Calvin set into place renewed ecclesiastical ordinances for the town government.

·         He expanded his institutes by re-writing them and adding more information.

·         He published his numerous sermons. His commentary on the Pentateuch is one of the largest.  He taught through 64 books of the Bible. Daniel and Revelation were never taught.

·         He established an academy and seminary to train pastors in protestant theology.


During these 23 years of service, Geneva prospered and became a center for the protestant reformation. 


Calvin became more ill and physically weak in his last 5 years of life.  He toiled, however, in his ordinary duties, continuing his lectures and writing.


In February 1564, Calvin became bed ridden.  He still studied and wrote.  He didn’t want the Lord to find him idle if He were to return.  William Farel remained by Calvin’s side until his death on May 27th 1564 at the age of 55. 


The Servetus Affair:


One black mark against Calvin and the town council of Geneva was their discipline against those individuals who disagreed with their theology and strict rules.  Between the years of 1542-64, as many as 66 people had been banished, 58 had been executed.  Such severe penalties were not uncommon in the 16th century, nor unique to Calvinism alone.  The practice of that day was to enact swift punishment against those who would disagree with the state.  During this time, the church and state were essentially united, so much so, that any rebellion against the church was also rebellion against the state at the same time.  Thus, any individuals or groups who taught theological doctrine contrary to what the church deemed correct, could be severely punished, even to the point of execution by the state officials. 


It must be pointed out, that the 58 executed in Geneva during Calvin’s tenure as pastor were either involved in gross immorality, sinful behavior, or promoting political rebellion in Geneva against the city council.  There was one individual, however, who was executed for what was considered blasphemy and theological heresy:  Michael Servetus.  His execution has led to the severest of slander against Calvin and his theology.


Michael Servetus:


Michael Servetus was a rather unusual man.  He was eccentric, yet a genius in his own right.  On the one hand, he was brilliant, even attending medical school where he helped to discover the flow of the circulatory system; but on the other hand, he was emotionally unstable and at times could become violently pugnacious.   This troubled man held to a host of heretical beliefs.   He practiced astrology, to the point of writing a book on the subject, and he believed in a sort of new age pantheism mixed with Christian theology.  He was most known for his denial of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and his published anti-Trinitarian book called “The Errors of the Trinity.”


Both protestant and RCC officials sought him for imprisonment because of his beliefs.  Servetus and Calvin corresponded with each other and John desired to correct him.  (In fact, Calvin jeopardized his life before even coming to Geneva by going to Paris in 1533 to witness to the young heretic, who never showed up to meet with him).   Servetus, however, refused his counsel and continued to teach his heresies.  He was imprisoned by the RCC in Vienna, but later escaped.


In a foolish move after his escape, Servetus traveled to Geneva and brazenly went to St. Pierre cathedral where Calvin was preaching.  He was recognized immediately and arrested. 


He was placed on trial during which he angrily denounced Calvin and Geneva.  Calvin tried to persuade Servetus of his errors, but he dismissed him with a laugh. 

14 of the 38 doctrinal accusations were up held by the city council, and they passed a sentence of death.  He was burned at the stake October 27, 1553.


This was a questionable event for Calvin and it has led to his character being smeared by his religious enemies, even down to this day.  His detractors love to demonize Calvin as being responsible for killing Servetus, but in fact, Calvin’s position in Geneva was only as the city’s spiritual leader.  He has no dictatorial power, and had frequent disagreeing run-ins with the city council. 


Though Calvin had no civil power to execute Servetus, and his execution was ordered by the city council, Calvin should not be excused.  Approving of Servetus’s death was one of the biggest mistakes he made in his life.  He is to be faulted, not for opposing the heresies of Servetus, but for accepting the widely held belief of his age that heretics should be put to death.

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