John Calvin, Theologian
27 May 1564
John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was born at Noyon, France on 10 July 1509. At fourteen he was sent to Paris to study theology, and developed a particular interest in the writings of Augustine. He received his Ma when 19. His father then insisted that he take up law instead, which he did for three years, returning to theology when his father died.

In about 1534, he underwent a sudden conversion and became an ardent Protestant. He went to Basel, a Protestant (Zwinglian) city in Switzerland, where he wrote and published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work of systematic theology. Some philosophers are system-builders and some are not. Calvin was. Where others had been content to testify to their experience of God's grace, Calvin undertook a detailed logical account of grace. His detractors say that some things, like a good joke, or a living organism, are destroyed when you take them apart to see what makes them work. His admirers say that he faced the hard questions that others had preferred to evade. In his writings on predestination, he seems to portray God as arbitrarily withholding salvation from many. But it is well to remember that his doctrine is rooted in the experience of God's grace at work in his own heart, and an unwillingness to attribute its presence to anything but the mercy of God, a determination never to claim that he has done anything more or better than Judas Iscariot to deserve a better destiny.

In 1536, he became one of the preachers in the city of Geneva, in 1538 he was banished, and in 1541 returned in triumph, and established a form of church government that has been associated ever since with churches called Reformed or Presbyterian. It provided for a set of boards or consistories to maintain discipline in local congregations and in district-wide groups of congregations, boards consisting partly of clergy and partly of the elected representatives of the congregation. For a longer account of this aspect of his life and work, written by the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, send the message Get Polity Preface to the address or look for the essay of that name on the Web Page

Calvin's major achievements are (in the opinion of this non-Calvinist):

(1) The Institutes, which present an organized statement and defense of the Reformed theology. Even those who disagree with him benefit from having a well defined point of departure.

(2) His commentaries on the Scriptures.

(3) His system of Church government. (Most of the serious Calvinists I know, when asked to explain why they prefer their denomination to the alternatives, mention this system as one that greatly appeals to them.)

(4) His contributions to the dialogue on election, grace, free will, predestination, Divine sovereignty, etc.

Luther and Calvin were contemporaries and part of similar movements within the Church, but there were important differences between them. Calvinist churches differ from Lutheran ones on the mode of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper; on the nature of the Sacraments (Calvinists come closer to regarding these as teaching ceremonies, although many Calvinists would disagree with that summary), and on style of worship. Some Calvinists (not all) have a tradition that forbids instrumental music in worship (even to keep the singers on key), and the use of any hymns except the Psalms. On questions of worship, the historic Lutheran policy (not always adhered to) has been that, if two possible policies are equally consistent with Holy Scripture, one ought to use the one more like that of Rome, so as not to be disputing for disputing's sake. The rule adopted by many Calvinists is to go for the policy less like that of Rome. The result is that you see a lot more stained glass in Lutheran churches than in Calvinist ones.

Calvin died 27 May 1564.

PRAYER (traditional language):

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do Always such things as are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; and, admonished by the writings of thy servant John Calvin, may see in the blessings thou dost give us the fruits, not of our deserving, but of thy pure bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always Those things that are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; and, taught by the writings of your servant John Calvin, may see in the blessings you give us the fruits, not of our deserving, but of your pure bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.