Who is John Calvin?
As we continue in our celebration of 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we will be taking a closer look at the Reformer, John Calvin, to whom we trace the beginning of our Presbyterian heritage. Born in 1509, in the city of Noyon, France, John Calvin grew up in a Roman Catholic family. Calvin’s father work for the local bishop and had plans for Calvin to become a priest. So, at the age of 14, Calvin went to Paris to begin his studies in theology. Calvin had a remarkable mind for learning so that by the time he was nineteen he had already earned his master’s degree. But, Calvin did not go into the priesthood. A conflict, between Calvin’s father and the local bishop in Noyon, led to Calvin’s first steps away from the Roman Catholic Church. These steps took Calvin away from the priesthood and on to law school, where he received his degree four years later. While studying law, Calvin came across the writings of Martin Luther. At the same time, Calvin experienced what he called, “His Conversion.” In his own words, Calvin wrote, “I endeavored to apply myself [to the study of law], in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of His providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.”
Having a teachable mind and having been forced to flee from Paris for his sympathies with the writings of other reformers, Calvin threw himself into the study of Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers, especially, Augustine. This study would lead Calvin to write one of the most influential theological masterpieces, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this work, Calvin outlined the fundamentals of the Protestant faith and presented a compelling argument for the Reformed interpretation of Scripture.
Calvin wanted to spend the rest of his life in private studies. However, Calvin’s “brief” trip to Geneva, Switzerland, thrust him into public life. Geneva had recently voted to leave the Roman Catholic Church and become a Reformation City, but they needed a teacher who could articulate Reformed truths. Calvin was challenged to take up this task, and after much hesitation, he finally agreed. Calvin began his ministry as a lecturer but soon became a preacher. He dedicated his ministry to bringing the life and practice of the church into conformity to the Scriptures, including his insistence that those who came to the communion table had to forsake their openly sinful lives. After several years, Calvin was forced to leave Geneva because he refused to administer communion to some of the prominent leading citizens of the city. Three years later, the city leaders begged Calvin to come back, which he did. Calvin remained in Geneva until his death in 1564. Calvin, who prized education, never stopped educating others. He trained more than 1300 pastors who returned to France and eventually planted more than 2100 underground churches. Other ministers, trained by Calvin, spread throughout Europe and some even went as far away as Brazil. Calvin’s theology, also known as Calvinism, directly influenced those who would start the Presbyterian Church both in Great Britain and here in the United States.