John Calvin was born as Jehan Cauvin on 10 July 1509, at Noyon, a town in Picardy, a province of the Kingdom of France. He was the first of four sons who survived infancy. His mother, Jeanne le Franc, was the daughter of an innkeeper from Cambrai. She died of an unknown cause in Calvin’s childhood, after having borne four more children. Calvin’s father, Gérard Cauvin, had a prosperous career as the cathedral notary and registrar to the ecclesiastical court; he died in 1531, after suffering for two years with testicular cancer. Gérard intended his three sons — Charles, Jean, and Antoine — for the priesthood.
Young Calvin was particularly precocious. However, by age 12, he was employed by the bishop as a clerk and received the tonsure, cutting his hair to symbolise his dedication to the Church. He also won the patronage of an influential family, the Montmors. Through their assistance, Calvin was able to attend the Collège de la Marche (fr), Paris, where he learned Latin from one of its greatest teachers, Mathurin Cordier. Once he completed the course, he entered the Collège de Montaigu as a philosophy student.
In 1525 or 1526, Gérard withdrew his son from the Collège de Montaigu and enrolled him in the University of Orléans to study law. According to contemporary biographers Theodore Beza and Nicolas Colladon, Gérard believed that Calvin would earn more money as a lawyer than as a priest. After a few years of quiet study, Calvin entered the University of Bourges in 1529. He was intrigued by Andreas Alciati, a humanist lawyer. Humanism was a European intellectual movement which stressed classical studies. During his 18-month stay in Bourges, Calvin learned Koine Greek, a necessity for studying the New Testament.
During the autumn of 1533 Calvin experienced a religious conversion. In later life, he wrote two significantly different accounts of his conversion. In the first, found in his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Calvin portrayed his conversion as a sudden change of mind, brought about by God:
God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardour.
In the second account, Calvin wrote of a long process of inner turmoil, followed by spiritual and psychological anguish:
Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears. And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me, but instead of defence, earnestly to supplicate you not to judge that fearful abandonment of your Word according to its deserts, from which in your wondrous goodness you have at last delivered me.
Scholars have argued about the precise interpretation of these accounts, but most agree that his conversion corresponded with his break from the Roman Catholic Church. The Calvin biographer Bruce Gordon has stressed that “the two accounts are not antithetical, revealing some inconsistency in Calvin’s memory, but rather [are] two different ways of expressing the same reality.” At the time of his conversion (scholars have argued), Calvin also believed himself to have experienced a prophetic calling to reform the church, which is briefly reflected in the Psalms commentary account of his conversion and in many of his sermons and a number of his polemical tracts “
By 1532, Calvin received his licentiate in law and published his first book, a commentary on Seneca‘s De Clementia. After uneventful trips to Orléans and his hometown of Noyon, Calvin returned to Paris in October 1533. During this time, tensions rose at the Collège Royal (later to become the Collège de France) between the humanists/reformers and the conservative senior faculty members. One of the reformers, Nicolas Cop, was rector of the university. On 1 November 1533 he devoted his inaugural address to the need for reform and renewal in the Roman Catholic Church.
The address provoked a strong reaction from the faculty, who denounced it as heretical, forcing Cop to flee to Basel. Calvin, a close friend of Cop, was implicated in the offence, and for the next year he was forced into hiding. He remained on the move, sheltering with his friend Louis du Tillet in Angoulême and taking refuge in Noyon and Orléans. He was finally forced to flee France during the Affair of the Placards in mid-October 1534. In that incident, unknown reformers had posted placards in various cities criticizing the Roman Catholic mass, to which adherents of the Roman Catholic church responded with violence against the would-be Reformers and their sympathizers. In January 1535, Calvin joined Cop in Basel, a city under the influence of the reformer Johannes Oecolampadius.
In March 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutio Christianae Religionis or Institutes of the Christian Religion. The work was an apologia or defense of his faith and a statement of the doctrinal position of the reformers. He also intended it to serve as an elementary instruction book for anyone interested in the Christian faith. The book was the first expression of his theology. Calvin updated the work and published new editions throughout his life. Shortly after its publication, he left Basel for Ferrara, Italy, where he briefly served as secretary to Princess Renée of France. By June he was back in Paris with his brother Antoine, who was resolving their father’s affairs. Following the Edict of Coucy, which gave a limited six-month period for heretics to reconcile with the Catholic faith, Calvin decided that there was no future for him in France. In August he set off for Strasbourg, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire and a refuge for reformers. Due to military manoeuvres of imperial and French forces, he was forced to make a detour to the south, bringing him to Geneva.
Calvin had intended to stay only a single night, but William Farel, a fellow French reformer residing in the city, implored him to stay and assist him in his work of reforming the church there, insisting that it was his pious duty. Calvin, who reluctantly agreed to remain, later recounted:
Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city. And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscious of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.
Calvin accepted his new role without any preconditions on his tasks or duties. The office to which he was initially assigned is unknown. He was eventually given the title of “reader”, which most likely meant that he could give expository lectures on the Bible. Sometime in 1537 he was selected to be a “pastor” although he never received any pastoral consecration. For the first time, the lawyer-theologian took up pastoral duties such as baptisms, weddings, and church services.
During the fall of 1536, Farel drafted a confession of faith while Calvin wrote separate articles on reorganizing the church in Geneva. On 16 January 1537, Farel and Calvin presented their Articles concernant l’organisation de l’église et du culte à Genève (Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship at Geneva) to the city council. The document described the manner and frequency of their celebrations of the Eucharist, the reason for, and the method of, excommunication, the requirement to subscribe to the confession of faith, the use of congregational singing in the liturgy, and the revision of marriage laws. The council accepted the document on the same day.
As the year progressed, however, Calvin and Farel’s reputation with the council began to suffer. The council was reluctant to enforce the subscription requirement, as only a few citizens had subscribed to their confession of faith. On 26 November, the two ministers hotly debated the council over the issue. Furthermore, France was taking an interest in forming an alliance with Geneva and as the two ministers were Frenchmen, councillors had begun to question their loyalty. Finally, a major ecclesiastical-political quarrel developed when the city of Bern, Geneva’s ally in the reformation of the Swiss churches, proposed to introduce uniformity in the church ceremonies. One proposal required the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist. The two ministers were unwilling to follow Bern’s lead and delayed the use of such bread until a synod in Zurich could be convened to make the final decision. The council ordered Calvin and Farel to use unleavened bread for the Easter Eucharist. In protest, they refused to administer communion during the Easter service. This caused a riot during the service and the next day, the council told Farel and Calvin to leave Geneva.
Farel and Calvin then went to Bern and Zurich to plead their case. The resulting synod in Zurich placed most of the blame on Calvin for not being sympathetic enough toward the people of Geneva. However, it asked Bern to mediate with the aim of restoring the two ministers. The Geneva council refused to readmit the two men, who then took refuge in Basel. Subsequently, Farel received an invitation to lead the church in Neuchâtel. Calvin was invited to lead a church of French refugees in Strasbourg by that city’s leading reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. Initially, Calvin refused because Farel was not included in the invitation, but relented when Bucer appealed to him. By September 1538 Calvin had taken up his new position in Strasbourg, fully expecting that this time it would be permanent; a few months later, he applied for and was granted citizenship of the city.
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