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- John Calvin’s youth and education
- Reform works in Strasbourg and Geneva
- The need for reforms in the Church
- Theology of John Calvin
- Calvinism in Europe
Key Facts And Information
Let’s know more about John Calvin!
- John Calvin was a theologian and a leading French Protestant reformer of his time. He was forced to leave Paris when it became evident that it was no place for the Protestant reformation. He lived briefly in Geneva before accepting the invitation to lead the church of French refugees in Strasbourg. When the city council of Geneva reconsidered Calvin’s intentions for the church, he was invited to return. His reforms were supported by the council of Geneva and he became the key figure in the establishment of the church government there.
- His death enabled his works to spread into many parts of Europe and his ideologies became the foundation of the Reformed church.
Youth and education
- John Calvin was born in Noyon, Picardy, France on 10 July 1509. His mother descended from a noble Belgian family, whereas his father covered many prominent positions both within the church and society, notably as the cathedral notary and registrar to the ecclesiastical court. His family’s noble standing and close ties with the church allowed him to flourish in an aristocratic and culturally influential environment.
- He was sent to College de la Marche in Paris through the assistance of a wealthy family.
- He received a brilliant education which included the study of logic and other humanistic subjects at the College Montaigu in Paris.
- His father changed his intention for him and decided to enroll him in the University of Orleans to undertake Law studies.
- After a few years in Orleans, he studied in the University of Bourges in 1529 and received his licentiate in Law in 1532.
- He did not neglect to study literature and was exposed to Renaissance Humanism when he returned to Paris.
- He became deeply acquainted with ancient authors of the Latin and Greek period, and published a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia.
- He also undertook a detailed study of the Bible and read Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses against Indulgences.
Reform works in Strasbourg and Geneva
- Strong persecutions against the reform movement intensified in Paris during the Affairs of the Placards, and Calvin was obliged to flee from the city in order to avoid imprisonment or death.
- In 1536, Calvin completed one of his most important theological works, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, written in Latin and dedicated to the French monarch Francis I, in which he criticised the Roman Catholic Church and defended Luther’s ideas.
- He moved to Basel where he met individuals who had contributed to the Reformation started by Martin Luther.
- In that same year, he travelled to Ferrara in Italy, where he briefly served as secretary to Princess Renée of France, then went to his birth-town Noyon with his brother Antoine to settle their father’s affairs.
- After the Edict of Coucy that offered amnesty to Protestant exiles, he decided to leave Paris and set off to Strasbourg but ended up in Geneva, Switzerland.
- He initially planned to stay for a night in the Swiss town but a fellow French reformer William Farel insisted he should help in reforming the church there.
- Calvin reluctantly agreed. He assisted Farel, taught the Holy Scriptures, and spread the principles of the Reformation.
- Notwithstanding his reticent character, he undertook this task because he believed, “God was really commanding him to further the Reformation in Geneva.”
- However, the town was not ready for his reforms, and as a consequence, Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva and were obliged to move to Strasbourg.
- Calvin accepted the invitation of Strasbourg’s leading reformers Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito to lead a church of French refugees.
- He preached, gave lectures, and held office in various churches.
- He was granted citizenship of the city and married a widow — Idelette de Bure — who had two children from a previous marriage.
- Following internal conflicts and changes in the political climate, Geneva reconsidered Calvin’s intentions in regards to the Church and tried to convince him to return.
- Calvin initially refused when the embassy reached out to him whilst he was at a colloquy.
- When the city council called for his immediate appointment in Geneva with the assurance of the fulfillment of his demands, he relented and returned to Geneva with his family in 1541.
- In support of Calvin’s reform proposals to set up a new, strict church order, the council of Geneva passed Ordonnances Ecclésiastiques (Ecclesiastical Ordinances) on 20 November 1541.
- Pastors had the duty of preaching God’s word and administering the sacrament.
- Doctors had the duty of instructing believers in the faith.
- Elders were to regulate and ensure correct conduct.
- Deacons were to assist the poor and the pastors.
- In 1542, Calvin published La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques, which he adapted from a service book used in Strasbourg, with the desire to create a fixed order of worship.
- In the same year, he introduced a new catechism publishing Catéchisme de l'Eglise de Genève (Catechism of the Church of Geneva).
- He succeeded in his intention of creating a reformed church that included the service of God in everyday things such as in education, in charity work, and in political life.
- Essentially, everything revolved around God, as he desired a community that would make the world a Theatrum gloriae Dei (i.e. a spectacle of God’s glory).
- Calvin’s ministry and works were not spared from attacks by people with opposing views:
- Pierre Ameaux, a playing cards maker accused Calvin of false doctrine and referred to him as a Picard, an epithet that denoted anti-French sentiment.
- The council punished Ameaux by forcing him to parade through the city whilst begging for God’s forgiveness in 1546.
- Jacques Gruet wrote a threatening letter to Calvin and other French refugee ministers.
- He was arrested and beheaded in 1547.
- Michael Servetus was a Spanish scientist who exchanged letters debating doctrine with Calvin.
- He rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the concept of predestination.
- With the aid of Calvin, he was arrested and burnt at the stake in 1553.
- During his final years, Calvin’s authority and the Protestant Reformation were consolidated.
- Until his early death in 1564, his main objective was that of spreading his theology and church government across Europe.
- He wanted Geneva to set an example to other countries such as France, Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Poland, and Transylvania to name a few.
The need for reforms in the Church
- In order to understand why Calvin as well as his predecessor Luther were crucial figures, it is necessary to depict the state of corruption that the Roman Catholic Church was in.
- In Western Europe, the church did not only hold spiritual power but also the political power, also known as temporal power, since it possessed a number of territories in Italy referred to as the Papal States.
- Moreover, far from living in modesty and humility, the church was at the pinnacle of corruption: during the Western Schism between 1378 and 1417, three popes ruled at the same time.
- Over time, the Church’s materialistic ambitions became more obvious: simony and nepotism started to become the normality.
- Simony is the buying and selling of positions within the church.
- Nepotism is the act of assigning church roles to members of one’s family.
- For instance, Pope Alexander VI, who belonged to the powerful and corrupt Italian Borgia family, had six children and several mistresses.
- He was also able to bribe voters for the papal office.
- The Church lived in a state of lavish abundance, surrounded by incredible riches, art, and power.
- With all the focus placed on the material, the spiritual side had been left out of the equation, and it was the German monk Martin Luther that became genuinely concerned about people’s souls and salvation.
- It was during the reading of the Old Testament that Luther discovered that the righteous will live by faith and that salvation is not ensured when following precepts and traditions established by an institution. Rather, it is a personal journey.
- For this reason, the church’s scams and ways to acquire wealth became undeniable.
- The indulgences were letters sold by the church and had the purpose of absolving sins to insure eternal heaven.
- In some cases, people bought indulgences for sins that they had not yet committed.
- Relics such as a piece of Christ’s cross, Christ’s blood in a bottle, some nails from the cross and saints’ bones were sold by the vendors, who were obliged to purchase a license from the Church before selling them.
- The Church would make money by selling counterfeit relics: the population during that time was highly superstitious and believed that by purchasing a relic they would lessen their time spent in purgatory after death.
- It was in this atmosphere that Calvin realised the loss of an ethical spiritual community devoted to God and his word.
Theology of John Calvin
- The ideologies of Calvin were conveyed in the biblical commentaries, sermons, treatises, and ultimately in his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Whilst it was not clear when Calvin converted to Protestantism, it was apparent that his beliefs gradually changed and became incompatible with the Roman Catholic teachings.
- Calvin believed that at the beginning of time, God chose the people that should be saved, and those who shouldn’t.
- Calvinism is based on the idea of predestination and this is one of the reasons why the Catholic Church’s decadence and materialistic concerns were vehemently rejected.
- Calvin’s beliefs were based on the fact that God cannot be manipulated and be put in debt of a person: in essence, salvation was the God’s doing and not the person’s.
- The five points of Calvinism can be remembered by the following mnemonic: TULIP.
- Total Depravity
- Humans are pervaded by sin in their mind, body, and soul. Calvinism dug deep into the Holy Scriptures and justified this belief:
- Man’s heart is evil (Mark: 21-23) and sick. (Jeremiah 17:9)
- Man is a slave of sin. (Romans 6:20)
- He does not seek for God. (Romans 3:10-12)
- And by nature a child of wrath. (Ephesians 2:3)
- Unconditional Election
- Considering people’s inherent evil, God decides who is predestined.
- Therefore, some will be entitled to salvation after death, and some will not.
- In the Calvinists’ view, nothing can be done to change the outcome.
- Limited Atonement
- Jesus did not die to save everyone from their sins.
- He sacrificed himself for a few.
- Irresistible Grace
- God is merciful to all beings.
- However, he extends an internal call that cannot be resisted only to few elects.
- Perseverance of the Saints
- Saints referred to all people who are set apart by God.
- Since God has chosen the saints, salvation cannot be lost.
- One of the most important beliefs of Calvin was about the uncompromised “sovereignty of God”.
- This belief gave birth to his doctrines of Providence and Predestination.
Calvinism in Europe
- Calvin’s ministry was concentrated in Geneva but through his published works, ideas of the Reformed theology spread into many parts of Europe. Whilst he did not live to witness the spread of his ideologies, his death allowed his works to lay the foundation of an international movement.
- Calvinism attracted many intellectuals and people belonging to the French elite, and by 1562, over two million people were Calvinists.
- Here, Calvinists were known as Huguenots, and notwithstanding the hostile persecutions they had to endure, they held congregations from the mid-16th century.
- One of the most bloody and brutal persecutions is known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which happened in 1572 by order of Catherine de Medici. In three days, over 70,000 Huguenots in France were tortured and murdered in cities across France.
- It was only in 1598, with the Edict of Nantes signed by the French king Henry IV, that the Huguenots and the Protestants were ensured religious tolerance.
- However, such peace did not last long, and in 1643, when Louis XIV ascended the French throne, persecutions became the norm once again.
- Such dramatic events caused many Huguenots to abandon France and flee to England, Germany, and the Netherlands.
- Although in the Netherlands, Calvinism and other evangelical beliefs were banned, Calvin’s doctrine managed to spread nonetheless.
- Here, one could be arrested for simply possessing a Bible published in Dutch, or a book written by Luther or Calvin.
- However, people started secretly meeting up in order to discuss the Holy Scriptures and prayer.
- During the Great Iconoclasm in 1566, Calvinist Protestant crowds led the destruction of Catholic art and many forms of church fittings as part of the Protestant Reformation.
- From 1556, Johannes Lasco (who was considered a heretic) contributed to spreading the teachings of Calvinism and the Reformation across Poland.
- Although not successful in his intent, Lasco’s primary intention was that of uniting Evangelical and Protestant religions in Poland into one national Church.
- Here, Calvin had fewer followers than Luther and was especially appealing to the noble part of the population.
- One of the factors that prevented Calvinism having a more decisive impact on Poland was the language barrier.
- German was not spoken by most Polish people, and therefore the Calvinist message did not penetrate as deeply as it did in other countries.
- The Warsaw Confederation signed in 1573 put an end to the religious persecutions, and Poland became a place where other persecuted Europeans could find peace.