John Calvin - Religious Leader

John Calvin - Religious Leader
John Calvin - Religious Leader
John (Jean) Calvin was a key figure in the Protestant Reformation. He influenced directly or indirectly the beginning of the Reformed churches (Swiss Reformed, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, and other “Calvinist” churches).

Like Martin Luther, Calvin was a scholar and prolific writer. He is most famous for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic presentation of the Protestant Christian faith, but his influence extends far beyond this book. The British statesman Lord Morley wrote: “To omit Calvin from the forces of Western evolution, is to read history with one eye shut.”

Born in 1509 at Picardy, a city south of Paris, Calvin studied law at the University of Orléans. He then studied under some humanist scholars at the Collège de France in Paris beginning in 1531.

During this time, Calvin experienced what he later called a “sudden conversion” in his understanding of the Christian religion, becoming convinced that the Protestant thought of Luther and the humanist influence of Erasmus of Rotterdam were true.

At this time, France was completely Catholic and opposed any Protestant influences that came from nearby Germany or Switzerland. When Calvin’s friend Nicholas Cop delivered his inaugural address at the University of Paris in 1533, it caused a sensation, as Cop used evangelical language drawn from both Luther and Erasmus. King Francis swiftly condemned the “Lutherans,” and both Calvin and Cop had to flee, with Calvin settling in Basel, Switzerland (a Protestant city), in 1535.

Calvin felt compelled to make a defense for his beliefs to the French king. The result was the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. The original edition was divided into six articles or chapters and was ordered in a fashion similar to that of Luther’s catechism. In later editions, Calvin added two chapters, but much more explanation (the eighth edition, written in 1559, was more than four times the size of the first).

The emphasis in Luther’s writings was on the doctrine of justification by faith, but Calvin’s emphasis was on the sovereignty of God and for him it was a key to understanding man: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Calvin is perhaps best known for his views on predestination, “that terrible doctrine,” where Calvin asserted that God’s plan for individuals is foreknown and predestined. While a person still has free will, the person’s free will intersects with God’s foreknowledge.

Since God “knows” in advance if a person is destined for heaven or hell, how do the person’s own decisions affect this destiny? Calvin’s views on this highly complex area were simplified by many readers to assert that God chooses which people go to heaven and which ones go to hell.

Calvin is also associated with Geneva, Switzerland. Because of the tight connection between church and state, various rulers in the early years of the Reformation would decide for a region whether it would become Protestant or remain Catholic. In Switzerland, each city ruled itself by means of a town council. In 1536, the general assembly of the city of Geneva voted unanimously to become Protestant.

Calvin was asked by the Protestant preacher and leader William Farel to help organize the city. Calvin’s legal training and gift of organization soon resulted in a novel form of separation of church and state in Geneva by means of a series of regulations called the Ecclesiastical Ordinances.

Geneva was ruled by the town council, but there was also a council of all the pastors in the city called a consistory, which included a group of men to watch over the morals of the city. The city had laws against various forms of immorality (ranging from prostitution to dancing, card playing, or wearing “slashed breeches”).

The town council wanted to ensure that it had full authority for civil matters; yet the Ecclesiastical Ordinances recognized a shared authority in certain areas: “These arrangements do not mean that the pastors have any civil jurisdiction, nor that the authority of the consistory interferes in any way with the authority of the magistrates and the civil courts.” Though some have called this period of Geneva’s history a time of “theocracy,” this term does not accurately reflect the actual organization of the city.

Calvin’s influence has extended to many churches throughout the world. Churches that are “Reformed” or “Calvinist” in their theology include Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational. There are many reasons for this influence.

First, the Institutes of the Christian Religion was a remarkable work and is still used as a basis for Reformed doctrine to this day. Second, many English Protestant pastors and theologians fled to Switzerland during the persecution under the reign of Queen “Bloody” Mary (Mary I) of England.

When Mary was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth I in 1558, the theologians were able to return, but did so convinced of reformed doctrine. Thus the English churches became largely reformed in their doctrine, though their various practices of worship differed.

Finally, Calvin’s close associate Theodore Beza must be credited with further systematizing the work Calvin began. Beza was an equally prolific writer and continued the influence of Calvin’s thought and writing into the 17th century.

Calvin was an austere man, wholly dedicated to his preaching, governance, and writing. He married a widow named Idelette de Bure in 1541. She had three children from her previous marriage and bore a son, Jacques, on July 28, 1542, but Jacques only lived a few days. Idelette was in poor health after this time, and died in 1549. Calvin died in the arms of his disciple and friend Theodore Beza on May 27, 1564, at the age of 55.

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