A Brief Biography of the Life and Theology of John Calvin

Portrait of John Calvin Introduction

John Calvin is arguably one of the most influential scholars in Christendom history.  Calvin is largely responsible for the development of many doctrines including the system of Covenant Theology.  Perhaps the greatest thinker from the Reformation is John Calvin.  In the short 54 years lived (Piper 121) Calvin wrote tracts and books, preached thousands of sermons, established school known internationally, and trained many future pastors to send out into the world to spread the gospel to the four corners of the earth.

This paper will do a brief introduction to the life and doctrine of John Calvin.  Due to many misconceptions and lack of research done by the common man, John Calvin has been largely misunderstood and sadly misrepresented by many.  He is more often than not known for his forming of the doctrines of grace and the so-called killing of people in Geneva.  Hopefully this paper will clarify some of those issues and act as a proper memorial to a man who dedicated his life to proclaiming the glory of God.

A brief background on the life of John Calvin

On July 10, 1509, Gerard Calvin and Jeanne Le Franc had a baby boy, their second.  They were a middle class family in Noyon, a small city in the northern French province of Picardy…The baby boy, Jean, turned out to be smart, and when the time came, his father used his connections to get him a good education. (Elwood 1)

Calvin had just turned 8 years old when Martin Luther had nailed his famous 95 theses on the door of a church, which began the Reformation.  Although John Calvin is recognized as one of the major reformers, he was one of untimely birth.  Luther and Zwingli were already well-established reformers and known all across Europe, when Calvin was just beginning his education in (Roman Catholic) theology in Paris, France.  His father had pulled some strings to get him into school there.  Gerard had known the right people from his work place.  Although, later John’s father fell out of good standing with the Catholic church, and so, Gerard sent him to study law (Piper 122). 

            Half a decade later Calvin went to study his passion at the time, the classics.  His father had died and he felt free to chase after this love of his.  He also took up Greek and wrote a book called Commentary on Seneca (Piper 122).  Sometime in the early 1530’s Calvin had caught a glimpse of the glory of God and he was radically changed.

            Many scholars have charged Calvin with being heartless and cruel to those who differed with him in doctrinal beliefs, claiming he would have people killed if they would dare to contradict anything he taught.  This is simply not true.  Calvin is not responsible for any mans’ death.  However, what is often referred to for proof is the account of the individual Servetus who was beheaded in the town that John Calvin had much influence over as pastor.  The man had attempted to have Calvin killed on a couple of occasions using deceit and hit men.  Both times Calvin was preserved by what could best be called providence.  Later this man had attempted to not only deny the doctrine of the Trinity but also espouse his view to many of the citizens of Geneva.  He had warrants on him for death from the Roman Catholic Church as well.  Calvin had met with him on a number of occasions to correct him of his doctrinal error but he refused to recant this heresy.  The punishment in Geneva for holding to such a doctrine was death.  Calvin likely could have talked the city council out of this, but after no change in Servetus, he approved of the decision made by the council on one condition, that they give him a quick and easy death.  They agreed and had Servetus beheaded.

At the age of thirty-one Calvin was finally married.  John Piper states that many women had made attempts at winning the heart of young and zealous Calvin (Piper 131).  In fact some believe Calvin actually had some matchmakers working for him.  However, it was a widower of an Anabaptist that caught the eye of John Calvin.  When asked what Calvin was looking for in a wife he stated, “The only beauty which allures me is this—that she be chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient, likely to take care of my health” (Parker 70).  Calvin’s new wife’s name was “Idelette” and she brought a son and a daughter with her.

            Many have thought of Calvin as one who formed his doctrine and theology up in an “ivory tower”, and although this may have been Calvin’s desire, he never had that luxury.  Instead, Calvin was familiar with much suffering and death.  He lost all three of his children from his beloved wife at birth or soon after.  And after only 9 years of marriage his wife also joined their children in the grave.  After the death of his love he wrote:

You know well how tender, or rather soft, my mind is.  Had not a powerful self-control been given to me, I could not have borne up so long.  And truly, mine is no common source of grief.  I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordained, would have willingly shared not only my poverty but even my death.  During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.  From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.  She was never troublesome to me throughout the whole course of her illness, but was more anxious about her children than about herself.  As I feared these private worries might upset her to no purpose, I took occasion three days before she died, to mention that I would not fail in discharging my duty towards her children (Parker 71).

Calvin also had a deep love and devotion to his sheep.  He gave much time to study to protect them from many false teachers.  The idea of Calvin living a life in an “ivory tower” is simply a lie.  Contrary to popular belief Calvin’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty was formed in the midst of suffering and pain.  In fact, it was the doctrine of God’s sovereignty that comforted him in these times of trials and testing.

            After the death of his wife and children Calvin gave himself wholeheartedly to the local church.  He often preached everyday and twice on Sundays, all the while giving three lectures in theology a week.  He also gave countless hours in visiting the sick and counseling those in need. 

However, this workload was done at the expense of his health.  Calvin was given over to tremendous migraines and stomach pains.   His poor health led eventually to colic and the spitting of blood, as well as, “the ‘excruciating sufferings’ from his hemorrhoids” (Piper 134).  All of this took place while angry mobs fired large guns outside at his home.  This sickness brought the death of John Calvin at a relatively young age of 54.

But Calvin’s legacy still goes on nearly 500 years after his death.  Much of his writings are still influencing many men and woman in their understanding of the Scriptures.  His books have also served many pastors in their endeavor to serve their sheep faithfully as Calvin did.

A brief look at John Calvin’s theology

            Much of Calvin’s theology can be found his most famous work Institutes of Christian Religion.  This work had a number of revisions but the purpose was the same from start to finish.  Calvin sought to give an apology to the King for why the Protestants were true to the historic faith of Christianity.  His hope was to stop the persecution of many Christians and establish the reputation of the Protestant’s young faith.

            Perhaps there could have not been a better man for the job, for Calvin was well acquainted with the doctrines of not only the Roman Catholics but also was very well versed in the church fathers.  In fact, Calvin often appealed to the church fathers to authenticate the doctrines that emerged from the Reformation.

            This all being said, Calvin would have hardly thought of his Institutes of Christian Religion as exhaustive.  He also had his sermons transcripted which later became a complete set commentary on the Bible.

            It has often been said that Calvin’s theology ran on railroad tracks.  Those tracks were the word of God and the Holy Spirit.  To Calvin the two were inseparable and they ran parallel to each other.  The Word of God was the objective truth revealed by God.  The Holy Spirit would animate the Word of God and it worked on a subjective level at communicating to the reader through the objective word.  He states:

The work of the Spirit, then, is joined to the word of God.  But a distinction is made, that we may know that external word is of no avail by itself, unless animated by the power of the Spirit…All power of action, then, resides in the Spirit Himself (Azurdia III 97).

            By doing this Calvin could have confidence and certainty in what the Word of God states.  This thought process was way ahead of his time.  Many scholars are still trying to pull apart and develop this idea that Calvin pioneered.  Many today have fallen into a black hole of uncertainty and despair.  Perhaps it would do contemporary Christian leaders some good to read more of John Calvin and a little less of these Emergent works.

            The Institutes of Christian Religion was a 4-piece (book) set.  The first book deals with knowing God as creator.  He states, “For how can the thought of God penetrate your mind without your realizing immediately that, since you are his handiwork…  you owe your life to him?”  (Nichols 69). The second book deals with knowing God as redeemer.   The third book dealt with how to apply the knowledge of God as creator and redeemer.  The last book dealt with the church and things such as church government.

            Calvin had a well-developed view of faith.  This may be largely due to the new doctrine of sola fide or perhaps because of his development of the harmony between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.  Whatever the motivation was, Calvin developed a well-rounded doctrine of faith.  He describes faith as:

A firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Elwood 83).

He goes on to explain that faith has three aspects to it.  It is personal, not mustered by man, and functions with knowledge.

            Calvin had also been one who was fascinated by and consumed with a passion for God’s glory.  He longed to behold it, understand it, and herald it to all.  Calvin saw the glory of God most clearly displayed in the gospel.  This drove Calvin to really develop a well-thought out study and examination of scripture concerning the gospel.  With Calvin’s well-developed view of faith came a proper understanding of what that faith did.  For Calvin, faith was the only means by which one could receive grace unto salvation.  But how did this all work?  What exactly took place when one believed in the work of Jesus Christ?  Calvin writes:

We explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men.  And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness…  You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches…  To declare that by him alone we are accounted righteous, what else is this but to lodge our righteousness in Christ’s obedience, because the obedience of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own? (Calvin 727, 753).

Calvin fought for this doctrine.  And he suffered much for this doctrine of imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  It is sad that so many are quick to drop this doctrine after 500 years because of some new wind of doctrine.

Perhaps the most misunderstood teaching of John Calvin is what is often called “Calvinism.”  The most common understanding by both Calvinist and Arminians is the idea that the 5 points of Calvinism were written and structured by John Calvin.  However, the 5 points were a response to a doctrinal statement written to a counsel in Holland. 

In 1610, just one year after the death of James Arminius (a Dutch seminary professor), his followers drew up five articles of faith based upon his teachings.  The Arminians, as his followers came to be called, presented these five doctrines to the State of Holland in the form of a “Remonstrance” (i.e., a protest).  The Arminian party insisted that the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism (the official expression of the doctrinal position of the Church of Holland) be changed to conform to the doctrinal views contained in the Scripture (Steele, Thomas, and Quinn 3-4).

A counsel met for the next 9 months and had 154 sessions.  There were well over a hundred pastors from several different countries who met to examine this protest to see whether there be any truth in the 5 articles made.  The response to the 5 points was another five points by the Great Synod.  These five points became commonly known as the “five points of Calvinism.”

            That being said, most would agree that those five points were not only and primarily in agreement with Scripture that they are also in agreement with John Calvin’s understanding of salvation (though some attempt to argue against this point).

            The five points were: Total Depravity, Unconditional Elect, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints.  It formed an acronym of a very common flower in Holland, that is, the TULIP.

            The doctrine of total depravity was nothing new by Calvin.  This doctrine had been formulated long before Calvin was even born.  It was first developed as a response to a heretic known as Pelagius.  Pelagius taught that man could work his way to heaven.  Augustine was known for his well thought out response to Pelagius, the church soon after deemed Pelagius a heretic.  Later, another false teaching arose that was called “Semi-Pelagian.”  It was quite similar to what James Arminius’ followers wrote up as a protest (although hundreds of years before Arminius).  Due to both of these false doctrines the doctrine of total depravity was well developed before Calvin.  In addition, Luther had also developed the doctrine a bit more by stating, due to the fall of man, his will is bound to his nature, which is corrupted and therefore can choose nothing else but sin. 

            The doctrine of unconditional elect was well developed by Calvin.  To Calvin this doctrine was closely linked to the very nature of God, that is, the Great I AM.  God could not look outside Himself for decisions or plans for that would be contrary to the very essence of who God is and has revealed Himself to be.  This doctrine was taught and preached to comfort his sheep.  Because one who knew God was all good and all sovereign one could trust in Him no matter the suffering and pain.  This idea had its overflow into how and whom God chose for salvation.

            Limited atonement is likely the most misunderstood of the five points.  Some have attempted to argue that Calvin never held to this particular doctrine.  However, the majority of avid readers of Calvin believe he held to this doctrine.  The idea is that there is a particular and unique atonement for those whom God had chosen to save, as opposed to those who would not believe.

            Irresistible grace outflows from points 1-3, because, man is totally unable to choose God, so God predestines to save particular persons, by applying the unique atonement to those chosen with an effectual calling that enables the person to a saving faith that is sure.  Some have argued that this doctrine is the crucial clinching point between the Roman Church and the Protestants.

            Perseverance of the saints is the doctrine that has been “practically” dropped by many self-proclaiming Calvinists.  Many have abandoned this doctrine for a doctrine called “once saved always saved.”  That doctrine is perhaps one of the most dangerous doctrines within Orthodoxy.  It is not only doctrinally deficient but has given many Christians over to licentiousness.  It is perhaps more harmful than Arminianism in this respect. The warning passages in scripture no longer act as anything.  For a person who makes a profession is encouraged to never doubt his salvation no matter how unrepentant he or she may be.  This would be abominable in Calvin’s mindset of God’s work in man.  Calvin invested much time in developing a doctrine we often take for granted, that is, sanctification.

            Another doctrine that was fine-tuned by Calvin was the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement.  This idea of Jesus’ death on the cross actually having an effect on God was crucial.  God must punish sin!  He must be appeased!  However, it pleased the Father to crush the Son in the place of sinners.  Calvin wrote, “Not only was salvation given to us through the Christ, but, by his grace the Father is now favorable to us” (Quiggle 142).

            In other words, something took place on the cross that caused the Father to now show favor to those who were once His enemies.  This was the atoning work of Jesus Christ.  In the last two decades this doctrine has also gotten a lot of disagreement from within even the evangelical camp.

Conclusion

            John Calvin lived a short life but by the sovereign grace of God he accomplished much for His glory.  He was well acquainted with sorrow and suffering.  He lived much of his life fleeing from persecution.  He lived longer than all of his children and had to bear the death of his beloved wife.

            To this day, Calvin is misunderstood and sometimes even hated for his doctrines.  But much of it was formed in a life of suffering and seeking the glory of God in all of it.  He was not perfect.  However, he is another example to us what God can do through the life of a man who surrenders his life to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

            May God use this life to stir in the hearts of men and women all across the world to be convinced and propelled by a certainty in the promises of God.  That God may raise up a generation of people of faith who believe that God is faithful and the rewarder of those who seek Him.

            To a generation that has almost completely lost any sense of conviction, passion, and sense of purpose in life.  To a generation that is highly skeptical of everything including God’s word, and doubts God’s ability to clearly communicate to us.  To a generation that is man-centered and has lost the vision of the Glory of God! This would be John Calvin’s message to our generation!

 

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2 thoughts on “A Brief Biography of the Life and Theology of John Calvin

  1. This paper gave a very good explanation on what perseverance of saints really means. I liked the challenge for man to examine his own heart and not to hang onto the fire insurance of once saved, always saved. One bears fruit of the Spirit after salvation, and some who profess show no signs of growth.

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  2. Have you seen the new Calvin resources at calvin500.com? Logos Bible Software has begun a massive digitization project of almost 100 books by and about Calvin—46 volumes of commentaries, 5 editions of the Institutes, 4 volumes of letters, dozens of tracts and treatises, 10 biographies, and 20 volumes on the history of Calvinism. I thought you might be interested!

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