Church History: John Calvin
This is a difficult task, as no figure in church history is both more scorned and admired than Calvin.
I will write about Calvin as I would any old friend that I’ve spent much time with and profited from his company…because that is how I view him.
There is so much misunderstanding and misinformation about Calvin that writing about his life and times requires that we first establish a bit of a background to rid ourselves of some of both.
First, John Calvin never set out to be the John Calvin of history.
Calvin wanted to be a reclusive writer and scholar, known for his books and his intellect.
He wasn’t comfortable with groups of people, being naturally shy and introverted almost to a fault.
He came to Geneva in 1536 by the providential hand of God when he was forced to detour there because of a war on his way to Strasbourg.
He had gathered a measure of notice beforehand with the publication of the first edition of the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” which was a small primer on the faith in it’s original incarnation.
He planned to stay one night then continue his journey, but was persuaded by William Farel to stay and help him teach in the newly Reformed city.
Persuaded is not the proper term…after Calvin repeatedly denied Farel’s request to stay, Farel informed Calvin that if he left that God would damn his studies (and perhaps Calvin as well) for doing so.
This terrified the timid Frenchman and history began to be written with a different pen than Calvin desired.
The second thing you need to know is that Calvin didn’t invent any doctrine of the Reformation, nor any of the ones that are associated with his name today.
Calvin was not an innovater.
Calvin’s strength was as a synthesizer and systematizer of ideas and doctrines that he and the Reformers believed had been around from the beginning.
Calvin wasn’t considered by his peers to be their “leader”…indeed, what we call the Reformed faith was the product of many brilliant minds all corresponding with each other, iron sharpening iron.
His theology was originally Roman Catholic, he received the Gospel from Luther, then was heavily influenced and developed by contemporaries Martin Bucer, Henrich Bullinger, Pierre Viret, Peter Martyr Vermygli, and many others.
“Calvinism” was not the product of one man, but of all of these in concert.
“Calvinism” was a 16th century swear word coined by Calvin’s enemies in Geneva…it is an unfortunate accident of history that it has become associated with a theology that was built by so many.
The fountain head of the Reformed faith was probably Bucer, it’s sharpest theologian, perhaps the Italian Vermygli.
Calvin brought all their ideas together in a coherent form in his later editions of the “Institutes”.
Third, Calvin self identified as a “pastor” not a “theologian”.
He wrote theology to be both for pastors and pastoral…he trained up hundreds of pastors and missionaries during his active ministry and his passion was to make the Word of God accessible to as many people as possible, taught as well as possible.
Theology wasn’t just for the educated elite, it was for all.
Fourth, Calvin didn’t “rule” Geneva.
Geneva was ruled by city councils, Calvin was appointed by them to run the church and he served at their pleasure.
It was their pleasure to run him out of town two years after he arrived, only to beseech him to return a few years later.
Fifth, Calvin was not a cold theological automaton.
Calvin’s Institutes contain some of the warmest devotional writing in theology.
His letters, to fellow theologians, missionaries, and suffering saints, reveal a heart for God and His people that is deeply pastoral.
You can dislike his theology, but it is wrong to doubt his heart.
Finally, Calvin was a sinner.
He knew and confessed this.
He could be short tempered and proud and though he literally worked himself to death, he considered himself to be lazy.
He was also a repenter and his correspondence shows both sides of his character.
Hagiography has no place in history…honor does and Calvin is worthy of much.
Next week, we’ll look at Calvin’s Geneva.