John Calvin: Theologian and Reformer
If you’ve heard of John Calvin before and you aren’t a Bible college or seminary student, it’s very likely that it was in the context of a discussion on Calvinism. However, Calvin gave us a lot more than the creation of a particular theological tribe. As one of the key players in the age of the Reformation, Calvin contributed greatly to the religious landscape of his time and continues to impact Christian thought and doctrine today.
Calvin’s Early Life
John Calvin was born in France in 1509. His father was a lawyer who had great aspirations for his son, intending for him to work in the church. Ultimately, Calvin acquiesced and pursued a clergy role, teaching himself Latin and preparing for a career in ministry. However, a bit later, Calvin’s father encouraged his son to take up law. Luckily for Calvin, being a quick learner and a bright student allowed him to excel in law as well.
At this point, Martin Luther’s teachings were spreading outside of Germany, and they began to reach France. Luther is known as the Father of the Reformation and for penning his Ninety-five Theses, challenging many teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually, John Calvin ended up taking his years of education and learning and redirecting them to focus his efforts on furthering Luther’s mission. As his beliefs evolved, Calvin soon became recognized as a Lutheran for his theological shift away from the Catholic Church and toward this new, reformed way of thinking. But in order to avoid persecution in France for his unpopular beliefs, he packed his bags and left for Geneva.
Eventually, Calvin created a sort of manual in the hopes that he could teach his fellow Frenchmen about the reformed outlook on the Christian faith. He wanted to make these ideologies more accessible and sought to provide a basic understanding of the monumental views constituting the reformed mindset, which began what we now know as Protestantism. This work was the pinnacle of Calvin’s efforts known as The Institutes of Christian Religion. Although it was written in the middle of the 16th century, it is still recognized as one of the most significant contributions to Protestant theology.
Calvin’s work set out to refine the way Christians of the day thought about things like the Trinity and the church. He discussed church polity, including the selection and installation of elders as well as other leaders found within the church, especially in what we know today as the Presbyterian or Reformed Church. Most importantly, the basis and emphasis of his book is the sovereignty of God. He is well known for his focus on the doctrine of election saying, “If you are saved, it is God’s doing, not your own.”
One major story that generates some questions circulating Calvin’s life revolves around the rumored murder of another man. When we hear this, we immediately imagine Calvin murdering someone in cold blood, but the situation was much more nuanced than these brief assumptions would suggest. In 1553, a man named Michael Servetus was arrested for heresy, which at the time was a serious crime punishable by death. During his trial, Servetus was found guilty, meaning he would be executed. So, the question at this point is this: who made the call? Who was responsible for the final decision?
It is true that Calvin was involved in the decision-making process for this trial. He was not against capital punishment, but as best we can tell Calvin took great measures to try to get Servetus out of his predicament. For example, Calvin wrote him letters trying to get him to change his mindset, and while Servetus was in prison, Calvin went to talk with him, pray for him, and implore him to retract his heretical claims. As much as Calvin wanted to help Servetus avoid execution, it was important to him that Servetus would believe in God and that his soul would rest peacefully.
Unfortunately, Calvin was not the ultimate authority in deciding Servetus’ fate, and his efforts to help Servetus failed. Servetus was burned at the stake for his heretical views, despite Calvin’s pleas that he would be beheaded instead, as a much quicker and less painful death. But, perhaps the best insight into Calvin’s heart towards Servetus can be found in one of the letters he wrote, which said: “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.”
Upon later reflection, Calvin wrote, “I reminded him gently how I had risked my life more than sixteen years before to gain him for our Savior. I would faithfully do my best to reconcile him to all good servants of God. Although he had avoided the contest I had never ceased to remonstrate kindly with him in letters. In a word, I had used all humanity to the very end, until he being embittered by my good advice hurled all manner of rage and anger against me.” So, while Calvin’s hands were not entirely clean in this situation, the story is more complex than it is often portrayed.
What Calvin’s Story Means for Us
Although the popular tendency with John Calvin’s story is to write off one part or another—to focus only on the good, or discount it all because of his shortcomings—perhaps we should make room for both parts of Calvin’s story. It ought to be a comfort that both of those aspects coexist in the same person. We can see the good that God accomplished through Calvin without removing it from his fallen nature and sinful acts. For us, we can find encouragement when we study Calvin because we can see the same duality in ourselves: while we are hindered and tempted by sin, we can still seek to follow God and accomplish great things for his kingdom.