Reformators : Jean Calvin

A.) Calvin's Biography

Jean Cauvin, known as Jean (John) Calvin, was born in 1509 in Noyon/Picardie, in Northern France, the son of an attorney. Calvin studied the law, learned Greek and Hebrew, was never ordained a priest. Calvin felt his conversion to religious life in 1529, at age 22. In 1532 he published provocative theses and instantly had to flee Paris; the flight mark his breech with the Catholic Church. In 1535 he published his INSTITUTIONS OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION. In 1536 he reached GENEVA, where he stayed until 1538, finding followers and, while excommunicated by the church and banned from France. From 1538 to 1541 he resided in (protestant) Strassburg. In 1541 he returned to Geneva. At a synod, the city accepted the bible as the only source of God's law; the city's constitution and laws were rewritten. Other publications by Calvin include ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE, OF PRAYER, THE NECESSITY OF REFORMING THE CHURCH. Calvin died in Geneva in 1564.

B.) The Environment in which Calvin Lived and Preached

Calvin's father was a lawyer working for the church, but at the later stage of his career getting on distance with the church. He thus influenced his son to focus his studies on the law rather than on theology.
At the time Calvin studied in Paris and Orleans, critical publications by HUMANISTS and protestant reformators alike were discussed. The UNIVERSITY OF PARIS was staunchly conservative, highly critical of ERASMUS and condemning the recent bible translation into French by D'ETAPLES. Yet, among the students there was a reformist faction. Calvin's first publication, the INSTITUTIONS OF CHRISTIAN RELIGION, were an expression of this faction, quickly condemned by the university, and Calvin had to flee.
When he arrived in GENEVA, the city was in a rebellious spirit, just in the process of throwing off the rule of their lord, the DUKE OF SAVOY. Here, as in the nearby Swiss cantons of ZÜRICH, BERN and BASEL, publec sentiment was protestant, the reformation begun by HULDRYCH ZWINGLI. His untimely death in 1531 had left the Swiss reformation without a leader of stature; Calvin, who arrived in 1536, was ultimately filling that gap. At first, however, Calvin found followers as well as opponents, and he spent the years between 1538 and 1541 in STRASSBURG, another center of the ongoing reformation. In 1541 Calvin returned to Geneva to stay; Geneva accepted the bible as the exclusive source of God's laws, reformed both it's constitution and laws accordingly. The Calvinist Genevans regarded themselves God's own people, those God himself had selected among all mankind.

C.) The Essence of Calvinism

Calvin's teaching can be summed up in 5 points : (1) life follows God's plan. Man can not achieve salvation by merit; his fate (salvation or damnation) is predestined. (2) Faith in God is the sole factor justifying man's actions. Man must perform good deeds to show that he already is saved. (3) Man can not answer for his sins. His salvation is a unilateral act by God, by the grace of God; man cannot resist it. (4) It is man himself who interprets the word of God, man enlightened by the Holy Spirit. The exclusive source of God's word is the bible. (5) The Sacraments do not influence future salvation, but document that the person has been saved already. There are only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper. (6) The church consists of those who profess their belief in Christ by words and actions. (7) Men shall live a moderate life, but do not have to give up worldly goods (i.e. the oath of poverty sworn by priests and monks is unnecessary), (8) church and state shall cooperate, the church having to dominate.
Note : summarized after Catholic Encyclopedia. Calvinist sources list five points, determined by the Synod of Dordt (1619), abbreviated T.U.L.I.P., easily associated with the country where the synod was held.

D.) The History of Calvinism

CALVINISTS is a name given to the followers of Jean Calvin's doctrines by historians. The Genevan Calvinists regarded themselves as the (only) true christians, their opponents regarded them as heretics and rebels.
Calvinism became the dominant interpretation of christianity in Switzerland, where it was adopted by the majority of cantons, especially the city cantons of Geneva, Zuerich, Bern and Basel. It also became dominant in the German principalities of PALATINATE, LIPPE DETMOLD, EAST FRISIA, with the success of the Dutch Revolt in the UNITED PROVINCES (i.e. the Northern Netherlands), and, via the person of JOHN KNOX, in SCOTLAND. Calvinism found many supporters in France (the HUGUENOTS), Poland and Hungary; in all three countries it was suppressed by the COUNTERREFORMATION. It also found followers in Britain; one of these Calvinist groops was to be called the PURITANS.
Calvinism had a strong appeal to the urban elite, craftsmen and merchants, who over the centuries had developed self-consciousness, and were dissatisfied with both the social order (which placed the nobility, partially bankrupt and militarily obsolete) above them and with the church, it's teaching that ownership of property basically is sinful.
The structure of the Calvinist church, without bishops but with a COUNCIL OF PRESBYTERS (church elders) instead, has been shaped by the city in which it originated. The Calvinist church was established by the community of Geneva, not (like Luther's Saxony) by a territory's church organisation, with bishop and all, which reformed itself. In Geneva it was undertaken against the city's lord, the Duke of Savoy.
Soon, the Netherlands became the leading Calvinist state. Here the doctrines of Calvinism were defined at the SYNOD OF DORDT (i.e. present Dordrecht) in 1619.

Links from msu, from simplenet
Biographies from the Catholic Encyclopedia, wsu (encyclopedic), wheaton (encyclopedic), by Theodore Beza (detailed), by Miles H. Hodges, from infoplease
The 5 points of Calvinism, from
DOCUMENTS Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edition London 1599, from The Church Hall of History and from Online Great Books in English Translation
A collection of Jean Calvin's writings from the John Calvin Center
John Calvin's will, from the John Calvin center

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 1st 2001, last revised on November 15th 2004

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