Admit it. A certain, not necessarily flattering, image comes to mind when you think of John Calvin.
Don’t worry. This is pervasive. Thinking about one of the major founders of the Reformed faith, people tend to picture a dour man with a slight stoop and a pointed beard. They think of a minister who never laughed but scolded, abhorred, and preached about the sins of the flesh and of a clergyman who ran about the town of Geneva in self-absorbed hurry, with rarely a kind word or nod for anyone.
There are even those who say Calvin had no friends and that his theology was harsh and strict and preferential. Don’t forget his major role—right?—in the death of Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician who didn’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity.
But this year, on the 500th birthday of John Calvin, celebrations of his life and legacy will be occurring all over the world. Kind words will be spoken. Love, not distaste, for the man is likely to prevail. And a fuller, more accurate image of the Reformation theologian will perhaps take form in more people’s minds.
That has already happened in certain circles where people are starting to reassess the significance, sanctity, and sincerity of John Calvin as they prepare to honor him. Lots of misconceptions are being challenged and remedied, in many cases, if not overturned. People are starting to question the stereotypes, if for no other reason than as a way to learn more about this man who is perhaps one of the mightiest and most misunderstood theologians of all time.
As part of the 500th birthday, we have worked to put together a question-and-answer biography of sorts that tries to answer questions about the great Reformer’s life. We hope readers will come away with a wiser, fuller, even “sweeter” sense of the man.
To an extent, of course, this is not easy, because Calvin wrote very little about himself. He stayed out of the limelight. Chances are he would not be pleased that people are making a big deal out of his 500th birthday. Here was a man, after all, who made sure that he was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent people from making pilgrimages to pay homage to him and not to the sovereign God whom Calvin preached and wrote about.
What we do know we must gather from various sources, academics, pastors, writers who are now gone, and other experts. The best bet in getting to know Calvin, then, is to turn to sources, living and dead, to build a profile of the man. When possible we’ll look at what he wrote about himself.
First things first: Was John Calvin really such a sourpuss?
No, says Karin Maag emphatically. She is the director of the H. Henry Meeter Center, which contains a wide-ranging, world-renowned collection of materials related to Calvin in the Hekman Library at Calvin College. “He had a tender side,” says Maag. “He was not an ice block. There is evidence that shows he had a very warm relationship with his wife (a widow) and was very sad when she died.”
Although Calvin was shy and could seem distant, he also showed “an amazing depth of sympathy for others,” says Maag. “Especially in his letters, you find a much more human Calvin.”
Stereotypes of a hard-hearted Calvin emerge from how he was portrayed by some of his contemporaries, one of whom referred to him as the “Protestant pope.” Also, Calvin and Calvinists have not fared very well over the years in novels. For various reasons, “Calvin has been chosen to bear the horrors and excesses of the Reformation,” says Tom Davis, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of Indiana.
One contemporary novelist, however, promotes Calvin and believes he has been grossly misunderstood. In one of her essays, Pultizer-Prize-winning writer Marilynne Robinson writes, “We all mistakenly think we understand the Puritans and Calvin. Many of us know that Calvinism was a very important tradition among us. Yet all we know about John Calvin was that he was . . . a prude and obscurantist with a buckle on his belt, possibly a burner of witches, certainly the very spirit of capitalism.”
It turns out virtually none of the conventional wisdom about Calvin is correct, she says.
Where was Calvin from?
He was born July 10, 1509, in Noyon, Picardie, France—the second of three sons. His father, Gerard, worked for the ecclesiastical court and hoped that his three sons, especially John, would become Catholic priests. In fact, he enrolled John in intense university studies in Paris, including that of Latin, to prepare him for a theology degree, ordination to the priesthood, and possibly a high position in the Roman Catholic Church, according to the book Calvin for the Armchair Theologian by Christopher Elwood.
Did Calvin actually want to be a Catholic priest?
That is hard to say. But he apparently did attend Roman Catholic worship services and believed in the church doctrine in his youth. But later, in the mid-1520s before he converted to the newly formed Lutheran faith then sweeping Europe, he wrote: “By nature I was no better than those whom I see entirely against God. . . . I was rather his mortal enemy; there was no nerve in me that tended to his obedience, but I was full of fury, full of malice, full of presumption and of a diabolical determination to resist God and to engulf myself in eternal death”—from Calvin: A Biography by Bernard Cottret.
Clearly, writes Cottret, John Calvin was a man who wrestled with faith and did so in a very personal way. The God he sought was not in Rome, but in the words of the Bible. Of his struggles and where they took him, Calvin also wrote: “God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most notable office of herald and minister of the Gospel…. What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind . . . strongly devoted to the superstitions of the Papacy.”
Calvin stopped his studies in theology and, with the strong backing of his father, spent six years studying to be a lawyer at the University of Orléans in north-central France.
What did he get out of studying the law?
Studying law led Calvin away from orthodox teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and broadened his worldview. He chose studies that were as literary and historical as they were legal. He had become part of what has been called the Renaissance humanist movement, which essentially developed from the rediscovery by European scholars of many Latin and Greek texts, as well as the invention of the printing press. This movement allowed Reformers such as Calvin to delve deeply into the Bible in its original form.
While studying at Orléans, according to one of his contemporaries, Calvin would spend half the night reading and in the morning lie in bed to reflect on what he had read. Despite debilitating headaches, he remained an avid reader all his life.
Was Calvin a sickly man?
Yes he was, though that didn’t slow him down. He hardly complained. Calvin worked for a higher purpose, even as his body betrayed him.
“From his late 20s on, Calvin suffered from many physical infirmities: impaired digestion (he ate only one meal a day), migraines, lung hemorrhages, perhaps tuberculosis, chronic asthma, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, frequent fever and gout,” writes Steven J. Cole, pastor of Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in Arizona, in his essay “John Calvin—the Man and His Preaching.”
Were Calvin and Martin Luther alike? Were they friends? Did they ever meet?
Let’s take the last question first. The answer: No.
Calvin and Luther never met, says Maag at the Meeter Center. “Calvin did meet Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s main colleague and leading successor, at a number of religious colloquies in the German lands while Calvin was in exile from Geneva between 1538 and 1541.”
While they never met face to face, the two were even then considered the giants of the Reformation.
“Both were men of powerful intellect, deep learning, and intense study, thorough masters of the Scriptures, which they read day and night, unwearied preachers in public and indefatigable instructors in private, faithful counselors of all that needed advice, fervent lovers of truth and holiness, and no less fervent haters of error and evil, godly in life, blessed in death, and now happy in eternity,” writes J.C. Philpot, editor of the 19th-century Baptist Standard magazine.
“But with all these points of resemblance, the two men widely differed. Luther was more the Elijah, Calvin the Paul of the Reformation.”
The two Reformers, says Cottret in his biography, were very different in temperament. Luther was “a man of overflowing charm and of driving fluency, sometimes to the point of harshness.” As for Calvin, he was much more cerebral, more in control of himself than Luther. Calvin preferred writing and reading in solitude. Luther loved crowds.
“[Calvin’s] godly, self-denying life and walk and holy example would often reprove you, and might stir you up to desire for yourself a measure of the same grace; but if you were much tempted and tried, plagued by sin, assailed by Satan, and sometimes almost at your wits’ end, you would rather open your heart to Martin Luther than to John Calvin,” writes Philpot.
What’s the truth about Calvin and predestination?
For one thing, predestination, the belief that God alone determines our ultimate fate, wasn’t one of Calvin’s driving doctrines. He didn’t discuss the doctrine at all in a broad summary of all of his teachings. Even in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, his most famous text, it is not highlighted.
Instead, Calvin believed that predestination, although a complex and controversial teaching, had a quality to it that should unite and comfort Christians.
“To Calvin, predestination was like a tightrope—fearful and wonderful at the same time,” writes an author in a special 1986 volume of the magazine Christian History. “When one reads Calvin’s own writings on predestination, a different picture emerges than most would suspect.”
Calvin wasn’t the first one to teach this doctrine, says John Hesselink, a professor emeritus of New Testament theology at Hope College in Holland, Mich. “Don’t blame Calvin. Luther taught it before him, and Augustine before him,” says Hesselink.
Predestination was a doctrine of comfort for Calvin. With this doctrine of the sovereign God in place, doubt and fear need not rule one’s faith life. “You don’t fret. You don’t worry yourself to death because you know, you are certain, that you are in God’s hands,” says Hesselink. “In Calvin’s case, he could have a strong faith even though he lost his wife, whom he dearly loved.”
The certainty that predestination offered, says Karin Maag, came as a response to the doubts that Roman Catholics of that time were riddled with. “Catholics weren’t sure if they were always doing enough good deeds to please God,” says Maag.
Did Calvin ever have fun?
Yes he did. For one thing, he was not a teetotaler. He liked to drink a glass of wine. And after an especially challenging sermon, he was known to go out and play a game of lawn bowling for a bit of exercise, says James Bratt, professor of history at Calvin College. Also, says Bratt, “he wasn’t a prude in terms of sex, as long as it was within properly prescribed limits.”
For Calvin, it wasn’t wine or sex that was sinful. Rather, it was what the individual chose to do with them. “Calvin believed that we should enjoy the gifts of God in a proper way,” says Bratt.
But Calvin was, of course, a no-nonsense type of guy, says Bratt. “He tried to get people to live up to their obligations as citizens and as members of God’s world.” At the same time, says Bratt, “he was no killjoy.”
Some Calvin experts say he even cracked a joke or two— though nothing major or sidesplitting—from the pulpit.
Overall, Calvin had a generally hopeful disposition and a profound faith in the overall goodness and power of God. Because of the love he felt for the Lord—a pious love bordering at times on the mystical—he believed and taught that God “desires to fill the hearts of his people with joy and love by their knowing and tasting the sweetness of God and his provisions,” writes a Calvin Theological Seminary student in a Meeter Center newsletter.
Hesselink from Hope College says he finds it fascinating how many times Calvin himself uses the term “sweetness” in his own writings, of which there are many, when referring to the workings of God.
Is it true that Calvin’s tough-minded theology can best be grasped with the acronym TULIP?
First off, TULIP stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
Again, the answer is not exactly. There is more to the story.
“To be sure, these doctrines do reflect Calvin’s viewpoint in the area of soteriology [salvation],” writes one of the authors in the special Christian History volume devoted to Calvin. However, says the same writer, these doctrines “are not a full exposition of Calvin’s theology.”
At the same time, “John Calvin no more invented these doctrines than he invented this world which God had created six thousand years before. We believe that he was a very gifted, learned, and, in the main, godly man, who still had his faults. He found substantially this system of doctrines just where we find them, in the faithful study of the Bible,” writes D.L. Dabney, a 19th-century Presbyterian author.
Scholars are divided on how thoroughly Calvin would have held to this doctrinal summary. Importantly, the acronym came into play after he died. For instance, on one point, the issue of limited atonement, which teaches that Christ died only for the elect, there is lots of gray area in Calvin’s teachings. “Depending on how you interpret Calvin, he either did not teach this or he left the matter unclear (perhaps because the Bible doesn’t state the matter clearly),” writes Christopher Elwood in Calvin for the Armchair Theologian.
If Calvin was such a good guy, what about his role in the death of Michael Servetus?
Neither literally nor figuratively did Calvin light the match that started the fire that killed Servetus, a Spanish physician of note (he is said to have discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood). Well-read in a wide range of religious beliefs and teachings, Servetus was a theological troublemaker who got branded a heretic for denying the Trinity. “Calvin was not, as some would have it, Servetus’s prosecutor, judge and executioner,” writes Elwood in his book.
However, Calvin did have a role to play in the death of the man with whom he had corresponded for many years. “Calvin firmly felt that his ideas were wrong,” says Maag at Calvin.
For whatever reason, Servetus, who could have been executed as a heretic in many other places, wound up in Geneva and took a seat in the church where Calvin was preaching. Servetus was quickly recognized and arrested.
Some of the blame that has been laid on Calvin in this affair stems from the passionate and articulate way in which he testified against Servetus in the trial before a civil judge in Geneva. Calvin truly took his rival to task. Heresy, after all, was a capital offense. But there is more.
“Calvin visited Servetus in jail and earnestly sought to persuade him of his errors. Servetus dismissed Calvin with a laugh,” says Christian History magazine.
As for the actual execution, Calvin pled with local authorities that Servetus be beheaded, a supposedly more humane method of execution than being burned at the stake.
So what are Calvin’s enduring legacies, especially for the church?
It’s important to point out that Calvin was as much of a synthesizer of ideas, practices, and doctrines as he was an innovator. Many of his ideas came from a long list of other church fathers, says H. Henry Meeter in his book The Basic Ideas of Calvinism.
Chiefly, though, “Calvinism is not the mere aggregate of opinions, the sum total of ideas, held by Calvin and Calvinists, but it is an organic whole,” writes Meeter, who taught for 30 years in the Bible department of Calvin College.
Particularly using and re-crafting the teachings of Saint Paul from many centuries before for a more modern world, Calvin did not restrict himself to theology and in fact saw theology as part—a crucial undergirding part—of a larger approach and view of the world. Calvinism, says Meeter, “is an all-encompassing system of thought, including views on politics, society, science and art” that always has God at the center.
Among other things, Calvin is referred to as one of the fathers of modern democracy. This view comes out of how he helped establish a system of church governance. “He did not believe that ministers and other church officials should be imposed on the church by the civil government or by a group of wealthy and aristocratic individuals,” writes W. Stanford Reid in his article “One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy.”
Instead, writes Reid, Calvin believed that ministers, elders, and deacons should be appointed by the people of the church as a whole.
Calvin was also a strong promoter of social justice—the idea of bringing one’s faith to bear on the inequities in the world.
Calvin wasn’t the founder of the Christian Reformed Church, or of any church at all, but his ideas and writings and even the drive of his subdued but passionate personality played a key role in its formation as it emerged out of the world of Reformed churches.
“Calvinism was not a religion; the religion was Christianity. ‘Reformed Christianity,’” writes Cottret.
Many people came after Calvin, among them Abraham Kuyper, who promoted his ideas. Kuyper was a pastor and journalist and politician who in the late 19th century helped establish the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.
People like Kuyper took seriously Calvin’s appreciation of achievements in science and in other spheres, such as the economy. Calvin was a man for his time and beyond.
“[Calvin] attentively followed and recognized the new developments of his time…but radically subordinated them to God’s will,” writes Christian Link in his article “Calvinism Between Humanism and Discipleship.”
“Calvin beheld the miracle of creation, sharpening his awareness for the responsibility that we bear for its temporary earthly form.”
Overall, says Davis at the University of Indiana, popular culture has held wrong notions for too long about Calvin, a man who sought to unify and not tear apart Christ’s church. “It has been hard for people to look to Calvin and see the good things he brings forward in the Christian tradition.”
1. Before reading this article, what did you know or assume about John Calvin?
2. What new information about Calvin was most significant for you? Why?
3. What information about Calvin helped you connect to him on a personal level?
4. Discuss the time in which Calvin lived. What factors came together to create an opportunity for change?
5. How did this article expand your thinking of the doctrine of predestination and TULIP?
6. How does this look at John Calvin affect your participation in Reformed Christianity?
7. How is Calvin a man for our time?
About the Author
Chris Meehan is a freelance writer and commissioned pastor at Coit Community Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.