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John Calvin

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John Calvin

To have a religious movement named after you, you must have done something right. John Calvin was a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, but who was he and how did he gain so much influence?

John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation

Born Jean Cauvin in Noyon, France in 1509, John Calvin was one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation. To understand Calvin, we should first clarify some key terms related to the Reformation.

Term Definition
CatholicThe major denomination of Christianity before the Reformation, the Catholic Church gave services in Latin and saw the pope as God's representative on earth, giving Rome power over Emperors or Kings.
Heretic A person whose religious beliefs are against those that are accepted.
HumanistA follower of humanism, a philosophy of thinkers such as Erasmus, elevated the position of the individual in forging his or her own destiny, rather than religious notions.
Indulgences The controversial act of buying religious 'virtues' in exchange for forgiveness of sins.
ProtestantThe new denomination of Christianity that emerged with Martin Luther, it was derived from the word 'protest' against the Catholic Church.
ReformationThe name for the seismic changes that disrupted the Catholic Church and gave rise to Protestantism in the 16th century.

So, where did all this talk of reform start? It is widely agreed that it stemmed from Martin Luther in 1517...

Lutherism

Martin Luther's 95 Theses ushered in the Protestant Reformation. He nailed them to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, sending shockwaves across the religious world.

John Calvin Martin Luther Wikimedia CommonsMartin Luther, Wikimedia Commons.

Full of anguish about the corruption of the Catholic Church, he attacked their methods such as indulgences and the power of the pope, wishing for a purified Christianity that went back to the scripture.

How did leaders react to Luther's message?

Pope Leo X branded him a heretic and banished him from the Catholic Church. Followers of Luther invented the term 'Protestant', first used in 1529 as a 'protest' against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's refusal to allow religious freedom in Germany.

Although religious figures such as Jan Hus had previously spoken out against indulgences, part of Luther's success was down to an important development in the 16th century - the printing press. The printing press allowed Luther's Theses to be translated and widely distributed. In addition, Luther set about translating the Bible from Latin to German to make God's word more accessible.

John Calvin Biography

Calvin himself was born into a Catholic family and an ardent one at that. In fact, his father who worked for a bishop wished that John became a priest, so sent him to Paris to study. In the capital was when Calvin began to depart from his strict upbringing, first coming into contact with humanist ideals and eventually those of reformers before his twentieth birthday.

John Calvin John Calvin Wikimedia CommonsJohn Calvin, Wikimedia Commons.

As the 1530s wore on, Calvin began to embrace Protestant notions with both hands. With the government of France becoming less and less tolerant of such ideals, he sought refuge in Basel, Switzerland, where he studied theology and managed to make sense of his beliefs. The culmination of this was his 1536 treatise 'Institutes of the Christian Religion', cementing his place as Luther's successor and the torch-bearer of Protestantism.

The Swiss were not very responsive to his writings initially, so he spent three years in Strasbourg (then part of Germany) before being invited to Geneva in 1541 to lead the Protestant Reformation. It was during the following years that he had his most influence until his death in 1564.

John Calvin's Institutes (1536)

Although Luther had posted the 95 Theses and translated the Bible, the Protestant Reformation required a systematic outline of its beliefs. Calvin was far more reserved and articulate than the ranting and raving Luther and thus his 'Institutes' was a great success, addressed to French king Francis I as a request to stop prosecuting reformers.

Initially written in Latin, 'Institutes' was subsequently translated into French and then English. It is widely considered to form the basis of the Reformed doctrine, but what were the ideas of Calvin?

John Calvins Beliefs

We must not fall into the trap of characterising Calvinism as the teachings of John Calvin. Of course, he is the main reference point for Calvinism, but many of his ideas have been hijacked and developed by other reformers. The main reference point for John Calvin's beliefs today can be traced to the Netherlands in 1618.

John Calvin Opening of the Synod of Dort 1618 StudySmarterOpening of the Synod of Dort (1618), Wikimedia Commons.

A meeting, known as the Synod of Dort was held to tackle the new Reformed sect of Arminianism, which believed that human free will played a role in God's predestination. For the Calvinists at the Synod of Dort, this was a dangerous idea. It implied that God was not all powerful as they believed To refute this, the assembly summarised Calvinist thought with the following:

BeliefExplanation
Total depravityThe acknowledgement that sin destroys humanity, rendering it totally incomparable to God.
Unconditional electionGod elects Christians, only he has free will to decide who should be part of his religious family
Limited atonementUnderstanding that Jesus' suffering was not for humanity, but only for those chosen as believers by God.
Irresistible graceOnce selected, there is no stopping the lifelong belief in God. This belief results in salvation in heaven.
Perseverance of the saintsThe idea that once God is in your life, you will persevere on the righteous path.

'TULIP' or the Five Points of Calvinism is a useful introduction to Calvinism, but it is vital to consider that it diverts from some of his original teachings. Limited atonement in particular is disputed as a true idea of John Calvin. Perhaps, the original ideas have changed over time, nevertheless, it acts as a starting point for many Calvinists today.

John Calvin Commentary

Alongside Calvin's 'Institutes', he once more wielded the pen to fantastic effect with his mission to create biblical commentaries. Beginning with the New Testament in 1540 and following up with the Old Testament in 1554, it was an effective strategy that helped the average believer to foster a scholarly understanding of the scripture.

In addition, it allowed Calvin to twist and mould the Word of God to his own means. Calvin's engagement with the Book of Romans, for instance, distances Jesus from God. Sangmire suggests that Calvin's intention is to show his followers that all members of humanity are 'clothed in Christ'.1 If Christ is a metaphor for our pre-ordained destinies, it explains how he cannot escape his death on earth and, at the same time, how only believers will be granted salvation.

John Calvin and Predestination

An issue arising from the Synod of Dort is, through reducing the argument to the Five Points of Calvinism, historians can be tempted to forget that Calvin was one of many reformers who believed in predestination.

Predestination

The idea that God has already orchestrated everything that will happen, as a result, only the selected members of righteous humanity can be granted salvation.

Indeed, Luther himself also engaged with the issue in that he stated that humans do not have free will. But Calvin tackles it one step further by arguing that sinners were those who were not chosen by God to enter heaven. For him, universal salvation only applies to the predestined, or chosen few. This suggests that God is unable to influence the entirety of humanity.

John Calvin Achievements

As you will already have gathered, John Calvin's influence on the Protestant faith is undeniable.

Let's now summarise these into a list of his main achievements.

AchievementExplanation
A clear message

Calvin's systematic religious doctrine ensured a legacy for the reformed tradition after his death. By 1561, 'Institutes' had been translated into English. It acted as the playbook for Calvinism and the embodiment and development of Lutheran ideals. Alongside Calvin's biblical commentaries and the advent of the printing press, scripture was finally accessible to the masses, with Calvinist interpretation acting as a blueprint for Protestant thought.

The Reformation in Geneva

In Geneva, Calvin proved a vital cog in the growth of Protestantism. He preached widely after being convinced to return to Geneva by another Frenchman, William Farel. Calvin's influence was far-reaching as he taught religious members of many reformed iterations, including John Knox, one of the founders of Presbyterianism in Scotland. He was also uncompromising in his beliefs, and burnt Michael Servetus for heresy.

Spreading the Word

As well as teaching religious founders, through the Protestant sanctuary of Geneva, Calvin developed a system of missionaries. His focus was on his homeland, France. Through clandestine teachings and services in any place possible, reformed followers began to grow. In France, the penalty for missionaries was death. It was thus a testament to the loyalty and beliefs of Calvin's followers that they risked everything to spread the word.

Some of the followers of Calvin were so ardent, that they even crossed the Atlantic, hoping to spread their message to Brazil.

Missionaries

A person sent to promote and convert people to a religion.

Presbyterianism

A Protestant reformist movement that originated from the Church of Scotland during the latter half of the 16th century.

John Calvin Legacy

Calvin has been given some fairly poor treatment throughout the years from historians. He is often cast as an austere figure, a remover of the pomp and ceremony of religion; a hardline radical who sought to remove life's pleasures. McKee, paints a different picture, noting the multifaceted nature of the man, as we have already glimpsed from his accomplishments.

He was a gifted Biblical scholar who can still be read with profit today. He was the preacher and leading pastor of Geneva... a sort of constitutional genius."

-Elsie McKee, '(Re)Introducing Pastor John Calvin', 20092

While this interpretation may seem a little overblown, we must not underestimate the value of Calvin, as a reference point for Protestantism, but also a political force in Geneva. This should be explored more by historians. In other words, separation of the life and deeds of Calvin the man from constructed notions of Calvinism, should be encouraged.

John Calvin - Key takeaways

  • John Calvin was a vital member of the Protestant Reformed tradition. He systemised much of the teachings of Luther and clarified his own religious thought.
  • His 'Institutes' acted as a playbook for other Protestant reformers, who developed and summarised his doctrine using the Five Points of Calvinism at the Synod of Dort. Chief among Calvinist thought is his consideration of predestination.
  • They were addressed as a protest to Francis I of France, who saw Protestants as heretics.
  • Calvin was instrumental in developing a safe haven for reformers in Geneva. His teachings helped other Protestant movements across Europe such as Presbyterianism in Scotland.
  • He also managed to send missionaries to his native France and beyond.

References

  1. H. Paul Santmire, 'Justification in Calvin's 1540 Romans Commentary', Church History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep 1964), pp. 294-313.
  2. Elsie McKee, '(Re)Introducing Pastor John Calvin', The Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2009), pp. 53-61.

Frequently Asked Questions about John Calvin

John Calvin was a preacher within the Reformed tradition. He preached stringent adherence to the bible and the central role of God in predestination and faith.

Carrying the torch of Reformation pioneer Martin Luther, John Calvin was able to systematically lay out the Protestant faith in his book 'Institutes'. This gave way to the development of the Calvinist tradition, derived from his writings and teachings.

Calvin and Luther were both significant parts of the Reformed tradition. They shared fears about the Catholic church's corruption and wanted a re-emphasis on biblical teachings. 

John Calvin organised the Reformation and was a key figure in Geneva, which resulted in the dissemination of the Protestant faith across Europe, from England to Scotland to the Netherlands.

John Calvin died in Geneva in 1564, where he was condemned as a heretic and then beheaded.

Final John Calvin Quiz

Question

What was Calvin's ideological upbringing?

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Catholic

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Which important invention helped Martin Luther spread his ideas?

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Answer

The printing press 

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What grievances did the Reformed tradition have with the Catholic church?

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Scripture was in Latin

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Which word was Protestant derived from?

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Protest

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What was John Calvin's most important contribution to the Protestant movement?

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Answer

Publishing 'Institutes'

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Who was 'Institutes' addressed to?

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Answer

Francis I

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What was the Synod of Dort important?

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It simplified Calvin's teachings into the Five Points of Calvinism.

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Which of the following was NOT a Protestant movement?

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Jesuit

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For Luther, what does predestination remove?

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The notion of human free will.

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What was the penalty against Protestant missionaries in France?

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Death

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Who did Calvin burn due to heresy?

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Michael Servetus

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What should we do when studying Calvin?

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We should remember to separate Calvin from the Calvinist movement, which was developed after his death.

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Where did Calvin have the most influence?

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Geneva

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Question

What issue did John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli disagree over?

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Holy Communion:  Luther believed that the bread and wine were actually the body and blood of Christ. In contrast, Zwingli saw the bread and wine as symbolic. 

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How succeeded Ulrich Zwingli as leader of the Reformed faith?

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Heinrich Bullinger

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What year did the Consensus of Zurich take place?

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1549

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What were French Calvinists known as?

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Huguenots

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What were English Calvinists derogatorily known as?

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Puritans

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Why did English Puritans emigrate to North America?

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Because they were being persecuted by King James I and King Charles I 

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Aside from the English Puritans, name one other Calvinist group that settled in North America?

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Any of the following:


- Dutch Calvinists 

- French Huguenots 

- Ulster-Scottish Presbyterians 

- German Calvinists

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What was the Synod of Dort?

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An attempt to settle the dispute between the Gomarists (Calvinists) and the Arminianists (followers of Jacobus Arminius)

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When did Presbyterianism become the official religion of Scotland?

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1689

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How did the Gutenberg Printing Press aid the spread of Calvinism?

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Answer

It allowed Calvin to widely disseminate his teachings through books, catechisms, and pamphlets.

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