The Life and Legacy of John Calvin

In the summer of 1536, the journey of a small caravan to Strasbourg was diverted south due to military maneuvers between France and Spain. John Calvin had planned to stop over for only a night at Geneva and move on quickly in search of serenity to pursue his studies. But upon learning of Calvin’s arrival, the fiery reformer Guillaume Farel urged the young French scholar to assist in completing the reformation he had started in the city earlier that year. Undaunted by Calvin’s excuse that he was more suited for literary pursuits, Farel came to the point of threatening a divine curse on the leisurely studies he was seeking if he refused to help in such a grave moment of need. Calvin was so overwhelmed that he changed his plan and decided to stay on.1 From that moment, his life became intertwined with that of the city.


Tim Dowley, editor; A Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity, (Lion Publishing: Oxford, 2007), page 380 – 381


The ruling authorities appointed him as “Professor of Sacred Scriptures” and Calvin vigorously prepared a confession of faith to be accepted by everyone who wished to be a citizen. However, he met with stiff resistance over the issue of whether the church or the magistrates have the power to excommunicate. The secular authorities had little interest in granting the clergy such powers. In less than two years, both Farel and Calvin were defeated and expelled from the city. As a result, he spent three happy and formative years in Strasbourg as pastor of a congregation of French refugees and husband of Idelette de Buren, a converted Anabaptist widow. It was during this time that he thoroughly revised and expanded his most important publication The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which had been an overnight bestseller. Its main purpose was catechetical, that is, to “prepare and train students in theology for the study of the divine Word”. Since persecution broke out in France, Calvin also addressed the book to the king in hope that he would adopt a more tolerant approach. Many would consider it as the clearest, most readable and most formidable exposition of Protestant doctrine produced in the Reformation era. Its translation into French had a similar effect on the language comparable to Luther’s Bible in German or the King James Bible in English.

When pro-reform Genevans regained power in the city councils, Calvin was urged to return and continue his work. Martin Bucer, the reformer at Strasbourg, was reported to have employed Farel’s earlier strategy: If Calvin refused to resume his ministry he would be acting like Jonah who tried to run away from God! In September 1541, Calvin reluctantly accepted the request, returned and picked up preaching from the Bible passage where he had left off three years ago. Timothy George comments, “In this way Calvin


signaled that he intended his life and his theology to be, not a device of his own making, but a responsible witness to the Word of God”.2 In terms of church governance, a fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder and deacon was installed as an essential part of the agreement that took Calvin back to his adopted city. The consistory was formed by the pastors and twelve elders chosen from the city councils as the court for enforcing moral discipline and adjudicating cases of doctrinal error.

Although lacking in resources, Calvin worked hard to set up the first integrated, free, state-run education system for everyone, including Catholics.3 It was a powerful channel through which Reformation ideas were disseminated. Founded in 1559, the Genevan Academy quickly established itself as an international center for theological scholarship. Persecuted refugees of conscience from France and other parts of Europe found sanctuary in Geneva and provided a supply of aspiring missionaries eager to bring the gospel back to their homelands. Geneva became a model for rigorous moral lifestyle and the center for ministerial instruction. The influential Scottish reformer John Knox even called it “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles”.

However Calvin’s leadership was not universally accepted. Many citizens of Geneva probably felt more fear than love towards him for seemingly unwarranted intrusions even in trivial matters like wearing slashed breeches.4 By 1546, fifty eight people were executed

Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, (Broadman & Holman Publishers: Nashville, Tennessee, 1988), page 185

Jonathan Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity, (Lion Hudson: Oxford, 2007), page 264 4 Own Chadwick, The Penguin History of the Church 3: The Reformation, (Penguin Books: London, 1990), page 88


and seventy six exiled for various offenses.5 The infamous execution that sullied Calvin’s name was that of the Spaniard Michael Servetus for propagating heresies against the doctrine of Trinity. In the medieval context, doctrinal error was often regarded as a civil offense amounting to treason for its potential to divide a society’s allegiance to rulers. Servetus would have been severely punished if he had been arrested by Catholics or Protestants alike. Although Calvin wished the sentence had been more merciful, the council refused and executed the heretic by burning in 1553.

If the Institutes were all that Calvin had left behind, he would still be regarded as one of the greatest theologians of the Reformation. But his eventual contributions would include 48 volumes of sermons, commentaries (on all New Testament books except Revelation, 2 and 3 John), liturgical writings, polemical tracts and correspondences – more than most people could read in their entire lifetime. No wonder his legacy became an authoritative expression of the Reformed stream of Protestant theology, next to Lutheranism and Anglicanism.

Having little patience for abstract speculations, Calvin insists that true knowledge of God is derived from the self-revelation of God in Scripture alone. Only the Word of God is sufficient and normative for belief and practice as contrasted against the traditions of man. Even though nature is a theatre of God’s glory, man’s fallen condition is merely rendered without excuse before its light and held culpable before God’s judgment. Left to its own device, the human mind is a “factory of idols”. Through the incarnation of Christ, the


Earle Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, (Zondervan:Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996), page 304


written Bible and preaching, God revealed His saving will to sinners by accommodating to our limited means of communication.6 Therefore, Calvin frankly recognized the different literary styles and human character of the biblical texts as a well-trained humanist in both Greek and Hebrew. He also emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit to illumine our spiritual blindness through internal persuasion so that we may believe the gospel as authentic word of God. Only through genuine faith, a sinner is declared righteous (justified) freely on the basis of grace rather than legalistic endeavors.

But if so, why do some respond positively to the gospel call while others reject it? Out of such pastoral concerns, the doctrine of predestination found its place in Calvin’s system.7 In eternity past, God has ordained some individuals to eternal life while others to eternal condemnation from the mass of sinners who only deserve His just recompense. This divine decision was unconditional in the sense that it does not depend on knowing in advance these individuals’ choices or any factor outside of His sovereign and good purposes. In theory, his understanding differs little from that of Luther, Augustine or Aquinas. But Calvin applied it practically as a source of confidence, humility and endurance.

Nothing could happen in history unless by the will of God. When the world is all that it should be, the believer gives glory to God as giver of all good things. But when tragedy strikes, he receives it as loving discipline from the heavenly Father. If it is asked why God chose this person and rejected the other, Calvin would say that humans are not competent
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Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, page 193 John Calvin, Translated by Henry Beveridge, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002), page 379 – 382


judges since there is nothing higher than God’s will. Similarly, Christians have the responsibility to preach the gospel to all since only God knows the identity of the elect. Later Calvinist evangelists like Whitefield and Spurgeon would derive immense courage from the belief that their preached word will never be in vain. Even when results were discouraging, they found comfort that it is ultimately God’s role to convict sinners while their role is just to preach the message faithfully.

Personally, I have learnt much from Calvin’s constant and diligent commitment to the exposition of Scripture in an age where preaching was a primary channel of communication. He abhorred the use of the pulpit to talk about one’s own vain speculations. Superstitions, abuses and immorality abound when the church is deprived of sound doctrine from God’s Word. Instead Calvin preached steadily through book after book of the Bible in all his years of ministry. Since that fateful night when Farel persuaded him to serve in Geneva, every page of his voluminous biblical commentaries and sermons was written in the furnace of pastoral duties. He never wrote from an insulated ivory tower. The best theology is often forged within intersections where truth connects with realities in the world. There are moments when Calvin ought not to have fought spiritual battles with the world’s weapons as in the case of Servetus’ execution. But unlike the radical Anabaptists, Calvin saw a closer cooperation between the state and church that encouraged a more transformational model of cultural engagement. In contemporary contexts where a separatist mindset is prevalent, Reformed theology could prove to be a boon as exemplified by the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper who brought the Christian worldview to bear on


politics, journalism, education and various other disciplines. While Luther worked with German feudal princes, Calvin was credited to “encourage the growth of representative assemblies and stressed their right to resist the tyranny of monarchs”8. With Geneva as beachhead and training center, many were equipped with Reformation ideals and sent out to impact Europe and beyond. Instead of being publicly irrelevant, Reformed theology made profound impact on nation-states like Scotland, the Netherlands and North America through the founding Puritans. Theologically, I have found Calvin’s system helpful for understanding difficult passages of the Bible such as Romans chapter 9. Its relentless focus on the glory of God is refreshing in a time when churches are often preoccupied with entertainment fads, management techniques, personality cults and self-help advices. In his polemic letter to the Catholic Sadolet, Calvin pointed out that even a seemingly ‘spiritual’ interest in heaven may ultimately keep a person entirely devoted to self.9 Perhaps, it is merely for selfpreservation instead of awakening him to honor the name of God. Even our desire for heaven ought to be God-centered (i.e. because we will be in His presence). At the end of the day, sola fide is important because the doctrine removes all human pride and pretenses to earn one’s own salvation and gives all credit to the work of Christ received through the empty hands of faith. Sola Scriptura is also worth contending for because it subordinates all human authorities and speculative voices to the majesty of God’s normative revelation. Finally, in spite of all his human failings, Calvin’s theological concern is primarily Godcentered. Soli Deo Gloria.

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Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, Tennesse, 2008), page 261 John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, (Crossway Books: Wheaton, Illinois, 2000), page 119




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