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Who was John Calvin?

Updated on December 2, 2016

John Calvin was a French theologian, teacher, and a leader of the Protestant Reformation. Born Jean Chauvin, or Cauvin, at Noyon, France, July 10, 1509. Died Geneva, Switzerland, May 27, 1564.

John Calvin was probably the greatest theologian of the Reformation and was the founder of modern Presbyterianism. He did much to shape religious thinking as Protestantism advanced in Europe. He also had a direct influence on the later relationships between the Protestant Church and civil governments. Calvin founded a system of government that was based upon the teachings of the Bible and in which the civil powers were subordinate to the dmrch and its ruling council. He encouraged production and commerce and insisted on the individual virtues of honesty, thrift, simplicity, and toil. His ideas were well suited to the emerging capitalism of the 16th century.

Calvin was the son of Gerard Cauvin, a Roman Catholic and a public official in northern France. The young Calvin was educated at the University of Paris and in Orleans and Bourges. While a law student at Orleans, he began to question some of the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. A few years earlier, Martin Luther had published his Ninety-five Theses against abuses in the Church, and he was now leading a widespread protest against its authority. Protestant doctrines were gaining followers throughout Europe. Between 1528 and 1534, Calvin forsook his Catholic upbringing and joined the cause of the Reformation. He possessed a great intellect and was soon the recognized leader of the Reform movement in France. When King Francis I began persecuting the Reformists, Calvin fled to Switzerland, where many Reform scholars had gathered.

In 1536, Calvin published the first version of his masterpiece, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which he clarified the Reform position. The Institutes was also a rejection of papal authority, and it served as a manual of Christian doctrine for Calvin's followers. It is considered the outstanding theological work of the Reformation, and all of Calvin's later views were at least outlined in it.

Calvin went to Geneva, Switzerland, in the autumn of 1536 as a teacher of theology and a preacher. The Genevans had recently overthrown Catholicism, and the city was in a state of disorder, with many fanatics advocating widely divergent doctrines. Calvin and another Protestant, named William Farel, prepared a declaration of Christian doctrine and practices, which the city authorities compelled all citizens to accept. Genevans soon found Calvin's innovations too extreme, and in 1538 he and the other leaders were expelled from the city. Tumult resulted, and three years later he was invited back on his own terms. He immediately established an ecclesiastical government with himself as magistrate, assisted by pastors, doctors, presbyters, or elders, and deacons. These officials regulated all teaching, commerce, and civic activity, even prescribing the citizens' mode of dress.

Calvin developed pronounced differences with other major Protestants. Followers of Martin Luther would accept neither his doctrine of predestination nor his insistence that austerity is a mark of the godly. His theocratic government antagonized the Anabaptists, a highly independent sect that believed in complete separation between church and state. Calvin also vigorously opposed the Anti-Trinitarians, who denied the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. He had the theologian Servetus, a Spanish Anti-Trinitarian, burned at the stake as a heretic.

Calvin was never successful in his personal ambition, which was to set up a theocratic government in his native France. His Huguenot followers, however, gained power in parts of France in the following century. During the same period, Protestantism became the state religion in Scotland. Puritans in England who followed Calvin's teachings gained considerable strength in the government. Those Puritans who migrated to America set up theocratic governments in the New England colonies.


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    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Very interesting. I didn't know, until I read this hub, that John Calvin was originally French. Thank you for an interesting and informative article.