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Calvin, John


CALVIN, JOHN (Jean Cauvin; 15091564), French theologian and reformer. Calvin was the leading second-generation Protestant reformer, yielding only to Martin Luther in influence. He was born in Noyon, Picardy, a town under the rule of the prince-bishop but one that also retained a medieval communal tradition. His father, despite his lack of formal advanced education, held several lay legal positions for local church bodies. His mother was from the family of a wealthy hotelkeeper. Calvin's early education was at a local school, and perhaps also in the company of the youth of the local high noble family that controlled the office of prince-bishop and several other ecclesiastical positions.

He received his university education in Paris, supported in part by church benefices his father had secured for him. Following his father's wishes, he initially aspired to a career in the church but then turned to Roman law, in which he received a degree after studying at Orléans and Bourges. In his university studies and the law studies he pursued at Orléans under the jurist Pierre de l'Estoile, Scholasticism was preponderant. However, he also acquired a strong grounding in humanism through his tutelage by the renowned pedagogue Mathurin Cordier and his attendance at lectures by leading lights of the newly formed Collège Royale in Paris and at those of the jurist Andrea Alciato at Bourges, as well as through more informal studies. Indeed his first major work, a commentary on the Stoic philosopher Seneca's Declementia (Onclemency), showshimasa highly capable humanist scholar-commentator. It also reveals a young man filled with the desire to make a name for himself as a humanist literary figure, but ambivalent about this goal and uncomfortable with the cultivation ofelitepatrons, thenso necessary for the attainment of legal or literary success.

Until 1533, there is little to suggest that Calvin was more than a follower of the moderate religious reform exemplified by Desiderius Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples. On 1 November 1533 his friend Nicolas Cop, who had been elected rector of the University of Paris, gave an inaugural address containing a mixture of Lutheran and Erasmian ideas. But the monarchy of Francis I had turned against even moderate reform, and Cop had to flee Paris, as did Calvin himself. By early 1534 Calvin had turned from a spectator into an active reformer. By this time it had also become clear that the reception for his Seneca commentary did not fulfill his hopes. Protected for a few months at Nérac by Marguerite de Navarre (Marguerite d'Angoulême), the sister of Francis I, he soon gave up his minor benefices and moved to Basel and then to Geneva.

Central to Calvin's influence was his ability to define comprehensively the doctrine and liturgy of Christianity in the face of several alternative forms of Christianity. He confronted not only the Catholic Church but also conflicts among such reformers as Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, the recent German Peasants' movement with its more socially revolutionary understanding of Christianity, and the mostly pacifist but separatist movements known collectively as Anabaptism. Indeed, at about the time of his conversion, the most bizarre and uncharacteristically violent expression of Anabaptism was unfolding in Münster.

Calvin's first theological work, the Psychopannychia (written 1534), attacked a doctrine concerning the soul after bodily death, popular among some Anabaptists. By 1536, with the appearance of his most important work, the Christianae Religionis Institutio (Institutes of the Christian religion), Calvin had set out most of the fundamental tenets identified with his name. With Luther and Zwingli, he strongly advocated justification by faith alone and denied any role for one's own works in salvation (his insistence on predestination was a logical consequence of this doctrine). Like them, he retained only two of the Catholic Church's seven sacraments, baptism and Communion. He was more innovative in espousing a doctrine of the Eucharist that, in contradistinction to both Luther and the Catholic Church, denied any physical presence of Christ in the Communion elements, yet, in opposition to Zwingli, accepted a spiritual but nevertheless very real presence of Christ. His rejection of a role for Christ's physical body was part of a larger mistrust of any role in worship for that which took physical form or was apprehended primarily through visualization. Thus he espoused a categorical opposition to religious images, including images of Christ, again in contrast to the German reformer. His view undermined the patronage of religious art, whether by groups or individuals, by clerics, nobles, or craftspeople.

By 1539 Calvin had formulated his doctrine of the calling, in which he counterposed godly productive work to work motivated by the pursuit of honor and usually involving flattery of highly placed or well-connected individuals. In practice those "called" were approved and regulated primarily by fellow members of the craft or profession in question, as evidenced by the appointment of ministers and by Calvin's doctrine of the lesser magistrate. Moreover, he associated godly work in one's calling with steady, persevering, disciplined emotions, while he linked the pursuit of fame and status to unsteady and turbulent emotions. This way of distinguishing sacred from profane experience harks back to his early interest in Stoicism (which also rejected the pursuit of fame). The emotional qualities he depicted as marks of the sacred also have a strong affinity with those accompanying disciplined scholarly reading, teaching, and writing, activities that predated his activity as a religious reformer.

Calvin also stands out in his attitude to secular authorities. While he asserted that individuals could not take up arms against even a tyrannical ruler, he also forbade those who found themselves in Catholic-dominated areas from participating in Catholic forms of worship; they could neither participate in the Catholic Eucharist nor show honor to religious images. He insisted that such practices were offensive to God, and he argued that such participation communicated to others affirmation of these practices, regardless of one's own private intent. Thus individuals caught in this predicament risked drawing the attention of the authorities but could not resist persecution with force. Their only alternatives were escape or the risk of martyrdom. However, Calvin allowed for resistance to evil rulers by other recognized political authorities, the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate" (his examples included, from antiquity, the Spartan ephors, Roman tribunes, and Athenian demarchs, and, from his own day, the assemblies of the three Estates). In this way he provided an opening for active resistance to persecutionan opening that was elaborated by his followers during the religious wars of the later sixteenth century in France and elsewhere. The sources and impact of Calvin's views on this and other subsequent religious and political conflicts continue to be lively areas of research.

Calvin distinguished the invisible church, which encompassed all those, living and dead, who had been elected to salvation, from the visible church. The visible church could and did include people who were not among the elect and only feigned Christian faith. The true visible church he distinguished from false churches by their preaching of correct doctrine and proper administration of the sacraments, and not by the moral perfection of their officers or members. Since the elect could be known only to God, all but people whose religious profession or moral behavior obviously denied Christ were included in the visible church. Thus an established, visible church could be coterminous with any existing political jurisdiction, as in Geneva. Yet in keeping with his doctrine of the calling, Calvin insisted upon the independence of the church from secular authorities in matters of doctrine and liturgy. In Geneva the church had four offices: pastors and teachers (their functions overlapped as both were involved in ascertaining and teaching doctrine, although teachers also had primary responsibility for education); elders, who were concerned with over-seeing religious orthodoxy and moral discipline among Geneva's citizens; and deacons, who were charged with care of the poor and sick. Calvin continually pressed for the independence of church leaders from the Genevan government, including the control of excommunication. He was initially rebuffed and expelled from Geneva and spent three years ministering in Strasbourg. But the Genevan rulers, concerned to end religious discord, called him back in 1541. Aided by the influx of French Protestants fleeing persecution in their homeland as well as by considerable local support, Calvin was able to defeat opposition from several powerful, interlinked Genevan families. By 1555 he had won for the consistory, the church body charged with surveillance of religious doctrine and morality, the right of excommunication, a powerful symbol of the church's independence from secular authorities, although in Geneva civil authorities continued to hold key church functions. The factors involved in this dispute are an important area of current scholarship. With most of his contemporaries Calvin did not favor religious toleration; the most notorious example is his support for the execution of Michael Servetus for heterodox views on the Trinity in 1553. However, he favored noncapital penalties for those of less extreme heterodox views.

Although favoring a church embracing the entire community rather than the elect, Calvin, like the Anabaptists, sought to bring all members of the community into at least outward conformity with the religious beliefs and moral behavior he considered appropriate to Christians. Through the surveillance of the consistory, in which he was preeminent, he had considerable success in imposing a restrictive moral regime on Geneva's inhabitants, excluding not only heterodox religious practices, but dancing and card playing as well as more commonly recognized vices. Yet the consistory did not merely chastise moral failings; it frequently brought about reconciliation of the parties to familial and community conflicts.

Calvin's views regarding women are an important topic of current scholarship. The reformer allowed a role for women in public preaching only when suitably trained men were not available. It is a matter of current debate whether he excluded women because he believed that they were inherently less capable or because he thought it inappropriate to his own time. The consistory, over which Calvin presided, probably did not take women's heretical statements as seriously as those of men, but suspected women more often than men of Catholic practices. Like most other Protestants, Calvin allowed divorce; he limited it to grounds of adultery or desertion. During his tenure, the consistory applied the same criteria to rich and poor, women and men, in divorce cases before it. However, since separation was now deemed illicit, and cruelty was excluded as grounds for divorce, women were generally required to remain with abusive husbands. The death penalty was applied for particularly egregious cases of adultery, but Calvin probably did not take the lead in pressing for it. The ongoing publication and translation of the Genevan consistory records has shed much new light on this and many other aspects of the social history of Geneva, and no doubt will continue to do so.

In addition to his other activities, Calvin found the time to comment on almost all of the New Testament, on the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and several other books of the Hebrew Bible. In his commentaries he seeks to square the entirety of scripture with his doctrines. His commentaries on the Hebrew Bible reveal a tension that sometimes approaches the breaking point: Calvin displays a historical understanding of the Hebrews' beliefs and practices unsurpassed by other commentators of his time, an understanding derived from humanism; but he also displays a strong tendency to impute to the whole of Scripture, including the Hebrews, his particular understanding of Christian doctrine and practice, an ability rooted in the synthesizing, generalizing tendency of the medieval Roman law tradition in which he had been educated. The role of humanist and Scholastic assumptions in Calvin's interpretive and teaching practices continues to be an important area of research.

Finally, using Geneva as a base, Calvin and his fellow members of the Genevan Company of Pastors advanced the cause of reform on an international scale, continually advising their confreres in France and elsewhere. By his death he had helped to organize a corps of highly educated and effective preachers who had succeeded in establishing a network of French churches and were making inroads elsewhere in Europe as well.

See also Anabaptism ; Calvinism ; Geneva ; Huguenots ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Münster ; Reformation, Protestant ; Women ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


Bergier, Jean-François, et al., eds. Registres de la compagnie des pasteurs de Genève au temps de Calvin. 2 vols. Geneva, 19621964.

Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait. Oxford and New York, 1988.

Breen, Quirinus. John Calvin: A Study in French Humanism. 2nd ed. Hamden, Conn., 1968.

Cottret, Bernard. Calvin: A Biography. Translated by M. Wallace McDonald. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000.

Crouzet, Denis. Jean Calvin: Vies parallèles. Paris, 2000.

Douglass, Jane Dempsey. Women, Freedom, and Calvin: The 1983 Annie Kinkead Warfield Lectures. Philadelphia, 1985.

Kingdon, Robert M. Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

. Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 15551563. Geneva, 1956.

Kingdon, Robert M., Thomas A. Lambert, Isabella M. Watt, and Jeffrey R. Watt, eds. Registres du consistoire de Genève au temps de Calvin. 2 vols. to date. Geneva, 1996. Translation in Kingdon, Robert M., Thomas A. Lambert, Isabella M. Watt, and Jeffrey R. Watt, eds., M. Wallace McDonald, trans. Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the time of Calvin. One vol. to date. Grand Rapids, Mich. 2000.

Millet, Olivier. Calvin et la dynamique de la parole: Étude de rhétorique réformée. Paris and Geneva, 1992.

Monheit, Michael L. "'The Ambition for an Illustrious Name': Humanism, Patronage, and Calvin's Doctrine of the Calling." The Sixteenth Century Journal 23, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 267287.

. "Young Calvin, Textual Interpretation and Roman Law." Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance 59, no. 2 (1997): 263282.

Monter, E. William. Calvin's Geneva. New York, 1967.

Muller, Richard. The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. Oxford and New York, 2000.

Naphy, William G. Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 1994.

Watt, Jeffrey R. "Women and the Consistory in Calvin's Geneva." The Sixteenth Century Journal 24, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 429439.

Wendel, François. Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. Translated by Philip Mairet. London and New York, 1963.

Wengler, Elisabeth. Women, Religion, and Reform in Sixteenth-Century Geneva. Ph.D. diss., Boston College, 1999.

Michael L. Monheit

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John Calvin

John Calvin

The French Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) is best known for his doctrine of predestination and his theocratic view of the state.

John Calvin was born at Noyon in Picardy on July 10, 1509. He was the second son of Gérard Cauvin, who was secretary to the bishop of Noyon and fiscal procurator for the province. The family name was spelled several ways, but John showed preference while still a young man for "Calvin."

An ecclesiastical career was chosen for John, and at the age of 12, through his father's influence, he received a small benefice, a chaplaincy in the Cathedral of Noyon. Two years later, in August 1523, he went to Paris in the company of the noble Hangest family. He entered the Collègedela Marche at the University of Paris, where he soon became highly skilled in Latin. Subsequently he attended the Collège de Montaigu, where the humanist Erasmus had studied before him and where the Catholic reformer Ignatius of Loyola would study after him. Calvin remained in the profoundly ecclesiastical environment of this college until 1528. Then at the behest of his father he moved to Orléans to study law. He devoted himself assiduously to this field, drawing from it the clarity, logic, and precision that would later be the distinguishing marks of his theology.

In 1531, armed with his bachelor of laws degree, Calvin returned to Paris and took up the study of classical literature. At this time Martin Luther's ideas concerning salvation by faith alone were circulating in the city, and Calvin was affected by the new Protestant notions and by pleas for Church reform. He became a friend of Nicholas Cop, who, upon becoming rector of the university in 1533, made an inaugural speech which immediately branded him as a heretic. Calvin suffered the penalties of guilt by association and would certainly have been arrested had he not been warned to flee. In January 1534 he hastily left Paris and went to Angoulême, where he began work on his theological masterpiece, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Several turbulent months later, after a secret journey and two brief periods of arrest, Calvin was forced to flee from France when King Francis I instituted a general persecution of heretics. In December 1534 he found his way to Basel, where Cop had gone before him.

Calvin's Theology

Sometime during his last 3 years in France, Calvin experienced what he called his sudden conversion and mentally parted company with Rome. He proceeded to develop his theological position and in 1536 to expound it in the most severe, logical, and terrifying book of all Protestantism, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin followed this first Latin edition with an enlarged version in 1539 and a French translation in 1540, a book that has been called a masterpiece of French prose. The reformer continued to revise and develop the Institutes until his death.

Its theme is the majesty of God. There is an unbridgeable chasm between man and his maker. Man is thoroughly corrupt, so base that it is unthinkable that he could lift a finger to participate in his own salvation. God is glorious and magnificent beyond man's highest capacity to comprehend; He is both omnipotent and omniscient, and He has, merely by His knowing, foreordained all things that ever will come to pass. Man is helpless in the face of God's will. He is predestined either to eternal glory or eternal damnation, and he can do nothing, even if he is the best of saints in his fellow's eyes, to alter the intention of God. To suggest that he could would be to imply that the Creator did not fore-know precisely and thus diminish His majesty. To Calvin there could be no greater sacrilege. This doctrine of predestination did not originate with Calvin, but no one ever expressed it more clearly and uncompromisingly. He did not flinch from the terrible consequences of God's omniscience.

To those few whom God has chosen to save, He has granted the precious gift of faith, which is undeserved. All are unworthy of salvation, and most are damned because God's justice demands it. But God is infinitely merciful as well as just, and it is this mercy, freely given, that opens the door to heaven for the elect.

Calvin knew that this doctrine was terrifying, that it seemed to make God hateful and arbitrary, but he submitted that human reason is too feeble to scrutinize or judge the will of God. The Creator's decision on who shall be damned is immutable. No purgatory exists to cleanse man of his sins and prepare him for heaven. Yet Calvin counsels prayer, even though it will not change God's will, because prayer too is decreed and men must worship even though they may be among the damned. The prayer should be simple, and all elaborate ceremony should be rejected. The Catholic Mass is sacrilegious, because the priest claims that in it he changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Calvin held that Christ is present whenever believers gather prayer-fully, but in spirit only and not because of any act undertaken by priests, who have no special powers and are in no way different from other Christians. There are only two Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Like Luther, Calvin rejects all other "sacraments" as not based on Holy Scripture.

Calvin makes a distinction between the visible Church and the true Church. The former is composed of those who participate in the Sacraments and profess their faith in Christ; the latter, invisible and unknown to all save God, is the community of the elect—dead, living, and yet unborn. One must belong to the visible Church in order to be saved, but belonging to it is no guarantee of salvation. Church and state are both ordained by God. The task of the former is to teach and prescribe faith and morals, while the latter preserves order and enforces the laws set forth by the Church. There is no separation of Church and state. Both must work in harmony to preserve the word of God, and to this end the state is enjoined to use force if necessary to suppress false teachings, such as Catholicism, Anabaptism, or Lutheranism.

That these ideas, particularly with their cornerstone of predestination, soon conquered much of the Christian world is baffling at first examination. But Calvin's followers were encouraged by hope of election rather than enervated by fear of damnation. It seems to be an essential part of human nature to see oneself as just, and Calvin himself, while he firmly maintained that no one is certain of salvation, always acted with confidence and trust in his own election.

Geneva Reformer

While publication of the Institutes was in progress, Calvin made preparations to leave his homeland permanently. He returned briefly to France early in 1536 to settle personal business, then set out for Strasbourg. Because of the war between France and the Holy Roman Empire, he was forced to take a circuitous route which brought him to Geneva. He intended to continue on to Strasbourg but was persuaded to remain by Guillaume Farel, who had begun a Protestant movement in Geneva. Except for one brief interruption he spent the remaining years of his life in Geneva, spreading the word of God as he understood it and creating a theocratic state unique in the annals of Christendom.

In 1537 Calvin was elected to the preaching office by the city fathers, who had thrown off obedience to Rome along with their old political ruler, the Duke of Savoy. A council, now operating as the government, issued decrees in July 1537 against all manifestations of Catholicism as well as all forms of immorality. Rosaries and relics were banished along with adulterers. Gamblers were punished and so were people who wore improper, that is, luxurious, clothing. The austere hand of Calvin was behind these regulations.

The new rules were too severe for many citizens, and in February 1538 a combination of Libertines (freedom lovers) and suppressed Catholics captured a majority of the council. This body then banished Calvin and Farel; Calvin went to Strasbourg and Farel to Neuchâtel, where he remained for the rest of his life.

At Strasbourg, Calvin ministered to a small congregation of French Protestants and in 1540 married Idelette de Bure. She bore him one child, who died in infancy, and she herself died in 1549. While Calvin was establishing himself at Strasbourg, things were going badly for the new Protestantism in Geneva. Strong pressure was being exerted on the council from within and without the city to return to Catholicism. Fearing that they might be removed from office and disgusted with the trend toward flagrant immorality among the citizenry, the councilors revoked the ban on Calvin on May 1, 1541. A deputation was sent immediately to Strasbourg to persuade the reformer to return, and he did so reluctantly, on Sept. 13, 1541, after being promised total cooperation in restoring discipline.

Rule of God

The law of a Christian state, according to Calvin, is the Bible. The task of the clergy is to interpret and teach that law, while the task of the state is to enforce it. Under this principle, while the clergy, including Calvin, were not civil magistrates, they held enormous authority over the government and all aspects of civil as well as religious life.

Immediately on his return to Geneva, Calvin set about organizing the Reformed Church. On Jan. 2, 1542, the city council ratified the Ordonnances ecclésiastiques, the new regulations governing the Church, formulated by a committee led by Calvin. The Ordonnances divided the ministry into four categories: pastors, teachers, lay elders, and deacons. The pastors governed the Church and trained aspirants to the ministry. No one could preach henceforth in Geneva without permission of the pastors.

The conduct of all citizens was examined and regulated by a consistory of 5 pastors and 12 lay elders elected by the council. The consistory had the right to visit every family annually and search its home; to summon any citizen before it; to excommunicate, which meant virtually automatic banishment from the city by the council; to force attendance at weekly sermons; to prohibit gambling, drunkenness, dancing, profane songs, and immodest dress; and to forbid all forms of the theater. The colors of clothing, hair styles, and amounts of food permissible at the table were regulated. It was forbidden to name children after saints, and it was a criminal offense to speak ill of Calvin or the rest of the clergy. The press was severely censored, with writings judged to be immoral and books devoted to Catholicism or other false teaching forbidden. Punishment for first offenses was usually a fine and for repetition of minor crimes, banishment. Fornication was punishable by exile, and adultery, blasphemy, and idolatry by death. Education, which Calvin regarded as inseparable from religion, was very carefully regulated, and new schools were established. Charity was placed under municipal administration to eliminate begging. Thus the whole life of Geneva was placed under a rigid discipline and a single Church from which no deviation was permitted.

The consistory and the city council worked hand in hand in enforcing the laws, but the moving spirit of all was Calvin, who acted as a virtual dictator from 1541 until his death. Calvin did not look the part of a dictator. He was a small, thin, and fragile man with an unsmiling ruthless austerity in his face. He was pale under a black beard and a high forehead. A poet would perhaps see these physical details as signs of enormous, orderly intellect and of little human warmth or appetite—a being all mind and spirit with almost no body at all. There were some ugly moments in theocratic Geneva. During these years 58 people were executed and 76 banished in order to preserve morals and discipline. Like most men of his century, the reformer was convinced that believing wrongly about God was so heinous a crime that not even death could expiate it.

Last Years

The last years of Calvin's life were spent in elaborating Geneva's laws, writing controversial works against spiritual enemies, and laboring prodigiously on the theology of the Institutes. Geneva became a model of discipline, order and cleanliness, the admiration of all who visited there.

Men trained to the ministry by Calvin carried his doctrines to every corner of Europe. The reformer lived to see his followers growing in numbers in the Netherlands, Scotland, Germany, and even France, the homeland he had been forced to leave. The impetus he gave to austerity, frugality, and hard, uncomplaining work may have had some influence in forming a capitalist mentality devoted to the acquisition but not the enjoyment of wealth. In any case his teachings have been carried to the present day and live on in the churches which descended from him, modified from their early severity by time but still vigorous in some of the more puritan aspects of modern life.

On May 27, 1564, after a long illness Calvin died. He left an indelible mark on the Christian world.

Further Reading

Calvin's clarity of expression makes him readily intelligible to the layman. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles and edited by John T. McNeill (2 vols., 1960), provides an excellent introduction to the man and his work. Of the many biographies in English, two of the best are Williston Walker, John Calvin (1906), and Georgia Harkness, John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics (1931). For a thorough treatment of Calvin's teachings see John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (1954).

There are many studies of the Reformation. Among those written from the Protestant viewpoint are James Mackinnon, Calvin and the Reformation (1936), and Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1952). Those with Catholic emphasis are Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation (1957; rev. ed. 1960); Henry Daniel-Rops, The Protestant Reformation (trans. 1961), which contains a large section on Calvin; and Christopher Dawson, The Dividing of Christendom (1965). See also Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500-1650 (1954; with rev. bibl. 1965), and Geoffrey R. Elton, Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 (1964). William J. Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin, 1300-1564 (1957), is a popular history of the period. □

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Calvin, John

Calvin, John



John Calvin (1509−1564), one of the major leaders of the Protestant Reformation, was born in Noyon, France, and died in Geneva. His work will be considered in this article only insofar as it has implications for the development of political theory.

Calvin’s undergraduate career at the University of Paris was followed by legal training at Orléans and Bourges and by a period of intensive study of classical authors under the royal lecturers at Paris. A religious struggle ended with his “sudden conversion,” early in 1534, which led him to become a biblical theologian. He published his Institutio religionis Christianae at Basel in 1536 and was thereafter identified with the Reformation in Geneva.

His first published treatise, a commentary on Seneca’s De clementia, revealed a mind familiar with ancient political thought, and his interest in politics was not diminished by his later devotion to theological studies. In all editions of the Institutio (1536) he included a more or less systematic treatment of civil government. His commentaries on the books of the Scriptures contained searching political passages, and his extensive correspondence is abundantly sprinkled with informed references to political events of his day and with characterizations of chiefs of state and their policies, especially as these related to the prospects of the Reformation.

Calvin raised political relationships and duties to a high level of importance by bringing them completely within the sphere of religious motivation. The dominion of kings and magistratus is “a holy thing,” and they should be obeyed as “vicars of God” unless they command what God forbids. He sought a mutuality of service and obligation sanctioned by religion: civil obedience is an expression of the Christian law of love, since it makes for the safety and peace of all, while magistrates, for their part, are “responsible to God and to men.” Government exists both to protect the church in its integrity and to promote the civil virtues and public peace. “In short, it provides that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians and that humanity be maintained among men” (Institutio, IV, xx, 3). The coercive power of rulers is to be exercised under God’s authority and with clemency. If they observe these two conditions, they may resort to war to save their people, and they may levy taxes, remembering always that their revenues are received in trust and are, as it were, the blood of the people.

The duty of obedience applies even when the ruler is not Christian. It is not affected by variation in the form of government. Anyone entrusted with a ruling function is to be revered and must act responsibly.

Calvin in 1536 impartially compared the forms of government described by classical writers, but in the 1543 edition of the Institutio he stated a decided preference for “aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy” (vel aristocratiam vel temperatum ex ipsa et politia statum aliis omnibus longe excellere—Institutio, IV, xx, 8). In 1559 he explained this preference by a further insertion: since kings lack the requisite justice and prudence, it is preferable that a number of people exercise power, so that they may help, teach, and admonish one another and together censure and restrain willful individuals (Institutio, IV, xx, 8). Thus the main motive for plural responsibility is not representation of all interests, but the opportunity for mutual criticism and the sharing of opinions.

Calvin inserted the “aristocracy–democracy” phrase at a time when he was also cooperating in the revision of the constitution of Geneva, whereby the four chief magistrates (syndics) were elected by vote of all citizens from a list of eight names presented by the Little Council. Membership in the Little Council was by co-optation with the approval of the Council of Two Hundred, a body that was also selected by the Little Council. Here we have aristocracy, although not of lineal descent, with an element of democracy. Calvin’s mind seems to have continued to move in the direction of democratic government. In 1560, writing on Micah 5:5, he noted that hereditary kingship seems out of accord with liberty and added that a well-ordered government is derived from a general vote of the people. In one of his sermons he observed that the choosing of judges and magistrates is not a formality or a ceremony, but a “holy thing” that should be done with reverence.

Most of what Calvin wrote on politics is marked by a deep respect for stable government and a cautious avoidance of any suggestion of resistance or revolution. Even under oppression the Christian is to submit and pray for deliverance. Calvin observed, however, that in the course of history God has sometimes raised up his agents to “break the bloody sceptres.” In this context he introduced a striking sentence on the high importance of constitutional guardians of the people’s liberty. As examples of populares magistrates he cited the Spartan ephors, Roman tribunes, and Athenian demarchs and suggested, apparently for the benefit of France, that perhaps the three estates in modern realms could serve the same purpose. He declared it “nefarious perfidy” for those so commissioned to fail to withstand wicked kings and thereby betray the people’s liberty, which they were bound by God’s ordinance to maintain. The “ephors” passage found its echo in the bolder stands of many later advocates of resistance to tyranny.

It would be easy to show that most of Calvin’s political ideas had found previous expression in classical and medieval writers. Yet a certain originality is discernible in him. This is partly due to the informed clarity of his judgments, partly to the fact that he wrote from a Protestant position. He had the advantage of being fully equipped with the language skills of the Renaissance, which permitted him to use with sharpened effectiveness both the classical treatises on the state and the appropriate passages of Scripture. As a Protestant who had repudiated the papacy and dismissed all the claims to divinely bestowed supernational authority made on its behalf, he assumed the autonomous civil community or national state as the environing framework within which the citizen functions politically. There is thus a sense in which his teaching was prophetic of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, by which the papacy was thrust out of any determining role in international affairs. At the same time his thought ran wholly counter to the influence of Machiavelli’s Prince, a work in which the sanctity of the ruler’s office, as seen in both the classical and the Christian traditions, was frankly cast aside. Calvin would have said, “This nation under God,” but never, “My country right or wrong.” His ideal was that of a church-associated political community in which interaction between church and state would be fruitful for the common good.

Many elusive factors would be involved in any attempt to estimate Calvin’s influence on later political thought and action. Writers who made use of his ideas invariably drew also from other sources. Writers influenced by him would certainly include not only such contemporaries and successors as John Ponet, François Hotman, Philippe de Mornay, and Hugo Grotius but also, nearer to the American Revolution, John Locke, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, and to a lesser degree, Jean Jacques Rousseau. It will be remembered that John Witherspoon, the one clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, was theologically a strong Calvinist and politically a disciple of Locke and that the secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson, praised by John Adams as “the life of the cause of liberty,” was a Presbyterian minister of similar views. We may easily exaggerate Calvin’s affinity with modern exponents of representative government, but that he gave some impetus to its development is undeniable.

John T. McNeill

[For the historical context of Calvin’s work, seeChristianity. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeProtestant political thoughtand the biographies ofGrotiusandLocke.]


(1536) 1960 Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vols. Edited by John T. McNeill. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. → First published as Institutio religionis Christianae.

(1863–1900) 1964 ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia. 59 vols. Edited by Johann W. Baum, August Eduard Cunitz, Eduard W. E. Reuss. Corpus Reformatorum, Vols. 29−87. New York: Johnson Reprints.

1926−1959 Joannis Calvini opera selecta. 5 vols. Edited by Petrus Barth. Munich: Kayser. → Volume 1: Scripta Calvini ab anno 1533 usque ad annum 1541 continens, 1926. Volume 2: Tractatus theologicos minores ab anno 1542 usque ad annum 1564 editos continens, 1952. Volume 3: Institutionis Christianae religionis 1559 libros I et II, 1957. Volume 4: Institutionis Christianae religionis 1559 librum III continens, 1959. Volume 5: Institutionis Christianae religionis 1559 librum IV continens, 1936.

(1950) 1956 John Calvin on God and Political Duty. Edited with an introduction by John T. McNeill. 2d ed. New York: Liberal Arts Press. → Selections from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion; Commentaries on Romans; and Commentaries on Daniel.


Carlyle, Robert W.; and Carlyle, Alexander J. (1903−1936) 1950 A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West. 6 vols. Edinburgh and London: Blackwood; New York: Barnes & Noble.

CheneviÈre, Marc É. 1937 La pensée politique de Calvin. Paris: Éditions “Je sers.”

Harvey, Ray F. 1937 Jean Jacques Burlamaqui: A Liberal Tradition in American Constitutionalism. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Hunt, George L.; and Mcneill, John T. (editors) 1965 Calvinism and Political Order: Essays Prepared for the Woodrow Wilson Lectureship of the National Presbyterian Center, Washington, D.C. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

McNeill, John T. 1964 John Calvin on Civil Government. Journal of Presbyterian History 42:71−91.

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Calvin, John

John Calvin

Born: July 10, 1509
Noyon, Picardy, France
Died: May 27, 1564
Geneva, Switzerland

French religious leader and reformer

The French religious reformer John Calvin created a strict version of Protestantism, which originally arose in opposition to the Catholic Church. He is known for his belief in predestination (meaning God has already chosen who will and will not be saved) and his view of the state as enforcer of church laws.

Early life

John Calvin was born at Noyon in Picardy, France, on July 10, 1509. He was the second son of Gérard Cauvin, who was secretary to the bishop of Noyon. It was decided early in his life that Calvin would serve the Catholic Church, and at the age of twelve he became a chaplain at the Cathedral of Noyon. In August 1523 he went to Paris, France, and entered the Collège de la Marche at the University of Paris, where he soon became skilled in Latin. He then attended the Collège de Montaigu until 1528. Then, at the suggestion of his father, he moved to Orléans, France, to study law.

In 1531 Calvin returned to Paris with his law degree. At this time Protestant opposition to the church was growing. The ideas of Martin Luther (14831546) concerning the saving of one's soul by faith alone were becoming popular in the city, and Calvin became involved in the movement for church reform. In January 1534 he fled Paris during a crackdown on Protestants and went to Angoulême, France, where he began writing down a full description of his beliefs. After several trips back to Paris he finally settled in Basel, Switzerland.

Calvin's ideas

In 1536 Calvin expressed his new beliefs in the most famous book on Protestantism ever, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he continued to work on until his death. The book's theme is the majesty of God and the worthlessness of man. God has predestined (decided in advance) who will be granted eternal glory or suffer eternal damnation, and man can do nothing to change this decision. Calvin was not the creator of this idea, but no one ever expressed it more clearly.

Calvin also advised people to pray, saying men must worship even though they may have no chance to be saved. The prayer should be simple, and all fancy ceremony should be rejected. Calvin said that Christ is present whenever believers gather in prayer, and that priests have no special powers. He also stated that there was no separation of Church and state; both must work together to preserve the word of God, and the state was allowed to use force if necessary against those engaging in false teachings.

Geneva reformer

After returning briefly to France in 1536, Calvin left his homeland permanently. Traveling through Geneva, Switzerland, he met Guillaume Farel, a Protestant who asked him to stick around. In 1537 the city fathers in Geneva elected Calvin to the preaching office. A council operating as the government soon banned Catholicism and all immoral behavior. In 1538 a combination of Libertines (freedom lovers) and Catholics, opposed to the new rules, took control of the council. Calvin was banished and went to Strasbourg, France, where he married Idelette de Bure in 1540. Their only child died in infancy. Things went badly in Geneva after Calvin left. Disgusted with the behavior of the people, the council asked Calvin to return in 1541, promising total cooperation in restoring order.

Back in Geneva, Calvin went right to work organizing the Reformed church. In 1542 the council approved his new regulations. The ministry was divided into pastors, teachers, lay (nonreligious) elders, and deacons. The pastors governed the Church, and their permission was required to preach in Geneva. To control public behavior, an elected group of pastors and elders were given the right to search people's homes; to banish anyone from the city; to force attendance at weekly sermons; and to ban gambling, drinking, dancing, and immodest dress. Criticism of Calvin or other church officials was forbidden, as were immoral writings and books about Catholicism. Punishment for first offenses was usually a fine. Repeat offenders were banished, and extreme offenses carried the death penalty. From 1541 until Calvin's death fifty-eight people were executed and seventy-six were banished in order to preserve morals and order.

Last years

Calvin's last years were spent criticizing his enemies and updating Geneva's laws and the Institutes. Geneva became a model of order and cleanliness and was admired by visitors. Men trained by Calvin carried his ideas all over Europe. He lived to see his following grow in the Netherlands, Scotland, Germany, and even France. On May 27, 1564, Calvin died after a long illness, having left a huge mark on the Christian world.

For More Information

Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Cottret, Bernard. Calvin: A Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2000.

Wellman, Sam. John Calvin: Father of Reformed Theology. Ulrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2001.

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Calvin, John (1509–1564)

Calvin, John (15091564)

Protestant theologian and founder of Calvinism, a religious movement that had farreaching effects on European thought and culture. Born Jean Cauvin in Noyon, a town in the Picardy region of northern France, Calvin was the precocious son of a lawyer who began studies at the University of Paris at the age of fourteen. He studied law, theology, as well as ancient languages, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. After earning a doctorate, he moved to Geneva, in what is now the French-speaking region of Switzerland. Around 1533 Calvin rebelled against the Catholic hierarchy and took up the cause of the German Protestants. He attempted to have the city fathers adopt a new religious creed to be sworn to by all citizens of Geneva. Expelled from the city for his religious activism, he moved to Strasbourg, Germany, where he became a preacher in a Huguenot (French Protestant) church. In 1541, after several of his followers won election to the city council of Geneva, he was invited to return to the city, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Calvin believed in a direct interpretation of scripture, without any human commentators shaping the experience for the faithful. He believed in subordinating civic government to religious authorities, and in reforming the church through his own interpretation of the will of God. His work Institutes of the Christian Religion had a far-reaching effect on the Christian church in Europe. First published in 1536, the Institutes explained basic Protestant doctrines, such as the rejection of the authority of the pope and the doctrine of justification by faith, which was first put forth by Martin Luther, former Catholic monk and founder of the Protestant Reformation.

Calvin believed in only two of the traditional Catholic sacraments: baptism and Holy Communion; he disagreed with Martin Luther in not believing in the physical presence of Christ in the offering of bread and wine, a strictly Catholic belief. The Holy Spirit, in Calvinist doctrine, could only be apprehended through the spirit, and never through the senses; there was no place in a Calvinist church for graven images or human saints.

Calvin also advanced the notion of predestination: the idea that the fate of the soul is determined before birth, and that worldly actions, no matter how pious or virtuous, can do nothing to change it. The world was made up of the visible church and the invisible church, which included those select individuals who were chosen by God to follow the righteous path to salvation and paradise. The visible church was made up of the elect on earth, who owed their first loyalty to their religion and who lay above and beyond the control of secular authorities.

Calvin believed that religious doctrine should govern secular life. In 1559 he founded the Academy of Geneva, to educate the young in worldly subjects with a strong grounding in faith. Seeking to create an ideal Christian community, he also employed a body known as the Consistory of Geneva as the city's religious court and enforcer of correct doctrine and observance. The consistory prohibited frivolous entertainmentsdancing, gambling, and card-playingas well as Catholic worship; under Calvin, the consistory also had the right to excommunicate participants, which had once belonged to the civil authorities. Calvin established four officers of his reformed theocratic government: ministers to preach and administer the sacraments; doctors to teach the citizens and train ministers; elders who would enforce strict regulations on morals and public behavior; and deacons, who oversaw the charitable institutions such as hospitals and poorhouses.

In Geneva Calvin preached the virtues of thrift, sobriety, and industry. He embraced the economic changes sweeping across Renaissance Europe, where a medieval agrarian society was giving way to an early industrial age in which trade and money took precedence. In the meantime, opponents of Calvinist thought in Geneva were harshly suppressed. Libertine and atheist Jacques Gruet, who publicly berated Calvin and satirized him in verse, was arrested, tortured, and executed for heresy. The consistory also tortured and executed suspected witches. Calvin's most notable victim was Michael Servetus, a Spanish Anabaptist who had sworn enemies among Catholic and Protestant leaders. When Servetus was recognized in Geneva attending one of Calvin's sermons, he was arrested. With Calvin's support and approval, the council of Geneva tried him for heresy and had him burned at the stake.

Calvin's church gradually spread into northern Europe through a network of preachers, many of them French Huguenots, whom he had trained and guided in Geneva. His ultimate legacy was a harsh and unyielding Puritan outlook that guided its followers in their public and private behavior, and also brought many of its followers into open conflict with the authorities who governed them.

See Also: Luther, Martin; Zwingli, Huldrych

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Calvin, John

John Calvin, 1509–64, French Protestant theologian of the Reformation, b. Noyon, Picardy.

Early Life

Calvin early prepared for an ecclesiastical career; from 1523 to 1528 he studied in Paris. His opinions gradually turned to disagreement with the Roman position, and a demonstrated ability at disputation led him in 1528, at his father's instance, to study law at Orléans and Bourges. After his father's death in 1531 he returned to Paris, where he pursued his own predilection, the study of the classics and Hebrew. He came under the humanist influence and became interested in the growing rebellion against conservative theology. He experienced c.1533 what he later described as a "sudden conversion," and he turned all his attention to the cause of the Reformation.

Protestant Reformer

Institutes of the Christian Religion

As a persecuted Protestant, Calvin found it necessary to travel from place to place, and at Angoulême in 1534 he began the work of systematizing Protestant thought in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, considered one of the most influential theological works of all time. Completed at Basel in 1536 and later frequently revised and supplemented, the original work contained the basic Calvinist theology. In the Institutes Calvin diverged from Catholic doctrine in the rejection of papal authority and in acceptance of justification by faith alone, but many of his other positions, including the fundamental doctrine of predestination, had been foreshadowed by Catholic reformers and by the Protestant thought of Martin Luther and Martin Bucer.

Work in Geneva

In 1536, Calvin was persuaded by Guillaume Farel to devote himself to the work of the Reformation at Geneva, and there Calvin instituted the most thoroughgoing development of his doctrine. At first the Genevans were unable to accept the austere reforms and departures from established church customs, and in 1538 the opposition succeeded in banishing Farel and Calvin from the city. Calvin went to Basel and then to Strasbourg, where he spent three fruitful years preaching and writing.

By 1541 the Genevans welcomed Calvin, and he immediately set himself to the task of constructing a government based on the subordination of the state to the church. Once the Bible is accepted as the sole source of God's law, the duty of humans is to interpret it and preserve the orderly world that God has ordained. This goal Calvin set out to achieve through the establishment of ecclesiastical discipline, in which the magistrates had the task of enforcing the religious teachings of the church as set forth by the synod. The Genevan laws and constitution were recodified; regulation of conduct was extended to all areas of life. Ecclesiastical discipline was supplemented by a systematized theology, with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper given to unite believers in the fellowship of Jesus.

Involvement in Controversies

Calvin wrote extensively on all theological and practical matters. He was involved in many controversies. Among them were his violent opposition to the Anabaptists; his disagreement with the Lutherans over the Lord's Supper, which resulted in the separation of the Evangelical Church into Lutheran and Reformed; and his condemnation of the anti-Trinitarian views of Michael Servetus, which ended in the notorious trial and burning of Servetus in 1553.

Importance of Calvinism

The extension of Calvinism to all spheres of human activity was extremely important to a world emerging from an agrarian, medieval economy into a commercial, industrial era. Unlike Luther, who desired a return to primitive simplicity, Calvin accepted the newborn capitalism and encouraged trade and production, at the same time opposing the abuses of exploitation and self-indulgence. Industrialization was stimulated by the concepts of thrift, industry, sobriety, and responsibility that Calvin preached as essential to the achievement of the reign of God on earth. The influence of Calvinism spread throughout the entire Western world, realizing its purest forms through the work of John Knox in Scotland and through the clergymen and laymen of the civil war period in England and the Puritan moralists in New England.


See selections from his writings, ed. by J. Dillenberger (1971); Q. Breen, John Calvin (1931, repr. 1968); G. Harkness, John Calvin (1931); W. C. Northcott, John Calvin (1946); A. T. Davies, John Calvin and the Influence of Protestantism on National Life and Character (1946); A. M. Schmidt, John Calvin and the Calvinist Tradition (tr. 1960); K. McDonnell, John Calvin, the Church, and the Eucharist (1967); W. J. Bouwsma, John Calvin (1989).

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Calvin, John (1509-1564)

John Calvin (1509-1564)



Early Life. John Calvin was one of the primary reformers and theologians of the Protestant Reformation. Born in 1509 in Noyon, France, the son of a notary, attorney for the Church, and secretary for the local bishop, John Calvin was destined for a life in religious service. Noyon was the site of a cathedral and thus had a rich episcopal history. Calvin spent his first university years in Paris, supported by the generosity of the bishop of Noyon. His intellectual life was cultivated by spending time with the large circle of scholars at the court of King Francis I. He was studying for the priesthood until his father argued with the local bishop and sent his son to study law in Orleans. After earning his doctor of laws degree in 1531, Calvin went to Paris to study politics and theology. His humanistic studies led him to look carefully at the Church, and soon after, he joined a reformed religious party. His attitudes toward the Church were also affected by the fact that he could not secure Christian burial for his father, who had been excommunicated upon his death in 1531.

Conversion. Calvin published his first book in 1532, a commentary on Senecas On Clemency. The next year, after helping his friend Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, compose an address which included Lutheran Reformation ideas, the two had to flee Paris, and the Church instituted heresy proceedings against him. It was perhaps after this that Calvin experienced his conversion to scripture-based religion; the event sent Calvin into exile and a life of supporting Reformation ideals.

Geneva. The year 1536 witnessed two important events in Calvins life: he published his most significant work and was persuaded to go to Geneva, Switzerland, to reform religion there. The Institutes of the Christian Religion forms the principal source for Calvins thought; it is also a manual on spirituality. Calvin accepted Luthers idea that salvation is by grace alone, through faith. At the core of Calvins thinking was predestinationthe idea that God had long ago determined who would be saved and who would be damnedand that humans were dependent on God for knowledge and faith. In Geneva, where Calvin would remain for the rest of his life (except for three years, when the political climate became less amenable for Protestants and he returned to Strasbourg in France), he transformed the city regarded for its ill repute into one in which a strict moral code prevailed, regulating the lives of everyone, regardless of rank or class. Geneva thus became the model Protestant city, and the University of Geneva was a training ground for Calvinism. Calvin lived out his life developing and refining his ideas on church government. He published the Ecclesiastical Ordinances in 1541, which set forth the organization of churches. In his system he placed authority in the laity, assuring that even if a minister left or the church leaders were persecuted (a real fear), the church would continue, as it had leadership in place. When Calvin died in 1564, he left followers in Switzerland and throughout Europe to ensure the survival of his theological system.


William Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988);

Michael A. Mullett, Calvin (New York: Routledge, 1989).

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Calvin, John

Calvin, John (1509–64). Christian reformer and theologian. Under Protestant influence in Paris, he experienced a decisive change in religious outlook. Under the threat of persecution, he was forced to leave Paris and spent about three unsettled years travelling between Europe's main cities. During this period he wrote his Psychopannychia (1534) and the 1st edn. (1536) of his finest work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Passing through Geneva, a city which had already committed itself to reform, Calvin was persuaded to settle there by the reforming preacher, Guillaume Farel. Calvin was soon appointed a preacher and pastor, but the measures he and others proposed for church reform were such that Calvin and Farel were forced to flee. In exile in Strasbourg, Calvin ministered to a French refugee congregation and developed a close friendship with Martin Bucer, whose influence is evident in the next edn. of the Institutes, translated into French in 1541. In Feb. 1541 Calvin was invited to return to Geneva where he remained until he died. The reform of the Genevan church was accomplished in large part through the Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541). He died at the age of 55, one of the most influential figures of the Western world.

At the heart of the Christian life lies ‘union with Christ’, an utterly unmerited relationship effected through the Holy Spirit. Calvin maintained a lifelong commitment to the Bible's importance for reforming every aspect of Christian faith and life, and the primary purpose of the Bible was to focus attention on Jesus Christ. See CALVINISM.

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Calvin, John

Calvin, John (1509–64) French theologian of the Reformation. He prepared for a career in the Roman Catholic Church but turned to the study of classics. In c.1533 he became a Protestant and began work on his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this work he presented the basics of what came to be known as Calvinism. To avoid persecution, he went to live in Geneva, Switzerland (1536), where he advanced the Reformation.

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