July 10th marked the 500 anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. If you are wondering who John Calvin is and what is significant about his life, here is a short biography.
Calvin, John (1509–1564). French reformer and founder of Calvinism. Educated at the College de Montague, Calvin became a Protestant while still a student. By the 1530s he was caught up in the Reformation movement. He was forced to leave Paris along with his friend, Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, because of their attack on the church and a call for Lutheran reform. For the next three years he was on the run, but he used his literary talents during this time on behalf of the Protestant cause. In 1534 Olivetan’s French translation of the Bible appeared with a preface by Calvin. In 1535 he fled to Basel, where he published one of his most important works, Christianae Religionis Institututio (1536), a short summary of the Christian faith and an able exposition of Reformers’ doctrines.
On passing through Geneva, Calvin was persuaded by Guillaume Farel to assist in organizing the Reformation in that city. The articles they drew up organizing worship met with considerable opposition because they imposed ecclesiastical discipline and used excommunication as an instrument of social policy. Forced to leave the city, Calvin spent the next three years at the invitation of Martin Bucer as pastor to the French congregation at Strasbourg. Here he expanded the Institutes, wrote a Commentary on Romans (1539), and took part in the colloquies with Lutherans and Roman Catholics at Worms and Regensburg. In 1541 he returned to Geneva at the invitation of the city council. His ecclesiastical ordinances for establishing a Christian social and political order were approved by the city council. They established four ministries within the church—pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons—introduced vernacular catechisms and liturgy, and set up a consistory of 12 elders to enforce morality. His goal was to make Geneva a “holy city,” a Christian commonwealth in practice as well as doctrine.
In 1559 Calvin established the Genevan Academy for the training of his followers. Although there was constant opposition from the pleasure-loving Genevans against Calvin’s measures, he was not deterred from his mission. At the same time, Calvin helped to make the civil laws more humane, established a universal system of education for the young, and promoted the public care of the old, the poor, and the infirm. Geneva gained a reputation as a haven for all persecuted Protestants who flocked in from many countries. From Geneva they returned home as missionaries for the propagation of Calvinist ideas and reforms. Thus the name of Calvin was scattered all over Europe, and he became one of the dominant figures of the Reformation in the mid 1600s. Meanwhile, Calvin was busy producing commentaries on 23 books of the Old Testament and on all books of the New Testament except the Revelation in addition to pamphlets and collections of sermons. By 1559 the Institutes had been revised five times and expanded from a book of six chapters into four books with a total of 79 chapters. It was also translated from Latin into French, and its French edition became a literary classic.
Calvin left a legacy that transcended theology. Calvinism was a complex set of ideas whose ramifications extended into society, politics, and economics as well as theology. He was a warm and humane person fully committed to the Word of God in everything he did. As a religious statesman, a logical and seminal thinker, a formidable controversialist, and a biblical exegete, he had few peers in his generation or in the centuries since.
George Thomas Kurian, Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary: The Authoritative Resource on the Christian World (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Pubs., 2001).
Answer by: Joseph R. Nally, Theological Editor, on behalf of the staff at IIIM.