THE name of John Calvin has become a household word in
history, both in the mouths of friends and foes; not merely or even chiefly,
like those of Luther, Zwingli, Knox, and others of the same illustrious band of
Reformers, as representing the principles of the Reformation, but in connection
with certain particular views of theology and church poliy, with which it has
become inseparably associated. The Genevan Reformer has come to be generally
contemplated simply as the theological heir of Augustine and teacher of the
divines of Dort and Westminster, rather than as being also the friend of
Melanchthon, the peacemaker of the Swiss churches, and the adviser of Edward
vi. and the English Reformers. Yet, while both aspects have their warrant, the
latter is perhaps the more characteristic and truly historical. For it is
remarkable, that those ideas of doctrine and church life that are most readily
suggested to a modern ear by the term Calvinistie, are those in which Calvin
did not differ from the other Reformers, and so do not indicate the most
distinctive features of the man and of his work. That his name has been so
largely associated with what was really common to nearly all the Reformers, is
an unconscious tribute paid by after ages to the greatness of the man, even
among a group of such great men as the Reformers of the sixteenth century must
be acknowledged to be; and is due partly to the intellectual ability with which
he acted as the expounder and defender of these common principles, mid partly
to the thorough-going consistency with which he carried them out in a positive
and practical form.
Calvin was indeed a plentiful contributor to the theological thought of the Church. His writings abound in original ideas that have proved suggestive and fruitful in subsequent developments of doctrine. Thus, for example, his doctrine of the testimony of the Holy Spirit gave form and coherence to a view of the evidences of Christianity, that has been felt by many to be the most profound and satisfactory. His view of the atonement forms an important link in the working out of a comprehensive exhibition of that doctrine: his doctrine of the Lord's Supper is as original as it is profound; and the use that he makes in his theology of the notions of the adoption of believers, and the kingdom of God, affords hints and anticipations of recent investigations; while his exegesis of Scripture was greatly in advance of anything that had been done before, and led tbe way on the true path of grammatical and historical interpretation.
But great as these achievements are, if asked to say in brief what was the peculiar service that Calvin did for evangelical religion, I would not mention any of these, but rather say that it consisted in this, that he gave a positive form in doctrine and in practical Church life to that vivid sense of the grace of God in Christ that is the evangelical element in Christianity. The special work of the first Reformers, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and the others, was to free the doctrines of grace from the corruptions and misconceptions with which they had been wellnigh choked in the middle ages, and so to bring them out in a purity in which they had not been seen since the days of Paul. This was a service to the cause of true religion, the importance and benefit ofwhieh can hardly be exaggerated; and it required a force of mind, and conscience, and resolution, such as few have ever possessed. But this work from its nature was mainly negative, consisting in the rejection of long prevailing errors, and the protest against the superstition, sacerdotalism, and legalism that had come to reign in the Church, and choke its spiritual life.
To the first line of Reformers, who did that mighty work, Calvin did not belong: he was but a boy when Luther nailed his Theses to the church-door at Wittenberg, and Zwingli in Zurich denounced the paganising corruptions of the popular religion. But he was near enough in time to the first Reformers, to follow up their special work by a service almost as important to the common cause. When in the prime of his youth he was led to embrace the purer evangelical faith, it might still be regarded as an open question, whether the Reformation was to be a merely negative movement, a protest against ecclesiastical traditionalism and tyranny, or the positive beginning of a new and purer doctrine and life for the Church. On the former view, the rationalism of the Socini, and the licence of the Anabaptists and Libertines, might be regarded as having an equally legitimate place in the Protestant camp with the reverent and conservative faith of Luther: and this view of the matter, though the healthy instincts of the German Reformers recoiled from it with almost too great energy, was still that of the Roman Church, and one against which there was no permanent and practical security.
Such a security the life-work of Calvin provided. On the one hand, by his theological labours, he gave not merely an exposition and defence of the special doctrines of Protestantism, but a complete and all-round exhibition of the organic system of Christian doctrine, such as Protestant principles made possible; and on the other hand, by his practical organisation and guidance of the Church of Geneva, and his firm maintenance of its independent discipline against all opposition, he gave to the Protestantism of Western Europe an ecclesiastical constitution that enabled it to survive the shocks of the Catholic reaction in the generation that followed. In a word, he organised in a positive form the doctrine and discipline of the Reformed Church. What was peculiar to him was, not the substance of that doctrine and discipline, -they were anticipated or approved by all the Reformers; but that he put that doctrine in a complete organic system, and made that discipline not a mere paper theory, but a practical reality.
This comprehensive grasp of truth and strict moral discipline have given to the Reformed Churches much of their power and durability; and these things they owe under God, as far as we can see, to the spiritual wisdom, moral courage, and indomitable perseverance of John Calvin.
Let us see in what way he was prepared and led on to this great work. Born at Noyon in Picardy, 10th July 1509, John Calvin was trained by a somewhat severe father to habits of strict morality; and from a mother remarkable for her piety he imbibed a strong attachment to religion in the only form in which he then knew it. His father, though of humble origin and moderate means, held offices in the ecclesiastical courts, which brought him into connection with men of higher position, and enabled him to procure for his son an education equal to the best then possible. He destined him at first for the clerical profession, and secured for him, and for his other two sons, of whom John was the second, benefices even in their minority. John Calvin entered the University of Paris at the age of fourteen, just when the new learning was beginning to be cultivated there under the patronage of Francis I., and into this he threw himself with hearty enthusiasm, much regretting to be drawn away in the course of his study from the Latin classics to scholastic philosophy.
In 1527, at his father's direction, he exchanged the study of theology for that of law, and proceeded to Orleans to hear Pierre l'Etoile, the most distinguished professor of that faculty. In this study too he made great proficiency. He pursued it further at Bourges, and here he also acquired the Greek language. After his father's death in 1531, young Calvin returned to Paris, and here, in the following year, he made his first literary venture by the publication of a commentary on Seneca's treatise de Clernentict, apparently with no other design than simply to gain a name and position in the literary world. Soon after this probably came the decisive change in his religious views which led him to resign his brilliant prospects, and cast in his lot with the persecuted Huguenots.
Up to this time, his main interest seems to have been in study and literature. His letters in that period arc those of an intelligent and active-minded student to his fellows, and he pursued with enthusiasm those new and liberal studies that were regarded with suspicion and dislike by the rigid Roman Catholics. But though the teaching of Luther had by this time made its way into France, and there had been some memorable trials and executions for so-called heresy during Calvin's student days, we find no reference to these matters in his letters. Though the old form of religion had a strong hold on him, it does not seem to have given any real satisfaction to his soul, and he himself ascribes the change in his course of life to a sudden conversion by divine grace, through which he came to feel in the truths of religion the same keen interest that hitherto only his literary studies had excited in his mind. His cousin, Robert Olivetan, the earliest translator of the Bible into French, had recommended to him the study of Scripture, and it seems to have been when this touched his conscience, and brought him to a sense of sin, that he saw the truth and preciousness of the evangelical teaching of a free forgiveness to be received by faith alone. Thus he was not like Luther, who for long after he was awakened to spiritual life had to struggle and grope his way through darkness and confusion to light and peace. To Calvin the Reformation doctrine probably was or might have been known before he was prepared to accept it; but it seemed foolishness to him, until he was aroused to more serious thought and interest in personal religion.
After his conversion he continued as before to be a diligent and enthusiastic student, and did not entirely give up his classical studies, though he now gave himself most earnestly to the work of making progress in the knowledge of religion and Scripture. He very soon became known to the adherents of the Reformed religion in Paris, and was sought after for instruction and exhortation in private and in their assemblies for worship. But he was in no haste to come forward in public, or take up the function of a teacher. He sought retirement to prosecute his studies; as he felt both that he himself needed a fuller acquaintance with the truths of the gospel, and that solid Scripture teaching was most urgently wanted by the rising Protestant congregations in France. He was not selfishly indulging the bent of his own mind, but cultivating the talents God had given him, so as to make them most useful for the common spiritual good of the people of God; and the result proved that he was able to render far more important service to the cause of the Reformed Church, by his quiet prosecution of his biblical and theological studies, than he could have done had he hastily come forward to a public position.
Whatever may have been his aim in life before his conversion, from that time onwards he was devoted heart and soul to the service of religion, as he had now come to understand and feel its power. But the service that he desired to render was in the first place that of a student; and accordingly we find him for some time seeking nothing so much as peace and quiet to pursue his studies. Obliged to leave Paris in 1533 for his share in the bold evangelical discourse delivered by his friend Cop as rector of the University, he found shelter at Angoulême, and in various other places, for short periods, until he found it necessary to forsake his native land entirely, and take refuge in Germany. All the while he was meditating and preparing a sketch of the doctrines of Christianity, for the use of his countrymen, of whom he saw that many hungered and thirsted for Christ, though few had any true knowledge of Him. This was the germ of his great doctrinal work, the Institution (i.e. Instruction) of the Christian religion. It had however another and still more practical purpose. The severeties that Francis I. and the Papal party in France were exercising against the Huguenots naturally called forth remonstrances from the Protestant princes of Germany; and as the king desired to be on good terms with them, he sought to silence these remonstrances, by representing that the objects of the persecution were not mere dissenters from the Church of Rome, but fanatics like the Anabaptists, whose views were subversive of all social order and morality. Indignant at such calumnies, and fearing that they would turn aside all sympathy and help from his persecuted brethren, Calvin combined with his design of instructing them in Christian truth that of vindicating them, by giving to the world a true account of what they believed. Accordingly he prefixed to the Institution a noble Dedication to the King of France, in which in a strain of the utmost respect, but of manly Christian independence, he entreats him not to believe the calumnies of their enemies, but to inquire impartially into the matter for himself and replies to the chief objections made by the Papists against the Reformed religion. Thus this great theological treatise had in two ways a very practical motive and purpose.
If in his first publication Calvin had aimed at literary distinction, it was not so now: his great desire was to have peaceful opportunity of prosecuting his studies in private, feeling himself still inadequately prepared for the work of a public teacher of religion. Accordingly he left Basel immediately after the publication of the Institution, and betook himself to the life of a wandering scholar, visiting the court of the French princess Renée of Ferrara, which, however, he was very soon obliged to leave. In the course of his journeys he was led in the autumn of 1536 to Geneva, intending only to stay a night there on his way to Strasburg. It was a critical period in the history of that city. A few years before, it had, after long struggles, gained its independence of the Duke of Savoy; and the last bishop, a creature of the Duke's, had ignominiously taken his departure. Previously the city had been sunk in gross ignorance and superstition; the clergy possessed neither enlightenment nor earnestness, and the morality of the people was low. But through their alliance with the Protestant canton of Berne in their political struggles, the Reformed religion had come to their knowledge. Shortly afterwards William Farel, a French exile like Calvin, who had evangelised nearly all French Switzerland, came to Geneva full of fiery zeal for religion, and after much opposition and suffering had so far succeeded in gaining over the citizens, that in May 1536, the great council, composed of all the burgesses, had solemnly resolved to live according to the evangelical doctrine preached by Farel and his associates, who were now declared ministers of Geneva.
But the new church was barely organised, and was still exposed to many dangers, when Farel, hearing of the presence of Calvin, came to his lodging, and solemnly called him in the name of God to remain and take part with him in the work of the ministry. This summons to a work entirely different from all his wishes and plans Calvin at first tried to put away; and his unwillingness was only overcome by the awful voice of Farcl, like one of the old prophets, denouncing God's curse on his beloved studies, if he made these a pretext for refusing to join him in the work of the Lord. Thus unexpectedly and unwillingly Calvin was drawn from the quiet life of a student to a career of great public activity and many bitter conflicts.
Once settled at Geneva Calvin's great aim was that it should be a Christian city, not in name only, but in reality; and with all his natural inclination to quiet and study, he gave himself most energetically to the rough practical work required for this. He was not one who cared only for sound doctrine; his zeal was at least equally if not more intense for holy living. The kingdom of God was a phrase often on his lips, as expressing the object he worked for; and by it he understood the observance of the law of God and the doing of His will in the practical conduct of life. To this end he held that both Church and State ought to co-operate, each acting independently, and using its own powers, the Church employing instruction in God's word, admonition, and discipline to the extent of excommunication; and the State seconding those efforts, and dealing by pains and penalties with those who proved incorrigible by ecclesiastical censures. His system differed from that of Rome, in allowing independent power and judgment to the State, and not requiring it simply to execute the behests of the Church: but it assumed that the State was authorised to use its power to promote religion, and to suppress vice and irreligion as well as crime. This was the fatal error of the scheme; but it was the error of the age: it was embodied in the laws of Geneva before Calvin came there; and the attacks of his opponents, in the long and bitter conflict that ensued, were directed not against this, the really vulnerable point of the administration, but against a part of it that is thoroughly scriptural, and essential to the liberty of the Church, the right of admitting or excluding applicants from the Lord's table.
The conflict was inevitable by reason of the turbulent and licentious character of the Genevese, and the absence of all moral restraint under the Papal rule. Before ever Calvin's coming was thought of, Bonnivard, the prior of St. Victor, had warned them when they were accepting the Reformed religion that they would not be able to endure its moral strictness; and his words were justified by the event. This local cause of opposition was combined with another, which was more widely spread in its operation. There were in that age of great religious and intellectual awakening many who pushed the principle of freedom asserted in the Reformation to an extreme. They called themselves Spiritual, but held views of doctrine and practice widely varying from those of the Reformers, by whom they were designated Libertines. Their philosophy was of a pantheistic kind, holding one divine spirit to exist in all things : they made light of the historical facts of Christianity; and they asserted an unbridled liberty for Christians to follow their own impulses. This form of opinion seems to have originated in the Netherlands, and thence it spread into France and other lands. It naturally proved attractive to those who found the moral strictness of the discipline that Calvin established at Geneva a galling yoke; and on the other hand, a republic jealous of its newly gained liberty seemed a favourable place for it to take root. Servetus was one of the exponents of this system, and among Calvin's opponents at Geneva there were some who adopted it; though many just strove for freedom from what they thought too rigid a constraint.
In 1538 the opposition to the discipline of the Church drove Calvin and his colleagues into exile: and on his recall in 1541, which was made necessary by the disastrous consequences of the rule of his opponents, though the ordinances that he proposed were accepted, and for a time observed, fresh and more violent resistance ere long broke out, which led to the most tragical events, and was only overcome by the indomitable firmness, perseverance, and courage of Calvin. No doubt these ordinances would now be thought, even by religious people, intolerably strict, and their penalties rigorous and cruel: but they must be judged by the time. Sumptuary laws were then universally approved, and were as strict in England and France as in Geneva; and the British penal code, little more than sixty years ago, was even more sanguinary than that of Geneva. In such matters Calvin was not in advance of his age; and did certainly try to constrain men by force to be moral and religious. Under this head comes the tragedy of Servetus, which it is not necessary either to narrate or to discuss. Though it was approved by all the Churches then, all are now agreed that it was a grievous crime; not the less deplorable because it was done and approved by men who thought they were doing God service. Neither in this nor in his general conflict with the Libertines, with which it was closely connected, does Calvin appear to have been animated by personal feeling: he strove for the maintenance of a discipline that he held to be essential to the preservation of religion; and he succeeded in transforming a frivolous, factious, and reckless people, whose internal disorders and feuds exposed them to continual danger of foreign aggression, into an orderly, sober, and peaceful community, able to maintain its independence for centuries. And though in many respects he was not before his age, in some things, that one would hardly expect, he was more enlightened. Not only did he strenuously promote education, secular and religious, and revive the University of Geneva, as a nursery of learning and science; but in order to check the evils of pauperism he took steps to introduce the silk manufacture in the city, and thus laid the foundation of its industrial prosperity; and after the visitation of the plague, he instituted a sanitary system, that greatly promoted the health of the inhabitants.
But none of these things was Calvin's main object: that was the moral and religious reformation of the people; and in that, after many struggles, on the whole he succeeded. He succeeded not because he had force on his side, hut because he was willing to bear anything, a second banishment or death itself, rather than he false to his convictions. The turning-point of the long conflict was the moral victory of Calvin, September 3d, 1553, when, though the Libertines had all the power of the State on their side, he calmly and solemnly refused to give the sacrament to those who had been excluded by the Church. For this he fully expected to be again exiled; but experience had shown how dangerous to the State it was to cast off entirely the discipline of the Reformed religion : and since Calvin would not yield or compromise, he succeeded at length in carrying out his principles. It was a victory not of physical force but of moral courage, by which Calvin ultimately established his influence in Geneva; and it is a mistake to regard him as a sort of despot ruling a thcocratic State with absolute sway. He never had any control of the civil power, except what was wielded by advice, and by the influence of his character and life. While therefore he exercised a most remarkable power in forming the character and guiding the course of the Church and city of Geneva, so that it may be said that it is Calvin's spirit that is seen in the subsequent history of the commonwealth, it should not be forgotten, that this power was obtained and exercised entirely by moral and spiritual means, by reasoning, conviction, eloquence, and fervour and firmness of character. This shows in its true light the wonderful greatness of his power, and its pure and salutary character. No doubt it was wrong in some things, and committed blunders and crimes, but it was not a despotism either temporal or spiritual, but the guidance of a free people by wisdom and persuasion. Even in his own lifetime there were circulated what he calls ridiculous reports of his extravagant authority and enormous influence, of which he said himself: "As to the power and influence for which they envy me, I wish I could discharge this burden upon them; for they estimate my power by the multitude of affairs, and the vast weight of labours with which I am overwhelmed"
His labours were indeed enormous. He discharged the duties of professor of theology, on which he lectured three times a week, of one of the city ministers, preaching continually, and exercising the care of souls and oversight of the congregation. His correspondence was most voluminous, as his advice was sought on subjects of all kinds by all the friends of Protestantism throughout Europe: he wrote and published works of the most learned and laborious character, exegetical, didactic, and controversial, which fill ten large folio volumes: and in the midst of all this he was engaged in ecclesiastical conflicts of a most harassing and bitter kind.
On a general view of Calvin, from a distance as it were, sternness and determination are the most striking features of his character. Even such a view, if at all fair, shows that he was as severe to himself as to others, and that his career was animated by a most disinterested devotion to what he considered, and what on the whole really was, the cause of Christ. But when we come to know him nearer from his writings, especially his private letters, and the detailed incidents of his life, we see that he was a man of deep feeling and warm affections, a most faithful and unselfish friend, and sympathising comforter in sorrow. He lacked indeed the geniality of Luther, or even of Knox, and being destitute of humour, deficient in imagination, and inferior in passion to those other Reformers, he seems cold and hard in comparison with them; but he was less arrogant and overbearing than they sometimes were, and had a genuine humility and large-hearted consideration for others, unless when they were enemies to the cause for which he lived. With his colleagues he lived and laboured without a jar or discord; and he gained not only the veneration, but the warm affection of all who came within his personal influence. This shows that with all his defects and faults, Calvin could not have been that stern and cold-hearted tyrant he is often thought to have been, but one who, on those who knew him best, made the impression of a good and loveable, as well as a great and noble soul.
In his later years he had more peace at Geneva; the claims of the consistory in regard to church discipline being finally allowed in 1555; but even after that there were some attempts at reaction, and though less harassed by the attacks of open enemies of the Reformation, he was deeply wounded and grieved by the suspicions and assaults directed against him by the more extreme of the Lutherans for his divergence from their doctrine of the Eucharist. His health too was undermined by a life of such incessant study and labour; and after a painful illness, borne with Christian patience and fortitude, and a touching farewell to the magistrates of the city and his colleagues in the ministry, John Calvin, as the Geneva register expresses it, "went to God on the 27th of May 1564." He was buried amid universal lamentation, but without ostentation; and his grave is unmarked and unknown. In estimating his work, we have to consider not only his services to Geneva, but also what he did for France and the Reformed Church in general.
Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Links | Photo-Wallet