Biography of John Calvin

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Protestant Reformer John Calvin Biography

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A powerful French theologian and pastor, John Calvin is one of the well known Protestants, whose name prominently figured during the Protestant Reformation. Famous for his involvement in Calvinism, a theological system that defines Christian theology, Calvin was raised in a Roman Catholic family. Though John Calvin had been trained as a humanistic lawyer, destiny had some other plans for him.

John Calvin parted from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1520s, around which time his religious conversion also took place. From thence, till his death, John Calvin worked as a reformer. Calvin authored several books, letters, treatise and doctrines during his lifetime.

John Calvin Childhood

John Calvin, named Jean Cauvin at the time of birth, was born in 1509, in Noyon, a small town in the Picardie region of France. John Calvin was the second child of Gerard Cauvin and his wife – Jeanne le Franc, who had three sons in total. His father was a cathedral notary and registrar to the ecclesiastical court.

Calvin’s mother, Jeanne le Franc, died in the tender years of his life. Gerard wanted all his three sons, Charles, Jean, and Antoine, to become priests. While John Calvin was still in school, Jean changed his name to John Calvin.

Calvin was the brightest of the three children of Gerard and hence, at 12 years of age, gained employment with the bishop, as a clerk. John Calvin also received the tonsure, which symbolized his dedication to the Church. Around the same time, Calvin won the patronage of an influential family, the Montmors.
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With their help at his aid, John Calvin enrolled himself in the College de la Marche in Paris, where John Calvin learned Latin. After completing the course, he attended the Collège de Montaigu, as a philosophy student.

John Calvin Early Life

In 1525 or 1526, Gerard changed his mind and withdrew Calvin from Montaigu. John Calvin got his son registered in the University of Orleans, to make him study law. This change is believed to have arisen from Gerard’s realization that his son could earn more money as a lawyer, than as a priest. In 1529, Calvin entered the University of Bourges and got attracted towards the mysterious aura set by Andreas Alciati, a humanist lawyer. There, John Calvin learned Greek, a necessity for studying the New Testament.

It was during this time that Calvin experienced a sudden religious conversion. Though the exact time of this conversion is not known, it is believed to correspond with his break from Roman Catholic Church.

In the year 1532, after receiving his licentiate in law, Calvin published his first book, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. For a complete year, Calvin undertook travel, first going to Orleans and then, to his hometown – Noyon, before returning to Paris in the October of 1533. Around this time, the differences between the humanists / reformers and the conservative in the College de France worsened.

Nicolas Cop’s ( rector ) provoking speech brought out strong reaction from the crowd, which led to his fleeing. Calvin, who was a close associate of Cop, was also forced into hiding.

For more than a year, Calvin remained on move, seeking shelter with his friend Louis du Tillet in Angouleme and finding refuge in Noyon and Orleans as well. Soon, the Affair of the Placards (1534) followed, where the reformists had placed placards in various cities, targeting Catholics.

This act brought a strong and violent reaction from the Catholics, against the Protestants. It also enforced Calvin to run away from France. John Calvin joined Cop in Basel, a city under the influence of the reformer Johannes Oecolampadius, in the January of 1535.

Reform Work Commences ( 1536 – 1538 )

Jean Calvin published the first edition of his ‘Institution Christianae Religionis’, or ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, in March 1536. The book, the first expression of his theology, contained a defense of his faith and a statement of the doctrinal position of the reformers ( Calvin kept on updating his book and publishing new editions all through his life ).

After the release of the book, he left for Ferrara, Italy, serving as Secretary to Princess Renee of France. Three months thence, he returned to Paris, along with his brother Antoine, but realized that there was no scope for the heretics in France.

In the month of August, Calvin headed towards Strasbourg, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire and a refuge for reformers. However, due to the military drills, John Calvin was forced to make a detour towards south, landing in Geneva. Although John Calvin had planned to stay in Geneva for just a night, William Farel, a fellow French reformer residing in the city, persuaded Calvin to assist him in reforming the church there.

Eventually, Calvin was raised to the position of a ‘reader’, giving him the right to give expository lectures on the Bible. While Farel drafted a confession of faith, Calvin wrote separate articles on reorganizing the church in Geneva (1536).

In 1537, Calvin was selected as a ‘pastor’, despite the fact that he never received any pastoral sanctification. Thereafter, this ‘theologian – turned – pastor’, took up pastoral duties, such as baptisms, weddings and church services. In the same year, Farel and Calvin presented their articles concernant l’organisation de leglise et du culte a Geneve, to the city council.

The document explained the manner and frequency of their celebrations of the Eucharist, the reason for and the method of excommunication, the requirement to subscribe to the confession of faith, use of congregational singing in the liturgy and revision of marriage laws.

Though the council accepted the document, not many people had subscribed to the confession of faith. This made it reluctant to accept the point on ‘subscription’. In the meantime, two French ministers voiced their opposition to the document presented by Farel and Calvin. On the other hand, Bern, Geneva’s ally, proposed uniformity in the church ceremonies, including the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist.

The council ordered Calvin and Farel to use unleavened bread. The two French ministers opposed this move as well and did not attend the Easter Eucharist. As a result, they were forced to leave Geneva, by the council.

When Farel and Calvin reached Bern and Zürich to plead their case ( presented through concernant l’organisation de l’eglise et du culte a Geneve ), the synod, in turn, accused Calvin for not being sympathetic enough towards the people of Geneva. Following this, the Geneva council refused to readmit Calvin and Farel, who then took refuge in Basel. Around this time, Farel received an invitation to lead the church in Neuchatel.

On the other hand, Calvin was requested to lead a church of French refugees, in Strasbourg, by Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. Though Calvin refused the proposal initially, John Calvin relented later on. After a few months, John Calvin also gained the citizenship of the city.

Minister in Strasbourg (1538 – 1541)

In Strasbourg, Calvin ministered 400 – 500 members in the church. His daily routine included preaching, apart from giving two sermons on Sunday. Every month, Communion was celebrated and congregational singing was encouraged. During this time, Calvin started to work on the second edition of the ‘Institutes’, which was published on 1539.

In this relation, John Calvin worked on the format of the book, resulting in the enlargement of its size ( from six chapters to seventeen chapters ). At the same time, John Calvin wrote another book titled, ‘Commentary on Romans’, which was published in March 1540.

In Geneva, with church attendance dwindling and political climate changing, the expulsion of Calvin was reviewed. Geneva was invited to return to Catholic faith, by Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto. After being refused by Pierre Viret, in this context, the council turned to Calvin. Though John Calvin agreed, John Calvin was unwilling to return to Geneva ( still, he was prepared to follow Lord’s calling ).
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In the summer of 1541, an agreement was signed, wherein Strasbourg lend Calvin to Geneva, for 6 months. His stay, as a pastor to French refugees, was so peaceful that when, in 1541, the Council requested him to return to Geneva, John Calvin was emotionally torn. John Calvin wanted to stay in Strasbourg, but felt responsible towards Geneva.

Years in Geneva (1541 – 1549)

Adhering to the advice of Calvin, the council of Geneva passed the Ordonnances ecclesiastiques, in the November of 1541. This ordinance stated four basic orders of ministerial function – pastors to preach and administer the sacraments, doctors to instruct believers in the faith, elders to provide discipline, and deacons to care for the poor and needy.

Consistoire, an ecclesiastical court to judge ecclesiastical matters, was also created, which comprised of lay elders and the ministers. ( However, in 1543, things changed and the government took the powers of sentencing upon itself ).

Calvin modified a service book, which had already been used in Strastbourg, La Forme des Prieres et Chants Ecclesiastiques. While the Strastbourg edition had twelve psalms, the Geneva edition had new hymns added to it. Inspired by Bucer’s Kurze Schrifftliche Erklarung, Calvin published Catechisme de l’Eglise de Geneve ( Catechism of the Church of Geneva ), in 1542.

In Geneva, Calvin ministered over two thousand sermons, with two lectures on Sunday and three during the rest of the week. In his years at Geneva, John Calvin maintained cordial relations with Montmor, Cordier, Cop, Farel, Melanchthon, and Bullinger

Opposition in Geneva (1546 – 1553)

Around 1546, Calvin faced bitter opposition for his work in Geneva. The opposition group, labeled as libertines by him, consisted of wealthy, politically powerful and interrelated families of Geneva. Calvin was called a ‘Picard’, an epithet denoting anti – French sentiment, and accused of false doctrine. In a year, the opposition grew considerably, comprising of majority of the syndics and the civil magistrates of Geneva.

The opposition continued, awaiting opportunities to stir up discontent, insult the ministers and defy the authority of the Consistory. After the election of Ami Perrin, the man who had brought Calvin to Geneva – as the first syndic, Calvin realized that his influence was dwindling and offered his resignation in 1553, but the request was not granted. This made the opposition realize that how much they try; they wouldn’t be able to banish Calvin completely.

Later Years (1555 – 1564)

Calvin, in his later years, achieved much international recognition and fame. Around the same time, Martin Luther also rose to fame. Though the two disagreed on a couple of issues, they maintained mutual respect for each other.

Calvin sheltered Marian exiles in Geneva, contributing toward the English – speaking community. As a result, the group headed by John Knox and William Whittingham formed their own reformed church and carried out Calvin’s ideas on doctrine and polity back to England and Scotland.

In France, Calvin helped build churches, by distributing literature and providing ministers. From 1555 to 1562, Calvin had sent 100 ministers to France, the whole expense supported entirely by the church in Geneva. John Calvin also opened an institute in 1559, which dealt with the education of children.

The institute was parted in two divisions – college or schola private ( a grammar school ) and an advanced school called the academic or schola publica. While the former came to be known as College Calvin, one of the college preparatory schools of Geneva, the latter became the University of Geneva.

John Calvin’s Death

In the year 1558, John Calvin fell seriously ill with severe fever. Terrified about dying before the completion of the final revision of his book ‘Institutes’, he started to overstress himself. The new book had enlarged to about eighty chapters. After recovering from the illness, Calvin strained his voice with excessive preaching, which resulted in a violent fit of coughing.

From then on, Calvin’s health started deteriorating steeply. Finally, John Calvin bid farewell to the world, leaving for the heavenly abode on May 27, 1564.


Named after John Calvin, Calvinism is a theological system that emphasizes the kind of Christian life a person should lead and the rule of God over all things. Calvin, as the name suggests, had a prominent influence on the system. Calvinism can be best summarized in the five points. The first point is total depravity, wherein, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin.

It is up to a person to follow God and be saved or pay the brunt of the sin committed. The second point refers to unconditional election. Herein, the doctrine states that it is totally dependant on God’s mercy to choose people whom John Calvin would bring from eternity to Himself.

Limited atonement, which can be described as the third point of Calvinism, states “the concept of the sovereignty of God in salvation and the Calvinistic understanding of the nature of the atonement.” The fourth doctrine of the system related to irresistible grace, which states that the saving grace of God is potentially effective and applies to all those whom John Calvin has determined to save.

Lastly, the fifth point is the perseverance of the saints, which says that God is sovereign and “those, whom God has called into communion with Himself, will continue in faith until the end.”

John Calvin Personal Life

After much insistence from his friends, Calvin resolved to get married to a young woman from a noble family. However, his unwillingness presided over the eagerness of the others and the wedding, scheduled in the March of 1540, did not take place.

Nonetheless, John Calvin later married a widow Idelette de Bure, who had two children from her first marriage. Idelette gave birth to a child. The premature son, however, survived only briefly. In the year 1545, Idelette fell ill. She did not recuperate from the illness and left for the heavenly abode on March 29, 1549.

John Calvin’s Works

  • Commentary of Seneca the Younger’s De Clementia (1532)
  • His first theological work, Psychopannychia (1542)
  • Commentary on Romans was published in (1540)
  • Commentary on I Corinthians (1546)
  • Vera christiannae pacificationis et Ecclesiae reformandae ratio, the treatise (1549)
  • Commentaries on all the Pauline epistles (1550)
  • Defensio sanae ET orthodoxae doctrinae de sacramentis or a Defence of the Sober and Orthodox Doctrine of the Sacrament (1555)
  • The French confession of faith, the Gallic Confession (1559)
  • Confessio de Trinitate propter calumnias P. Caroli displays his beliefs on the Trinity
  • Commentaries on Isaiah, the books of the Pentateuch, the Psalms and Joshua, for the Old Testament
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion
    • Ist edition – God the Creator (1536)
    • 2nd edition – Redeemer in Christ (1539)
    • 3rd edition – Receiving the Grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit (1543)
    • 4th edition – Society of Christ or the Church (1559)

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John Calvin’s Letters

  • Responsio ad Sadoletum (1539)
  • Supplex exhortatio ad Caesarem (1543)
  • Admonitio paterna Pauli III (1544)
  • Acta synodi Tridentinae cum Antidoto (1547)

John Calvin’s Timeline :

  • 1509 – Calvin was born.
  • 1523 – Went to Paris, to study.
  • 1528 to 1529 – Went to Orleans and then Bourges, to study law.
  • 1531 – Lost hisfather, Returned to Paris.
  • 1532 – Published his first work – a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia.
  • 1533 – Underwent a “sudden religious conversion”.
  • 1534 – Broke up with Rome ( surrendered benefices ).
  • 1536 – Published first edition of ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, Moved to Geneva.
  • 1538 – Calvin and Farel banished from Geneva, Goes to Strasbourg as pastor to the French-speaking congregation.
  • 1539 – Asked to respond to Cardinal, on behalf of Geneva.
  • 1540 – Published ‘Commentary on Romans’, Married Idelette de Bure.
  • 1541 – Returned to Geneva.
  • 1542 – Lost his only child, Jacques, as an infant only.
  • 1549 – Lost hiswife, Idelette, Signed Consensus Tigurinus with Zurich.
  • 1559 – Established University of Geneva, Published final edition of Institutes.
  • 1564 – Preached last sermon, Left for the heaven abode.

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