This week marks the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jean Cauvin, AKA John Calvin, one of the most influential figures in the history of the church. In celebration of his life and legacy, I will be writing a number of blog posts this week honoring the impact of this great Christian leader.
Calvin is one of the most misunderstood and demonized personalities in history. The theological system which bears his name – Calvinism – is often caricatured as a fatalistic, deterministic system of theology that negates human free will and damns everyone to hell at the behest of a vengeful Deity. Most of the ignorant people who think this way have never read Calvin’s work or studied his life. Having done both, I confess that one of my ulterior motives is to correct the false perceptions held by those who have never truly acquainted themselves with him. If you’re more of a listener than a reader, I shamelessly commend to you the biographical sermon on Calvin I preached last year.
John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. His father funded his primary education and sent John off at age 14 to attend the University of Paris with the goal of entering the priesthood. Five years later, at his father’s request, he transferred from Paris to Orleans to study law.
While studying law, Calvin fell in love with the classic literature of the Greek and Roman eras, which was experiencing a revival of interest because of the Renaissance. After his father’s death, he abandoned law and moved back to Paris to seek a career as a scholar in the field of the humanities. It just so happened that one of the classic literary works he encountered was the Bible. And studying the Bible in the avant-garde city of Paris during the height of the Renaissance brought him into community with a young theological movement called the Reformation. “At first,” he wrote, “I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated.” But “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.” By 1533 Calvin had been born again and joined the Reformation, though he retained his membership in the Roman Catholic church.
On All Saints Day, 1533 – 16 years to the day after Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church at Wittenberg – Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, preached a sermon attacking the theology of the Roman Catholic church. The faculty at the university was infuriated. Cop had to flee for his life, and Calvin fled with him. Historians suspect that though Cop delivered the address, it was actually Calvin who had written it.
Massive religious persecution broke out in France as a result. Roman Catholic authorities arrested and executed dozens of Reformers. According to biographer T.H.L. Parker, “Two hundred arrests were made by the middle of November . Executions, some twenty in all, followed through the next 3 months. In February  was burned Calvin’s friend, Etienne de la Forge, a merchant with whom he had lodged in Paris.” Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, and lodged with a wealthy French friend (Louis du Tillet) who had an extensive philosophical and theological library. He devoted himself to study and writing for the better part of a year. By 1535 he had completed the first manuscript of his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This work would be continually revised and updated until Calvin’s death in 1564.
The version of the Institutes on the shelf in my study is 1734 pages long. A casual observer might mistake it for a complex tome authored by some ivory-tower scholar in search of tenure. Nothing could be further from the truth. For Calvin, the Institutes was a text fanned into being by the fires of martyrdom. He wrote:
While I lay hidden at Basel… many faithful and holy persons were burnt alive in France… It appeared to me, that unless I opposed [the perpetrators] to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery. This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institutes of the Christian Religion… It was published… that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed.
In a pluralistic, relativistic world, we have no category for such courage. Our friends, neighbors, and associates “basely and wickedly defame” the name of Christ regularly, and we rarely consider our peacekeeping silence to be “cowardice and treachery.” We have much to learn from Calvin.
…to be continued…