John Calvin (1509-64)

Born to an upper middle class family in France, John Calvin (the Latinized form of his birth name, Jean Cauvin) emerged as one of the most important figures of the Reformation. Having studied for the priesthood at Paris in his youth, Calvin turned his attentions to civil and canon law in Orleans when his father became disaffected with the clergy. Calvin showed an early predilection for theology and for the study of Greek and Hebrew. Exposed to the ideas of Luther while he was still in Paris, Calvin's writing indicate that he had definitely moved into the Protestant camp by 1533. On November 1 of that year, he delivered a speech in which he attacked the established church and called for reforms.

Calvin's ideas, rather than bringing about the reforms he sought, elicited a wave of anti-Protestant sentiment that forced him to flee for his own safety. During the next few years, he sought refuge in various cities, most notably Basel, Switzerland. It was also during this period that he began work on his Institution de la Religion Chrétienne, the voluminous work that would consume a good deal of his energy for the next three decades.

During Calvin's flight, he happened to pass a night in Geneva with a man named Farel. Farel attempted to persuade Calvin to remain in Geneva working in support of the Protestant cause there. Reluctantly, Calvin agreed. In 1541, pro-Protestant forces gained control of the city. For the remainder of his life, Calvin stood as the dominant figure in a Geneva that became a point of refuge for persecuted Protestants from all over Europe.

Despite Calvin's work in Geneva, his chief claim to an enduring legacy is found in his theology, which has been greatly influential in many Protestant denominations. The primary tenets of Calvinism include a belief in the primacy of the scripture as an authority for doctrinal decisions, a belief in predestination, a belief in salvation wholly accomplished by grace with no influence from works, and a rejection of the episcopacy. Along with the Institutes (Book 1 is linked here), he also produced commentaries on the books of the Bible.

This text copyright 1997, Mark Browning. Permission is granted for all noncommercial use of this article.