Some historians refer to Calvin as a generation reformer. Calvin built on Luther's and Zwingli's foundations but went much farther to construct his own building. In some ways he represents a median between the two. On one hand, Calvin admired Luther but often disagreed with him. On the other hand, he saw Zwingli as too humanistic, Erasmian and anti-Augustinian.
John Calvin influenced western civilization far more than the other two reformers. Calvin systematized where the others did not. Luther wrote tracts, pamphlets and treatises but did not put his thinking into neat systematic form. Zwingli tended toward the negative, demanding the removal of unbiblical observances and practices but hardly developing a systematic theology. When Calvin wrote, he weighed his arguments carefully and wrote in well turned phrases. As a result, readers found him logical, understandable and reasonable and thus highly influential.
I. Calvin's early life.
Jean Cauvin (1509-1564) began his life in Noyon, Picardy, France. His father served the Lord of Noyon as fiscal secretary and the local bishop as secretary. Since Calvin grew up in a nobleman's home, he enjoyed many advantages. Educational opportunities presented themselves at every corner. He enjoyed considerable wealth and cultural enrichment. Because of his father's relationship to the bishop, Calvin received his own chaplaincy at age 12 complete with stipend.
Some historian estimate Calvin's I.Q. at about 142. Whatever it was, he was a brilliant man. He enrolled at the prestigious University of Paris at age 14. At 19 he held a master's degree. His teachers recognized his intellectual ability and stern disposition. Unsatisfied with his accomplishments, Calvin continued his studies working toward a law degree.
While studying in Paris, Calvin drew much from his cousin, Peter Olivetan. Olivetan, a former Franciscan monk, was the first Protestant to translate the Bible into French. Calvin, at first, reacted negatively to his cousin's defection. The defection, however, drove Calvin more deeply into his own study of Scripture.
Melchior Woldmar, his Greek instructor, provided a second influence. Woldmar's instruction intensified Calvin's Bible study in the original languages. Woldmar also introduced Calvin to Luther's thinking and was himself driven from France for espousing Lutheranism. By 1531 Calvin devoted himself entirely to theological study.
While studying theology, Calvin became obsessed with God's holiness. In time the concept of God's holiness and sovereignty became his "Fundamental Principle." At that point everything else in his theological system originated from those twin elements. Using that basic presupposition, he derived all his theology from reason and Scripture.
So, reform rooted itself in Calvin's mind, he merely needed an opportunity to express it.
In 1533, Nicholas Cop, an evangelically inclined doctor, became the University's rector. Emmanuel Stickelberger says Calvin pleaded with Cop to "give the pure Word a chance in your rectorial address." Cop believed the request audacious, but later relented. Cop and Calvin wrote the address together entitling it, "Christian Philosophy." Cop delivered the address on All Saints Day issuing a call to reform so strong that it shocked the hearers, many of whom were clergy and monks. So shocked were the "powers that be," that they forced both Cop and Calvin to leave France. Calvin ended up in Basel where, in 1536, he wrote his first very brief draft of the "Institutes."
Calvin later returned to France briefly, then returned to Basel. He planned to settle in Strasbourg or Basel, someplace in Germany where he could live without fear of harassment. Finding his route blocked by soldiers, he detoured through Lyon planning to stay overnight in Geneva.
At that time Geneva seethed with protest. Guillaume Farel introduced Protestant ideas to Geneva in 1532. Writers characterize Farel as a fiery reformer whose impetuous attacks antagonized even Erasmus. When Farel discovered the writer of the Institutes was in town, he decided Calvin would not leave. Farel begged Calvin to remain in Geneva but Calvin felt he had much to learn and was unwilling to make a commitment. The two men argued until Farel threatened him with God's curse. Whether fact or fiction, Stickelberger records a version of this argument. The curse, as he records it, is very strong. Farel said, "You are concerned about your rest and your personal interests... Therefore I proclaim to you in the name of Almighty God whose command you defy: Upon your work there shall be no blessing...! ... Therefore let God damn your rest, let God damn your work!" Hearing the strength of Farel's curse, Calvin relented and remained in Geneva as Farel's assistant. Except for one brief period, Calvin lived in Geneva the rest of his life.
II. Calvin's efforts at reform.
Remember now, Calvin lived and worked in a Swiss city. Like Zurich, magistrates govern and are sympathetic to reform. Here again, reform became as much political as religious. Calvin also enacts reform with the Geneva council's permission. He initiated ethical reforms enforced by city law. Individuals who refused to comply were excommunicated with civil approval or simply excluded from the Lord's Supper.
Calvin tried to establish a theocracy. That is, a community where God's laws should determine the church's life and the community's life as well. Many Genevans resisted, thinking Calvin's strictures too narrow. Resentment grew to rebellious levels until finally the council banished Calvin.
Calvin went from Geneva to Strasbourg where he ministered to a French-speaking congregation. Here he also became acquainted with Martin Bucer, one of Luther's converts. Bucer helped Calvin come to "clearer" views of predestination, the liturgy and church government favoring a presbyterian form. More on that in a minute.
While in Strasbourg, Calvin revised and reissued the Institutes and wrote a commentary on Romans. The Institutes grew with the revision and became larger with each subsequent revision.
Conditions degenerated quickly in Geneva after Calvin left. Weak successors provided little leadership and anarchy almost prevailed. Finally, the magistrates begged Calvin to return. In the process, they promised Calvin a "blank check." When Calvin got back, he immediately revised the ordinances of church government. One factor to keep in mind is this: presbyterianism is not focused on the leadership of the local congregation as such, but refers instead to the community leadership. Calvin envisioned the church governed by a consistory of six ministers and twelve laymen. The ministers selected the laymen and then they were approved by the townspeople. The consistory had full authority over church and moral issues. The magistrates adopted Calvin's ideas without dissent.
Several leadership groups existed within the church itself. There were preachers, elders whose task it was to safeguard morals and to administer discipline. Deacons supported and assisted the elders. There were also doctors who taught, providing the church with solid teaching and an intellectual base.
Calvin's organization allowed him to revise the civil code too. He saw the state as a separate entity responsible to provide an atmosphere where the church could successfully fulfill its purpose. The Scripture's moral law provided the basis for civil law and almost every sin and vice became a civil crime. He enforced these laws through a secret espionage system whereby reports of violations made their way to the magistrates. Evidently the program operated successfully. From 1542 to 1546, Geneva saw 58 executions and 76 banishments. During one period of epidemic, the city quartered 34 women for spreading the disease by witchcraft.
III. Calvin's opponents.
Calvin's stern and repressive measures led inevitably to objections in both secular and religious circles. Calvin referred to those opposed to his order as Libertines. Most were pantheists, free thinkers and patriots. The Libertines objected to Calvin's oppression and yearned for greater moral freedom. Some lived immoral lifestyles and wanted freedom to do their own thing.
Calvin strongly squelched religious objections, too. The magistrates executed Jacques Gruet in 1547 for blasphemy and atheism. Gruet owned "immoral books" and often showed indiscretion in his speech. He often expressed his opinions openlyj and often criticized Calvin and the magistrates. Pierre Amio refused to attend church or adopt prevailing standards of dress. Calvin imprisoned him for his rebellion.
The most famous incident involved Calvin and Michael Servetus, a young Spanish reformer, who wanted to reform both Catholicism and the Reformation. Servetus understood astrology, medicine and theology so was broadly educated. His views got him expelled from Spain and Servetus arrived in Geneva seeking reform. Some think Servetus intended to wrest control from Calvin in order to reform the Reformation. Servetus owned one major doctrinal flaw. He taught Jesus in Arian terms. Calvin smelled heresy. Working with the magistrates, Calvin saw to it that ordinances passed requiring execution for those who denied Christ's divinity. Servetus went to the stake.
IV. Comparison of Calvin, Luther and Zwingli.
Calvin represents a mediating position between the two German reformers. Calvin appears more consistent and systematic and he also possessed greater zeal. You can see Calvin's success in numerous ways. Melanchthon, author of the Augsburg Confession, became a Calvinist. Calvinism left his mark on the whole of western civilization including the capitalistic system. Every major denomination bears the Calvinistic imprint either directly or in reaction.
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