David Landow

18th Century Theology

Prof. Don Westblade

John Calvin Biography


                                                The Life and Works of John Calvin

When surveying the 18th century theological landscape, it is impossible to escape the long 16th century shadow of the mighty Genevan Reformer John Calvin. Even when not mentioned by name, his ghost haunts the tenor and substance of the discussion. It matters not if we agree with or vehemently oppose his ideas, he is there. In order to converse with Jonathan Edwards or John Wesley we must first intrude upon the studious John Calvin and grapple with his legacy. A brief survey of his life and work reveals a man of powerful intellect, deep piety, and lasting influence.

            John Calvin entered this world on the 10th of July 1509 in northern France. Calvin’s Father was a financial manager of sorts for the cathedral chapter at Noyon. In 1521, probably due in part to his father influence, young John obtained an ecclesiastical benefice for a completely fictitious pastorate, which he drew upon until around the time of his “conversion” in 1534.[1] Calvin’s Mother, a deeply devout woman, died in 1515 while Calvin was still very young.[2]



In 1523, when Calvin was a mere 14 years old, his Father sent him off to study to be a priest in Paris. 1n 1528 however, Calvin’s father (who had fallen out of favor with the cathedral) ordered him to switch the study of law. It was during this period that Calvin first encountered the teachings of the humanist internal reformers Erasmus and Lefevre d’Estaples as well as those of the external reformer Martin Luther.          In 1532, Calvin published his first book, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. With this book, the twenty one year old humanist seemed be trying to “set himself up as a defender of French intelligence and a rival of Erasmus.”[3]



Sometime between the publishing of his book in 1532 and 1533, Calvin “converted” . It is difficult to say exactly what motivated the change, since Calvin rarely talked about himself in his writings. The one glimpse we do have is in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms where he says:

And first, since I was to obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my  mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matter than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.

Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I pursued them with less ardor.[4]  

Whether the word “sudden” literally means sudden or a gradual change is a topic for debate.

Calvin becomes a Reformer

            A significant event in Calvin’s life occurred on the Feast of All Saints in 1533.  A man named Nicolas Cop delivered a speech that had elements of Luther and Justification by faith. Some attribute the authorship of the speech to Calvin. Whether he wrote it or not, the speech created an uproar among the clergy.  Calvin and Cop had to flee.[5] After finding shelter for a while in a friend’s house, he ended up in Basle where, 1536,  he published his first copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This first edition of the Institutes, which was only six chapters long, became an instant hit and rocketed the already famous Calvin to theological stardom. Calvin continued to edit and expand his Institutes over the rest of his life. The final edition, published in 1560, was eighty chapters long.

            Calvin first came to the city that would become synonyms with his name in 1536 by means of, as Bernard Cottret in his biography of Calvin puts it, a “providential accident.”[6]  Calvin had to pass through Geneva because wars had closed the direct route. While there, a pastor named William Farel became aware of his presence and impressed upon him to stay in Geneva. Calvin, who wanted nothing more than to study, was reluctant but he gave in when Farel threatened that God would disrupt the peace of his studies if he did stay in Geneva.  Calvin said of the event:

Wherever else I had gone, I had taken great care to conceal that I was the author of that performance; [The Institutes] and I had resolved to continue in the same privacy and obscurity, until at length William Farel detained me at Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me.[7]

 Calvin stayed in Geneva.

For two years Calvin labored in Geneva alongside William Farel. Almost from the start, there were tensions between Calvin and the city counsel. Calvin had strong views on the Lord ’s Supper and the need to publicly profess in order to partake. He strongly resisted any attempt by the council to meddle in Church affairs. Things came to a head in 1538 when the council expelled both Calvin and Feral from the city.

Calvin spent the next three years of his life serving as pastor to a French-speaking congregation in Strasburg. Cottret says of this period:

It was in Strasburg that Calvin became “Calvin.” Or more exactly, at the beginning of his thirtieth year Calvin invented a reformation that was distinct form that of his predecessors…. the best indication of change  is found in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans(1539), in which  Calvin proclaimed clearly to the world that he was neither Melanchthon, nor Bucer, nor Bullinger, but simply Calvin…. Yes, Calvin undoubtedly spent the happiest years of his life in Strasburg.[8]

Calvin’s happiness did not last long however, for Geneva was soon recalled him.

Throughout his works Calvin never claims to be creating something new. He believed that he was retuning the church to the truths of the early church. He had a deep knowledge of the patristic and early church fathers, which he could draw from his memory at will.  It is said that when he was challenged to a debate about whether the reformation was abandoning the church fathers Calvin put the opposition to shame by quoting large portions of the fathers from memory.

It was during these happy years in Strasburg that the committed bachelor was convinced to take a wife to be a helpmate to him. After much thought, Calvin decided to marry a widow named Idelette de Bure. Idelette already had two children from her previous marriage. Calvin and Idelette would be married for nine years and had one child together who died in infancy.  When she finally died, Calvin said of her death: “The best companion of my life is taken form me. If anything serious had happened to me, she would not only have been ready to accompany me into exile and poverty but even death. As long as she lived, she was a true helper in my office.”


After being recalled to Geneva, Calvin “settled” back into the city for the rest of his life. Cottret comments on the relationship between Calvin and the city: “Calvin’s relationship with Geneva includes an uninterrupted series of frictions, sometimes carried to the point of hatred, and has given rise to numerous misunderstandings.” One common misconception of Geneva is that it was a theocracy. While church and state did function much more in conjunction than they do today, the church never had supremacy over the state. In fact, Calvin had to spend a significant amount of time fighting the encroachment of the council into what he considered ecclesiastical matters.

            Despite the continuous brushfires, the fame of Calvin’s Geneva continued to spread like wildfire. When John Knox visited the city, he remarked that it was the most sincerely reformed place he had ever seen.[9]  Centuries later, Geneva was still viewed as the ultimate example of the “City on the Hill.” Cotton Mather said that that the churches of puritan New England were “nothing in doctrine or discipline different from Geneva”[10]

 Geneva was very successful in the 16th century and Calvin’s presence did much to attribute to this.[11] Calvin’ influence in the city came mainly through the pulpit. In 1549 there were sermons every day of the week and three on Sunday. Between 1549 and 1564 stenographers recorded over 2000 of Calvin’ extemporaneously delivered sermons.[12]  Whether it was recommending moral laws that the Council thought were too severe or his involvement in burning of the anti-Trinitarian Servetus, Calvin’s policies and actions in Geneva were and still are controversial.


That Calvin was a prolific writer should surprise no one. His collected works comprise no fewer than fifty-nine volumes with many supplements.[13] He wrote commentaries on virtually every book of the Bible, as well carrying on a huge amount of correspondence. During his last years, plagued by sickness, he continued to write, mainly drawing from his amazing memory. [14]


Calvin died on May 7th 1564. His last words were “Quousque Domine?” (How long, O Lord?). As he requested, they buried him in an unmarked grave. Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, wrote a biography of Calvin shortly after his death. In it, he gave a brief description of Calvin’s temperament in life:

With regards to his manners, although nature had formed him for gravity, yet, in common intercourse of life, there was no man who was more pleasant. I  bearing with infirmities he was remarkably prudent. He never put the weaker brother to the blush, nor terrified them by unreasonable rebuke. He never connived or flattered their faults.[15]


Dealing with Calvin’s legacy is no easy task. In many ways, he has taken on almost mythic proportions with every faction in the reformed tradition attempting to claim Calvin as their own. The term Calvinism, that today mainly applies to predestination, is limited in scope compared to all that Calvin stood for. Calvin’s influence cannot be restricted to theology, for it extends into political and social philosophy as well.  Men who came after him took elements found in Calvin’s writing, such his view on the role of the covenant, and refined and centralized them. Would Calvin have been comfortable with these modifications? Who knows. 

Calvin was a controversial figure even in his day. At the close of his biography, Beza acknowledged this, but he also points out the proper way to look at the character of Calvin.

Having been a spectator of his life for sixteen years, I have given a faithful account both of his life and his death, and I now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which is as easy to slander as it is to imitate.[16]





[1] Alexander Ganoczy “Calvin’s Life” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed Donald k. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 8


[2] Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 10


[3] Cottret, 64

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, xl

[5] Alexander Ganoczy “Calvin’s Life” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed Donald k. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 7


[6] Cottret, 118

[7] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 200i3, xlii

[8] Cottret, 132

[9] E. William Monter “Calvin’s Geneva” (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1967), 231


[10] R. Ward Holder “Calvin’s Heritage” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed Donald k. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 251



[11] Monter, 230

[12]  Alexander Ganoczy “Calvin’s Life” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed Donald k. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 22


[13] Ganoczy, 22

[14] Ganoczy, 22

[15] Theodore Beza “The Life of John Calvin” (Milwaukee: Back Home Industries, 1996), 115 

[16] Beza, 149