Meet John Calvin

Born in Noyon, France, in 1509 and educated at the University of Paris, John Calvin grew up in an atmosphere of wealth and nobility. He studied both law and theology, providing him valuable insight into the management of both civil and ecclesiastical affairs. Although he was never ordained, he became the curate of St. Martin de Marteville in 1527. Increasingly influenced by the writings of Luther and Erasmus, Calvin experienced a sudden conversion to Protestantism in 1534. He fled Paris in 1535 to avoid persecution.

In 1536 he wrote his magum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. They are rigorous reading and clearly "not for the timid." (Richard Foster, Renovaré Devotional Readings) By 1541 he had gone to Geneva, Switzerland, and had influenced that city to the point that he gained a large following. Geneva became famous for its high moral standards, economic prosperity, and educational system under Calvin’s leadership and the city’s establishment of a theocratic regime. Many consider him to be the father and founder of both the Presbyterian and the Reformed Churches.

It is safe to say that no theologian holds a higher or clearer understanding of the sovereignty of God than Calvin. (Renovaré) While other reformers were content to testify to their experience of God’s grace, Calvin—ever the systematic theologian—undertook a detailed, logical account of grace. Well known for his stern temperament and austere lifestyle, he believed that self-denial—not a popular concept to the modern mindset—is essential in the life of every Christian. "Oh, how greatly we have advanced when we have learned not to be our own, not to be governed by our own reason, but to surrender our minds to God! The most effective poison to lead us to ruin is to boast in ourselves, in our own wisdom and will power. The only escape to safety is simply to follow the guidance of the Lord." (John Calvin, The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, a 96-page summation of his views on practicing the Christian faith, covering such topics as self-denial, crossbearing, the hope of heaven, and the right use of the present.)

Calvin was a more disciplined and logical thinker than Luther, and more aware of the importance of organization of both ideas and institutions. Foremost in his legacy to Protestantism is his systematizing of its doctrine and his organizing of its ecclesiastical discipline. His Commentaries cover the greater part of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament, except for the Book of Revelation, and he is considered to be the most influential and erudite writer of all the reformers.

Though depicted as a cheerless, dour sort, in contrast to Luther’s rotund jocularity, Calvin did have the heart of a pastor. His personal life was greatly affected by his wife’s death in 1549. He was left alone to care for her two children by a previous marriage. (Their only child died shortly after birth in 1542.) John Calvin died in 1564.

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