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  • Luke Hildebrand

John Calvin

When most people think of the Reformation, the first name they think of is Martin Luther. However, there is another who is nearly as well known. His name was John Calvin. Though Calvin was considered at first the “younger brother” theologian to men like Luther, he was not weak in mind or faith. He grew over time to become a great influence for the Reformation as a whole. It is arguable that John Calvin had just as great an impact on the modern protestant movement as Luther, and through it, an impact on all of western society. If we wish to be reformers of our own faith, it is important that we understand the pillars of theological teaching the Reformation was built on. The teaching of John Calvin is one such pillar.

John Calvin, or Jean Cauvin, was born in Noyon France in 1509. Raised Roman Catholic, he was groomed for a time to become a churchman by his father, switching to study humanist law around 1525. This formal education would serve Calvin well in his future work. It is unknown when exactly he converted to Protestantism but some believe it to have been around 1533. He fled France around 1534. During the next two years he penned his first edition of the famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, a defence of his faith and a statement of the doctrinal position of the Reformers. He eventually made for the refuge of Strasbourg, but while detouring through Geneva, William Farel—a fellow French reformer—implored Calvin to stay. Calvin reluctantly agreed to help Farel reform the city, staying until 1538.

Due to a political struggle with the city council, Calvin was banished from Geneva. He spent a few years ministering to French refugees in Strasbourg before returning to Geneva in 1541 after the council reversed their previous decision. He remained there for the rest of his life. Calvin was married to Idelette de Bure, but she died, leaving him with only stepchildren. He stayed very busy preaching, teaching, instructing seminary students, helping plant churches, and of course, writing fervently. Calvin wrote massive commentaries of nearly all of the books of the Bible. His Institutes reached their final form in 1559, at over 1,300 pages. Calvin died in 1564, at the age of 55.

While John Calvin worked continuously and contributed greatly in spreading the Reformed Church, there are some acts in particular that made a lasting impact on the Reformation. Calvin believed that Christ was the only true head of the Church. Thus, he was the most prominent pioneer of Church self-government without interference from the state. Calvin also established a system of liturgy for the Reformed Church, eschewing the sacraments and ceremonies of Roman Catholicism and placing emphasis on sermons, free prayer and worship through congregational singing. Finally, John Calvin penned the most published and read theological book in English translation, the Institutes. His most famous work, it is full of precise Biblical exposition and application, unfolding a truly comprehensive systematic theology of the Christian faith. Translated into many languages it, like Calvin’s other reformative works, has reached around the globe.

Calvin had a great impact on the Reformed Church during his life, but that influence only continued to grow after his death. Through his published works, namely Institutes, the theology of Calvin, or Calvinism, spread across much of Europe and beyond. His ideas have been both blamed for and credited with the rise of capitalism, individualism, and democracy. In the church, he has been a great influence, but also a great source of division between Protestant denominations. The system of beliefs bearing his name, or the “five points of Calvinism” have sparked much debate and controversy in the church, mainly his doctrines of predestination and total depravity. These beliefs have created entire movements, such as Puritanism, and to this day, many churches continue to carry Calvin’s legacy forward.

The legacy and influence of Calvin is not reserved only for the Church as a whole, but reaches far deeper and more personally into the lives of those Christians who are influenced by his teaching. There are many ways the life and work of John Calvin affect us today. His literary legacy is immense, and even without the titanic Institutes there is a veritable library of Biblical commentaries, letters and printed sermons for us to study. His precision and technical accuracy are amazing and daunting, but they are tempered by the caring of a pastor who wanted all believers to achieve a greater comprehension of our Lord. However, Calvin did not only display his caring for his flock in his writing but was a living example for church leaders today. He took the daily ministration of those placed in his care seriously, visiting daily those who were sick or dying and counselling those who were hurting and in despair.

Calvin’s vision for church planting also exceeded the others of his time. While many in the Reformation were concerned in theological faithfulness, Calvin looked to the future of the Reformed church. He passed his burden for evangelism to those he taught in the church and academy in Geneva which, in turn, were responsible for planting hundreds of churches across Europe and beyond. He remains a great example of the amount of effort Christians should place into spreading the Gospel. Calvin’s theology does not only focus on glorifying God in large efforts, however. Instead he teaches that we should bring glory to God by every act of our daily lives. Finally, by his precision as a theologian, Calvin inspires generation after generation of believers to delve deeply into God’s Word. He exhorts all of us to abandon shallow, easy beliefs and develop a complete, Biblically accurate theology that will transform our lives for Christ.

John Calvin’s accomplishments were deeply impactful for the Reformation. Today, millions of Christians study his teaching for insight into the Word of God. It is important to remember, however, that Calvin was just a man, with all the flaws and frailties that entails. What has made his work stand the test of time is the truth inherent to it, the truth found only in the Bible. By making God the centre of his life and seeking God’s glory first in all that he did, Calvin continually reformed himself and brought the Reformation to much of the world. If we wish to transform our own lives for Christ and have a similar impact on the world, we need to follow the example of John Calvin.

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