John Calvin (1509–1549)
Calvin is a historical figure who is shrouded in mystery. Some picture him as the dictator of Geneva, wielding his Bible as a weapon to punish ungodliness and heresy. Others picture him as the one and only true Reformer, forgetting about the many voices from other countries and contexts who played an equally influential part in shaping this stream of Christianity. In reality, Calvin was a self-described introvert who would have rather been reading than leading, but felt called to be a pastor and was able to persevere under the weight of reformation work and use his strong intellect to produce some of the best written works of theology because of his reliance on God.
Though Calvin began training to become a priest, he soon moved on to law studies in order to follow his father’s career advice. The details surrounding Calvin’s joining of the Protestant Reformation are murky, but we do know he had a change of heart at a specific time because he recorded his personal memory of it, saying,
“God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too 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 . . . 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 yet pursued them with less ardor.”
As he grew in true faith, he became a mentor to others through his preaching, lecturing, and writing.
Yet, through all of his success as we see it today, Calvin faced many heartbreaking trials. Calvin’s first stay in Geneva with another reformer Farel ended with them getting banished from the city, and though he experienced a time of reprieve in Strasbourg where he got married, pastored, and worked on publications, but would soon be called back to Geneva. He hated the idea of returning, saying it would be better for him to die than go back to that tortuous place, but felt God had called him to care for the churches there. He wrote,
“the welfare of this church [in Geneva], it is true, lay so near my heart, that for its sake I would not have hesitated to lay down my lifebut my timidity nevertheless suggested to me many reasons for excusing myself from again willingly taking upon my shoulders so heavy a burden. At length, however, a solemn and conscientious regard to my duty, prevailed with me to consent to return to the flock from which I had been torn; but with what grief, tears, great anxiety and distress I did this.”
Calvin’s second stay in Geneva would be less tumultuous than the first, yet he would still persevere through many trials, public and private, such as the death of his beloved wife.
Calvin was not flawless, nor the only champion of the Protestant Reformation. But his perseverance and intellect, honed through trusting God and wanting to please him, allowed Calvin to produce some of the best literature of Christian history and provide real counsel to real people in his own time as they struggled to bring reform.
John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (1557; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), xl–xli.
Where To Begin
The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (the authoritative translation of a Christian classic, worth the time it takes to read both volumes)
Letters of John Calvin by John Calvin (a small selection of his letters in an accessible format)
John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by H. J. Selderhuis (a biography of Calvin that is scholarly but easy to understand)