The only major figure of the Reformation who started out as neither a cleric nor a monarch was French lawyer and polemicist John Calvin (1509-1564), best known for his work Institutes of the Christian Religion and his teaching of predestination. Like Zwingli, he was not the founder of a denomination; however, Calvinism as a set of theological ideas spread widely within Protestantism.
The man known from birth in Noyon, France, as Jehan Cauvin (he latinized his name to Ioannes Calvinus, a Renaissance fashion) led a relatively ordinary life as the son of an ecclesiastical notary who pulled Calvin away from studying for the priesthood in Paris and enrolled him to study law at the University of Orleans. By 1532, at the age of 23, Calvin had received his law degree, published his first book, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia, and returned to Paris.
There, two developments altered the course of his life.
First, he experienced in the fall of 1533 a religious conversion. He described it, in part, as an experience through which “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.” Later he described this as the beginning of his call to reform the Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, Calvin’s close friend Nicolas Cop was appointed rector of the Collège Royal, where he got caught up in the conflict between humanists and reform-minded faculty and more conservative senior professors. Cop devoted his inaugural address to the need for reform and renewal in the Catholic Church. Irate faculty members denounced the speech as heretical, forcing Cop to flee to Basel. Calvin was somehow implicated and also had to go into hiding until he managed to join his friend in Basel, then under the influence of Johannes Oecolampadius, a German religious reformer with close ties to both Erasmus and Zwingli.
In March 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutes of the Christian Religion), his central work, which underwent several almost wholesale changes until the definitive editions of 1559 (Latin) and 1560 (French).
The final version’s 80 chapters follow the structure of the Apostles’ Creed, already a traditional form of instruction in the faith. First, God is presented as Father, the creator, provider and sustainer; next, the Son reveals the Father, asserting that only God can reveal God. Third, the work describes the work of the Holy Spirit, including raising Christ from the dead. Finally, the work speaks about how the church should live the divine and scriptural truths, particularly through its sacraments, functions and ministries and about the connection between civil government and religion—the section includes a lengthy criticism of the papacy.
Although Calvin claims to rely only on biblical writ, much of what he states about God that is in accord with previous teaching draws from Nicaea and Chalcedon, not the Bible. Where Calvin first goes off the rails is with predestination.
Much like Luther and his sola gratia, Calvin doubts the human capacity to cooperate with God in the process of salvation, which is given rather than earned. Pre-Reformation Christianity never quite went so far as to affirm that human beings by their actions can earn or lose salvation, but it did propose that salvation offered by God can be rejected by human beings’ free moral acts.
Calvin denies moral freedom. In his view, God has already chosen those who will be saved. Even among Christians, who have heard the Gospel and received the sacraments, only a few are entitled to everlasting life; the rest are strangers and hypocrites. Calvin argues that God’s omnipotent grace makes up for the shortcomings of the elect, who are accounted for only when they convert. The existing pre-Reformation Church, Calvin argues, is merely an outward sign that might, or might not, be imbued by the Holy Spirit, and in any case cannot prepare a person to be worthy of grace.
The Calvinist view spawned the evangelical Protestant notion of conversion as an event that takes place in a particular moment (the famous committing one’s heart to Jesus). As a corollary, baptism is not to be administered to infants, the Eucharist is not a sacrifice nor are its ministers priests, nor is any idea of the Church traceable to Apostolic times valid. What clergy is left is only ministering “the Word,” meaning the printed Bible, and no other tradition or teaching is considered valid.
Nonetheless, in 1537, Calvin wrote the Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship at Geneva to the city’s Protestant-leaning council and effectively set up a theocracy there, although he frequently traveled back to Strasbourg, where he lived with his family, also under a Protestant theocratic order he established.
Voltaire later wrote about Calvin, Luther and Zwingli, “If they condemned celibacy in the priests, and opened the gates of the convents, it was only to turn all society into a convent. Shows and entertainments were expressly forbidden by their religion; and for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva. They condemned auricular confession, but they enjoined a public one; and in Switzerland, Scotland, and Geneva it was performed the same as penance.”
Calvin’s Geneva notably invented execution of the unfaithful or sinful by drowning; those convicted had stones tied to their necks, so they would sink in Lake Geneva and die from asphyxiation.
Calvinism’s influence on English and Scottish Protestantism stemmed from Geneva’s sheltering exiles who fled the reign of Catholic Mary Tudor starting in 1555. Among them, John Knox and others carried Calvin’s ideas back home. Calvinism arose in England and spread throughout the English-speaking world about a hundred years later, through the Puritans, whose Westminster Confession became the confessional document of Presbyterians.
Churches that now have “Reformed” in their name are heavily influenced by them and can be said to be Calvinist, deriving the name from a Reformed Constitutional Synod held in 1567 in Debrecen, Hungary, which set forth another important document in Continental Calvinism. The movement spread to other parts of the world, including North America, South Africa (where the Reformed Church was instrumental in supporting Apartheid) and Korea.