John Calvin (1509-1564)

The young French student trained in law and stoic philosophy who fled Paris in 1534 because of his links with supporters of the Reformation, and a few years later found himself called to Geneva, has had an extraordinary impact on our history and identity.

In the midst of the fierce religious debates and political conflicts of that era, he sharpened his understanding of what Christians should believe, how they should live in a worshipping community of ordered ministry and discipline, and how a Christian vision should impact a Christian society. 

Through his pastoral leadership, his writings in Latin and French, and by the influence of refugees from Britain and Europe who came to experience in Geneva what Knox called the most perfect School of Christ since the Apostles, Calvin's ideas and example took root as a major stream of Protestant Christianity alongside Lutherans and Anglicans.  Even for Presbyterians in 21st century New Zealand, many cultures and diverse experiences of faith later, it is difficult to understand ourselves without reference to Calvin. From early on Calvin became the centre of an international movement. For many Reformed Protestants being refugees and migrants became a part of their identity, chosen like the children of Israel, seeking God's presence and promises in alien contexts, living by their faith and their wits to make a world for their descendants that would bring glory to God.

Calvin's theology still provides us with the enduring framework of Presbyterian and Reformed theology and practice. People debate his personality and some of his decisions and not all find it easy to allow him to be a person of his time and place. The systematic clarity of his theology continues to inspire and impress, and possibly also seduce. There really are those who find it difficult to believe there could be anything significant about God Calvin did not map out. However if we see Calvin as a source of wisdom, not of infallibility, and as the writer of sermons and commentaries, as well as the famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, it may be easier to learn from him without seeing it as a hugely big deal if we think differently on some issues.

Life and influence

Calvin was born at Noyon in France 10 July 1509, studied arts in Paris from 1522 to about 1526 and law at Orléans and Bourges until 1531. In 1532 he published a commentary on the writings of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. By 1533 he had become associated with the Reformed cause and dedicated himself to the writing of theology. In October 1534 Protestants in Paris placed posters around the city and Calvin felt it advisable to leave.

In Basle in 1536 he published in Latin the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Passing through Geneva in July that year he was compelled by William Farel to join in the task of establishing the Reformation there. They moved too fast and in 1538 were banished. Calvin went to Strasbourg, sat at the feet of Martin Bucer, and pastored a French Congregation. In 1541 he was recalled to Geneva where he remained until his death in 1564. Through hosting refugees and the influence of his Academie on pastors returning to their own countries his ideas spread.

Online References:

John Calvin Documents

Jack Arnold, Life of Calvin, 1509-1541, 1541-1564

Calvin's Hymn?

Dolan Cummings, There is more to Calvinism than dourness and asceticism, Spiked Review of Books, July 2009

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Calvin's Commentaries online

Genevan Book of Order (1556)

Jason Goroncy Reformation in Europe: John Calvin

Margaret A. Mackay, Folk religion in a Calvinist context: Hungarian models and Scottish examples. (The Twentieth Katherine Briggs Memorial Lecture, November 2001). Folklore, Oct, 2002

On The Christian Life (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

Graham Redding - Calvin and the Cafe Church, 2005 School of Ministry Inaugural lecture.

Herman Selderhuis RTS Orlando on Feb. 24-25, 2009 "The Discovery of John Calvin"




Happy Birthday

2009 marks the 500th birth of John Calvin. See Calvin 2009.

Calvin and Calvinism

It is necessary to distinguish Calvin from Calvinism. Calvinism is not just the summary of his teachings, it is their interpretation by subsequent generations.

Every generation in the Reformed churches since Calvin has responded both to Calvin's own teachings, and to the theology of Calvinist teachers since. Hence although the word Calvinism continues to refer to how Calvin's teaching is interpreted, that can be expected to change over time and place. It is sometimes informed by revisiting Calvin's own life and writings. It is sometimes a reflection of later theological debates. We interact with the layers of interpretation as well as the source - as we do with the teachings of Jesus.

Caution is needed about reading back successive Calvinisms into Calvin himself. Later teaching may tell us something about Calvin that has been missed or misunderstood, but it may not. It will always be to some extent about issues in its own time and context. Some arguments with Calvinism are arguments with Calvinists not with Calvin.

For instance the decisions of the Synod of Dort in 1619 (often referred to as TULIP) are Calvinist in influence, but should not be attributed to Calvin himself. Likewise the Westminster Confession of 1646. Each of these take Calvin's ideas and address contemporary issues. We cannot understand them properly apart from their historical context. We should not say Calvin taught something just because we like or do not like something in Dort or Westminster.

The Evangelical leader Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was selective in what he took from both Calvin and from the Confession, yet considered himself true to both. The word Calvinism in his time refers more to Scottish interpretations of Dort and Westminster than to Calvin himself. Although Chalmers' theology teacher, George Hill, recommended reading Calvin directly, Chalmers like others tended to interact with the issues of his own day. In a era becoming interested in mission overseas and aware of the need for mission among an emerging working class, he retained the vision properly but not uniquely attributable to Calvin that Christian faith should apply to the whole of society. He regarded the word Calvinism as applying to theologies of election and predestination which might inhibit making a universal offer of the Gospel to all who might respond - things he regarded it as God's business - ours was to preach the Gospel.

Even though for the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birthday in 2009 there has been an enormous effort made to correct popular misunderstandings about Calvin, it too can be expected to be shaped by contemporary concerns. Some of this may be detected in the video clips above.

Modern Calvinists are often concerned that words like gloomy, strict, unreconstructed, narrow, severe - all spectres of a religion the un-named enlightened "we" do not like, are still commonly linked to Calvinism without apology (see the piece Why won't Calvin die? in the Guardian for instance).

Contemporary Calvinists can be expected to suggest that Calvin should not be blamed for being a person of his own time, and the things about Calvin which are difficult for some today (eg his role in the execution of the anti-trinitarian Servitus and in the formulation and enforcement of an intrusive moral code in Geneva and its export to Scotland) should be played down as common features of 16th century European life. It will be recalled how Calvin contributed to education, business and democratic values because these are valued today. We are likely to hear that Calvin is both a champion of religious freedom and an example of God-sanctioned oppression.

All of us reflect our own times and circumstances as well as the views of the people we draw on. No generation is infallible in its interpretation of Calvin, and each generation will have its own perspectives and questions on his interpretation of what it was to be a faithful Christian minister. It may be that in his method and values, and the questions his faith raised which our times find hard to hear, God's Spirit may still speak to us. That rather than any notions of infallibility for him or for us, may be where his greatest influence still lies.


There may be some surprises in the Dutch newspaper quiz "How Calvinist are you?" Trouw

Huck Finn  in the late 19th century:

"It was pretty ornery preaching -- all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don't know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet."

(Huck Finn in Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, quoted by Hart, D G and Mark A Noll,
Dictionary of the Presbyterian & Reformed Tradition in America, IVP, 1999, p.xv.)

Whether Calvin and Hobbes also tells us something about theology and philosophy and Reformed identity might also be worth a conversation!


TULIP : Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints.

Other pieces from the Guardian relating to Calvin's 500th were more balanced: Calvin and the limits of earthly power, People power in Geneva. Catholic appreciation of Calvin is generally nuanced, but it was interesting to read of a tendency for some in the Vatican to characterise "What is wrong with America, including its Catholics" as its Calvinism. See  Word from Rome December 14, 2001 and May 23, 2003. The main features are individualism, a lack of sense of community, and a weak doctrine of Grace leading to harsh and unforgiving attitudes.