Friday, May 4, 2012

Who Was John Calvin? A Very Short Introduction. (Part 1 of 3).

By Pastor Matthew Everhard

You don’t have to attend a Presbyterian, Reformed, or evangelical church very long before you hear the name John Calvin bandied about. In fact, this stalwart hero of Christian history is honored in most protestant churches still today, five hundred years after his death. Dozens of denominations trace their spiritual lineage through this man in some way or another. In fact, in a recent Time Magazine article, the “New Calvinism” was heralded as one of the most influential movements in the world today.  Period! In other words, a renewed interest in this man and his teaching is energizing the Christian movement worldwide.

We recently celebrated the 500th birthday of John Calvin. But why is this man so significant? Why is he so popular? Why is he still so influential? Hopefully this article will help you to understand more about this monumental figure in Christian history and why the present writer (a pastor myself) gravitates toward him.

Personal Life
John Calvin was born in Noyon France in 1509. Like most in France at that time Calvin was raised as a Roman Catholic. Displaying a sharp mind from his youth, Calvin was reared and groomed by his father to attain a career as a churchman, perhaps a priest or even bishop. Later, his father changed his mind and switched the young Calvin to the pursuit of a career in law. Calvin had many privileges as a young man, perhaps the most important of which was his formal education at the University of Paris, and the College de Montaigu among others. His acumen for intellectual precision would serve him well in his later years as a theologian, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves just yet.

During his college years, the ideas of a certain German named Martin Luther were sweeping through Europe. One generation younger than Luther, Calvin was soon swept up on the coattails of the Reformation. Of course at the time, Luther did not want to create any new “denomination,” he merely sought the restructure and purity of the existing church. It is difficult to pin down, but at some time during his university years, Calvin would become inflamed with the gospel truths put forth by Luther and his followers. In his own words, he experienced a “sudden conversion.” In a controversial moment, one of Calvin’s dear friends, Nicholas Cop was asked to give an address at the University of Paris. In the address, this bold young man took the opportunity to promote the Reformation gospel. Some suspect, due to the brilliance of the essay, that Calvin himself may have written it for him!

In any case the address was highly controversial and Calvin bolted town, feeling the heat. As you may imagine, to be counted among the “reformed” Christians was a deeply controversial thing in a profoundly Roman Catholic nation such as France. Due to political pressures, many of the Reformed sought out other havens to escape the increasing persecution. Calvin too would soon be seeking refuge elsewhere. In January of 1535, he arrived in Basel Switzerland, a safe haven.

Calvin became increasing consumed by knowing the Scriptures in a comprehensive way. No surface familiarity with Scripture would do. He needed to master them. He was driven by His love for God and His Word. He soon rose above his peers in his ability to know, understand, and articulate the Scriptures. Calvin acquired an immense knowledge of the Biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew (as well as Latin) and began penning a work that would truly become one of the most important Biblical works of theology of all time. He called it “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” At first, The Institutes was a simple book, six chapters. With parallel versions in French and Latin, Calvin’s goal was to show the world (especially the King of France to whom he addressed the preface) that the Reformers taught a biblically pure doctrine—certainly no heresy as they were often accused of propagating. It must be remembered that Calvin wrote to defend the biblical doctrine for which many of his brothers in the faith were literally dying at the stake. To isolate The Institutes from its historical context is to rob it of much of its power today.

Well, to make a long story short, the Institutes were a smashing success. Since Luther was a bold, outspoken (and often brash) man—who spent most of his time putting out the fires of controversy—Calvin neatly stepped into the role of the Reformation’s most excellent, precise, and Spirit-filled theologian. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s immediate successor and closest friend, called Calvin simply “The Theologian.” Luther himself, who never met Calvin, read one of his works on the Lord’s Supper and was deeply impressed, “This is a work that has hands and feet!” Luther boasted in rare fashion.

As with all great men, history would soon foist itself upon Calvin. Enjoying some success with his hot little book, Calvin determined to retire and live the “ivory tower” life of a professional theologian, away from the controversy and excitement of the day. His goal was to move to Strasbourg, a German protestant city. Serendipitously, Calvin was literally and physically deterred from his path to retirement and ease as a scholar. On his way, Calvin was forced to take a detour through Geneva—the armed conflict between France and the German emperor literally blocked his path. He never intended to stay, but on that night a fiery redhead named William Farel heard of Calvin’s brief stop in the equivalent of a Genevan Motel 6.  Having heard of Calvin’s now famous work, Farel immediately went to Calvin’s room and proceeded to call down the fires of heaven cursing Calvin’s retirement unless he should stay in Geneva to help establish the Reformation there. Farel himself had already persuaded the city counsel in Geneva of the worth of the Reformed movement; he needed only a partner.

Because of Farel’s insistence (and not a little bit of fear from his imprecation!) Calvin agreed. Here in Geneva, he would find his most important pastoral work. He was made pastor of the Church of St. Peter. There, he worked tirelessly preaching as many as five sermons a week to the gathered people, hungry for God’s Holy Word. One might hope that Calvin could have found the peace he had longed for to work on his Biblical commentaries and the constant revisions of his burgeoning Institutes. Unfortunately, this could not be. Embroiled in a political power struggle with the City Council, Calvin and Farel were both soon kicked out of the very city they loved! In Easter of 1538, they were sent away.

For a couple of years, Calvin labored as a pastor to the French refuges in Strasbourg. Surprisingly in 1541, the city counsel of Geneva abruptly changed course and invited the Reformers back, admitting the error of their ways! Famously, when Calvin returned to Geneva after his expulsion, he resumed his preaching—on the very next verse of the text in which he had left off those months ago!

Soon Calvin became increasingly more powerful in his authority as a Bible expositor. By 1559 The Institutes had reached their full potential and Calvin had now become satisfied at their final form. The once-small pamphlet had become a massive tome that encompasses over 1,300 pages of miniscule type-font in my bedside edition! Each page, of course, was stocked full of the most precise biblical exposition and application imaginable, unfolding a truly comprehensive systematic theology of the Christian faith. Calvin continued to do a few things very well: he preached, taught, instructed seminary students, helped plant churches, and of course, wrote fervently. Calvin wrote massive commentaries of nearly all of the books of the Bible. Just to get an idea: my collection of his works, when setting next to each other on a book shelf, are longer than my leg!

As for his personal life, Calvin married a widow and mother named Idelette de Bure. His bride, however, died leaving him with the step-children that he had gained through marriage. I think it interesting that the world’s most excellent theologian in the last 500 years was also a step-father! Physically, Calvin was born with a frail physique and suffered from his weak condition most of his life. Remaining portraits of Calvin present a man often gaunt and emaciated. Like most men of his era, Calvin suffered immensely with physical conditions that could not be countered by the medical technology of his day. For this reason, working through pain, his production in his writings is absolutely amazing.

See part 2/3.
See part 3/3.

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such a great introduction. Now I am one to part two.