John Calvin

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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [1]

one of the most eminent of the Reformers.

1. Sketch Of His Life. He was born at Noyon, July 10th, 1509, his father, Gerard Chauvin, being a notary. He was from the first educated for the Church, and before he was twelve years old was presented to a benefice in the Cathedral of Noyon. Six years after this he was appointed to a cure of souls at Montiille, and thus, although not yet twenty, and not even in the minor orders, he was enjoying the title and revenues of a cure. His father now changed his mind as to the destination of his son, and desired him to turn his attention to the law as the road to wealth. This change was not unacceptable to Calvin, who, from his perusal of the Scripturess a copy of which was furnished him by Robert Olivetan, who was his fellow scholar at Paris, and likewise a native of Nyovn had already been convinced of many of the errors of the KRonish Church. He accordingly repaired to Olleans, where he studied under Peter Stella, and then to Bruges, where Andrew Alciat filled tie chair of law, and where also Amelchior Wolnar; the l'eforil;er, taught him Greek. Here Calvin was confirmed in the doctrines of the Reformation, and began indeed to preach them in the villages. His father, however, dying, he returned to Noyosn, but after a short period went to Paris, where, in 1532, he published commentaries onSeneca's two books, De Clementia.

"He now resigned his benefices, and devoted himself to divinity. In 1533, Cop, the rector of the University of Paris, having occasion to read a discourse on the festival of All Saints, Calvin persuaded him to declare his opinion on the new doctrines. This brought upon them both the indignation of the Sorbonne, and they were forced to leave the city. Calvin /went to several places, and at length to Angouleme, where he got shelter in the house of Louis du Tallet, a canon of Angoul(me, and supported himself sometime by teaching Greek. There he composed the greater part of his Institutes of the Christiana Religion, which were published in 15;,6. The Queen of Navarre, sister to Francis I, having shown him some countenance in respect for his learning and abilities, he returned to Paris in 1534 under her protection, but quitted France the same year, having first published Psychopannychia, to confute the error of those who held that the soul remained in a state of sleep between death and the resurrection. He retired to Baslc, where he published the Institutes (1536), dedicated to Francis I in an elegant Latin epistle. The design of the Institutes was to exhibit a full view of the doctrines of the Reformers; and as no similar work had appeared since the Reformation, and the peculiarities of the Romish Church were attacked in it with great force, it immediately became popular. It soon went through several editions, was translated by Calvin himself into French, and has since been translated into all the principal modern languages. Its effect upon the Christian world has been so remarkable as to entitle it to be looked upon as one of those books that have changed the face of society.

After this publication Calvin went to Italy, and was received with distinction from the Duchess of Ferrara, daughter of Louis XII. But, notwithstanding her protection, he was obliged to return to France, but soon left it again, and in the month of August,1536, arrived at Geneva, where the Reformed religion had been the same year publicly established. There, at the request of Farel, Viret, and other eminent Reformers, by whom that revolution had been achieved, lie became a preacher of the Gospel, and professor, or rather lecturer on divinity. Farel was then twenty years older than Calvin, but their objects were the same, and their learning, virtue, and zeal alike, and these were now combined for the complete reformation of Geneva, and the diffusion of their principles throughout Europe. In the month of November a plan of Church government and a confession of faith were laid before the public authorities for their approval. Beza makes Calvin the author of these productions; but others, with perhaps greater reason, attribute them to Farel.

There is little doubt, however, that Calvin was consulted in their composition, and still less that he lent his powerful aid to secure their sanction and approval by the people in the month of July, 1537. The same year the Council of Geneva conferred on Farel the honor of a burgess of the city, in token of their respect and gratitude. But the popular will was not prepared for' the severe discipline of the Reformers, and in a short time the people, under the direction of a faction, met in a public assembly and expelled Farel and Calvin from the place. Calvin retired to Bern, and then to Strasburg, where he was appointed professor of divinity and minister of a French church, into which he introduced his own form of church government and discipline. In his absence great efforts were made to get the Genevese to return to the commlinion of the Church of Rome, particularly by Cardinal Sadolet, who wrote to them earnestly to that effect; but Calvin, ever alive to the maintenance of the principles of the Reformation, disappointed all the expectations of his enemies, and confirmed the Genevese in the new faith, addressing to them two powerful and affectionate letters, and replying to that written by Sadolet. While at Strasburg Calvin also published a treatise on the Lord's Supper (Traite de la Sainte Cesse), in which he combated the opinions both of the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, and at the same time explained his own views of that ordinance. Here, too, he published his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romus. Calvin became acquainted with Castalio during his residence at Strasburg, and procured for him the situation' of a regent at Geneva; and it was during his stay in this city that, by the advice of his friend Bucer, he married Idellet, the widow of a converted Analaptist.

"In November of the same year he and Farel were solicited by the Council of Geneva to return to their former charge in that city; in May, 1541, their bailment was revoked, and in September following Calvin was received into the city amid the congratulations of his flock, Farel remaining at Neufchatel. Ice immlediately laid before the council his scheme of church otxernment, and after it was adopted and published by authority (20th of November, 1541), he was unhesitating in its enforcement. His promptitude and firmness were now conspicuous; he was the ruling,lsirit in Geneva;and the Church which he had established there he wished to make the mother and seminary of all the Reformed churches. His personal labors were unceasing.

Geneva, however, was the common center of all his exertions, and its prosperity peculiarly interested him, though less for its own sake than to make it a fountain for the supply of the world. He established an academy there, the hi h character of which was long maintained; he made the city a literary mart, and encouraged the French refugees and others who sought his advice to apply themselves to the occupation of a printer or librarian; and having finished the ecclesiastical regimen, he directed his attention to the improvement of;the municipal government of the place. That Calvin should, in the circumstances in which he was now placed, show marks of intolerance toward others, is not surprising; and to seek a palliation of his guilt, we need not go back to the time when he belonged to the Church of Rome, nor yet to the notions of civil and religious liberty prevalent in his age. We have only to reflect on the constitution of the human mind, and the constant care necessary to prevent power in any hands from degenerating into tyranny. His conduct toward Servetus, (See Servetes), has been justly condemned, yet the punishment of Servetus was approved of by men of undoubted worth, and even by the mild Melancthon. Nor was his treatment of Bolsec (q.v.) without reproach. In 1554 Calvin published a work in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity against Servetus (Fidelis Expositio Errorum M. Serveti), and to prove the right of the civil magistrate to punish heresy; Beza the same year published a work on the like subject, in reply to the treatise of Castalio. The state of Calvin's health prevented him going in1561 to the Conference of Poissy (q.v.), an assembly which in his view promised to be of great consequence, and which was indeed remarkable in this respect, that from that time the followers of Calvin became known as a distinct sect, bearing the name of their leader.

To the last he maintainedthe; same firmness of character which had distinguished him through life. On his death-bed he took God to witness that he had preached the Gospel purely, and exhorted all about him to walk worthy of the divine goodness: his slender frame gradually became quite emaciated, and on the 27th of May, 1564, he died without a struggle, in the fifty-fifth year of his age. The person of Calvin was middlesized and naturally delicate; his habits were frugal and unostentatious; and he was so sparing in his food that for many years he took only one meal in the day. He had a clear understanding, an extraordinary memory, and a firmness and inflexibility of purpose which no opposition could overcome, no variety of objects defeati no vicissitude shake. In his principles he was devout and sincere, and the purity of his character in private life was without a stain." English Cyclopedia. It is impossible to contemplate without astonishment the labors of Calvin during the last twenty years of his life. He presided over the ecclesiastical and _political affairs of Geneva; he preached every day, lectured thrice a week, was present at every meeting of the Consistory, and yet found time for a vast correspondence, and to continue his voluminous literary labors. Besides his printed works, there are now in the library of Geneva 2025 sermons in MS.

His health during all this period was feeble, yet he continued his various toils almost up to the very day of his death. He chose to be poor, refusing on several occasions proposed additions; to his very moderate salary, and is said uniformly to have declined receiving presents, unless for the sake of giving them to the poor. From his numerous publications it is believed that he derived no pecuniary profit; and yet, as was the case with Wesley, he was assailed on all sides as having amassed great wealth. "I see," said he, "what incites my enemies to urge these falsehoods. They measure me according to their own dispositions,believing that I must be heaping up money on all sides because I enjoy such favorable opportunities for doing so. But assuredly, if I have not been able! to avoid the reputation of being rich during my life, death will at last free me from this stain." And so it was. By his last will Calvin disposes of his entire property, amounting to about two hundred and twenty-five dollars, and on the 27th day of May, 1564, being within a few weeks of fifty-five years of age, he calmly breathed his last in the arms of his friend Beza. He was buried, according to his own request, without pomp, and nomonument marks his last resting-place. Calvin's intellect was of the very first class, at once acute, penetrating, profound, and comprehensive. His cultivation was in harmony with it. Scaliger declares that at twenty-two Calvin was the most learned man in Europe.

"The first edition of his great work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, was published when he was twenty-seven years of age; and it is a most extraordinary proof of the maturity and vigor of his mind, of the care with which he had studied the Word of God, and of the depth and comprehensiveness of his meditations upon divine things, that, though the work was afterward greatly enlarged, and though some alterations were even made in the arrangement of the topics discussed, yet no change of any importance was made in the actual doctrines which it set forth. The first edition, produced at that early age, contained the substance of the whole system of doctrine which has since been commonly associated with his name, the development and exposition of which has been regarded by many as constituting a strong claim upon the esteem and gratitude of the Church of Christ, and by many others as rendering him worthy of execration and every opprobrium. He lived twenty-seven years more after the publication of the first edition of the Institutes, and a large portion of his time during the remainder of his life was devoted to the examination of the Word of God and the investigation of divine truth. But he saw no reason to make any material change in the views which he had put forth; and a large proportion of the most pious, able, and learned men and most careful students of the sacred Scriptures, who have since adorned the Church of Christ, have received all his leading doctrines as accordant with the teaching of God's Word." Brit. and For Evang. Review, No. 33.

As an expositor of the Scriptures and as a writer of systematic theology Calvin has had few rivals in the Christian Church. His Latin style is better than that of any Christian writer since Tertullian. Even the Roman Catholic Audin says, "Never does the proper word fail him; he calls it, and it comes." In brevity, clearness, and good sense, his commentaries are unsurpassed. As a civilian, "he had few equals among his contemporaries. In short, he exhibited, in strong and decided development, moral and intellectual qualities which marked him out for one who was competent to guide the opinions and control the commotions of inquiring and agitated: nations. Through the most trying and hazardous period of the Reformation he exhibited invariably a wisdom in counsel, a prudence of zeal, and. at the same time, a decision and intrepidity of character which were truly astonishing. In the full import of the phrase, he may be styled a benefactor of the world. Most intensely and effectually, too, did he labor for the highest temporal, and especially for the eternal interests of his fellowmen. He evidently brought to the great enterprise of the age a larger amount of moral and intellectual power than did any other of the Reformers." In the just language of the archbishop of Cashel (Dr. Lawrence), Calvin himself was both a wise and a good man; inferior to none of his contemporaries in general ability, and superior to almost all in the art, as well as elegance of composition, in the perspicuity and arrangement of his ideas, the structure of his periods, and the Latinity of his diction. Although attached to a theory which he found it difficult in the extreme to free from the suspicion of blasphemy against God as the author of sin, he certainly was no blasphemer, but, on the contrary, adopted that very theory from an anxiety not to commit, but, as he conceived, to avoid blasphemy that of ascribing to human what he deemed alone imputable to Divine agency."

2. Calvin'S Theological Views. The following, statements of Calvin's theology, which are believed to be impartial, are taken from Neander, History Of Dogmas, vol. 2.

(1) As to the Church, he says, "By the Church we understand not merely the ecclesia visibilis, but the elect of God, to whom even the dead belong." Hence he distinguishes the idea of the outward Church as the peculiar Christian community through which alone we can obtain entrance to eternal life; out of its pale there is no forgiveness of sins, no salvation. The marks of this Church are, that it publishes the Word of God in its purity, and administers the sacraments purely according to their institution. The universal Church is so called inasmuch as it includes believers of allnations. Here the important point is not agreement in all things, but only in essential doctrines (Instit. lib. 4).

(2) As to the Sacraments Calvin occupied a middle position. "On the one hand he protested against the notion of a magical influence, and on the other he held firmly to the objective. The sacraments are not mere signs, but signs instituted by God, which notify to men the Divine promise. They are the outward symbols by which God seals the promises of his grace to our conscience; they attest the weakness of our faith, and at the same time our love to Him. The sacraments effect this, not by any secret magical power, but because they are instituted for this end by the Lord; and they can only attain it when the inward agency of the Holy Spirit is added,whereby alone the sacraments find their way to the heart; they are therefore efficacious only for the predestinated." "Baptism is a seal of a covenant. Christ blessed children, commended them to their heavenly Father, and said that of such was the kingdom of heaven. If children ought to be brought to Christ, why should they not receive the symbol of communion with Christ? Also in the New Testament mention is made of the baptism of whole families, and the early use of infant baptism allows the conclusion that ithad come down from the time of the apostles. Infant baptism is also important for the parents, as a seal of the Divine promise which is continued from them to their children; another reason is, that by baptism children are incorporated in the Church, and are so much the more commended to the other members. He believed in a certain influence in infant baptism, and answers the objection to it by saying that, although we cannot understand this effect, it does not follow that it does not take place. He appealed to the fact that John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth, and Christ from the beginning with the Divine nature. From his humanity the principle of sanctification must overflow to men, and this would hold good of children" (Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 16).

On the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, "he opposed those who explained the words eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood,' only of faith in Christ, and the right knowledge of him (Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 17). Whoever received the Supper in faith was truly and perfectly a partaker of Christ. This communion was not merely a communion of spirit; the body of Christ, by its connectionwith the Divine nature, received a fullness of life which flowed over to believers. Calvin therefore admitted something supernatural, but thought that the event took place, not by virtue of the body of Christ, which, as such, could not be in several places, but by virtue of the power of the Holy Ghost a supernatural communication which no human understanding could ex. plain. This communion with Christ, by which he communicates himself and all his blessings, the Supper symbolically represents. The outward is indeed merely a sign, but not an empty sign; it really presents that which is signified by it, namely, the actual participation of the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. She explains the words of the institutions metonymically, in the sense that the sign is used for the thing signified; he denied any bodily presence of Christ; Christ does not descend to earth, but believers by the power of the Holy Spirit are raised to communion with him in heaven. Christ also descends to them not only by virtue of his Spirit, but also by the outward symbol; the organ by which communion is attained is faith the is presented to all, but received only by believers. The mere symbolical view depreciates the sign too much, and separates it from the sacrament; but by the other view the sign is exalted too much, and thereby the nature of the mystery itself is obscured."

(3) Calvin's views on Grace And Predestination were so strongly pronounced that his name is now used to designate an entire system. He maintained the "doctrine of absolute predestination, which in him was connected with a one-sided tendency of Christian feeling and a rigid logical consequence, Like Zuingle, he regarded prescience and predestination as of equal extent, and even established the former by the latter; God in no other way foresees the future but as he has decreed. Hence Calvin allowed no contingency even in the fall; le says, How could God, who effects all things, have formed the noblest of his creatures for an uncertain end? What then would become of his omnipotence? The Infralapsarians must still allow such a predestination in the case of Adam's descendants. It cannot have been in a,natural way that all lost salvation through the guilt of one. Yet he himself feels shocked at the thought; decretum quidem horribile fateor, he says. Consequently, God created the greatest part of mankind in order to glorify himself in them by his punitive justice, and the smaller by the revelation of his love.

His opponents might give a reason why God, who could have made them dogs, created them in his own image. Ought irrational brutes also to argue with God? All doubts may be silenced by the thought that God's will is the highest law and cause. Yet he did not rest here. The idea of an absolute omnipotence of God, not conditioned by holiness, he looked upon as profane, and appealed to the incomprehensibility of this mystery. It is to be acknowledged that Calvin sought to evade the practically injurious consequences of the doctrine of absolute predestination, and especially exalted the revealed grace of Godin. the work of redemption. Men ought to keep to the Word of God alone; and, instead of inquiring respecting their own election, look to Christ, and seek in him God's fatherly grace.' Calvin labored very much to procure the universal acknowledgment of this doctrine in Switzerland, but met with serious opposition, among others, from the learned Sebastian Castalio (q.v.). In Geneva Calvin at last obtained the victory, and then soon came to an understanding respecting it with other Swiss theologians. He attempted, but in vain, to get Melancthon on his side. Melancthon called him the modern Zeno, who wanted to introduce a stoical necessity into the Church, and expressed himself very warmly against him (Corpus Reformat. 7:932). When Calvin sent Melancthon his Confession of Faith, the latter was so excited that he struck his pen through the whole passage on predestination. Calvin remarked that this was very unlike his ingenita mansuetudo; that he could not imagine how a man of Melancthon's acuteness could reject this doctrine, and said, reproachfully, that he could not believe that he held the doctrines he professed with a sincere heart. On account of a doctrine to which speculation had by no means led him, he reproached him with judging nimisphilosophice concerning free will."

Calvin professes to be only a borrower from St. Augustine (Inst. bk. in, ch. xxiii, § 13); and he repudiates the consequences that have been charged upon his doctrine. For instance, he strenuously maintains that God is not the author of sin, that men act freely and accountably, and that election is a stimulus to good works rather than an opiate to inaction (Inst. bk. 3, ch.23, § 3, 9, 12). (See Calvinism); (See Predestination).

3. Literature. The best edition of the Latin works of Calvin is that ofAmsterdam (1671, 9 vols. fol.). A new edition is now going on in the Corpus Reformatfrum, under the title Calvini Oplera quce supersunt omnia (vols. 1-5, Brunswick, 1864, 1867). An excellent and very cheap edition of the Commentarii in N.T., edited by Tholuck, was published at Halle (1833-38, 7 vols. 8vo); one of the Comm. in Psalmos (1836, 2 vols.) and of the Institutiones Religionis Christiance was likewise edited by Tholuck (Halle, 1834, 1835, 2 vols. 8vo); one of the Comm. in lib. Geneseos (1838, 8vo) by Hengstenberg. Most of Calvin's writings have been translated into English; and a new and revised edition has been issued under the auspices of the "Calvin Translation Society," in very handsome style, yet cheap (Edinb. 51 vols. 8vo). Its contents are as follows: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3 vols.; Tracts on the Reformation, 3 vols.; Commentary on Genesis, 2 vols.; Harmony of the last Four Books of the Pentateuch, 4 vols.; Commentary on Joshua, 1 vol.; Commentary on the Psalms, 5 vols.; Commentary on Isaiah, 4 vols.; Connmentary on Jeremiah and Lamentations, 5 vols.; Commentary on Ezekiel, 2 vols.; Commentary on Daniel, 2 vols.; Commentary on Hosea, 1 vol.; Commentary on Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, vol.; Commentary on Jonah, Micah, and Nahum, 1 vol.; Commentary on Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai 1 vol.; Commentary on Zechariah and Malachi 1 vol.; Harmony of the Synoptical Evangelists, 3 vols.; Commentary on John's Gospel, 2 vols.; Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, 2 vols.; Commentary on Romans, 1 vol.; Commentary on Corinthians, 2 vols.; Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, I vol.; Commentary on Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 1 vol.; Commentary on Timothy, Titus, and  Philemon 1:1 vol.; Commentary on Hebrews, 1 vol.; Commentary on Peter, John, James, and  Judges 1:1 vol. There are English translations of his Institutiones by John Allen (Lond. 1813, reprinted in several editions by the Philadelphia Presbyterian Board of Publication), and by Beveridge (Edinb. 1863, 8vo). Calvin's life was written in brief by Beza (Eng. ed. 1844, Edinb. Trans. Soc.; also Phila. 1836,12mo) and Farel; but within the last few yearsseveral biographies have appeared. The most copious and elaborate is Leben J. Calvin's, von Paul,Henry, D.D. (Hamb. 1835-1844, 3 vols. 8vo). The author procured for his work the inedited letters of Calyin, which are preserved in Geneva, and gives the most important of them in the appendices. A poor translation has been published, entitled The Life of Calvin, translated from the German of Dr. Henry, by H. Stebbing, D. D. (Lond. 1849, 2 vols. 8vo); it omits most of the notes and appendices which make up great part of Henry's work. A Roman Catholic biography by Audin (Histoire, etc., de J. Calvin, par J. M. V. Audin, Paris, 2 vols. 1841) has the sole merit of a lively and piquant style. An English translation has been published in Baltimore (history, etc., of John Calvin, translated from Audin, by John Gill, evo); and it has also been translated into German (Augsb. 1843-44, 2 vols.), into Italian (in Pirotta's Bibliot. Ecclesiastes vols. ix and x, Milan, 1843), and into other languages. A graphic but superficial biography has been published by Thomas H. Dver (Lond. 1850; N. Y., Harpers, 1851). A Biography together with select writings of Calvin, was published by Stilhelin (J. Calvin. Leb. ui. ausgewdalle Schriften, Elberfeld, 2 vols. 1860, 1863). There is a good sketch of Calvin's life, by Robbins, in the Bibliotheca acra, vol. ii, for 1845. On the theology of Calvin, see Gass, Prot. Dotgmatik, vol. i, bk. i; art. CALVINISM (See Calvinism); and Revue Chritienne, 1863, p. 720; Cunningham, The Reformers And Theology Of The Reformation, Essays, 6-10. See also Tulloch, Leaders of the Reformation (new ed. Lond. 1861); Bungener, Calvin, his Life and Works (Edinb. 1862, 8vo). The Letters of Calvin, from original MSS., were first edited by Bonnet and translated by Constable (Edinb. 1855, 4 vols. 8vo, repub. by Presbyterian Board [Philadelphia]). A new edition of the Institutes in French, Institution de la Religion Chretienne, en quatre livres, appeared in Paris, 1859 (2 vols. 8vo). It contains an introduction by the editors, with a history of previous editions. See Meth. Quart. Review, Oct. 1850, art. in; Amer. Theol. Review, Feb. 1860, p. 129; North Brit. Review, vol. xiii; Brit. and Foreign Evang. Review, No. xxxiii; Biblioth. Sacra, xiv, p. 125; Kostlin, in Studien u. Kritiken, 1868, 1, 2.

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [2]

Or

he great Reformer, born at Noyon, in Picardy; devoted for a time to the law, was sent to study at the university of Orleans, after having mastered Latin as a boy at Paris; became acquainted with the Scriptures, and acquired a permanently theological bent; professed the Protestant faith; proceeded to Paris; became the centre of a dangerous religious excitement; had to flee for his life from France; retired to Basel, where he studied Hebrew and wrote his great epoch-making book, the "Institutes of the Christian Religion"; making after this for Strassburg, he chanced to pass through Geneva, was arrested as by the hand of God to stay and help on God's work in the place, but proceeded with such rigour that he was expelled, though recalled after three years; on his return he proposed and established his system of Church government, which allowed of no license in faith any more than conduct, as witness the burning of Servetus for denying the doctrine of the Trinity; for twenty years he held sway in Geneva, and for so long he was regarded as the head of the Reformed Churches in Scotland, Switzerland, Holland, and France. Besides his "Institutes," he found time to write Commentaries on nearly all the books of the Bible; was a man of masculine intellect and single-hearted devotion to duty, as ever in the "Great Taskmaster's" eye. His greatest work was his "Institutes," published in Basel in 1535-36. It was written in Latin, and four years after translated by himself into French. "In the translated form," says Prof. Saintsbury, "it is beyond all question the first serious work of great literary merit not historical in the history of French prose.... Considering that the whole of it was written before the author of it was seven-and-twenty, it is perhaps the most remarkable work of its particular kind to be anywhere found; the merits of it being those of full maturity and elaborate preparation rather than of youthful exuberance" (1509-1564).

References