July 10, 2009

Happy birthday, John Calvin

Today is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin - along with Martin Luther, one of the chief architects of the Protestant Reformation, and one of the most important shapers of Western civilization.

Calvin was born Jean Cauvin in Noyon, France to Gerard Cauvin, a successful attorney, and Jeanne le Franc, a devout Catholic. The name Calvin is derived from the Latin version of his surname, Calvinus. Nothing is known about his childhood, and very little about his early years. As a student in Paris, he studied the liberal arts before continuing his studies in theology at his father's request. Later, when Gerard had a falling-out with the local bishop, he instructed John to pursue an education in civil law, which he did in the French city of Orléans. After graduating in 1531, he returned to Paris.

Calvin had wanted to be a man of letters, not a professional lawyer. In 1532 he self-published a commentary on the Roman philosopher Seneca's Treatise on Clemency. While Calvin's book evidenced considerable rhetorical skill, it otherwise went unnoticed.

Something else happened during his time in Paris: Calvin became an evangelical Protestant, and then an informal leader to other Paris evangelicals. He said or wrote little about his conversion. All that is known about the occasion is what he himself says in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms:

To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself in obedience to the will of my father; but 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, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.

Two crucial incidents took place during Calvin's time in Paris. On November 1, 1533, his friend Nicholas Cop preached a strongly pro-Lutheran sermon in defense of Queen Margaret of Navarre, his patroness and a supporter of reformation. This address enraged both civil and church authorities, compelling Cop to flee Paris. Second, on October 18, 1534, a number of handbills attacking the Mass were affixed to public buildings. As a result of the so-called Placard Incident, Paris became a dangerous place to be an evangelical. Calvin decided to flee to Basel, which was a safe haven for Protestants.

While in Basel, Calvin received news from Geneva that a reformation was underway there. He also got news from France that his evangelical friends were being persecuted and martyred. In response to the persecution, in 1536 he published the first edition of his systematic theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, and addressed it to Francis I, king of France. The Institutes were both a defense of the orthodoxy of Protestants and a handy aid for evangelical ministers to use to defend the faith, originally published in a compact octavo format, rather than the 4-volume opus we're familiar with today.

That same year, France offered amnesty to evangelical fugitives if they renounced their views within six months. Calvin took advantage of the amnesty to return to Paris and settle his personal affairs. He intended to move to the free city of Strasbourg, and live quietly as a professional scholar. However, a war between King Francis and Charles V of Germany obstructed the most direct route to Strasbourg. He was compelled to take a longer route through Switzerland, where he stopped overnight in Geneva.

The reformer Guillaume Farel was in Geneva at the time, and somehow word got to him that Calvin was lodging in Geneva. When he located him, he entreated Calvin to stay and participate in the Swiss reformation. Calvin wanted only to pursue his own course of study in Strasbourg, but the zealous Farel, unsatisfied, threatened Calvin with a divine curse his studies if he refused to stay. Calvin acquiesced and remained in Geneva, assisting Farel as a Bible lecturer.

Farel and Calvin were continually at odds with the civil government and inhabitants of Geneva, who thought their moral reforms too strict. Geneva had three classes of residents: there were the citoyens, natural, baptized citizens of Geneva who had the right to participate in all levels of city government; bourgeois, who purchased their franchise and were allowed to take limited part in government; and habitants, resident aliens that were not allowed to participate in politics. Calvin was only a habitant. He and Farel, both French, were barely tolerated within Geneva because there were no citoyens qualified to be ministers of the church. The Genevans continually resisted their attempts to reform the organization of the local church. In 1538, a government was elected that was openly antagonistic to the reformers, and they were ordered not to preach on Easter Sunday. They defied the order, and consequently were banished from the city.

Guillaume Farel left Geneva for Neuchâtel, where he remained until his death. Another reformer, Martin Bucer, persuaded Calvin to settle with him in Strasbourg - ironically, the very place Calvin had originally been trying to get to when Farel had persuaded him to change his plans. Calvin became the pastor of the French expatriates in Strasbourg. He published numerous biblical commentaries, as well as a revision of the Institutes in 1539. And he also found time to marry: to Idelette de Bure, a widow whose first husband had been one of Calvin's converts.

In Geneva, the absence of Calvin and Farel led to disorder within the church, and the Genevans began to have second thoughts about banishing them. The Roman Catholic bishop of the district of Geneva, Jacopo Sadoleto, had also written an eloquent open letter to the Genevan Protestants, inviting them to return to the Roman fold. The Genevans had no desire to return to Rome, but they did not know how to respond to Sadoleto's persuasive rhetoric. But Calvin had obtained a copy of the letter, and on his own initiative, he wrote a forceful reply to Sadoleto. This letter raised Calvin's esteem again in the eyes of many Genevans. Copies also reached Wittenberg, where Martin Luther read it and praised it highly: "Here is a writing which has hands and feet," he said. "I rejoice that God has raised up such men." Luther and Calvin never met, but Calvin's letter to Sadoleto was the occasion of some correspondence between them.

By 1540, the council of Geneva was ready to invite Calvin back to the city, and they sent a delegation to Strasbourg to persuade him to return. Initially, Calvin refused. Once again, however, thanks to the entreaties of Guillaume Farel, he reluctantly changed his mind. He eventually returned to Geneva on September 13, 1541.

Calvin's second tenure in Geneva was longer and more productive, but despite the invitation from the Genevans, they were still antagonistic to his presence in their city. And this period was also the time of his greatest controversy, which will be the primary subject of tomorrow's installment.