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Thursday, January 8, 2009

John Calvin & Calvinism

This only covers about half of his life...well maybe more than half.

Was born in Noyon, a city of Picardy about sixty miles northeast of Paris, on July 10, 1509. His father, Gerard Cauvin, was a self-made man who had risen to the posts of secretary of the Noyon bishopric and attorney for its cathedral chapter. He also enjoyed the friendship of the powerful noble family of Hangest, which gave two bishops to Noyon in his lifetime. John Calvin was intimately acquainted with the younger members of this family, and this friendship earned for him a familiarity with the ways of polite society such as few of the reformers enjoyed. Through the father's influence, the son received the income from certain ecclesiastical posts in and near Noyon, the earliest being assigned him before the age of twelve. He was never ordained into the Roman priesthood.

Thus provided with means, Calvin entered the University of Paris in 1523, studying first at the College de la Marche, where for a time he enjoyed the remarkable instruction in Latin given by Mathurin Cordier (1479-1564), to whom he owed the foundation of his brilliant literary style. H then pursued his arts course at the semimonastic College de Montaigu, where he was trained in Aristotelian philosophy and nominalist logic, possibly by the Scottish theologian John Major (1470-1550), and graduated as master of arts in 1528. While a student, he formed a number of warm friendships, notably with the family of Guillaume Cop, the king's physician and an eager supporter of humanism. Calvin's father had intended him for theology and the priesthood, but by 1527 Gerard Cauvin was at odds with the Noyon cathedral chapter and determined that his son should study law. Hence, Calvin now went to the University of Orleans, where Pierre de l'Estoile (1480-1537) enjoyed great fame as a jurist, and in 1529 to the University of Bourges, to listen to Andrea Alciati (1493-1550). Humanistic interests strongly Greek with the aid of Melchoir Wolmar (1496-1561), a German scholar who remained his lifelong friend. He took his licentiate in law; but the death of his Greek studies and began Hebrew at the humanist College de France, which King Francis I had founded at Paris in 1530. At this time, Calvin was hard at work on his first book, the Commentary on Seneca's Treatise on Clemency, which was published in April 1532. It was a marvel of erudition ans was marked no less by a profound sense of moral values, but in it Calvin displayed no interest in the religious questions of the age. He was simply an earnest, deeply learned humanist.

Yet it was not for lack of opportunity to know the new doctrines that Calvin was still untouched by the struggle His tutor Wolmar was committed to the Reformation, as was Calvin's Kinsman and fellow student at Orleans, Pierre Robert (1506?-1538), known as Olivetan because his studiousness led him to burn the midnight oil. Humanism, moreover, had promoted in France, as elsewhere, a reformist movement. Its most conspicuouc representative had long been Jacques LeFevre d'Etaples (1460?-1536), who for some years after 1507 made his home in the monastery of St.-Germain des Pres at Paris, gathering about him a notable group of disciples. Among his pupils were Guillaume Briconnet (1470-1534), the active leader of the French reformist party and from 1516 bishop of

At some point between the publication of his first book in the spring of 1532 and the spring of 1534, Calvin experienced what he later called a "sudden conversion." (Some scholars date this conversion as early as 1528-1530, in which case it would be necessary to explain the absence of anything distinctly Protestant in Calvin's commentary on Seneca.) Of its circumstances nothing is known for certain, but at its center was the conviction that God, in his secret providence, had turned Calvin's course in a new direction and was subduing and making teachable his hardened heart. Religion henceforth held first place in Calvin's thoughtd. Whether he even yet thought of breaking with the Roman church is doubtful. He was still a member of the humanistic circle in Paris, of which Roussel and his intimate friend Nicholas Cop were leaders.

On November 1, 1533, Cop delivered an inaugural address as newly elected rector of the University of Paris, in which he pleaded for reform, using language borrowed from Erasmus and Luther. That Calvin wrote the oration, as has often been alleged is improbable, but he undoubtedly sympathized with its sentiments. The commotion aroused was great, and King Francis enjoined action against the "Lutherans." Cop and Calvin had to seek safety, which Calvin found in the home of a friend, Louis du Tillet, in Angouleme. Calvin's sense of the necessity of separation from the older communion was now rapidly developing, and it led him to go to Noyon to resign his benefices on May 4, 1534. But France was becoming too perilous for him, especially after Antione Marcourt posted his injudicious theses against the Mass in October 1534, and in January 1535, Calvin was safely in Protestant Basel.

Marcourt's placards had been followed by a sharp renewal of persecution, one of the victims being Calvin's friend, the Parisian merchant, Estienne de la Forge. Francis I was coquetting for the aid of German Protestants against Charles V, and so, to explain French Protestantism with anarchistic aims such as no government could bear. Calvin felt that he must defend his slandered fellow believers. He therefore rapidly completed a work begun in Angouleme, and published it in March 1536 as his Institutes of the Christian Religion, prefacing it with a letter to the French King. The letter is one of the literary masterpieces of the Reformation age. Courteous and dignified, it is a tremendously forceful presentation of the Protestant position and defense of its holdrs against the royal slanders. No French Protestant had yet spoken with such clearness, restraint, and power, and with it its author of twenty-six years stepped at once into the leadership of French Protestantism.
The Institutes, designed as a catechism of six chapters, were eventually to grow into a monumental treatise of eighty chapters in Calvin's final edition of 1559, but even in 1536 they were already the most orderly and systematic popular presentation of doctrine and of the Christian life that the Reformation produced. As a second-generation reformer, Calvin did not purport to be a "creative" thinker. He readily acknowledged that his work could not have been done without Luther's Antecedant labors. He appropriated Luther's conception of Justification by faith and of the sacraments as seals of God's promises. He derived much from Bucer, notably his emphasis on the glory of God as that for which all things are Created, on predestination as a doctrine of Christian confidence, and on the consequences of divine election as a strenuous endeavor for a life of conformity to the will of God. But all is systematized and clarified with a skill that was Calvin's own.
The highest human knowledge, Calvin taught, is that of God and of ourselves. Enough comes by nature, through the testimony of the conscience, to leave us without excuse, but adequate saving knowledge is given only in the Scriptures, which the witness of the Spirit in the heart of the Believing reader attests as the very voice ofGod. these divine oracles teach that God is good and is the source of all goodness everywhere. Obedience to God's will is the primal human duty. As originally created, man was good and capable of obeying God's will, but he lost goodness and power alike in Adam's fall, and is now of himself, absolutely incapable of goodness. Hence, no human work is meritorious before God, and all persons are in a state of ruin meriting only damnation. From this helpless and hopeless condition, some are underservedly rescued through the word of Christ. He paid the penalty due for the sins of those in whose behalf he died; yet the offer and reception of this satisfaction was a free act on God's part, so that its cause is God's love.

All that Christ has wrought is unavailing unless it becomes one's personal possession. This appropriation is effected by the Hoy Spirit, who works when, how, and where he will, creating repentance and faith-a faith which, as with Luther, is a vital union between the believer and Christ. This new life of faith is salvation, but it is salvation unto righteousness. That believers now perform works pleasing to God is proof that they have entered into lively union with christ. "We are justified not without works, yet not by works." Calvin thus left room for a conception of "works" as strenous as any advanced by the Roman church, though very different in relation to the acomplishment of salvation. The standard set before Christians is the law of God, as contained in the Scriptures, not as a basis of their salvation but as an expresssion of that will of God which they, as people already saved, will strive to fulfill. This emphasis on the law as the guide of Christian life was peculiarly Calvin's own. It has made Calvinism always insistent on character, though in Calvin's conception one is saved to character rather than by character. The Christian life is nourished, above all, by prayer.

Since all good is of God, and sinners are unable to initiate or resist their conversion, it follows that the reason some are saved and others are lost is the Divine choice-election and reprobation. It is absurd to seek a reason for that choice beyond the all-determining will of God. For Calvin, however, election (predestination) was never a matter of speculation but always a doctrine of Christian comfort. That God had a plan of salvation for a person, individually, was an unshakable rock of confidence, not only for one convinced of his own unworthiness, but for one surrounded by opposing forces even if they were those of priests and Kings. It made the believer a fellow laborer with God in the accomplishment of God's will.

Three institutions have been divinely established by which the Christian life is maintained: the church, the sacraments, and civil government. In the last analysis, the Church consists of "all the elect ofGod", but it also properly denotes "the whole body of mankind....who profess to worship one God and Christ." Yet there is no true church "where lying and falshood have gained ascendancy." The New Testament recognizes as church officers only pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons, who enter on their charges with the assent of the congregation that they serve. Their "call" is twofold, the secret inclination from God and the "approbation of the people." Calvin thus gave to the congregation a voice in the choice of its officers, though circumstances at Geneva were to compel him to regard that voice there as expressed by the city government. Similarly, Calvin claimed for the church full and independent jurisdiction in disipline up to the point of excommunication. Further it could not go; but it was a retention of a freedom which all the other leaders of the Reformation had abandoned to state supervision. Civil government has, however, the divinely appointed task of fostering the church, protecting it from false doctrine, and punishing offenders for whose crimes excommunication is insufficient.
Calvin recognized only two sacraments-baptism and the Lord's Supper. Regarding the burning question ofChrist presence in the supper, he stood, like Bucer, partway between Luther and Zwingly, nearer the Swiss reformer in form and to the German in spirit. Like Zwingly, he denied any physical presence of Christ; yet he asserted in the clearest terms a real, though spiritual, presence received by faith. "Christ, out of the substance of his flesh, breathes life into our souls, indeed pours forth his own life into us, though the real flesh of Christ does not enter us." [1]


[1] pages 471-475 from the book "A History of the Christian church" by Walker, published by Scribner, New York 1918 & 1985


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