The period of history known as “the Renaissance” opened the door to inquiry, expression and not a little controversy. It had it’s roots in Florence, Italy between 1350 and 1400 AD. among the wealthy who had access to Roman and Greek writing. The idea of “humanism” began to develop. That is, the power of critical thinking and evidence over acceptance of dogma or superstition. During the Middle Ages, most people felt that hardship and war were their lot in life but gradually the teachings of the great Latin and Greek books gained ground. Simply put, it created a ground for the Protestant reformation.
The Catholic Church had tried but failed to implement it’s own reforms. It continued using the Inquisition as a control against heresy. This was an official court within the church which handed out penalties of torture and death to anyone even suspected of dissent. In many cases it was used to dispose of people who were political enemies. The most common punishment was burning at the stake. Out of this environment, a few unlikely men rose, Luther being one of them. Another was John Calvin.
Luther was about 25 years old at the time Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509, his birth name, Jehan Cauvin. His father, Gerard, a notary for the church, intended that he and his 2 brothers should become priests. By age 12, he was already employed as a clerk to the bishop. Under the patronage of a wealthy family, he studied Latin and then Philosophy until his father decided that studying Law would be more profitable.
At this point he came into contact with a professor who sparked his interest in humanist ideas. He learned Greek in order to read the New Testament and in 1533, he experienced a “conversion”. In his description of it he describes God as bringing his mind into a “teachable frame”. Calvin felt that he was being called to be part of the reform of the church and effectively broke away from it. In the autumn of 1533, one of Calvin’s friends, a reformer, gave an address on church reform which was pronounced heretical. Calvin was implicated and had to go into hiding . Eventually he had to leave France after Reformists came under heavy fire for posting placards denouncing the Catholic Mass (the Day of the Placards).
The manner in which ideas spread during these times was largely by publishing pamphlets which were spread around. If you were a theologian, you would write your ideas and publish them. In 1536, Calvin wrote an apologia or an explanation for his beliefs. This became known as ” The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, which he regularly added to. Later he would set up the organization of the church which would become Presbyterian.
He traveled to Ferrara, Italy where he worked for Princess Renee of France and then returned home to Paris to sort his father’s affairs. He decided he could not live there anymore when it was declared that all people had to decide within six months to remain Catholic (the Treaty of Courcy). He headed for Strasbourg, a haven for reformers but had to detour to Geneva because the French army was present.
In Geneva, something significant happened in that Calvin was forced to make a decision by another French reformer, William Farel. Like so many called before him, Calvin just wanted to live quietly and in peace. Farel was having none of it. He demanded that Calvin stay and help the movement in Geneva. Let us say that Farel was able to persuade him. The two worked together until disagreements with the city council arose over bringing uniformity to church services. Calvin and Ferel were asked to leave after protesting the serving of unleavened bread for Eucharist.
On to Strasbourg (1538-41) where Calvin married Idolette de Bure, a widow and continued to revise the Institutes and preach. In Geneva, church attendance began to dwindle because of disagreements with Bern, their supporting city. When they were asked to return to the Catholic faith, Geneva started to reconsider its expulsion of Calvin and asked him to return. Though this is not what he wanted, he felt the call of duty and agreed to a six month stay. When he returned, he worked on setting up the actual church, working along side city council, each deciding what powers and duties it would have. This is something that would never happen in France where royalty was staunchly Catholic. The reformed church also did not enforce celibacy, feeling that it distracted from giving full attention to church duties. Sadly, Idolette had a son prematurely and he died. She died a few years later leaving a vacuum in Calvin’s life.
One of the well known stories about John Calvin is his confrontation with a group of “libertines”. The Libertines, being ultra-humanist, used the idea of being granted “grace” to exempt themselves from church and civil law. One of them was brought to court for disobeying the law against dancing . The council overturned Calvin’s decision against them. When a group of them turned up at a service and approached the table for sacrament, he shouted “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.” They quickly left. The libertines had among them some very powerful people and this was a great test for Calvin.
Calvin faced another challenge in the person of Michael Servitus, a Spanish physician and theologian. Servitus was on the run from church authorities after he denied the existence of the Trinity. There were letters exchanged between him and Calvin. In fact Servitus had had the nerve to write in the margins of a copy of the Instructions annotating his differences with Calvin’s doctrines. This infuriated Calvin and when Servitus was finally caught and charged he only made a minor effort to have the sentence of burning commuted to beheading. Some say that there was no scriptural backing for the final decision, a source of controversy to this day.
In 1553, two things happened to further secure the reform in Geneva. A decision was made that the church could continue to decide on excommunication and an uprising of libertines was put down, the leaders were forced to flee the city while the remainder were executed by Calvin. The issue of the libertines was resolved.
In Calvin’s final years, he did much to support the spread of Protestantism. He sheltered refugees from the reign of Mary Tudor in England and helped them build their own church from where they left to spread reform in England and Scotland. He had disagreed with Luther on how the Eucharist was to be viewed. He had set up a grammar school and advanced school which is today known as the College Calvin and Geneva University. To France he sent 100 missionaries funded by the church and tried to help build churches there. What the Puritan was in England, the Covenanter was in Scotland and the Huguenot was in France. Today, you might call them Calvinists or Presbyterians.
In 1564, Calvin died at age 54. He was buried in an unmarked grave although a commemorative one was erected in the Cimitierre des Rois , Geneva. Below, a map showing Geneva in relation to Paris.