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Portrait oh John Calvin by an unknown artist.

John Calvin (French: Jean Calvin) (1509-1564) was a prominent French theologian during the Protestant Reformation and the father of the theological system known as Calvinism. Martin Luther and Calvin are arguably the most significant architects of the Reformation. "If Luther sounded the trumpet for reform, Calvin orchestrated the score by which the Reformation became a part of Western civilization."[1]

Biographical summary

As a student in Paris, he studied the liberal arts before continuing his studies in theology at his father's request. Later, when his father had a falling-out with the local bishop, he instructed John to pursue an education in civil law, which he did in Orleans. After graduating as a Doctor of Law in 1531, he returned to Paris.

Calvin's ambition was not to be a professional lawyer, but a man of letters. In 1532 he self-published a commentary on the Roman philosopher Seneca's Treatise on Clemency that evidenced considerable rhetorical skill, but otherwise went unnoticed.

During his time in Paris, Calvin left Roman Catholicism and joined the Protestant movement, subsequently becoming an informal leader to other Paris Protestants. All that is known about the occasion is what he wrote 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.
John Calvin , Commentary on the Psalms

On his way to Basel in 1536 he passed through Geneva where reformer William Farel persuaded him to stay and help the cause of the church, which he did for nearly two years. As a result of government resistance, Farel and Calvin left Geneva and Calvin moved to Strasbourg where he pastored from 1538-1541. When Calvin's supporters won the election to the Geneva city council in 1541, he was invited back to the city where he remained until his death in 1564.

Calvin's writings

The Institutes

John Calvin was a prolific writer of theology. His most notable work was the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition of which was published in 1536 in Latin when he was twenty-six years old. Calvin revised the Institutes several times. The first edition, intended to be a catechism for French Protestants, was a short work consisting of six chapters dealing with the law, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the sacraments, false sacraments, and Christian liberty (i.e. freedom). Calvin then produced a Latin edition in 1539 that was three times as long, and that same year he translated this second edition into French for those who could not read Latin. Another expanded edition was published in 1543 in Latin, with another French translation to follow in 1545. A fourth Latin edition appeared in 1550, while the final edition was published in 1559. The final edition differed radically from the original 1536 edition as it was no longer merely a manual for new believers. Instead, it had grown into a thorough systematic theology comprising four books (or "volumes") and dealt with more doctrines of the Christian faith.

A summary of the different editions of the Institutes:

Year Translation
  • 1536
  • 1539
  • 1541
  • 1543
  • 1545
  • 1550
  • 1551
  • 1559
  • 1560
  • Latin (six chapters)
  • Latin (three times as long)
  • French
  • Latin (expanded)
  • French
  • Latin
  • French
  • Latin (final edition, 4 "books")
  • French


Calvin also published commentaries on twenty-three of the Old Testament books and all of the New Testament books except 2-3 John and Revelation. Calvin had a strong conviction that commentaries should be clear and brief. Thus, his Institutes received more of the doctrinal discussions, however, doctrinal matters still found their way into his commentaries at times. The commentaries were published in both Latin and French. A list of each commentary and its publication date is as follows:

  • Isaiah (1551; expanded in 1559)
  • Genesis (1554)
  • Psalms (1557)
  • Exodus - Deuteronomy (1563)
  • Joshua (1564, just after his death)
  • Note: Calvin often dealt with material from his commentaries in lectures to students and ministers. After 1557 these people made notes during these lectures that were published as the following commentaries:
  • Hosea (1557)
  • Minor Prophets (1559-1560)
  • Daniel (1561-1562)
  • Jeremiah and Lamentations (1563 & 1565)
  • Ezekiel 1 - 20:44 (1565)
  • Romans (1540)
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians (1546)
  • Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians (1548)
  • 1 & 2 Timothy (1548)
  • Hebrews (1549)
  • Titus (1550)
  • 1 & 2 Thessalonians and Philemon (1550)
  • James, 1& 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude (1551)
  • Acts (1552)
  • John (1553)
  • Matthew, Mark, and Luke (1555)

Even Jacobus Arminius, the founder of the anti-Calvinistic view called Arminianism, said the following of Calvin's commentaries (and other writings):

Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.[2]


Calvin was not an ivory-tower theologian. While he often revised and expanded his Institutes, he was also a very committed preacher. From 1541 onwards, Calvin conducted services on a daily basis. During the week he would give attention to the OT, while he would preach Sunday mornings from the NT and Sunday afternoons from a psalm. His sermons began to be recorded in 1549 so that they could be printed. Those sermons preserved in manuscript form are published in the Supplementa Calviniana.

Calvin's theology


Calvin said that there could be no knowledge of self without knowledge of God. All men have a natural awareness of divinity, which is both planted in their minds and made evident through creation. However, man has suppressed or corrupted this knowledge, and confused the creation with the Creator. It is only when men contemplate the greatness of God that they can come to realize their own inadequacy. God is providentially in control and chooses all things that come to pass, including evil things. (this Calvinists claim does not make him the author of evil, however this is disputed)


Man is created in the image of God. This image has been marred by the Fall, though not destroyed. Before the Fall, man's will was truly free; however, now it is corrupt and enslaved to sin. Man is totally unable to seek or choose God unless God chooses him first.

Jesus Christ

The person of Christ, the God-man, provides the solution to this moral dilemma. Christ is the only possible bridge between God and men. In the Incarnation, God and man were joined inseparably in one person, yet not in such a way that the divine and human were confused. The relationship between Christ's human and divine natures is paradigmatic for Calvin's theology whenever the divine touches upon the human.

Calvin was the first person to describe the work of Christ in terms of the threefold offices of prophet, priest, and king. As prophet, Christ's teachings are proclaimed by the apostles for the purpose of our salvation. As priest, Christ's sacrifice of himself and his mediation before the Father secures the salvation of men. As king, Christ rules the Church spiritually in the hearts of its members.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit unites men to Christ when Christ is apprehended through faith in the promises of Scripture. The Spirit leads men to Christ; without him, saving faith is impossible. The Holy Spirit is what brings men to God, and frees them from depravity.


Calvin was one of the first theologians to connect Satan with the Servant of the Lord found in Isaiah. Calvin's commentary on the Book of Isaiah expounds this view and identifies two instances of the Servant of the Lord with Satan. He argued that well Christ is the agent of God's love, Satan is the instrument of his wrath, This can be seen by a quote from his letter in response to Jacopo Sadoleto[3]:

Where many of you only have an understanding of the eyes. What you see is division and separation, it is indeed troubling that God would share his power with Lucifer and allow him to fight against him, and bring about discontent. You will say that Lucifer must have a vehement disposition and ungovernable impetuosity; as if that was enough to break the power of God. Now with this understanding it is impossible to accept Lucifer as independent from God without falling into the Paganism of Persia and Indiana. This paganism has infiltrated the hearts of Christians and has caused them to forget the power of God, saying he does not have control over all. Now from this we can conclude that Lucifer, who you incorrectly call a Devil, is a loyal servant of God.

Justification by faith

Justification by faith is the material principle of the Reformation. It is based upon the mercy of God, not the merits of humanity. Although the doctrines of election and predestination are linked with Calvin's name, the doctrine of election actually plays a relatively minor part of Calvin's theology. As a second-generation Reformer, his primary concern was with the government and organization of the church rather than theology. Nonetheless, Calvin believed in unconditional election.


Calvin taught two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's supper. He differed from sacramentalists who believed that the sacraments were a means of receiving justifying grace. Rather, they are the badges, or marks, of Christian profession, testifying to God's grace.

Calvin was a paedobaptist, believing that infants were the proper objects of baptism. He differed from Catholic and Lutheran paedobaptists in arguing that baptism did not regenerate infants. Rather, it symbolized entrance into the New Covenant, just as circumcision did for the Old Covenant. His argument for infant baptism draws many parallels between the two signs.

Whereas Luther and the Catholic church believed that Christ's body was literally present in the Eucharist, and Zwingli taught that the Lord's Supper was a mere memorial, Calvin took a middle ground between the two positions. The elements were a symbol and therefore could not be the thing they signified; the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation confused the symbol and the substance. On the other hand, Zwingli's memorialism divorced symbol and substance completely. Calvin taught that when one receives the bread and wine, which are literal food and drink, in a spiritual sense he receives the spiritual food and drink of the Christian. Christ is spiritually present when the Eucharist is received by faith.

Church government

Calvin is the founder of the Presbyterian system of church government.

At the local level, Calvin's system consisted of a council of pastors representing the local assembly, and responsible for teaching and shepherding the churches. The Consistory, a larger council comprising pastors and lay elders elected according to district, was responsible for maintaining church discipline and watching over the moral lives of church members. At the regional level is the presbytery, then above this a provincial synod and a national synod.

Church government is closely tied to church discipline. Discipline is the ordering of church life in obedience to Christ in response to the teaching of Scripture. It has a threefold aim: the glory of God, purity of the Church, and correction of the offender.

The power of the Church to punish offenders was limited to excommunication. Typically, this meant denying them the Lord's Supper, baptism for them or their children, or marriage. Although in Calvin's day the Consistory could recommend civil punishment to the city authorities which was often heeded.

Calvin and Calvinism

Calvinism is most noted for its understanding of soteriology which was codified at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 in the so-called Five Points of Calvinism.

There is some debate as to whether Calvin himself would have affirmed all five points as such. In his writings, he explicitly affirms total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. However, his affirmation of limited atonement is implicit at best. Some scholars, such as Norman Geisler, deny that Calvin would have endorsed limited atonement; others, such as Roger Nicole, say that his theology affirms all five points.[4]

Calvin's influence

Separation of church and state

Calvin believed that the church should not be subject to the state, or vice versa. While both church and state are subject to God's law, they both have their own God-ordained spheres of influence. For example, the church does not have the authority to impose penalties for civil offenses, although it can call on the civil authorities to punish them. Conversely, the state is not to intrude on the operations of the church. However, it has a duty to protect the church and its ability to function as the church.

As a magisterial reformer, Calvin thought of the State as a Christian nation rather than a secular government. He did not advocate religious freedom in the same sense as the Baptists later would, for example. However, his ecclesiology sowed the seeds of the modern secular democracy.


Geneva became a safe haven for Protestant refugees, not only from France, but all over Europe. Calvin founded a school to instruct men in Reformed theology and then train them to return home, preach the Gospel, and plant churches. The city therefore became the nucleus of missionary activity; for example, in 1561, 140 missionaries are recorded as having left Geneva.[5]

The missionary influence of Calvin extended not only to his native France, but also to Scotland (home of the Presbyterian Church), England, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and even Poland. Calvin also sent out the first two overseas missionaries in the history of Protestantism: an expedition to Brazil in 1556.

The Protestant work ethic

Calvin repudiated the distinction between "sacred" and "secular" duty and the prevailing notion that work is a necessary evil. Rather, he taught, work is a calling from God. Therefore, one glorifies God in his work by working diligently and joyfully.

Calvin did not invent capitalism, but he did teach that one of the rewards of hard work is wealth. His philosophy of work allowed capitalism to flourish where it was practiced.


  1. Mark A. Noll, Elwell Evangelical Dictionary.
  2. Philip Schaff, "Tributes to the Memory of Calvin", History of the Christian Church, VIII (1892).
  3. {| class="fandom-table" | rowspan="4" | | colspan="2" |John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto's Letter to the Genevans and Calvin's Reply |}
  4. Roger Nicole, John Calvin's view of Limited Atonement from Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall 1985).
  5. Calvin the Evangelist by Frank James III


  • Calvin, John, Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Transl. James Anderson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.
  • Ibid., Institutes of the Christian Religion. Transl. Ford Lewis Battles. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.
  • McGrath, Alister E., A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
  • Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1882.
  • Robert M. Kingdon, "The Geneva Consistory in the Time of Calvin," in Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620, Andrew Pettegree et al., eds. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Further reading


  • Donald McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Paul Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed. T&T Clark, 2008.
  • Randall C. Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought. Baker, 2006.
  • H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies (Calvin College)
  • B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 5. Baker, 1981.


  • Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life. IVP Academic, 2009.
  • T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography. Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. (reprint)
  • Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. Blackwell, 1990.
  • Bernard Cotrett, Calvin, a Biography. T&T Clark, 2003.
  • William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. Oxford, 1988.


  • David W. Hall & Peter Lillback, eds. A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes. P&R, 2008.
  • Anthony N. S. Lane, A Reader's Guide to Calvin's Institutes. Baker Academic, 2009.
  • Ford Lewis Battles, Interpreting John Calvin. ed. Robert Benedetto. Baker, 1996.
  • T. H. L. Parker, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A study in the Theology of John Calvin. Eerdmans, 1952. 2nd revised ed. published as Calvin's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Oliver & Boyd, 1969.
  • Paul Helm, John Calvin's Ideas. Oxford, 2006.
  • Richard Muller, The Unaccomodated Calvin. Oxford University Press, 2000. (Advanced reading)
  • _______, After Calvin. Oxford University Press, 2003. (Advanced reading)


  • W. de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide. Trans. L. D. Bierma. Baker, 1989.


  • T. H. L. Parker, The Oracles of God: An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin. Lutterworth Press, 1947.
  • _______, Calvin's Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.

Other works

  • B.B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine. Ed. Samuel G. Craig. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1956.

See also

External links

Online writings by Calvin

Online writings on Calvin

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