15.  John Calvin and
the Reformed Tradition:  I

Who was John Calvin?

  • John Calvin (1509 to 1564) was a Frenchman who moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and in the mid-1500s became the leader of the Swiss Reformed Movement from which the Presbyterian Church was eventually formed.
  • As a young man he was trained in Paris, France, to become a lawyer.  But at the University of Paris he became deeply involved in some of the intellectual groups gathering to discuss Luther and Zwingli's "protestant" or reform movement in the church.  Calvin became a strong believer in the importance of church reform and soon became quite outspoken in the matter--a very dangerous thing to do in those times.
  • He was even so bold as to think that he himself might convince the French king, Francis 1st, to give some kind of support to the protestant reform movement.  Thus in 1536 he published a work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, dedicated to convincing Francis of the truth and critical importance of this movement of church reform.
  • This not only failed to convince the king, but also identified Calvin as a voice of religious dissent, not tolerated in France.  Calvin knew that he had to get out of France.

How was it that Calvin came to making Geneva, Switzerland, the center of the Reformed Movement?
  • Calvin intentended to go to either Basle Switzerland or Strasburg, Germany, where the Reform Movement was thriving.  But to get there and avoid a nasty war going on in the East of France, Calvin swung south to Geneva, Switzerland.  He was planning to stay there only briefly until he could get on to Strasburg or Basle.
  • But a protestant reformer in Geneva, William Farel, begged Calvin to stay in the city and help him with the church reform movement which was growing rapidly there.  Calvin reluctantly agreed.
  • This proved for Calvin to be a stormy situation.  Geneva was an unruly city, and had accepted Farel's reforms only as a way of excusing their move to overthrow the authority over the city of the Duke of Savoy.  Their interest in religious or spiritual reform was very shallow.  Further, Calvin's natural love of orderliness and discipline was naturally destined to make him many enemies in the city.   In the spring of 1538 the Genevans decided that they had had enough of the reforms of Calvin and Farel.  Both were banished from Geneva.  Calvin now made his way to Strasburg, and settled in there.
  • Strasburg was a good time for Calvin.  He was well received, had a chance to work on a new edition of his Institutes, and married very happily.
  • But in 1541, a group of Calvin's former supporters in Geneva came to him in Strasburg and pleaded with him to return to Geneva.  The city was in turmoil and needed his strong hand to bring things back under some kind of order.
  • Calvin reluctantly decided to make his return to Geneva--but on his terms.
  • Upon his return, Calvin organized (accepting many compromises with the city Council) the religious life of the city around his new Ordinances--the foundation of Reformed polity (how the church is organized and run).  Geneva in turn became identified under Calvin's leadership as the model Christian city, the "New Jerusalem" of Protestantism.
  • Soon church reformers from many other parts of Europe were coming to Geneva to study Calvin's reform methods.  Geneva was becoming  the "teaching" center of a rapidly growing movement of church reform throughout all of Europe.

How was Calvin's Reformed Movement closely related to the mindset of the newly emerging European "middle class" of  townsmen?
  • Calvin was an urban (city) European, possessing a bourgeois (relating to "burgs" or towns and cities) mindset of the newly rising European urban "middle class."
  • Calvin's interest in reform of the crumbling medieval (focused on the countryside or rural life) moral-legal order of the old church involved importantly a vision of the new urban order as central to a "purified" Christianity.
  • And his interest in reform did not limit itself merely to matters of personal religious belief and doctrine--as was the case for Luther.  Calvin truly was interested in reshaping every part of post-medieval or "modern" life:  political, economic, and social as well as theological--built heavily on a lifestyle that was typical of the rapidly growing European cities.

How did this cause a new "democratic" spirit to grow up as part of Calvin's Reformed Movement?

  • Calvin gave a theological excuse to the well educated, well-read urban middle class for their independent-mindedness.  Unlike Luther, Calvin pushed to its fullest extent the protestant idea of respecting authority (including even political or governmental authority) only when it could show Scriptural justification (sola scriptura) for itself.
  • In fact Calvin encouraged Christians to build new governments and societies as a way of cleansing Christianity of its corruption--and of bringing glory to God in Jesus Christ.
  • Furthermore Calvin insisted that Christians not only had the right to have God alone as ruler over them--they had the Christian duty to see that this was the case.  Calvin warned that any earthly lord or king who placed himself between them and God above was going to be a real evil in their new relationship with God--and in their "covenantal" life with each other as the new Christian church and society--or "commonwealth"  To be true to God, they had to get rid of such evil.
  • This is something that Luther had resisted strongly--as he demonstrated in his violent opposition to the peasant revolt in Germany.  Thus it was that the citizens of the new cities looked to Calvin's rather than Luther's version of the protestant or reformed movement as they began to remake their world.
  • Continue on to the next section:  16. John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition - II
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      Miles H. Hodges