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John Calvin  His Life and Work (1509-1564)

Translated from a Swiss booklet published in French by Professor C.A.M. Noble
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On the very day of his arrival Calvin presented himself to the Council. During this session the general programme of his duties was determined; he returned home with a well-developed plan of activity; his desire was to establish in Geneva a State of which God Himself would be Head and the citizens of which would have to strive to lead a life in the closest possible conformity with the precepts of the Gospel. This idea has been called theocracy. It is indispensable, in any attempt to understand Calvin and his writings, to remember that he remained true to this principle all his life, and that any of the mistakes for which he may be reproached today are based on this system.

Within a few weeks Calvin wrote and presented to the Council his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which defined the duties of pastors, proclaimed the union of Church and State and established the authority of the city council within the religious domain. The Institutes entrusted a tribunal overseeing morals: it was called the Consistory and was made up of an equal number of clergy and laymen. The care of the poor and the sick was committed to the deacons. The rite of the Lord's Supper was described, followed by the liturgy and the catechism.

It was principally through these three writings that the Calvinist system spread into the various European nations.

1. Pastoral activity

Every second week he had a commitment to preach every day. Calvin was not only responsible for re-organising the Church of Geneva; he also rendered service to it. His colleagues called him Moderator (President of the Company of Pastors), an office which he held until his death. He was also President of the Consistory. Every second week he had a commitment to preach every day. He visited the sick with punctiliousness and devotion, and regularly appeared at the homes of his decenary to question both adults and children on matters of doctrine and to judge their progress.

His sermons excelled more by virtue of the depth of his thought, the exactness of his language and the accuracy of his knowledge than through their oratorical impact. After being collected by various students and secretaries, they were then printed and distributed far wide to instruct and strengthen those who were unable to hear them.

Calvin applied himself with the greatest devotion to the humble and the most elevated duties of his ministry alike. Calvin applied himself with the greatest devotion to the humble and the most elevated duties of his ministry alike. His impartiality was as great as his devotion.

In 1542, during a plague epidemic, he offered his services spontaneously to care for the sick in the special hospital that had just been opened. Lots were drawn, and since the pastor who was chosen was reluctant to carry out his duty, Calvin asked for a further draw to be made. It took a decision of the Syndicates to dissuade him from sacrificing himself: his life was necessary for all.

As a Professor of Theology he earned two hundred florins more than his colleagues. On more than one occasion he asked the Syndicates to stop paying him this extra sum; they always refused, considering his salary a very minor matter compared with the numerous services which he was rendering to the State as a pastor and a lawyer.

2. The Professorship

Calvin taught all his life; that was his vocation - in Paris, Strasbourg and Geneva. On coming back to Geneva, he began to teach regularly in the Church of St. Mary the Greater which ever since has been called the Temple of the Auditorium. It was there that the congregation met every Friday in an assembly attended by all the pastors. One of the latter would submit a topic, and Calvin would always speak on it to correct or enlarge on what had been said. In addition, he gave three theology lessons a week.

The Reformer's vision of a college realised. For a long time he had been desirous of setting up a college in Geneva. The college that had been founded in the fifteenth century no longer suited the requirements of the day; a large number of citizens no longer sent their children to it. It was not until 1559 that the great reformer was able to see his project realised. He was then fifty. He put such enthusiasm into this undertaking that the building of St. Antoine was completed within a few months.

At the same time as the College he founded the Academy, the first Rector of which was Thodore de Bze, who until them had been teaching theology in Lausanne.

The founding of the College and the Academy marked an important date in the history of Geneva. The poor, modest city became, so to speak, the Protestant Rome. The running of its schools became a model for a large number of other academies. Thenceforth the young students of Europe flocked to Calvin's Academy.

...if this city must fall, its fall will echo throughout the neighbouring countries. (Bze)  At the time of the Reformer's death it boasted fifteen hundred students. Thodore de Bze could say: "We would be assured of survival even if we had to die. For we now have the certainty that, if this city must fall, its fall will echo throughout the neighbouring countries. It will be a disaster even for those who have not heard of it. It would mean the end of liberty itself."

3. The Head of the Church

Calvin's deeds and influence have penetrated well beyond the borders of our little homeland. Following the publication of his Institutes of the Christian Religion he was regarded as the Head of Reformed Protestantism. In France, he organised the Church.

Calvin's influence on John Knox and King Edward VI. In Scotland, his friend and disciple John Knox introduced the Calvinist system. In England, his influence on the reform movement was exerted through his correspondence with the Duke of Somerset who was tutor to King Edward VI. In Germany, there were reformed Calvinist churches in a large number of States.

He directed the Polish churches from a distance. He was the advisor of the Duchess of Ferrara until his death.

Neither Luther nor Zwingli exerted an international influence equal to Calvin's.

During these dramatic moments of his life, Calvin never pursued his own personal interests... The unique position that he held through such international renown meant that he became involved in passionate and violent quarrels. During these dramatic moments of his life, Calvin never pursued his own personal interests; he regarded himself as the proxy of God, Whose honour he was charged with defending. This was the source from which he derived the energy with which he attacked the opponents of his system, regardless of their circumstances of their status.

The first of these great arguments was provoked by a treatise on the Lord's Supper by Pastor Westphal from Hamburg. Calvin replied to him. This theological dispute had widespread repercussions in the churches of Germany and Switzerland. As in the case of modern disputes, each took sides for or against Calvin.

The dispute with Bolsec on Predestination.  Among the Geneva refugees was a certain Bolsec. One day, in the Temple of the Auditorium, taking advantage of Calvin's absence, he attacked the doctrine of predestination; Calvin, who arrived while Bolsec was still speaking, immediately replied by giving a lecture of his own. The situation was that whoever became established in Geneva by adopting the oath of allegiance to the Elders, recognised that he accepted the confession of faith and the statutes of the statutes of the Church. Bolsec had violated his oath; he was impeached and banished. As an act of revenge, he later wrote a defamatory and libellous letter which all those who slander him have used against him to this very day.

These and other disputes fade into insignificance when compared with his quarrel with the Spaniard Michel Servet. The latter, although a doctor like Bolsec, had a passion for theology. Since the age of nineteen he had discussed the subject of the Trinity with several of the reformers. His arrogant personality rendered him even more objectionable than his subversive opinions. He was unable to settle anywhere for long.

In Vienna he clandestinely published an anonymous work entitled The Restitution of Christianity, in which he attempted to redefine primitive Christianity. The Inquisition of Vienna condemned him to death and conducted a symbolical execution on his effigy. He had to leave France. Passing through Geneva on his flight, he was recognised when he attended a service at the Madeleine Temple. Fearing that Servet could destroy everything that Calvin had so passionately build up during his life, the latter had him arrested.

There could have been no worse moment for a doctrinal dispute.

There was a furious contest between Calvin and the Libertine Party, who were attempting, by any means possible, to overthrow the strict rgime imposed by the Reformer. By making an accusation against Servet, Calvin was risking his neck. The Libertines sided with Servet; for a while it seemed that they would win; the Solicitor General himself was not one of Calvin's friends. Servet however, while recognising this support, forgot himself to the point of uttering Anabaptist ideas; he vehemently accused Calvin of being a heretic and a disciple of Simon the Magician. Those who had hitherto supported Michel Servet now rebelled against him and called for him to be condemned. Whilst recognising Calvin's point of view, it must be deplored that the spirit of charity did not extend to his actions as a lawyer and logician.

Calvin was never the uncontested Head of the Church, as is sometimes wrongly imagined. His ideas triumphed only through enduring great struggles and suffering.

4. Calvin's death

The enormous work accomplished by the Reformer from Geneva had drastically affected his health. The enormous work accomplished by the Reformer from Geneva had drastically affected his health. In fact, he had been ill all his life. Nevertheless, from 1556 his health deteriorated to the point of causing worry to those around him. From that time he was continuously ill. At the beginning of 1564 his friends were convinced that the end was rapidly approaching. Calvin, realising his state, never ceased working. On February 2 he gave his last sermon and on the afternoon of the same day his last theology lesson. From that moment on he refused treatment. Had his illness been prolonged, he would fallen into a wretched state.

Already unable to walk on his own, he asked to be carried to the City Hall and said farewell to the Councillors. The entire Council went to his home to visit him - a gesture unique in Switzerland's history.

During his long period of suffering, so many people came to visit him that they eventually had to be denied entry to his house.

He passed away peacefully and was able to talk to those present until he breathed his last breath. On May 27, 1564, an improvement seemed to be coming about, but, at eight o'clock in the evening, the signs of death suddenly appeared on his face. He passed away peacefully and was able to talk to those present until he breathed his last breath.

"That, " said Bze, "is the way the greatest light in the Church was extinguished at a time when the sun ceased lighting up the universe."

As soon as news of Calvin's death spread, a crowd of people went to the Rue des Chanoines to see his face for the last time. To his friends, such veneration seemed exaggerated. In order to avoid the charge of idolatry on the part of Romanists, the body was placed in its coffin the following morning and, at two o'clock in the afternoon, he was carried to the cemetery called that of the Victims of the Plague in Plainpalais. The entire city joined in the funeral procession. No monument marked his burial place. It was not until the nineteenth century that a headstone was added with his initials at the spot traditionally regarded as his tomb.