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Within the UK, Calvinism is so strongly associated with Scotland that it’s easy to believe that John Calvin must have been Scottish, or at least have spent time in the country. But in fact Jean Cauvin (to give him his original name) was a Frenchman who spent most of his life in what is now Switzerland and never travelled to the northern parts of Europe where his ideas would most strongly take hold.

WHO WAS HE?

John Calvin was born into a large family in Noyon, France in 1509. His father was a minor church official and his mother a deeply religious woman. The young Calvin was at first destined for the priesthood. He studied philosophy in Paris in preparation for this path, but then his father changed his mind and sent him to study law in Orleans instead. Calvin took to the law immediately, and its precise thinking, clever rhetoric and concern about the origins of words would stay with him all his life and influence his later ministry.

During his legal studies, Calvin came into contact with the views of Christian humanists such as Erasmus, and with the new Protestant ideas. He described how he experienced a conversion in 1529-30, when his hard heart was made teachable by God and he became open to the ideas of the Reformation. In 1530 there was a crackdown on ‘Lutherans’ in the University of Orleans, and although he had not yet publicly identified himself as a Protestant, Calvin moved to the more tolerant University of Bourges. He would not remain under the radar for long.

In His Own Words

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sacred wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

Institutes I.1.1

We are not to conceive of the Christian faith as a bare knowledge of God which rattles around the brain and affects the heart not at all…It is a firm and solid confidence of the heart by which we securely repose in God’s mercy.

Institutes III.2.36

True piety consists in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences him as Lord, embraces his righteousness and dreads offending him worse than death.

1538 Catechism

Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.

Institutes I.11.8

In 1533, when Calvin was back in Paris, his friend Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, gave a speech that clearly contained ideas from Luther and Erasmus – and plenty of people thought Calvin was behind the speech. Calvin withdrew to the country while the affair blew over, but in 1535 a wave of protests against the Catholic Mass led to a crackdown on Protestants, and Calvin had to flee Paris.

Calvin spent some time in Basle and Ferrara before deciding, in 1536, to set out for the Free City of Strasbourg, which at that time was a popular destination for Protestant emigrants from France. On the way to Strasbourg, Calvin intended to spend one night in Geneva, but was persuaded to stay longer by the local Reformation leader. Calvin did not know it, but he had found his niche. Excepting a few years in Strasbourg because of a falling-out with the Geneva authorities, Calvin would remain in Geneva for the rest of his life, completely reshaping the city.

NEW MODEL CITY

Calvin’s influence in Geneva was huge. The city was newly independent and Protestant, and was ripe to be shaped by Calvin’s domineering personality. Calvin not only preached several times a week in the city’s main churches, but he also advised the city council on legal matters, encouraging them to bring their laws into line with good Christian living. He set up a Consistory – a group of church and civil officials charged with guarding public morals by punishing wrongdoers or exposing them to public shame. In time, Geneva became a place where strict Christian morality was enforced. John Knox, who spent some time there, said ‘manners and religion so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place’. In Calvin’s Geneva it was illegal to dance, to ‘foolishly waste time’ and to name your child Claude (the name of a local saint) among many other things.

It is hard to comprehend just how fast the Reformation actually happened. Calvin lived at the same time as Luther, who started it all off in a little German town, but he also saw England, Scotland and much of what is now Germany and Switzerland become Protestant states. Despite the speed events moved at, by the time Calvin was an adult it was clear that the Roman Catholic Church would never accept the demands of the reformers. If the reformation of the Catholic Church was impossible, a new reformed Church would have to take its place. Calvin set up an academy in Geneva to train leaders for the new Church. When they travelled back to their own lands, they took not only Calvin’s reformed theology, but often his ideas about the way Church and state should work together to create a Christian society. Calvin’s Geneva was the inspiration and model for most national Protestant churches.

During his life in Geneva, Calvin also republished and expanded the work he had started in Basle – his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. This 80-chapter tome was designed to give readers the theological knowledge they needed to read the Bible, and to accompany the commentaries that Calvin produced on almost every biblical book. Through his writings, his thousands of sermons, his academy and his correspondence with a diversity of other reformers, Calvin’s theological ideas spread far beyond Geneva.

WORLDWIDE REACH

Calvin’s ideas weren’t entirely new, but he pursued earlier concepts with his typical clarity of thought and single-mindedness, taking them to what he saw as their logical conclusion. He emphasised the depravity of humanity and the absolute sovereignty of God. He taught regularly on the ongoing sinfulness of Christians, who are ‘justified sinners’ – counted as righteous because of Christ’s death, but not yet holy in practice. His strictness in the way he ran Geneva was probably partly due to his awareness of how sinful even Christians are, but also to the fact that, unlike Luther, he did not think that Christ’s death set Christians free from the Law. Instead, Calvin thought, it gave us the grace necessary to live according to the moral precepts of the Law, in order to please God. Hard work and clean living were his watchwords.

The most famous of Calvin’s doctrines is predestination – specifically double predestination (see box). This idea of some people being destined for hell before they are even born is a divisive matter – touchstone of orthodoxy for some, distasteful speculation to others. These ideas, and Calvin’s model of Church and state, took root particularly in the British Isles and the Netherlands, and were carried from there to the New World in the following century by the Puritans, whose faith was descended from Calvinism. In fact, Calvin’s ideas probably encouraged the Puritans’ emigration in the first place; he advised emigration to Geneva for persecuted French Protestants. He also emphasised the importance of keeping the true Church free of error – although of course, everybody has a different idea on what ‘the true Church’ is.

Fear and Trembling

Calvin believed in double predestination, meaning that not only did God choose before time those who would be saved, he also chose those who would be damned. Calvin made it clear that not everyone who claimed to be a Christian was part of the elect – the chosen ones. Only persevering in the faith until the end could prove that a person was saved.

Later Calvinists expanded this to include definite atonement, meaning that Jesus’ death is actually only effective for a limited, preordained number of people. Whether you are part of this group depends entirely on God’s choice, and not at all on your own decision. Some people find comfort in this example of God’s absolute sovereignty over our fate, while for others it means they can never be sure of their salvation, because despite anything they feel, believe or do, they may simply not be among the elect.

Calvin’s ideas have even been credited with (or blamed for) the development of Western capitalism. The famous sociologist Max Weber pointed out that capitalism emerged first in the UK, the Netherlands and the USA – precisely the places where Calvinism or Puritanism had such a profound influence. Weber theorised that the emphasis on hard work but also austerity brought about the conditions that made capitalism possible – people who made plenty of money but were not willing to spend it on themselves, so they looked for opportunities to reinvest it. It’s true that Calvin insisted that people work hard (to the extent that he described loafing at work as a kind of theft) and did not disapprove of lending money at reasonable interest, which is one of the factors necessary for capitalism. But he would certainly not have recognised modern global capitalism, with its impoverishment of entire communities, as the fruit of his teaching. For Calvin, everyone has a duty to look after the poor, and wealth is by no means a sign of God’s favour.

Perhaps it is Calvin’s emphasis on purity of doctrine and his insistence on taking things to (and arguably beyond) their logical conclusion that leaves his teaching particularly vulnerable to exaggeration or distortion. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that his ideas, and the thinking of those who tried to follow his pattern, had an influence on state and society in the West that continues to this day.

Karen Murderasi is a freelance journalist Introducing Major Theologians (IVP) is available now.