Reading 7 – Sabbath, December 10, 2016
John Calvin, the French Reformer
By Idel Suarez, Jr., U.S.A.
“And they that understand among the people shall instruct many:… Now when they shall fall, they shall be holpen with a little help.” Daniel 11:33, 34.
As the prophet Daniel predicted, when darkness and tribulation pervaded the world, God raised up men and women of understanding, in both university circles and palaces, to “instruct many.” This “little help” came through the great Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, which re- stored many Bible truths to the world. Throughout Europe God aroused the consciences of scholars to search His holy word. Germany gave birth to Mar- tin Luther and Philip Melanchthon; France, to John Calvin and Theodore Beza. “… Under God’s blessing and the labors of those noble men whom He had raised to succeed Luther, Protestantism was not overthrown.”1
Calvin was a “careful thinker who bound the various Protestant doctrines into a cohesive whole.” He did not allow justification by faith to “eclipse the rest of the Christian” gospel, and so “was able to pay more attention to” what Luther did not emphasize so much; namely, the “doctrine of sanctification.”2
Family background and conversion
John Calvin was born in Noyon, in Picardie, France, on July 10, 1509.3 “Calvin’s mother was Jeanne le Franc of Cambri,” a strict, pious woman. “She died early.”4 John’s father, Gerard, died after being excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Two of three brothers accepted the truths of the Reformation.5
Two events changed Calvin’s life in Paris. First, his cousin Pierre Robert Olivetan became a Reformer and witnessed to Calvin. (Olivetan later translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into French.6) He told Calvin, “There are but two religions in the world…. The one … which men have invented, in … which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is … revealed in the Bible, and … teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God.”7
Calvin, at the time a member of the Catholic clergy, replied to his Protestant cousin, “I will have none of your new doctrines…. Think you that I have lived in error all my days?”8
Yet Olivetan’s words continued to haunt Calvin, that “The mediation of saints, good works, the ceremonies of the church, all were powerless to atone for sin. He could see before him nothing but the blackness of eternal despair.”9
The second event that transformed Calvin was the burning of a heretic in a public square in Paris. Calvin “was filled with wonder at the expression of peace which rested upon the martyr ’s countenance. Amid the tortures of that dreadful death, and under the more terrible condemnation of the church, [the martyr] manifested a faith and courage which the young student pain- fully contrasted with his own despair and darkness, while living in strictest obedience to the church. Upon the Bible, he knew, the heretics rested their faith. He determined to study it, and discover, if he could, the secret of their joy. In the Bible he found Christ.”10
Calvin “did not receive consecration, nor did he fulfill the duties of a priest, but he became a member of the clergy.”11 By 1527, he had obtained a Theology Licentiate in Arts from the University of Paris.12 “In 1528, he received a Masters of Arts.”13 At his father ’s prompting, Calvin abandoned his theological studies and pursued a law degree in Orleans. There, “he was presented with a Doctor ’s degree.”14
Then Calvin enrolled in the Academy of Bourges and received a Licentiate in Law.15 Yet he really yearned “to de- vote his life to the gospel.”16 After his father died, Calvin returned to Paris for a short time for classical and Biblical studies17 but had to flee south because of his Protestant faith.
Princess Margaret of Navarre, Calvin’s protector
Luther had been safeguarded by Frederick the Wise, and Calvin would be protected by another wise member of royalty. Margaret of Navarre, the sister of the French King Francis I,18 had accepted the Reformation message and invited Calvin to join her court. She be- came the great patroness of the French Reformers.19
Calvin’s gospel ministry “began with the people at their homes…. Those who heard the message carried the good news to others, and soon the teacher passed beyond the city to the outlying towns and hamlets. To both the castle and the cabin he found entrance, and he went forward, laying the foundation of churches that were to yield fearless witnesses for the truth.”20
But the tide turned, and Protestant church services were outlawed. Protestants were again persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered. In 1534, King Francis I had “thirty-two martyrs … burned alive.”21
Calvin returned to Paris. “He had no thought of danger, when friends came hurrying to his room with the news that officers were on their way to arrest him…. Some of his friends detained the officers at the door, while others assisted the Reformer to let himself down from a window, and he rapidly made his way to the outskirts of the city…. Traveling southward, he again found refuge in the dominions of Margaret.”22
Calvin later returned to Paris but found every door closed to the gospel, so he went to Basel, Switzerland, where he published his most famous work, The Institutes of Christian Religion, in 1536.
Providence led him to pass through Geneva on his way to Strasburg. In 1536, William Farel, who had helped convert Geneva from a Catholic city- state to a Protestant stronghold, inter- viewed young John Calvin. Unable to convince Calvin to stay in Geneva, Far- el said: “You are following only your own wishes, and I declare, in the name of God Almighty, that if you do not assist us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for seeking your own interest rather than His.”
These words struck Calvin so hard that he later wrote: “William Farel’s … dreadful imprecation … I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid His mighty hand upon me to arrest me…. I was so stricken with terror that I desisted from [my] journey.”23
Ironically, both Farel and Calvin were expelled after two years, in 1538, by the new elected Council of Geneva. The council included “secret Catholics,” who worked to banish these two ministers who refused to give the Lord’s Supper to members living in sin or at variance with other citizens.24
The Strasburg sojourn (1538-1541)
In 1540, Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a poor Anabaptist widow with several children.25 She died in 1549.26 Calvin never remarried but wrote tenderly of his deceased wife.
Calvin wrote a treatise against a Cardinal James Sadolet of the city of Carpentras, who had enticed Geneva to return to Catholicism.27 This treatise reached Martin Luther at Wittenberg University. “I rejoice that God raises up men,” wrote Luther, “who will … finish the war against Antichrist which I began.”28
Meanwhile, the four men who expelled Calvin from Geneva were found to be immoral. “One had to be condemned to death for murder, another for forgery, a third for treason, and the fourth died while trying to escape arrest.”29
So, on May 1, 1541, the Council of Geneva “annulled the … banishment, and pronounced Farel and Calvin to be honorable men,” eventually persuading “Calvin to resume his pastorate at Geneva.”30
The principles of reformation taught in Geneva
Geneva would become the city of Calvin, where he addressed many issues regarding sanctification, ten of which are summarized here.
– Morality and purity of life. “For nearly thirty years Calvin labored at Geneva … to establish there a church adhering to the morality of the Bible…. He was instrumental in promulgating truths that were of special importance in his time, in maintaining the principles of Protestantism against the fast-returning tide of popery, and in promoting in the reformed churches simplicity and purity of life.”31 Bernardino Ochino, an Italian Protestant who found refuge in Geneva, wrote: “Cursing and swearing, unchaste, sacrilege, adultery, and impure living, such as prevail in many places where I have lived, are here unknown. There are no pimps and harlots…. Benevolence is so great that the poor need not beg … nor is there any simony, murder, or party spirit, but only peace and charity.”32
– The sanctity of marriage. Cal- vin wrote clearly against divorce and remarriage. He spoke of “the sacred and indissoluble bond of marriage.”33 As a lawyer, he argued for lifelong marriage from fixed natural law and perpetual law viewpoints. According to natural law, “God joined the male to the female, so that the two made an entire man; and therefore he who divorces his wife tears from him, as it were, the half of himself. But nature does not allow any man to tear in pieces his own body” and remain alive.34 Calvin considered the “connection of marriage” as more binding than the natural bond of a son “to his father and mother.” Hence, “marriage is not dis- solved by divorces,” because “it is an agreement that is consecrated by the name of God.”35 “Unrestrained liberty in divorcing wives,” he argued, was a sort of “polygamy.”36 God established marriage as a “perpetual law, which ought to remain in force till the end of the world.”37 “He is an adulterer who rejects his wife and takes another.”38
– Closed communion. Calvin believed that those judged to be living in open sin could not participate in the Lord’s Supper. Such should be “excluded from [the Lord’s Supper] by the prohibitions of the Lord.” When challenged to change this position, Calvin repeated the words of Chrysostom, an early ecclesiastical writer: “I will die sooner than this hand shall stretch forth the sacred things of the Lord to those who have been judged despisers.”40
– Strong work ethic. Although small and timid, Calvin worked long hours. Thus, by example, he promoted a strong work ethic. “He labored 12 to 18 hours a day as a preacher, administrator, professor of theology, superintendent of churches and schools, adviser to municipal councils, and regulator of public morls and church liturgy; meanwhile he kept enlarging the Institutes, wrote commentaries on the Bible, and mainained a [busy] correspondence…. He slept little, ate little, fasted frequently.”41 “He refused increases in salary, but labored to raise funds for the relief of the poor.”42
– Church Manual. In 1541, Calvin published a reformation church manual, Ecclesiastical Ordinances.43 In it he de- tailed the roles of pastors, elders, teachers, and deacons. He advocated for a presbytery to govern the church. This means that a committee that included the pastor, elders, and laity would decide on church matters, not the bishop or pastor exclusively. The manual dealt even with modesty in dress.44
– Principles of Faith. Like Luther, Calvin wrote a Catechism of the Church of Geneva for children. In 1562, he wrote an enlarged, 60-principle version, The Confession of Faith in the Name of the Re- formed Churches of France.45
– Personal Bible studies. Starting in France, Calvin made “his way from house to house, opening the Bible to the people, and speaking to them of Christ and Him crucified.”46 Later in Geneva, a minister with an elder “visited every house and family annually” to instruct them in reformation doctrine.47
– Canvassing and publishing. “From Geneva, publications and teachers went out to spread the reformed doctrines. To this point the persecuted of all lands looked for instruction, counsel and encouragement.”48 “Literature printed at Geneva flooded into Europe, carried by indefatigable colporteurs” setting all Europe on fire.49
– Higher education. In 1559, Calvin founded the Geneva Academy “under the direction of Theodore Beza.”50 This educational institution trained French and foreign pastors. Its most illustrious graduate was John Knox, who established Protestantism in Scotland.
– Social work. “The city of Calvin became a refuge for the hunted Re- formers of all Western Europe. Fleeing… fugitives came to … Geneva. Starving, wounded, bereft of home and kindred, they were warmly welcomed and tenderly cared for; and … they blessed the city of their adoption by their skill, their learning, and their piety.”51 “Six thousand came into a city where the number of people was normally thirteen thousands. Calvin nearly killed himself looking after them.”52
As with that of other Reformers, Calvin’s “course as a public leader was not faultless, nor were his doctrines free from error.”53 At times his temper, political view, and doctrines were not correct.
Temperament. Calvin had an anger problem, which he regretted. Like Eljah, Calvin was encompassed by “passions.” James 5:17.
On his deathbed, Calvin called for the principal statesmen and preachers of Geneva and asked for forgiveness. He said, “I am highly indebted to you [for] your having borne patiently with my vehemence, which was sometimes carried to excess; my sins, in this respect, I trust, have been pardoned by God also.”54
“God did not select the Reformers because they were overbearing, passionate men. He accepted them as they were, notwithstanding these traits of character; but He would have placed tenfold greater responsibilities upon them had they been of humble mind, having their spirits under control of reason.”55
Politics. Regretfully, he condoned the capital punishment of religious dissidents. Religious liberty was not tolerated in Geneva. From 1542 to 1564, 58 persons were put to death and 76 were banished for violating the rules in Geneva.56 In one year alone, 14 women were burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft and for supposedly bringing the plague to Geneva.57
In a letter to Sulzer, Calvin justified his reasoning for burning at the stake Michael Servetus, a religious dissident. He asserted that if the papists were “so bitter and bold” on behalf of their “superstitions” so as to “shed the blood of the innocent, it should shame Christian magistrates” not to exercise the same penalties to protect “certain truths.”58
Election. Calvin believed in unconditional election and predestination. He thought that God arbitrarily condemns some to hell and chooses eternal life for others. Like Calvin, we also believe in God’s sovereignty, predestination, and election; but election is conditional. Calvin believed that only the elect are called.59 But God calls all men and women to repentance (in other words, all are “predestined” for salvation), but He chooses only those who answer His call. Those who choose Him are the chosen ones. He gives everyone a “measure of faith” (Romans 12:3) and desires “all to be saved” (I Timothy 2:4), but only a few respond. Those who choose to respond will be saved. Those who reject His pleadings choose to be lost.
Peter encourages us to “make our election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) by faith and obedience. God’s love is unconditional, but His salvation is not. We believe that election is conditional.
“There is no such thing in the word of God as unconditional election–once in grace, always in grace. In the second chapter of Second Peter the subject is made plain and distinct…. By faithful obedience to the truth they are to make their calling and election sure.”60
“There is the election of God on the condition of practice, and there is no other election in the Bible. Election is within our reach. ‘If ye do these things, ye shall never fall.’ “61
Calvin’s last words
As he sensed death nearing, Calvin called for a lawyer. Calvin’s last will shows that he did not see himself as infallible or sinless but claimed the grace and blood of Christ as his only hope of salvation in the coming judgment. He declared: “With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which He has exercised toward me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of His death and passion, that in this way He might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance…. I beg Him that He may be pleased so to wash and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer has shed for the sins of the human race, that under His shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment seat.”62
Calvin died on May 27, 1564, at the age of 55.63 His influence extended from the French Huguenots to America’s Pilgrim fathers. Even today’s Seventh-day Adventist Church, Reform Movement, owes much to the work and teachings of John Calvin. May we, by God’s grace, adopt his virtues. Amen. ■
1 Ellen White, “The French Reformation,” The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pa- cific Press Publishing Association, 1950), pp. 235, 236.
2 Julio L. Gonzalez, “John Calvin,” The Story of Christianity, vol. 2 (New York: Harper Collins, 1985), p. 61.
4 Theodore Huggenvik, “The Reformation in France and Switzerland,” An Outline of Church History (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publish- ing House, 1939), p. 197.
6 Theodore Beza, “Life of John Calvin,” in John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, vol. I; Tracts, Part I, ed. Henry Beveridge (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), p. 22.
7 Ellen G. White, “The French Reformation,” The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1950), p. 220.
10 Ibid., pp. 220, 221.
11 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 221.
12 Theodore Huggenvik, “The Reformation in France and French Switzerland,” p. 198.
13 Justo L. Gonzalez, “John Calvin,” p. 62.
14 Theodore Beza, “Life of John Calvin,” p. 23.
15 Theodore Huggenvik, “The Reformation in France and French Switzerland,” p. 198. Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 460.
16 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 221.
17 A.G. Dickens, “Calvin and Geneva,” Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1966), p. 151.
18 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” The Story of Civi lization, Part VI: The Reformation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 460.
19 Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” p. 25.
20 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 221,222.
21 Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” p.26.
22 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 223,224.
23 John Calvin, “The Author ’s Preface,” The Commentary on the Psalms in Calvin’s Commentary, vol. X (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), p. 43.
24 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 469. Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” p. 32.
25 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 470.
26 Theodore Huggenvik, “The Reformation in France,” p. 200.
27 Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” p. 32.
28 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 471.
31 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 236.
32 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 476.
33 John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 16, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), p. 378.
35 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 20, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), p. 239.
36 John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1, p. 380.
37 Ibid., p. 381.
38 Ibid., p. 382.
39 John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion,book iv, xvii, 43, in A Compend of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. Hugh Thomson Kerr (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1939), p. 200.
40 Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” p. 63.
41 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 472.
42 Ibid., p. 477.
43 Martin I. Klauber, “Reformation on the Run,” Christian History, vol. XX, no. 3, p. 21.
44 Vivian H.H. Green, “The Protestant Reformation,” A New History of Christianity, rev. ed. (Phoenix Mill, Great Britain: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1998), pp. 135-136.
45 John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, vol. 2, ed. Henry Beveridge (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009).
46 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 222.
47 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 473.
48 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 236.
49 Vivian H.H. Green, “The Protestant Reformation,” p. 136.
50 Justo L. Gonzalez, “John Calvin,” The Story of Christianity, vol. 2 (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1985), p. 68.
51 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 236.
52 Roland H. Bainton, “A Chosen People,” The Church of Our Fathers (Philadelphia: West Minister Press, 1950), p. 153.
53 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 236.
54 Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” p. 90. 55 Ellen G. White, “The Relation of Church Membership,” Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948), p. 486.
56 Will Durant, “John Calvin,” p. 473.
58 John Calvin to Sulzer, Geneva, September 8, 1553, in John Calvin Tracts and Letters, ed. Jules Bonnet, and trans. David Constable (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), pp. 427-430.
59 John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, book III, xxiv, p. 1.
60 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 57, 1900, quoted in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev., ed. Francis D. Nichol (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), pp. 1114, 1115.
61 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 49, 1894, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), p. 944.
62 Theodore Beza, “Life of John Calvin,” p. 86.
63 Theodore Huggenvik, “The Reformation in France and French Switzerland,” p. 201.