A dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin was a preacher, biblical scholar, and theologian. Although his Reform movement was centered in Geneva, Calvin's influence extended throughout all of Europe in the sixteenth century.
John Calvin was born in Noyon, France, and initially set out on a course of training that would prepare him for an ecclesiastical position in the Catholic church. However, after studying theology in Paris, he switched to the study of law at Orleans. By the early 1530s Calvin had come under the influence of the French humanist movement, and his earliest publication was a Latin commentary on Seneca's De dementia (1532). At this time Calvin also began to associate with a group that favored reform in the church, and by 1534 he had clearly identified himself with the Protestant movement in France. Faced with the threat of persecution, Calvin left his native land and ended up in Basel, where in 1536 he published what would become one of the most important works of the Prot­estant Reformation, the Christianae religionis institutio (Institutes of the Chris­tian Religion).
Later that same year Calvin found himself in Geneva, where Guillaume Farel insisted that Calvin stay and help carry out the reform of the church. Calvin and Farel set out to work immediately, but after various conflicts with the civil magistrates, they were forced into exile in 1538. This time Calvin settled in Strasbourg, where Martin Bucer,* another leading Protestant Reformer, had a decisive influence on Calvin's thought. During this Strasbourg period Calvin married and also published an expanded French edition of the Institutes (1541) that became a seminal work in the development of the French language. Calvin's literary production during his stay in Strasbourg was impressive; it included his extensive Commentary on the Book of Romans, as well as a strong defense of Protestantism in response to the challenge of Jacopo Sadoleto, a Catholic car­dinal.
In 1541, with the success of the Reformation in Geneva in jeopardy, Calvin was called back to the city, and although he never enjoyed complete freedom from conflict with the city magistrates, he was now given greater control over the reform of the church. Calvin set out to make Geneva into a model Christian commonwealth. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) provided the blueprint for Calvin's organization of the church in Geneva, and Calvin continued to press for an independent ecclesiastical structure that was free from subjection to civil authority and free to exercise religious and moral supervision over the citizens of Geneva. To this end, Calvin instituted the consistory, a body of church leaders (elders and ministers) that was responsible for ecclesiastical discipline. Calvin also worked to rid Geneva of all remnants of the Catholic religion and to es­tablish a Reformed style of worship that emphasized simplicity, the preaching of the Word, and psalm singing. By the 1550s Calvin had become the leader of an international Reformed, or Calvinist, movement. Calvin himself carried on an extensive correspondence with Protestant leaders throughout Europe, and Geneva developed into a hub for Protestant publishing and printing. A gifted organizer, Calvin was instrumental in the establishment of the Genevan Acad­emy (1559), which functioned as a training ground for Calvinist pastors and missionaries and became a center of Protestant higher education.
In addition to his duties as a pastor, preacher, and teacher, Calvin continued to write extensively throughout his years in Geneva. He revised and expanded the Institutes until it appeared in the definitive 1559 edition, wrote commentaries on almost all of the books of the Bible, and engaged in polemical exchange with both Catholics and Protestants. In the Institutes, a magisterial statement of Protestant doctrine, Calvin demonstrated his deep learning and articulated the central themes of his theology: the absolute authority of Scripture, the sover­eignty of God, the complete depravity of human beings, salvation and faith as divine gifts, and, in this context, his well-known doctrine of predestination. Calvin also emphasized the need for a biblical piety and for a disciplined and active Christian life, lived in obedience to God's will. Calvin's political thought provided the foundation for a theory of resistance that would develop into an important force within European politics. Calvinism expanded rapidly in the mid-sixteenth century, and by 1560 Calvinist congregations were located throughout much of Europe, from Poland to Scotland. Calvin's encouragement of these churches often enabled them to survive as underground and persecuted communities. Eventually, Calvin's influence extended, via Puritanism, across the Atlantic as well. In the end, Calvin must be regarded as one of the most sig­nificant religious thinkers and actors of the sixteenth century. His impact was enormous.
W. J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait, 1988.
A. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, 1990.
M. Prestwich, ed., International Calvinism, 1541-1715, 1985.
Michael A. Hakkenberg

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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