Calvin’s Life: To Geneva & Back Again

                The reformer John Calvin has often been portrayed as a legalistic tyrant who endeavored to rule the city of Geneva with an “iron fist”.  This characterization has, unfortunately, come to have the status of an unquestioned historical fact.  People who rely   on the opinions and assessments made by others and who fail to read Calvin’s actual writings, will miss the true relationship that Calvin had with the civil authorities in Geneva.  A survey of Calvin’s theological writings, personal correspondence, and records of the Genevan Pastors reveal a far different picture.  In the introduction to The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes includes a quote from Professor Basil Hall:

Those who wish to focus denigration of Calvin and what he stood for on his supposed cruelty and dictatorial powers fail to come to grips with two major facts.  First, if Calvin was a cruel man who did he attract so many, so varied, and so warmly attached friends and associates who speak of his sensitiveness and his charm?  The evidence is plain for all to read in the course of his vast correspondence.  Secondly, if Calvin had dictatorial control over Genevan affairs, how is it that the records of Geneva show him plainly to have been the servant of its Council which on many occasions rejected out of hand Calvin’s wishes for the religious life of Geneva, and was always master in Genevan affairs?”[1]

Calvin’s call to Geneva:

                The story of Calvin’s call to the city of Geneva is well known.  In 1536, Calvin was forced to stay the night in Geneva, as the direct road from Paris to Strasbourg (his intended destination) was blocked due to the political turmoil between Francis I and Charles V.  Calvin intended to stay only one evening.  William Farel, however, was made aware of his presence and called down the curse of God on Calvin’s intended “life of quiet study,” if Calvin refused to stay and help with the work of the Reformation in Geneva.  It is significant that, by this point in time, the city of Geneva had “already committed itself to the Reformation.”[2]  Philip Edgcumbe Hughes states that before Calvin’s initial trip to the city:

The state had not only overthrown the papal hegemony and outlawed the celebration of the mass, but had also pronounced strict penalties against libertinism and mad church attendance obligatory on pain of fine…

And

All along, in jealously guarding what it consider its prerogatives, the state sought to have the last word and to exercise the power of veto.  Matters even of faith no less than of worship had ordinarily to be submitted to the Council for approval and ratification.[3]

Two things should be noted.  1)  The civil government of Geneva was already committed to the Reformation and was seeking to establish a biblical state.  Calvin did not “force his views” on the city.  2)  Calvin was not seeking to serve, much less rule, in Geneva.  He was “strongly persuaded” by Farel.

Calvin’s Banishment from Geneva

In a letter to Henry Bullinger, dated February 21, 1538, two months and two days before his banishment from Geneva, Calvin wrote:

This, however, I will venture to throw out in passing that it does appear to me, that we shall have no lasting church unless that ancient apostolic discipline be completely restored which in many respects is much needed among us.  We have not yet been able to obtain, that the faithful and holy exercise of ecclesiastical excommunication be rescued from the oblivion into which it has fallen … The generality of men are more ready to acknowledge us as preachers than as pastors.[4]

                After his banishment from Geneva, Calvin hardly exhibited the traits of a man who desired to return to Geneva so as to become a tyrant controlling the city.  In fact, the reverse is true.  Calvin’s correspondence and writings reveal a man committed to the church, yet, humanly speaking, very much desiring to be free from the problems of Geneva.  He writes in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms that:  “I was not animated by such greatness of mind as not to rejoice more than was seemly when certain commotions caused me to be expelled from Geneva.[5]

Three things should be noted.  1)  Calvin was banished from the city.   2)  Calvin had not achieved his goal of the church controlling the exercise of ecclesiastical excommunication.  3)  Calvin was in fact happy to leave the problems of Geneva.  None of these things are characteristic of a tyrant! 

Calvin’s return to Geneva

                Two years later, after he received word that the City of Geneva was considering recalling him to service, his frame of mind was still opposed to, and fearful of, working there.  In a letter to Farel dated March 29, 1540, he writes: 

Michael, also, the printer, has communicated to me at Blecheret, that my return thitherward might be brought about; but rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over.  This piece of information I have wished incidentally to communicate to you, that to the utmost of your power you may set yourself to oppose the measures of those who shall endeavor to draw me back thither.[6]

                Note:  This is hardly the sentiments of a man seeking to be a “tyrant”!

In brief, the portrayal of John Calvin as a legalistic tyrant who endeavored to rule the city of Geneva with an “iron fist” is patently a bias, not the result of historical investigation.  Calvin’s relationship with the city government can best be characterized as one in which the reformer consistently sought to live out, and live within, his understanding of the Biblical roles of both Civil and Ecclesiastical government.

Martin B. Blocki has served since 2003 as the Associate Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North Hills in Pittsburgh, PA since 2002.  He is a counselor at the Biblical Counseling Institute in Pittsburgh.  Rev. Blocki graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington (BME), Arizona State University (MM), and the Reformed Presbyterian Theological  Seminary (MDiv).  Martin and his wife, Kathy, have two married sons, one daughter, and 2 grand children.


[1] Basil Hall, “The Calvin Legend,” The Churchman  73 no. 3, (1959) :  124f., quoted in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, ed., trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing Company,  1966), 16-17.

[2] Ibid.,  9.

[3] Ibid.,  5.

[4] John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin,   vol. 1, trans.  Dr. Jules Bonnet  (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858) ,  66.

[6] Calvin, Letters of Calvin,  175.

Calvin’s Life: The Servetus Affair

My first pastorate was a small rural congregational church. Her only doctrinal statement was the Apostle’s Creed. The ol’ timers said it was because doctrine didn’t matter out in the country. I served that congregation while in my last year of college and almost all three years of my seminary career.  The summer I received a call to that church I became persuaded that Calvinism was simply a shorthand way of describing the Bible’s message of salvation.  Not everyone in my new congregation was thrilled about my turn toward Reformed soteriology (i.e. the doctrine of salvation).  So, it should have come as little surprise when I received a packet in the mail one day.  It was filled with polemics against Calvinism.  It was plain nasty. So much for theology not mattering in the country! But there was one item in that packet that I have to this very day. It’s a cartoon about the circumstances surrounding Calvin and Servetus. A cartoon of the event seems almost callous.  Let me tell you the story.[1]

Michael Servetus believed that reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Bucer, Farel, and others were not reformed and reforming enough and he saw it as his calling to correct that error.  So, at twenty one years of age he published De Trinitatis Erroribus in which he attacked and denied the doctrine of the Trinity calling it a deception of the devil.  Servetus believed that he might draw some notable reformed theologians into debate and thus create the radical reform for which he aimed. However, all he felt was pressure to retract his position, which he did in a second edition.  However, his retraction did not appear to be truthful.

Nevertheless, though he continued to teach his spurious theology he did not put it in print but instead decided to take up medicine.  In France, he achieved quite a notable reputation writing books and giving lectures. But Servetus had a quarrelsome personality and it wasn’t long until he made a nuisance of himself among the medical community in Paris.  He seems to have been always looking for the extreme position no matter the field.  In medicine, he apparently believed that knowing astrology gave the doctor the upper hand and he was not shy to belittle his colleagues for their lack of starry knowledge. Not surprisingly, Servetus had to leave town.

What also seems to emerge from a study of his life and character is an obsession with John Calvin. Sometime after 1540 Servetus wrote Calvin at least thirty letters. He was apparently seeking to engage Calvin in a Trinitarian debate.  He even asked Calvin if he wanted him to come to Geneva. Calvin ignored the letters but he did write to tell Servetus that he did not want him to come to Geneva.  Servetus must have felt rejected once again.  No one seemed willing to engage his extreme views.  So, apparently in exasperation, he sent Calvin his Restitutio, which had been secretly published in 1553 because it revealed his heretical views.  Thus, Calvin had, in hand, proof that Servetus had never forsaken his anti-Trinitarian heresy.

On August 13, 1553, Servetus was spotted in Geneva. Someone told Calvin and he reported the sighting to the authorities. Servetus, who had escaped from a jail in Lyons, was to be shipped back to France for trial in that city. However, Servetus begged to be tried for heresy in Geneva.  His apparent desire to make a name through controversy knew no bounds. His request was honored.

The Council at Geneva found Servetus guilty and sentenced him to be burned at the stake. Throughout the trial Calvin went to Servetus and repeatedly attempted to convince him to recant of his heretical statements, but his attempt failed.  Calvin also sought a less painful death for Servetus from the Council but he failed there as well.  It’s little wonder that Calvin did not attend the burning of Servetus, which was also botched.  The fire would not stay lit and it took the man no less than thirty agonizing minutes to expire.

Now, this story is surrounded by rhetoric but the facts are available for all to read.  So, how the death of Michael Servetus can be laid at the feet of Calvin is somewhat mystifying and yet it is. What is more, those who oppose Calvin behave much like the caricature they have drawn of him!  I am obviously not saying that Calvin was perfect – he was not.  However, to lay the death of Servetus at Calvin’s feet is simply to read the evidence of history through an anti-Calvinistic lens and that is not good history. Come to think of it – it’s not very gracious either.   

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R Publishing) and Managing Editor for Place for Truth.


[1] This story can be found in Calvin biographies.  There is Bruce Gordon’s Calvin, Herman J. Selderhuis’s John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Ronald S. Wallace’s Calvin: Geneva and the Reformation, and T.H.L. Parker’s John Calvin: A Biography.  There is also a cartoon which shall remain nameless.

John Calvin: A Model for Ministers

Typically when someone hears the name John Calvin, one of the first things that comes to mind is those doctrines which are commonly called “Calvinism,” or his well-known “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” However, one must wonder, if after hearing the name John Calvin, do people ever think “an example for ministers to follow.” The question is this: did he, in fact, leave behind a pattern in his life and labors for us to imitate? In this piece, I propose to argue that he did, and intend to prove this assertion based upon two fundamental facts that spring from his manner of life and from his method of preaching.

Calvin’s Manner of Life

If indeed John Calvin is a good example for ministers, then it makes sense that there should be something of that example manifested in the way he lived. Knowing that all preachers of the Word of God are called to be good examples in all that they do (Phil 4:9; 1 Thes 1:7; 2 Thes 3:9; 1 Tim 4:12; 1 Pet 5:3), we ask, did John Calvin in fact live a life worthy of imitation? Here we will begin with a brief biographical overview of his life and then it will conclude by highlighting some particular characteristics from him that are most worthy of our emulation.

John Calvin was born in 1509, on July 10, at Noyon, in Picardy, France, to Gerard and Joanne Calvin. His father was a prominent lawyer and an administrator for a local Catholic cathedral. His mother Joanne was a godly woman who had five children, the second child being John. John grew up in the church and it was his father’s desire that John would one day become a priest. John’s father also wanted his son to have a good education and he was able to secure money from his place of employment to pay for that education.

Concerning Calvin’s early years of schooling, Dr. William Downing says,

Calvin had the advantages of a good education and grew up in the circle of educated and prominent families because of his father’s position. Although he was a plebeian (ordinary; one who was considered to be of lower class), his boyhood friends, associates and fellow-students were of the aristocracy. He enjoyed the advantages of tutors and proved to be a brilliant student, with an insatiable appetite for learning.”[1]

Dr. Downing goes on to tell us that, at fourteen, Calvin,

was sent to the University of Paris to enter the service of Rome as a priest…

As a university student, it is said that he demonstrated a maturity beyond his years. In the providence of God, he had able teachers who marked his life with discipline and intellectual development. In 1528 he graduated with the degree Master of Arts. He was eighteen years of age.”[2]

In about 1528, Calvin relocated to Orleans to study law. W. S. Reid remarks,

Although he commenced training for the priesthood at the University of Paris, his father, because of controversy with the bishop and clergy of Noyon cathedral, now decided that his son should become a lawyer, and sent him to Orleans where he studied under Pierre de Etoile. Later he studied at Bourges under the humanist lawyer Andrea Alciati. It was probably here while in Bourges that he became a Protestant.[3]

Regarding his own conversion, Calvin wrote in the preface of his commentary on the Psalms,

God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honourable office of herald and minister of the gospel. My father had intended me for theology from my early childhood. But when he reflected that the career of law proved everywhere very lucrative for its practitioners, the prospect suddenly made him change his mind. And so it happened that I was called away from the study of philosophy and set to learning law: although, out of obedience to my father’s wishes, I tried my best to work hard, yet God at last turned my course in another direction by the secret rein of his providence. What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years—for I was so strongly devoted to the superstition of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner, a raw recruit.”[4]

In about 1536 Calvin, having separated from the Roman Catholic Church, decided to go to Strasbourg, Germany to live the life of a quiet scholar. However, because fighting had broken out between France and the Roman Empire, Calvin had to make a detour through Geneva, Switzerland (a city that had been won over to Protestantism a month or so earlier under the leadership of William Farel). Although Calvin had only planned to stay there one night, this city, in the providence of God, was where he would remain for the next twenty-three years preaching and teaching the Holy Scriptures until his death on May 27, 1564. On April 25, 1564, about a month before his passing, he made up his will, which reads in part as follows:

I, John Calvin, servant of the word of God in the church of Geneva, weakened by many illnesses . . . thank God that he has not only shown mercy to me, his poor creature . . . and suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is more than that, he has made me a partaker of his grace to serve him through my work . . . I confess to live and die in this faith which he has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than his predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which he has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ, and accept the merits of his suffering and dying that through him all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great redeemer, as it was shed for all poor sinners, so that I, when I appear before his face, may bear his likeness.[5]

This concludes the survey of Calvin’s life.[6]

There are three notable characteristics exemplified by him that we will consider in following posts.[7]

Rob Ventura is one of the pastors of Grace Community Baptist Church of North Providence, Rhode Island and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is an author and blogger for Reformation 21 and has co-authored two books on Reformation Heritage Books A Portrait of Paul and Spiritual Warfare.


[1] W. R. Downing, Lectures on Calvinism and Arminianism, (Morgan Hill: PIRS Publications, 2000), p. 11.

[3] W. S. Reid, “John Calvin,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 185-186.

[4] T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 200.

[5] W. R. Downing, Lectures on Calvinism and Arminianism (Morgan Hill: PIRS Publications, 2000), p. 13.

[6] In this brief survey, I have purposefully left out such notable events in Calvin’s life as his friendship with Nicholas Cop; his first encounter with William Farel; Calvin and Farel’s expulsion from Geneva (1538), Calvin’s ministry at Strasbourg to French Protestant refugees (1538-1541), Calvin’s wife, Idelette de Buren and their children; Calvin’s rebuttal to Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto; Calvin and Farel’s return to Geneva (1541), and the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Servetus (1553).

[7] No doubt many more things would be worthy of our imitation concerning Calvin’s manner of life, such as his piety, his training of men for the ministry, and his missionary endeavors etc.

Katherine Parr – an Influential Queen

Katherine Parr’s life is punctuated by danger, action, and scandal. We usually remember her close brush with death, when a powerful group of courtesans plotted to destroy her. Some may remember her contested marriage to Thomas Seymour, who kept the gossiping tongues of London happily wagging. Beyond this fascinating drama, Katherine was an intelligent and highly literate woman, a capable ruler, and a promoter of religious reform.

Early Life

Born in 1512 to a noble family with close connections to the crown, she lost her father at age five, and was raised by her mother Maud, a strong, capable woman who ran her household and properties and provided for the education and marriages of her three children (Katherine, William, and Anne).

            As most noble children, Katherine became fluent in the most important languages of her time: French, Latin, and Italian. She was particularly interested in medicine, a discipline which was often exercised by women at a local level, and kept an impressive collection of antique and foreign coins.

Queen Katherine

            King Henry VIII first noticed Katherine while she served as lady of Princess Mary. By that time, Katherine had outlived two husbands, Edward Borough and John Neville, and had survived a frightening kidnapping experience by a group of rebels who had tried to force Neville to join their ranks. In the royal court, 30-year old Katherine nurtured hopes of marrying Sir Thomas Seymour, a tall, red-haired baron who exercised a particular charm on women.

            King Henry changed her plans by asking her in marriage – a request that was strongly supported by her family. In the end, reluctant Katherine saw her acquiescence as an act of submission to God’s will. The wedding took place on 12 July 1543.

            Queen Katherine had plenty of resources to cultivate her studies, promote the arts, and indulge in one of her passions: fine clothes and jewels. Most of her time, however, she was busy learning the duties and protocol of queens and securing the affection of Henry’s children. This last task was not difficult. She was already a friend of Princess Mary, and Princess Elizabeth and the young Prince Edward shared Katherine’s passion for learning. Ultimately, it was Katherine who persuaded Henry VIII to keep Mary and Elizabeth in the line of succession.

            Katherine’s administrative abilities shone in the summer of 1544, when King Henry led a military expedition and left her in charge as queen-regent. She proved herself capable, signing five royal proclamations (mostly war-related) and addressing other important issues. This appointment created jealousies at court, increased by her limited experience and by her evangelical convictions. These concerns, combined with the fact that Henry’s health was deteriorating, prompted some men to plot against her life.

The Plot Against Her

The plot was spearheaded by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who took advantage of some complaints Henry had voiced to him about Katherine’s religious opinions to formulate a powerful set of charges against her. At first, he tried to force Anne Askew, who was already under interrogation for heresy, to implicate Katherine, but Anne firmly refused, and went silently to her execution in 1546.

            Still, Gardiner managed to find some evidence: Katherine had some forbidden books in her possession. He issued a warrant for her arrest. This part of her life is well known and has been retold in numerous books and movies. According to John Foxe, the messenger accidentally dropped the warrant, making it visible to one of the court physicians who in turn informed the queen. Feeling ill, Katherine went to bed and requested Henry’s presence. When the king arrived, she blamed her illness on her fears of having displeased him. Soon their conversation moved to the sensitive subject of religion, which she handled prudently by explaining she had wanted to educate herself in order to have an informed conversation with him and take his mind off his ailments. This submissive speech softened Henry’s heart, and the warrant was annulled. Katherine remained a faithful wife and nurse to Henry until his death on 28 January 1547.

Patronage and public works

As widow, Katherine was excluded from the regency but was awarded a generous income which allowed her to live comfortably in her beautiful mansions where she continued to promote the arts and education. Among her educational achievements are the endorsement of the construction of Trinity College and of the publication of a reading primer for children, and the promotion of several instructional religious works in English, some of which she personally translated from Latin. On 29 May 1545, she published her first work bearing her name, Prayers or Meditations, a combination of paraphrased portions of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and some original material, including five prayers. Interestingly, one of these was meant for men as they went to battle. Prayers or Meditations is the first known work ever published by a woman in England.

            Two years later, she published a second and more personal book, The Lamentation of a Sinner, where she closes the description of her own sinfulness and ignorance with a declaration of justifying faith in Christ’s sacrifice as culmination of God’s plan of redemption. Both of these works are brimming with Scriptural references, showing the maturity and depth of her religious studies.

            Katherine’s personal life was marred by scandals in her household, as Thomas Seymour, who had finally become her husband, was rumored as having an affair with young Princess Elizabeth during her stay at their house. Katherine has been accused of diverting her eyes from this situation.

            In any case, Elizabeth was sent away in 1548, while Katherine kept the young Lady Jane Grey under her wings. Historians believe that her example of religious conviction, cultural patronage and capable administration had a great impact on the two future queens.

            By that time, Katherine was pregnant with her only child, Mary, who was born on 30 August of the same year. Sadly, Katherine developed puerperal fever and died six days later, on 5 September 1548.

            Today, Katherine’s influence on English politics and culture is increasingly appreciated and her actions and writings are valued on their own merits, in the context of the turbulent English Reformation.

Calvin’s Life: The Younger Years

John Calvin was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. His father, Gerard, was a lawyer and registrar and notary to the bishop of Noyon. He married Jeanne LeFranc, the daughter of an innkeeper, who gave birth to three or four sons of which only two survived – Charles and John. Sadly John lost his mother at an early age, after which his father remarried.

Calvin’s childhood would have been typical for the Medieval period. Corporal punishment was the norm, and children were expected to shoulder responsibility at an early age. Serious childhood diseases were facts of life including the plague, which swept through Noyon more than once. Life was also overshadowed by the ever present Roman Catholic Church. Calvin recalled going on pilgrimages with his mother and participating in regular church feasts. Given this pervasive influence, it is natural that Gerard desired his sons to become priests and used his connection with the bishop to those ends. With John’s excellent academic reputation and ecclesiastical patronage, his future profession seemed secure.

In 1520/1521, John left Noyon at age 11 or 12 to begin formal education at the University of Paris. The three major disciplines at the time were Theology, Medicine, and the Law, but he was enrolled first at the Montaigu College for a solid grounding in Latin, “the doorkeeper to all the other sciences.” A typical day would begin at 4 AM and end at 8 PM in the winter and 9 PM in the summer. The students followed a strict schedule of daily mass, three classes throughout the day, prayers, and Bible reading with an hour for rest in the afternoon. The living conditions left much to be desired. Discipline was strict. Food was inadequate, and the surrounding neighborhood was known for its criminal element and open sewers. Yet despite this, Calvin went on to study the Greek classics and logic and eventually receive a Bachelor of Arts at age 16 or 17.

A turning point then occurred in Calvin’s life in 1525/1526. His father had intended him for a career in the church, but now he wanted him to study civil law. Maybe the law more lucrative or perhaps it was the growing tension between Gerard and the bishop of Noyon, which eventually led to Gerard’s excommunication. Regardless, John was sent to the University of Orleans and then to Bourges in 1529 to study law and Greek.

But an even greater turning point occurred, Calvin’s conversion around 1530. It began as “a mere taste of true godliness.” He did not suddenly grasp all the doctrines summed up in his Institutes. Neither did he realize how this conversion would sever his relationship to the official church. But this taste led to an increasing desire to love and know God. Perhaps it was through reading Luther and Zwingli or Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, but his eyes were beginning to open, and Calvin found himself moving away from the papacy toward the Reformers.

With Gerard Calvin’s death in 1531, John intended to return to Orleans and then Paris to study the classics again. But the plague drove him from the city. There are very few records after this until his publication of a commentary on the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. He hoped this book would pave the way to a quiet academic career, but God had other plans.

Luther’s influence was spreading through France much to the chagrin of the powers that be. Many theologians began to call for reform within the church, but this was met with swift opposition. One reformer was Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris and Calvin’s friend. His 1535 sermon likely drew from Erasmus’ New Testament and a work by Luther. But even a modest call for reform branded Cop a heretic and implicated Calvin as its author. Cop fled to Basel, and Calvin fled from Paris where he remained in hiding under various pseudonyms.

Calvin did return to Paris prior to the affaire de placards. On October 17-18, 1534, Protestants hung placards around city protesting the mass. One sign was even found on the king’s bedroom door. The authorities cracked down on this bold dissent. Many were arrested and executed as heretics including some of Calvin’s friends. At this point, he had no choice but to flee for his life yet again.

Although Calvin’s father and even Calvin himself made plans for his life as a priest and an academic, God had something else in mind, and his story doesn’t end here.

Sources:

John Calvin, A Biography,T.H.L. Parker, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. pgs. 17-52.

Who Was John Calvin? by Derek W.H. Thomas in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology, Burk Parsons, ed., Reformation Trust Publishers, 2008, pgs. 19-42.

Persis Lorenti is member of Grace Baptist Chapel in Hampton, VA where she serves as bookkeeper and deacon of library/resources. She has a M.S. in computer science from Virginia Commonwealth University. She blogs at triedbyfire.blogspot.com and out-of-theordinary.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter @triedwfire.

Calvin’s Life: The French Missionaries

A great blind spot which afflicts anyone who limits their reading of Calvin to The Institutes is how thoroughly engrossed the Reformer was in missions work across Europe.

Calvin was no austere academic always at his desk with his nose in a book. Rather, we could say, he spent much time at the window of the world, looking toward Poland, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain, Scotland and England, even Brazil, assessing opportunities for reformation in these great lands and drafting letters of encouragement, exhortation and pastoral instruction.

Of course, no country held Calvin’s attention like his homeland, France. As one Calvin scholar said: “Geneva’s main export was ministers, principally heading for France.”

After a three-year exile in Strasbourg, learning alongside Bucer, Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541. The city was filling with Protestant refugees seeking relief from persecutions under King Frances I. Geneva would double in size throughout the 1550’s, peaking at 21,000 souls by 1560. A world of reforming men who would soon become reformed missionaries were arriving at Calvin’s doorstep.

In 1553, Calvin sent his first missionary to France. There was no arm twisting by Calvin. The scriptures would do it, taking not so much the arm but the heart. Geneva flowed with the pure milk of the Word. Good preaching could be heard every day in Geneva’s pulpits. Through this Word God reached out and took his servants captive. Calvin then schooled them in theology, moral character and preaching before sending them to cities he knew well.

The details of exactly how many missionaries Calvin sent into France is somewhat disputed. The Register of the Company of Pastors, a register of ministerial activities in Geneva from 1541 to 1564 shows 88 men being sent over a seven-year period.  However, the Register does not include all the names for many were omitted out of safety concerns.

Looking at other lists, Robert Kingdon found more than 151 missionaries being sent in the year 1561 alone. It has thus been estimated, wrote Kingdon, that 2,150 congregations had been established in France by 1562, with around three-million members.

In a personal letter to Heinrich Bullinger (Oct. 1, 1560), Calvin himself wrote: “In Normandy our brethren are preaching in public, because no private house is capable of containing an audience of three or four thousand persons. There is greater liberty in Poitou, Saintonge, and the whole of Gascony.”

It was a staggering enterprise.

As mentioned earlier, Calvin wrote many letters to the missionaries, thousands. They reveal a Calvin constantly engaged in reading correspondence and returning his own. He wrote to pastors and individuals, addressing matters of doctrine, practice, or sin. His letters also include some of the most beautiful and bold encouragements to suffer for Christ, if need be unto death. Calvin’s pastor’s heart and wisdom shine through.

In writing the saints at Poitou (June, 1554), Calvin aids a nascent congregation meeting in secret without a minister. He instructs them on the question of participating in the Lord’s Supper. Instead of urging them to get to it, Calvin calls them to wait until they have pastor. In this way, he says, they can build on a solid foundation, “for it is better to abstain for a short time from what is good and profitable than to profane holy things by levity.”

Writing to this same congregation months later, Calvin emboldens them to keep meeting together even though it is dangerous. After stating his knowledge of their dangers and the importance of meeting in secret, Calvin says: “Even when the dangers are apparent, we must not, for all that, from excess of timidity withdraw from the fold. In fact, we see what awaits those who stray from it, how they gradually wax more and more indifferent, till they lose relish for all spiritual good….”

Calvin sent a pastor to this flock in May, 1555.

In a letter to the beleaguered church in Paris, Calvin again addresses the temptation not to meet because of threats. He applies the counter-intuitive truth of the kingdom, saying there is “no better remedy to your frailty than mutual exhortation and encouragement.” He then makes a beautiful and bold admonishment: “We should do God this honor, to make more account of his protection than of all the devices of Satan and his followers.”

Calvin, like the apostle Paul, lived with “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). This was from the Lord, a seed of compulsion sown into the heart of God’s servant. May God’s ministers today be afflicted by such a holy anxiety for the propagation of the gospel.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

Angels, Seekers of Truth

Throughout history, people have been fascinated by angels, those mysterious beings who pop up in Scripture at important times. Around the Christmas story, there are lots of angels.

They worship God the Trinity. They serve at God’s bidding. They never sit in God’s presence. They never share God’s rule. They are never worshiped and they explicitly reject worship. We are fascinated by them, and they are curious about us.

In his first chapter, the author of Hebrews wants to show us how God the Son is superior to everything in creation, including the angels. The angels are absolutely at the top of the tree when it comes to created things. The angels are created, while the Son is uncreated. They are ‘spirits,’ while the Son is God Almighty. They are ‘ministers,’ while the Son is LORD. Psalm 103:21

As the Son made material reality, so He also made immaterial reality. We are told very clearly that it was God the Son who made everything, “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” He created the heavens, the heavenly realm, the spiritual realm. That spiritual realm is as much a created reality as this material creation of which you and I are conscious. The creation of heaven and angels came first.                 Colossians 1:16

To refer to them as winds, or more correctly spirits, tells us something about their nature. They are invisible, they are strong and they are fast. Like a fierce wind, they drive everything before them. To refer to them as flames of fire, puts them in a certain relationship with God, because He is consuming fire. We must, however, distinguish these spirits from God who is Spirit. God as Spirit is everywhere present. Angels are spirits, but they are always somewhere, somewhere in created reality.   Hebrews 12:29

They are endowed with wisdom and knowledge, with intellect and will. These creatures are wiser and more knowledgeable than we are. Yet again, it is essential to distinguish between the knowledge of the angels and God’s knowledge. When thinking about Him, we say that God’s knowledge is as vast as His Being. He is infinite. We even say God is Wisdom and Knowledge. However, angels, like us, have some knowledge of some things, and no knowledge of other things.

They are very fortunate, always seeing the face of our Father in heaven. That means they are aware of all the self-revelation of God which is available, straight from the throne of God. They are seekers of truth. We can take from this that the angels are always growing in their knowledge. They learn as they stand in God’s holy presence. Just being there must provide a wealth of insight into the mind and will of God.  Matthew 18:10

This is how Peter puts it: “…those who preach the good news to you by the Holy Spirit from heaven, things into which the angels long to look.” They are eager to learn more of this salvation because we see it far more clearly. They have not sinned, therefore they have never been pardoned. Our experience of the grace of God is different from theirs.  1 Peter 1:12

Some passages indicate that angels take their curiosity as far as coming to church with us. One very odd chapter of Scripture, written by Paul, deals with social practices within that church. The reason for some of them has probably been lost in history. At one point, he insists on proper conduct “because of the angels.” Because of the angels? This certainly implies that when in church, we are in the presence of angels. Did you ever think about them coming to church with you? They might be more anxious to hear the sermon than you are!  1 Corinthians 11:10

They look on with interest, awe and wonder at the proclamation of the Gospel of grace. Paul writing to the Ephesians says that through the church, “the manifold wisdom of God is now made known” to whom? “…to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. That language normally refers to the spiritual beings all around us, who also inhabit heaven.   Ephesians 3:10

Then the word angel means messenger. They are constantly involved in God’s activities in the world. In the Bible they are seen transporting messages from heaven to earth,

  • sharing things with Abraham,  Genesis 15-19
  • giving the law through Moses to the children of Israel, Hebrews 2:1-2,  Acts 7:53
  • sending messages to Mary announcing the conception of the Son of God in her,  Luke 1:28  
  • warning Joseph about Herod’s desire to destroy the Christ child, and so on. Matthew 2:15

Surely, they learn something about their missions. Add to it all they do today, unknown to us. In our times of pain, what we usually ask is, “Why, God?” They are often sent to comfort us. They might well know the why. Still their knowledge is limited, unlike God’s. They may know more than us, but not everything.

There is one topic of curiosity to both of us, the timing of Christ’s Second Coming. When speaking about that, Jesus said, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,….”   Mark 13:32

Even angels don’t know when our Lord will return! We both wait expectantly for His appearing. Come, Lord Jesus!          

Liam Goligher began serving as Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in May of 2011. Liam and his wife Christine have five adult children (Louise, Ruth, David, Sarah, Andrew) and ten grandchildren.

Calvin’s Life: Lessons from Geneva

John Calvin arrived in Geneva in June 1536.[1] He intended to stay one night. Fleeing from persecution in his homeland of France, he planned to take up a scholar’s life in Strasbourg, but war forced him to take an unusual route that included the French-speaking city of Geneva. Calvin had no interest in Geneva, or for the busy, public work of a pastor. But before he could set out the next day, he was visited by a fiery, red-haired preacher who had recently convinced Geneva’s city council to leave Roman Catholicism and declare for Protestantism. William Farel was looking for someone to bring organization and theological leadership to his cause. He believed he had his man in the recent author of the Institutes. Calvin turned down his invitation, reiterating his plan to settle in Strasbourg. However, Farel proceeded to warn Calvin that God would curse him for retreating into a quiet life of study when the church had such great need.[2] Calvin took Farel’s threat as divine direction for his life.

After taking up his pastoral duties, Calvin presented a church order to the city council in January 1537. It included plans for a catechism, confession of faith, and the practice of church discipline. Calvin’s intent was to teach the people of Geneva to embrace Biblical convictions and hold them accountable to the same. Church and state overlapped considerably in his day, and the expectation would have been that those who did not hold the confession would be dismissed from the city as well as the church. But the city council members objected to entrusting excommunication to the church ministers. Accustomed to serving as the final authorities in both spiritual and civil matters, they saw it as potentially disruptive to divide those jurisdictions with the pastors.

The council also wanted Geneva to conform to the worship practices of the neighboring city of Bern, and though Calvin did not hold the minor differences he had with Bern as essential, he and his pastoral colleagues believed it was the responsibility of the Church, not the State, to decide such matters from Scripture. When the council determined, without consulting the ministers, that Communion would be served on Easter of 1538 with unleavened bread as was the custom in Bern, and forbade ministers to excommunicate, Calvin decided he could not serve Communion to anyone until the conflict was resolved. The city council banished him just two years after he first arrived.

There are several lessons from Calvin’s first stay in Geneva. One is that our callings do not always match our desires exactly. Like Calvin, you may be in a location or role that you do not want, but unless you are there in direct rebellion against God, he evidently wants you there at present, and may even intend you to stay. That’s a countercultural conviction in an age that always asks us if we love and enjoy what we do. But often the good of others is a more important indicator of Christian vocation than personal preference. After all, we serve a Savior who commands us to deny ourselves and follow him in his example of doing the same for us.

Another thing to ponder is that we will all be forced eventually to weigh principle against practicality. We may disagree if Calvin was right to insist on the church’s right to self-government in this instance or whether he should have gone along with the common practice of the day to avoid exile and extend his ministry, but we do know God eventually brought him back to Geneva – and with greater influence once the council gained appreciation for him in his absence. Even then, however, he did not enjoy total say even in ecclesiastical matters. We will face similar situations in our own church settings, whether to take a stand, or live to fight possibly greater battles later. Whatever we think of Calvin’s decision, we should give thanks for the freedom our churches enjoy in Western society today. A final lesson then is that God is in control of our lives. If we belong to him, we can trust his wisdom and power to bring good to his church and glory to his Name, however our desires and decisions fit into his plan.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have three children.


[1] The narrative account following relies heavily on W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 35-42.

[2] Calvin, Preface, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), xlii-xliii.

The Life of John Calvin Podcast

This week on Theology on the Go, our host, Dr. Jonathan Master is joined by Dr. Bruce Gordon. Dr. Gordon taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he was professor of modern history and deputy director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute, before joining the faculty of Yale Divinity School in 2008.

Dr. Gordon’s research and teaching focus on European religious cultures of the late-medieval and early modern periods, with a particular interest in the Reformation and its reception. His most recent book is John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Princeton 2016), which looks at the reception from the sixteenth century to the age of YouTube of one of the defining works of the Reformation. He is the author of Calvin (Yale, 2009), a biography of the Genevan reformer, and the Swiss Reformation (Manchester, 2002), a Choice Magazine “Outstanding Publication” (2003). Dr. Gordon teaches and supervises graduate students in a broad range of medieval and early modern subjects and their resonances in contemporary historiography and society. In 2012 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich.

Today Dr. Master will talk with Dr. Gordon in the first of a two part series on John Calvin. Today’s talk will cover the life of the Reformer of Geneva and the second podcast will take a look at his theology. 

So, grab that cup of coffee and meet us at the table!

Just for listening, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals would like to give you a free resource. If you would like to win a copy of Calvin by Bruce Gordon, go to ReformedResources.org!

The New Perspective on Paul: Justification is Moral Remedy

Eight years-ago this month a friend gave me a copy of N.T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009). The handwritten note inside the cover said: “To John, A provocative and edifying read.” 

Those words encapsulate the challenge and trouble of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). The work of N.T. Wright, a leading voice of the NPP, has indeed been provocative for he boldly tells Protestants of the reformation that we have failed to read Paul correctly. 

As for edification in Wright’s work, it is scarce. Not just because of errors but also for the division it sows among brethren. 

To grasp just how provocative the NPP is, consider what Wright said in an interview with his publisher: “Much of the reformation and post-reformation formulations of the doctrine were answering that question, About how can I get enough righteousness so that when God looks at me he will see that I am righteous.” Wright says this is absolutely the wrong question: “The question Paul is asking is not, How can you get enough righteousness so that when God looks at you he’ll be happy with you? But how can you be sure you are a member of God’s people.”

Wright’s view of justification is not Luther’s view nor Calvin’s. In Wright’s view justification is “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship” (Justification, 116). Justification is “the assured status of belonging to God’s people” (117). 

This means the NPP removes the doctrine of justification from under the heading of soteriology and relocates it under the heading of ecclesiology. Wright states this plainly: “In standard Christian theological language, it [justification] wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church (What Saint Paul Really Said, 119).

Justification in the NPP is not about Christ making a full satisfaction to his Father’s justice on our behalf – it is not about moral standards being met – it is, rather, about one’s status of membership in God’s people. Christ remains at the center of this new perspective, the living Lord uniting the nations under his banner, but the imputation of his personal and perfect obedience is not at the center of this new justification.  

To make this innovation work, Wright must redefine the problem of the law which Paul addresses in passages on being justified. For example, in Galatians 2:16, Paul says: “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” 

For Wright, Paul’s negating of works of the law here is not about the evil and failure of legalistic righteousness. In the classical Protestant view it is. But Wright says works of the law in Paul “are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew and Gentile: specifically, in the context of this passage….” (Justification, 117). 

The passage he means is Galatians 2:11-16a, a primary text for the NPP. Here Paul recounts his confrontation with Peter over Peter’s breaking table fellowship with believing Gentiles. When Paul speaks of works of the law, Wright says he must be referring only to narrow ethnic expressions of the law – circumcision, dietary food laws, and perhaps washings. In this way Wright can cast justification as

being about Christ ending ethnic boundaries (ecclesiology), more than being about Christ ending ethical boundaries between God and sinners (soteriology).

For Wright’s move in 2:16 to work, Paul could not possibly be expanding the question of circumcision to include the entirety of the moral law. But this foists a restriction on Paul that is out of sync with his own way of speaking later in the letter: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). 

In 2:16 Paul is expanding his complaint against Peter, moving from circumcision to all human moral performances. In fact, by the end of the verse he captures “all flesh” in his net, not just Jews, but any who endeavor to be justified by legal performance. Wright is wrong. His reading of Paul is too new. 

The biblical doctrine of justification is about meeting divine moral standards. Not satisfying God’s standard by our own efforts, our legal works, but having Christ’s obedience and satisfaction imputed to us by faith alone (Rom. 4:6, 5:9). Justification by faith in Christ is not provisional nor probationary. It gives the sinner an irrevocable peace (Rom. 5:1), the peace of imputed righteousness. It never gets old.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.