Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: John Calvin

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on B&H Academic Blog and is the third in a series of theological biographies by Jason Duesing: Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History.

Karl Barth, a theologian of no small stature, captured the immensity of John Calvin’s life and theology as “something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological.” Barth explained, “I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.” Regularly a topic of controversy, the name John Calvin continues to delight and bewilder, engendering both scowls and smiles. For this article, rather than defend or critique the man based on historic assumptions or contemporary reformulations of the life and thought of Calvin, I am parking my brief assessment at the intersection of two of his chief doctrines that receive little attention: Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

Born the youngest of four or five boys, Jean Cauvin (1509-64) grew up without his mother due to her early death. Calvin’s father secured him a position with a bishop that enabled Calvin to study at the University of Paris at the age of twelve. Once completing a degree in Arts, Calvin’s father pushed him to study law at the universities in Orleans and Bourges. As Alistair McGrath notes, there Calvin learned Greek and “encountered a form of humanism which captured his imagination.” The humanist call to return to the original sources resonated with Calvin displaying his linguistic proficiency with the publication of a commentary on the work of the Roman philosopher, Seneca. Calvin’s father died during these years. Following the completion of his legal studies, Calvin returned to Paris to study theology. As T. H. L. Parker recounts, “His life seemed tolerably secure, his future, so far as he had the ordering of it, plain.”

During the early 1530s, however, Calvin’s loyalty to Roman Catholicism eroded as he pursued his study of Scripture. Later he explained that “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.” Breaking from the Roman Catholic Church brought scrutiny and shockwaves to his plain and secure life. He fled Paris in disguise for Basel, Switzerland. There he joined the Reformation in earnest and began to publish a short work to aid in the reading of Scripture

Born to Write

“Calvin was born to write,” said biographer Parker. At times called the greatest exegete of the Reformation, Calvin penned commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. But, the Institutes of the Christian Religion is his most influential work. Bruce Gordon notes that one can easily trace Calvin’s theological development “by simply following the growth of the Institutes—in structure as well as in size and content.” Calvin completed the first edition of the Institutes in 1536. A short book of six chapters designed as a compendium of Protestant belief, the Institutes defended Protestants as orthodox and provided a guide to help readers understand the “sum of what God meant to teach us in his Word.” By the time the final edition appeared in 1559, the Institutes consisted of 80 chapters and presented to the world a theology both systematic and timeless.

At times called the greatest exegete of the Reformation, Calvin penned commentaries on almost every book of the Bible.

After traveling to France for a time to make some arrangements, Calvin’s return to Basel was diverted through Geneva. Undergoing its own reformation led by Guillaume Farel, Calvin was persuaded to stay to assist in Geneva though he desired to return to seclusion. Calvin wrote, “Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement.” While away for a period of time in Strasbourg, Calvin met and married an Anabaptist widow, Idelette de Bure. Their return to Geneva shortly thereafter positioned Calvin to further the Reformation from this post. As John T. McNeill explains, Calvin never slowed in his work. “He could never experience a life of undisturbed routine. But whatever the day brought, it brought labor. Even while others slept or took their pleasure, he read and wrote and prayed.” This pace took its toll on Calvin’s body and physical maladies led to his death in 1564.

Theologian of the Holy Spirit

In addition to serving as one of the Reformation’s most capable exegetes, students of Calvin also have dubbed him “The Theologian of the Holy Spirit.” Calvin formulated and expounded a doctrine of the Holy Spirit to a degree previously unknown in the history of Christianity. One of the more helpful aspects of his treatment is his description of the relationship between the Word of God and the Spirit of God, a relationship he explains as an “indissoluble union.” Three brief examples help explain this union:  First, there are no new doctrines put forth by the Spirit that are not already in the Word. “We must give diligent heed both to the reading and hearing of Scripture, if we would obtain any benefit from the Spirit of God” (Institutes, 1.9.2). Second, the Word has no power apart from the Spirit. “The word cannot penetrate our mind unless the Spirit, that internal teacher, by his enlightening power make an entrance for it” (Institutes, 3.2.34). Third, the illuminating of the Word by the Spirit, gives a sealing rest to the soul. “The testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (Institutes, 1.7.4).

Karl Barth was right. There is something otherworldly and mountainous about John Calvin and his theology that requires diligence to ascertain a faithful understanding of the man. Perhaps the best approach is to follow Calvin’s own humanist path of first returning to the original sources before drawing immoveable conclusions. Truly, the reading of Calvin’s works will never disappoint or fail to warm hearts while simultaneously causing the scratching of heads. Certainly, reading Calvin is the most advisable prescription for tackling any study of “Calvinism.” Yes, the reading of Calvin should continue as scholarship unearths new perspectives on Calvin for debate and reflection. For two examples, see Michael A. G. Haykin’s work arguing for the existence of a Reformation missionary impulse originating in Calvin’s Geneva and a section in Malcolm B. Yarnell’s article on religious liberty that presents a document until recently only partially translated, shedding more light on the execution of Michael Servetus. Thankfully, Calvin was born to write. For 500 years, the best way to understand Calvin is still to read him.