Today is the birthday (1509) of John Calvin (born Jehun Cauvin), a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology now called Calvinism, which includes the doctrines of predestination and of God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. While Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the foundation of the Lutheran church, it was Calvin’s ideas which really set the Christian world ablaze, leading to, among other things, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and numerous Reformed denominations. As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a professor of Church History at a Theological College in Phnom Penh, you are in danger of a mammoth post on Calvin. But I will spare you. Just some highlights – and a recipe from Picardy, his birthplace. He does, of course, also lend his name to my favorite cartoon character, Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes (not to mention my favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin).
Calvin was a tireless polemicist and apologetic writer who generated considerable controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters with many reformers, including Philipp Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to his seminal Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, confessional documents, and various other theological treatises.
Calvin was originally trained as a humanist lawyer. He broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. After religious tensions erupted in widespread deadly violence against Protestant Christians in France, Calvin fled to Basel in Switzerland, where in 1536 he published the first edition of the Institutes. In that same year, Calvin was recruited by Frenchman William Farel to join the Reformation in Geneva, where he regularly preached sermons throughout the week. However, the governing council of the city resisted the implementation of their ideas, and both men were expelled. At the invitation of Martin Bucer, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, where he became the minister of a church of French refugees. He continued to support the reform movement in Geneva, and in 1541 he was invited back to lead the church of the city. Following his return, Calvin introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite opposition from several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority. Following an influx of supportive refugees and new elections to the city council, Calvin’s opponents were forced out. Calvin spent his final years promoting the Reformation both in Geneva and throughout Europe.
Let’s talk briefly about the doctrine of predestination which lies at the heart of Calvinist theology, and is certainly the most debated of all of Calvin’s theology. Among other things, this doctrine appears to fly directly in the face of the doctrine of free will, and is a key pillar in Max Weber’s argument that Protestantism leads to the development of capitalism (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). While I take issue with much of Weber’s thought, he is correct in his assertion that Catholic doctrine is cyclic – sin, confess, repent, salvation, then sin again (and repeat) – whereas Calvin’s doctrine is linear – you find out your fate on Judgment Day and not before, so you have to live as sinlessly as po