I have purposely placed John Calvin at the end of this series commemorating the Protestant Reformation not only because I have been presenting the various personalities in somewhat chronological order of influence but also because now-a-days so many people erroneously use the terms "Reformed" & "Calvinism" interchangeably. But it is neither fair to Calvin or to all the other Reformers to simply identify the Reformed perspective by one man’s name.
Before we address that further, let us explore John Calvin the man.
Like Martin Luther before him, Calvin originally studied to be a lawyer but instead turned his attention toward Christ & understanding the Bible. He would soon be running from the Roman Catholic authorities after it was rumored that he was the author behind a Reformist speech given by one of his friends. He fled France disguised as a farmer. He wandered parts of Europe for three years under assumed names until finally arriving in Geneva Switzerland in about 1536. He’d only meant to stay one night in Geneva but the local Reformers convinced him to remain. Here, Calvin would marry the widow of an Anabaptist.
What the other Reformers like John Wycliffe, John Hus, & Martin Luther did to bring forth the ideas of the Reformation, Calvin did to systematize these ideas especially as preserved in his enduring work called “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”. It is his ability to concisely relate the “big picture” of the Bible that has caused Calvin to be respected by Christians who desire to also see the over all “system” of the Bible & is also the main cause of disrespect from Christians who'd rather revel in vagaries, piece-meal proof-texting, & emotional platitudes. It is Calvin’s practice of “exegeting” the text rather than the practice of allegory or excessive reliance upon commentary which was prevalent in Calvin’s day, even among some Reformers. (Exegete means: revealing the true meaning by considering context, audience relevancy, grammatical & historical consideration, & typology)
Calvin is actually greatly credited with saving the Reformation from extinction as the various factions were becoming so doctrinally discombobulated that Calvin’s systematic approach was just the thing that was needed to hold the fledgling Protestants together. Calvin’s “Institutes” were published in several editions & translated into almost all the European languages & utilized in the Protestant universities. Due to this contribution, the term “Calvinism” is often used synonymously with the term “Reformed”, though Calvin himself certainly did not institute the term & would no doubt strongly reject its original use, but now terms are terms & ought not be considered vanity to so use, for it is not the man that is being followed but the systematic example.
Though Calvin never met Luther (being 25 years younger than Luther), he did however have extensive contact & correspondence with Luther’s companion & perhaps closest friend, Phillip Melanchthon.
Though it is not the scope of this brief overview of Calvin to go into detail about his influence on Geneva & the political situation of the city, we will acknowledge that Calvin was more of a theological leader than a municipal leader, though during that time such roles were often intertwined & thus when modern people look back at some of the situations we may wince at those events. However, with specific mention of the so-called “Michael Servetus execution”, which some people now ignorant of history claim was by the command of Calvin, the fact is that Servetus was already condemned by several authorities under numerous grounds & Calvin did all he could to decrease the punishment doled out not by Calvin but by the municipal court of Geneva. Indeed, the Servetus trial lasted two whole months & Calvin never appeared at the trial to condemn Servetus. However, even considering the times in which those events unfolded, I have grappled over the severity of the sentence & can only think that when in a time when men lived such short life spans (average age of natural death at the time was about 60 years), & in societies where entire cities & nations came under sway, an erroneous ideology was more destructive than it would ever be in the present day. How many men & women fell for the Nazi ideology for example? I am reminded then of the verse:
Entertaining destructive doctrines such as those being spread by men like Servetus were soul destroying & could affect a larger group of people than such today, YET I am NOT trying to justify the actions of the Geneva Council, but merely trying to understand it “exegetically” rather than with knee-jerk 21st century ego-centric emotionalism.
Lastly, I would like to touch on the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” (aka “The Doctrines of Grace” or “T.U.L.I.P.”). This again is a somewhat misapplied term since Calvin was dead for over 50 years before these points were officially articulated. Like many of the foundational Christian teachings, it took an attack on the precept for it to be clearly formulated in response. That is to say, the so-called Five Points of Calvinism were ALREADY forgone conclusions & understood by almost all Protestants – it was not until a man named Jacob Arminius (a former Reformed Protestant) & his followers abandoned their Protestant faith & attacked its biblical foundation that the Reformers had to articulate this aspect. The Five Points of Calvinism (which was not the original name) were actually given in response to the the Arminians’ “Five Articles of Remonstance”. So, neither Calvin nor the Reformers themselves sat around as often-depicted making up “dogma” to impose upon others. Rather, theological debate/contention MUST come when one person or group proposes a belief at odds with the Bible. (See 1 Cor 11:19 & 2 Thes 2:15 wherein you will see the need & purpose of these contentions) We are NOT supposed to just sit around & accept anything & everything being espoused by people calling themselves "Christians" -- beliefs have affect & consequence & should be considered in light of not mere friendly "opinion" or "feeling" but in light of Scripture. Some of the worse ideologies the world has seen have come about due to unchallenged propositions -- especially those propositions that have been put forth either in a dear & "friendly" manner or a populous-unifying manner. Truth is truth regardless how it makes us "feel".
John Calvin’s contribution to our Christian heritage should not be overlooked, yet the man was so humble that he requested no fanfare in his dying days but simply to be buried quietly with a grave marker bearing only his initials.
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyaCF-cCfnU (11 min YouTube documentary)