John Calvin (1509-1564)
Home > Tourist Guide > Table of contents > Swiss culture > Religions > Protestantism > John Calvin

Reformer John Calvin’s importance and caliber of mind lie less in the originality of his theological doctrine – for in this respect, he was more in the wake of Martin Luther – than in his social and political impact. On a worldwide scale, there are few features of the modern-day bourgeois, liberal and capitalist ideology that did not take root in Calvinism or did not develop without some form of contact with it. Equal rights for all citizens (crucible of liberalism), the system of supreme democratic representation (crucible of bourgeois political thought) and each person’s obligation to demonstrate their adherence to God through a zeal for work and an ascetic lifestyle (main cause of the development of the capitalist economic system) are the main professions of the Calvinist faith, whose impact on society are plain to see.

The great systematizer of Protestant theology was, paradoxically, not at all educated in theology. Born in Noyon, Picardy (France), Calvin was destined to become a priest, but chose instead to study law, classical languages and rhetoric, rather than theology. A sharp-minded humanist, he delved into the analysis of the Protestant doctrine, which was already well established in Germany and Switzerland (Calvin was almost a generation younger than Zwingli). In 1532, he broke away from the Catholic Church and openly proclaimed his devotion to the evangelical faith, a confession that would cause him to seek religious asylum in Basle.

This city is where he wrote his masterwork "Christianae religionis institutio" (Institutes of the Christian Religion), which was first published in Latin (1536) and then reprinted in several languages and propagated throughout Europe. With this systematic and intelligent digest of the Protestant doctrine, the lawyer Calvin received immediate international acclaim as a great theologian. But Calvin himself opted for a career as a reflective scholar.

Fate, however, would thwart his plans. The threat of war forced Calvin to pass by Geneva in 1536 in order to reach Basle, after a stay in his native city. Under the influence of Bern and the spiritual leadership of Reformer Guillaume Farel, Geneva had by this time already embraced the faith. Farel persuaded his prestigious and providential guest to remain and help strengthen the Reformation in Geneva. Calvin ended up agreeing, and so began his first stage of action as Head of the Geneva Church. This position was to be short-lived: in 1538, outraged by the austerity of the moral regime, the inhabitants expulsed Farel and Calvin. Calvin found refuge in Strasbourg where he became a professor of theology and a pastor of a church for Protestant refugees taken in by the Alsatian city. The French Church in Strasbourg, to which Calvin gave an ecclesiastical structure and liturgy, became the model of the kind of church the Reformer had in mind.

In the meantime, Geneva turned a page in history. Lacking strong leadership, Calvinist devotees had become increasingly insecure and invited Calvin to return. He agreed in 1541. Within a few years, he completely transformed the Geneva Church and State and created "Protestant Rome". For a long time, "Calvin’s city" had the reputation of a God-fearing, law-abiding Republic-city with strict habits and customs, under the undeniable rule of the Church, independent of and superior to temporal power, inspiring and acting as a spiritual guide for the government. Since the system was codified in the "Ecclesiastical Ordinances", Calvin was able to defend it with unyielding discipline against all adversaries. This Puritanism was not always exempt from an intolerant, almost fanatic, impatience.

Under Calvin, life-loving Geneva was transformed into a bastion of rigor. On the other hand, during its creator’s lifetime, Calvinism exalted the teaching of arts and sciences (in 1559, the Reformer founded a college and an academy) and it also encouraged the trades and commerce that helped Geneva metamorphose into a flourishing city.

Ravaged by illness, worn out from a life without rest, Calvin passed away prematurely in 1564, leaving behind a human endeavor that profoundly influenced the course of history for centuries.

 Other pages of interest:

© Micheloud & Cie 2013      Tel. ++41 21 331 48 48  info@switzerland.isyours.com. No part of this site may be reproduced in any form or by any means without our prior written permission. Printed from http://Switzerland.isyours.com/e/guide/religion/christianism/john.calvin.html