The Magazine

Great Reformer

Is freedom of conscience indebted to John Calvin?

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Indeed, John Calvin was one of the greatest Christian humanists of the Renaissance. His learning was awesome; he drew on ancient texts, sacred and pagan, fluently and extensively. He regularly cited Plato and Aristotle, but also Cicero, Quintilian, Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, Seneca, Horace, Juvenal, and Ovid. The famous opening line of his greatest work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion--"Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves"--was taken more or less directly from Cicero's definition of philosophy. He knew the ancient church fathers as well as any man of his age. He especially loved Augustine and Chrysostom, but also Ambrose, Gregory, Hillary of Poitiers, and Cyprian.

As a scholar, Calvin was unequaled. His interpretations of ancient texts stand up to modern critical standards astonishingly well. Biblical critics still consult his commentaries as a matter of course--a distinction belonging to no other biblical interpreter prior to the 20th century. Calvin's prose is widely admired among Renaissance scholars for its "lucid brevity," as Calvin liked to describe his own ideal. The French historian Bernard Cottret has argued powerfully that Calvin's Institutes stands as a masterpiece of 16th-century literature, comparable in many ways to the Essays of Montaigne.

John Calvin turns 500 this year. He is the father of the Reformed tradition of Protestantism; his writings shaped the societies in which that tradition flourished--the Swiss Confederation, the Netherlands, to some extent his native France, and especially England, Scotland, and America. He deserves to be better understood.

Jean Calvin was born in Noyon, 60 miles north of Paris, in 1509. Little is known of his early years. His father was a notary, or prosecutor, in the local bishop's court, and Calvin was bound for the church. The senior Calvin seems to have fallen out with the bishop and so redirected his son toward a career in law, which he began studying at Orleáns in 1528. The following year he attended Bourges University, where he made the acquaintance of French reformists under the patronage of Marguerite of Navarre, the king's evangelical sister.

In 1532, aged 23, Calvin published an academic thesis, a commentary on Seneca's De Clementia. It made no effect, but it does give some indication of the young man's learning and, more significantly, his intellectual self-confidence.

At some point in the early 1530s, while studying and lecturing at the Collège Royal in Paris, Calvin experienced a gradual conversion to Protestantism. On All Saints' Day 1533 his colleague Nicholas Cop preached a sermon, innocently titled "Christian Philosophy," in which he propounded a flagrantly Lutheran interpretation of the Old Testament Law. Calvin either wrote the sermon or, at the very least, collaborated with Cop on it (there is an extant copy in Calvin's hand). Within days Cop and Calvin were forced to flee the city. Calvin eventually settled with friends in Basel under an assumed identity.

Calvin was not naturally a man of action; all he wanted was a place to study and write. Yet he soon found himself almost forcibly recruited into the leadership of the reform movement. In 1535 he had gone back into France to bring the rest of his family to Basel. On their return, they were diverted by the eruption of war and had to pass through Geneva. Calvin only meant to lodge for a night, but Guillaume Farel, the fiery reformer then charged with establishing a reformed church in the city, found Calvin and implored him to stay and help.

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 on 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 a threat that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. I was so struck with fear by this threat that I desisted from the journey I had undertaken.

The following year he published the first edition (there would be four in all) of his Institutes, a kind of summation of Christian doctrine as Calvin saw it. That same year, 1536, when officials in Berne staged a debate between Catholic and Reformed theologians, Calvin brandished his almost superhuman powers of memory to great effect by quoting the fathers at length. At 27, Calvin was the rising star in a reform movement that desperately needed one.