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John Calvin

John Calvin (Johannes Calvijn) was born on July 10, 1509 with the name Jean Cauvin, in the city of Noyon, in the Northern part of France. His father was Gerard Cauvin, the son of a skipper from Pont-l’Evêque (near Noyon), where he was in a leading position in all kinds of religious and business organizations. His mother was Jeanne le Franc, a well-known God-fearing woman.

For his education the young Calvin went first to the Collège of the Capetten (friars), but then he decided he preferred to go with his friends (sons of Louis de Hangest, master of Montmor) who received home-schooling, regarding life from a higher plane.

Father Gerard recommended that John become a priest, so in 1521 John accepted an appointment as chaplain for a small consideration.

In 1523, after the death of mother Jeanne, Calvin went with the Montmor family to Paris. There he studied in the Collège de la Marche, and was taught in French and Latin. Soon he went further at the Collège of Montaigu (where it was very dirty and bad for his health), led by Noël Beds, who taught him how to dispute. Noël Beds was outspoken against a translation of the New Testament in French (the common tongue) when the first one was printed (made by Le Fèvre d’Etaples), but Calvin supported this.

The Inquisition came in Paris in 1525. Calvin secretly studied the Bible with his relative Pierre Robert Olivier until 1528 when his father sent him to Orleans. (He said he should study law there.) The following year Calvin went to the University of Bourgès. Then he studied at both universities, but he preferred learning the Greek language from Melchior Wolmar, who was a follower of Dr. Martin Luther, and they began a study of the New Testament together. Calvin started to visit and evangelize the farmers of Bourges. You see an old engraving here of that time. This was very much appreciated and encouraged by Margaretha of Angoulême (Queen of Navarre), who protected the Huguenots as much as she could. She was a sister of King Francis I of France (1515-1547), known as Francois de Valois. For political reasons, he did not support the pope most of the time, but later he refused to listen to a written plea of Calvin for the Reformed people.

In 1531, Calvin’s father died. Calvin decided to go to Paris, and started to study literature at the Collège des Trois Langues, which was founded by the king, but disliked by the leadership of the Sorbonne university. In those days, Calvin lived not far from the Sorbonne, in the rue Valette, Number 21. He went to secret meetings with other Protestants (Huguenots) where they studied the Scriptures, while they had watchmen being on the lookout against henchmen of the Inquisition.

In 1532, the first book of Calvin was printed. It was a commentary about a book of Annaeus Seneca, the famous stoical Roman, titled About the Meekness. He wrote however also a speech to be used by Rector Nicolas Cop (November 1, 1533) about Matthew 5:3 (Reformation viewpoint).

After that, he had to flee from his enemies, but at the request of Margarethe he returned, but soon he had to leave again, and this time he went to his friend Du Tillet in Saintonge, where he lived under the pseudonym Charles d’Espeville. He had a big library at his disposal and could find there all he needed for the writing of his “Institution.”

He started travelling and came in contact with many like-minded important people, in cities like Nérac, Noyon, Angoulême, Poitiers, Orleans, Metz, Strassburg (there he preached four times a week and was paid one guilder for taking the trouble) and Basel (Switzerland). He preached sometimes in German. He wrote Psycho-pannychia (a book against the Anabaptists). He wrote an introduction in the complete translation of the Bible in French, made by Olivetanus.

In 1536, his famous Institution of Teaching in the Christian Religion appeared in print; he was then 26 years old. In 1539, he made the first hymnbook for the Church, with 18 Psalms (for 8 of them he made the melody himself). Later another book with all the Psalms was made (melodies of Maître Pierre, Louis Bourgeois and Matthias Greiter).

In those days, he also wrote the Testimonium Spiritus Sancti (about the Holy Spirit) and his first exegese (comment) about the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans.

With his friend Du Tillet he was for some time the guest of another sister of King Francis I, the Duchess Renata of Ferrara, who was of the Reformed faith; he had correspondence with her during his whole life. When he traveled from her palace to Basel, he was stopped by a war between Francis I and the emperor Charles V, so that he had to choose another road, which brought him to Geneva, where the Reformer Guillaume Farèl begged him to stay. He did that, from July 1536 until April 1538.

Now, in Geneva the only reformed cathedral in the world is found. In 1534, this building was given to the local reformed congregation, who removed all the statues outside and inside.

It has to be known that the French speaking people make a distinction between a Protestant Church (Temple Reformée) and a Roman Catholic Church (Eglise Catholique), but the Reformed Cathedral of St. Peter (Saint Pierre) was not altered. It is a huge building with a very high round ceiling in the middle. Calvin and Farel preached here for thousands of people, already in this first period. The second period was from September 1541 until May 1564.

However, at the request of the Reformed Congregation of Bern, a religious discussion was organized in Lausanne with leaders of the Roman Catholic clergy about the justification by faith only, etc. This was from October 1 through 8, 1536. At first only Farel was speaking, but then Calvin came forward with his astonishing amount of knowledge, quoting Tertullianus, Chrysos-tomus and Augustinus. He convinced the majority and won them for the Reformation. His reputation was founded and in Geneva the Reformation became a fact in 1537.

His articles about the government of the church were accepted by the municipal council. The meeting of the consistory agreed about having Holy Supper once a month in one of the three local churches. He gave them an “Instruction for the Confession of Faith.” People who were against the Reformation had to leave the city. This led to serious conflicts in the council as well as the consistory. On April 23, 1538, the reformers were told to leave the city…

They went first to Bern, then to Basel, but they were asked by a refugee congregation to come to Strassburg, at the request of Rev. Capito. The members liked singing the psalms Calvin brought with him, but without the use of an organ, because they did not want to be reminded of the Roman Catholic churches; the psalms were translated into German. Calvin introduced a new form for the baptizing, forbidding anabaptism (rebaptism).

In August 1540, Calvin married Idelette of Bure, the widow of Jean Stordeur of Liege (southern part of The Netherlands, now known as Belgium), who had two children. Calvin and Idelette had a son together, but he died soon.

He continued discussions with Roman Catholic priests, in 1539 (Frankfurt), 1540 (Hagenau), 1540-1541 (Worms) and 1541 (Regensburg). In Frankfurt he became friends with Melanchton. In Regensburg he tried to push the French and the German kings and knights in the direction of a peace treaty, but he did not succeed.

In the meantime there were problems in Geneva, because the ministers who had taken over in the Reformed Churches, were not able to stand the dangerous Roman Catholic bishop of Carpentras, who was humanistic in his approach and clever as a fox. They asked Calvin to send him a reply in writing. He did that in 1539, in six days, and wiped the slate clean with the authority of the Scriptures. This was a triumph for the Reformation. Geneva asked him to come back to the churches there as soon as possible.

On September 13, 1541, John Calvin returned indeed to Geneva. There were internal problems in the church to be solved straight away, like the refusal of Sebastian Castellio, who could not become a minister because he refused to accept that Solomon’s Song (the Canticles) were part of the Bible, and he said it was wrong to say that Jesus had been in hell (in the Geneva Catechism). Angry, he left the city (1545). A bigger problem were the Libertines, led by Pierre Ameaux (manufacturer of playing-cards, which were forbidden). He abused Calvin and had to do penance openly (1546). A former friend of Calvin, Ami Perrin, became furious because his wife had been dancing and was punished for that by the consistory (Calvin did not want Geneva again to become a worldly city) and his father-in-law because of divorce. The physician Hieronymus Bolsec was forced to leave the city, after he had repeatedly contested the predestination (1551). He published later a book with slanderous accusations against Calvin.

Meanwhile in Paris the third edition of Calvin’s book, Institution of Teaching in the Christian Religion appeared in the bookshops (in Latin). The Roman Catholic government grabbed as many books as it could and burned them in public in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame (with the bells ringing) on February 14, 1544.

German Roman Catholics organized opposition against the teachings of Calvin on a large scale, approaching in a crafty way some of his friends, who didn’t have the courage or knowledge to defend themselves. Famine and the plague were no help. But Calvin was very disappointed when he discovered that former friends were suddenly against him.

Calvin still wanted pure Christianity in the city. The inhabitants had to stick to the strict laws for their behavior.

Calvin tried to come to a religious agreement with the Lutherans, in a correspondence with Joachim Westphal and Tileman Heshusius, but he could not come to a satisfactory conclusion.

He exchanged also several letters with the fanatic Spanish physician Michael Servet, who was even rejected by the Libertines. He was caught by them and killed, against the wish of Calvin.

Calvin’s wife, Idelette, died, in 1549. This was really a shock for him because she had always loved, supported and encouraged him, regardless of all his problems.

In the same year, however, the followers of Calvin and Zwingli came to an agreement, named the “Consensus Tigurinus.”

In the Spring of 1555, the city council of Geneva accepted the reformed faith in a democratic way because the many refugees, who were followers of Calvin, had become the majority. This brought the churches nine years of peace (1555-1564).

On June 5, 1559, the Geneva Academy was founded, with four theologians in the “Auditoire” (a kind of concert hall with rooms for smaller meetings). The first rector was Theodorus Beza (1519-1605) who was known for his active resistance against the Church of Rome. Over the years, many theologians (professors) have worked there, close to the Reformed Cathedral of St. Peter, like Hugo Donellus, Lambertus Danaeus, Scaliger, Casaubonus, John Knox, Marnix van St. Aldegonde, Caspar Olivianus, Fran-ciscus Arminius, Wten-bogaert and Vorstius.

In the same year appeared Calvin’s fourth edition of the Institution. He tried to unite all his followers in different churches (the Protestants), and worked day and night, with correspondence in many countries.

He often did not feel well, but he remained productive as defender of the faith, the Bible and the reformation till his last day on earth.