John Calvin  

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This page John Calvin is a part of the protestantism series.  Illustration: The image breakers, c.1566 –1568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder
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This page John Calvin is a part of the protestantism series.
Illustration: The image breakers, c.15661568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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John Calvin Jean Cauvin (10 July 1509 – 27 May 1564) was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism. Originally trained as a humanist lawyer, he suddenly broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1520s. After religious tensions provoked a violent uprising against Protestants in France, Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, where in 1536 he published the first edition of his seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Calvin was invited by William Farel to help reform the church in Geneva. The city council resisted the implementation of Calvin and Farel's 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 was eventually invited back to lead its church. Following his return, he introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite the opposition of several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority. During this period, Michael Servetus, a Spaniard known for his heretical views, arrived in Geneva. He was denounced by Calvin and executed by the city council. 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.

Calvin was a tireless polemic and apologetic writer who generated much controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters with many reformers including Philipp Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to the Institutes, he wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible as well as theological treatises and confessional documents, and he regularly gave sermons throughout the week in Geneva. Calvin was influenced by the Augustinian tradition, which led him to expound the doctrine of predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation.

Calvin's writing and preaching provided the seeds for the branch of theology that bears his name. The Presbyterian and other Reformed churches, which look to Calvin as a chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world. Calvin's thought exerted considerable influence over major religious figures and entire religious movements, such as Puritanism, and his ideas have been cited as contributing to the rise of capitalism, individualism, and representative democracy in the West.

Legacy

After the deaths of Calvin and his successor, Beza, the Geneva city council gradually gained control over areas of life that were previously in the ecclesiastical domain. Increasing secularisation was accompanied by the decline of the church. Even the Geneva académie was eclipsed by universities in Leiden and Heidelberg, which became the new strongholds of Calvin's ideas, first identified as "Calvinism" by Joachim Westphal in 1552. By 1585, Geneva, once the wellspring of the reform movement, had become merely its symbol. However, Calvin had always warned against describing him as an "idol" and Geneva as a new "Jerusalem". He encouraged people to adapt to the environments in which they found themselves. Even during his polemical exchange with Westphal, he advised a group of French-speaking refugees, who had settled in Wesel, Germany, to integrate with the local Lutheran churches. Despite his differences with the Lutherans, he did not deny that they were members of the true Church. Calvin’s recognition of the need to adapt to local conditions became an important characteristic of the reformation movement as it spread across Europe.

Due to Calvin's missionary work in France, his programme of reform eventually reached the French-speaking provinces of the Netherlands. Calvinism was adopted in the Palatinate under Frederick III, which led to the formulation of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563. This and the Belgic Confession were adopted as confessional standards in the first synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1571. Leading divines, either Calvinist or those sympathetic to Calvinism, settled in England (Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr, and Jan Laski) and Scotland (John Knox). During the English Civil War, the Calvinistic Puritans produced the Westminster Confession, which became the confessional standard for Presbyterians in the English-speaking world. Having established itself in Europe, the movement continued to spread to other parts of the world including North America, South Africa, and Korea. Calvin did not live to see the foundation of his work grow into an international movement; but his death allowed his ideas to break out of their city of origin, to succeed far beyond their borders, and to establish their own distinct character.

Calvin's legacy in modern times has produced a variety of opinions. Certainly the execution of Servetus has left a negative view of Calvin. Voltaire mentions the event in his Poème sur la loi naturelle (Poem on Natural Law, 1756) and Dialogues chrétiens (Christian Dialogues, 1760). For Voltaire, Calvin’s philosophy had not produced any improvement over the intolerance presented in previous revealed religions. Calvin is discussed in Max Weber’s classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in which he argues that Calvin's teachings provided ideological impetus for the development of capitalism. Political historians have recognised his contributions to the development of representative democracy in general and the American system of government in particular; the doctrine of sin and human fallibility, for instance, lent support to a division of authority in a system of checks and balances, and Calvin's ideas on Christian liberty contributed to the growth of religious freedom and the openness of society.

See also

Calvinism, 16th century Europe, Northern Renaissance, Protestant work ethic, iconoclasm




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