The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






John Calvin

John Calvin
John Calvin

John Calvin (July 10, 1509May 27, 1564) founded Calvinism, a form of Protestant Christianity, during the Protestant Reformation. He was born Jean Chauvin or Cauvin in Noyon, Picardie, France, and French was his mother tongue; Calvin derives from the latin version of his name, Calvinus. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, when Calvin was 8.

Calvin's father, an attorney, sent him to the University of Paris to study humanities and law. By 1532, he was a Doctor of Law at Orléans. His first published work was an edition of the Roman philosopher Seneca's De clementia, accompanied by a thorough commentary.

In 1536, he settled in Geneva, halted in the path of an intended journey to Basel by the personal persuasion of the reformer William Farel. He would live there for almost half of his life until his death in 1564.


Writings by Calvin

Calvin published several revisions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion — a seminal work in Christian theology that is still read today — in Latin in 1536 (at the age of 26) and then in his native French in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 and 1560, respectively.

He also produced many volumes of commentary on most of the books of the Bible. For the Old Testament (referring to the Protestant organization of books), he published commentaries for all books except the histories after Joshua (though he did publish his sermons on the First Samuel) and the Wisdom literature other than the Book of Psalms. For the New Testament, he omitted only the brief 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. (Some have suggested that Calvin questioned the canonicity of the Book of Revelation, but his citation of it as authoritative in his other writings casts doubt on that theory.) These commentaries, too, have proved to be of lasting value to students of the Bible, and they are still in print after over 400 years.

In the eighth volume of Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, the historian quotes Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (after whom the anti-Calvinistic movement Arminianism was named) with regard to the value of Calvin's writings:

Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.

The spreading of Calvinism

As much as Calvin's practice in Geneva, his publications spread his ideas of a correctly reformed church to many parts of Europe. Calvinism became the theological system of the majority in Scotland, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and was influential in France, Hungary (especially in Transylvania) and Poland.

Most settlers in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England were Calvinists, including the Puritans and Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York). South Africa was also founded by mostly Dutch Calvinist settlers beginning in the 17th century, who became known as Boers or Afrikaners.

Sierra Leone was largely colonised by Calvinist settlers from Nova Scotia, who were largely Black Loyalists , African Americans who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence. John Marrant had organised a congregation there under the auspices of the Huntingdon Connection .

Some of the largest Calvinist communions were started by 19th and 20th century missionaries; especially large are those in Korea and Nigeria.

Usury and Capitalism

One school of thought about Calvinism long has been that it represented a revolt against the medieval condemnation of usury, and implicitly profit, helping to set the stage for the development of capitalism in northern Europe. Such a connection was advanced in influential works by R.H. Tawney and by Max Weber.

Calvin expressed himself on usury in a letter to a friend, Oekolampadius. In this letter, he criticized the use of certain passages of scripture invoked by people opposed to the charging of interest -- he re-interpreted some of these passages, and suggested that others of them had been rendered irrelevant by changed conditions.

He also dismissed the argument (based upon the writings of Aristotle) that it is wrong to charge interest for money because money itself is barren. He said that the walls and the roof of a house are barren, too, but it is permissible to charge someone for allowing him to use them. In the same way, money can be made fruitful.

He also said, though, that money should be lent to people in dire need without hope of interest.

Reformed Geneva

John Calvin had been travelling to Strasbourg during the time of the Ottoman wars and passed through the cantons of Switzerland. Whilst in Geneva William Farel asked Calvin to help him with the cause of the church. Calvin wrote of Farel's request "I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course". After eighteen months, Calvin and Farel's changes caused both to leave the city.

For three years Calvin worked in Strasbourg at a church of French Huguenots. Calvin was invited back to Geneva some time later and reorganized the structure of the city along Biblical lines such as ministers, teachers, elders and deacons. Some critics of Calvin call it a theocracy. In 1553, Calvin approved of the execution by burning of Michael Servetus for heresy. In 1559 Calvin founded a school for training children as well as a hospital for the indigent.

Calvin's health began to fail when he suffered migraines, lung hemorrhages , gout and kidney stones. At times, he was carried to the pulpit. Calvin also had his detractors. He was threatened and abused. Calvin would spend his private moments on Lake Geneva and read scripture while drinking red wine. Towards the end Calvin said to his friends who were worried about his daily regimen of work, "What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?"

John Calvin died in Geneva on May 27, 1564. He was buried in the Cimetière des Rois under a tombstone marked simply with the initials "J.C."


Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, a comic character created by Bill Watterson, was named after John Calvin. It is thought that this reflects the young male character's belief in predestination (as justification for his behavior), while his stuffed tiger Hobbes shares Thomas Hobbes's dim view of human nature.


Last updated: 05-06-2005 14:32:07