As most of my readers are well aware, this Friday marks the Quincentenary of sixteenth century Genevan Reformer, John Calvin. That is, the 500th anniversary of his birth. This week, and some of the next if necessary, I will be featuring a short biographical chapter on John Calvin’s life from a book called Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs, by Walter L. Lingle, published originally in 1944 by John Knox Press [fourth printing (revised), 1950]. I will feature this primarily in the effort to introduce John Calvin to those of my readers who are not so familiar with his life and ministry, or to reintroduce him to those who suffer from the many misconceptions about his life. For more information about Calvin and the Quincentenary celebration, see Calvin500.org.
Our Debt to Calvin. Presbyterianism is deeply indebted to John Calvin. As we have seen in previous chapters, Presbyterianism is rooted and grounded in the Holy Scriptures. But as we saw in Chapter II, the Presbyterian doctrines and principles that are contained in the Bible became buried beneath centuries of ignorance, superstition, and traditions. John Calvin went beneath all this debris of centuries, resurrected the doctrines and principles of Presbyterianism, and organized the modern Presbyterian Church. That was about four hundred years ago.
We in America are more indebted to John Calvin than most people realize. The doctrines and principles which he released have made a large contribution to our representative form of government and the human freedom which we enjoy. Ranke, the German historian, says: “John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.” D’Aubigne, the French historian, says: “Calvin was the founder of the greatest of republics,” referring to the United States. Bancroft, the American historian, says: “He that will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.” Presbyterians should at least know the outline of the life of the man to whom they are so deeply indebted.
Early Years. John Calvin was born in Noyon, a cathedral town of France, fifty miles northeast of Paris, on July 10, 1509, of Roman Catholic parents. His father planned to educate him for the priesthood, and gave him the best education that was obtainable. At the age of fourteen he entered the University of Paris, where he studied Latin, Logic, and Philosophy. Later he decided to study law, and spent several years studying at the Universities of Orleans and Bourges, under the greatest professors of law that could be found in France. It would be interesting to know how much his legal training influenced his theological thinking.
After the death of his father, John Calvin, free to make his own choice, decided to devote himself to the study of literature. His studies included the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages and literature. The first book he ever wrote was a commentary on Seneca’s Treatise on Clemency. In this commentary Calvin quotes from fifty-six Latin and twenty-two Greek authors. This gives us some intimation of his familiarity with Latin and Greek literature.
Conversion to Protestantism. We do not know the exact date of his conversion from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, but it was sometime in the year 1533. His conversion was probably gradual. His study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew literature led him to the study of the Bible in those languages. These studies also threw him with men and women who were devotees of the New Learning, some of whom had already embraced the Protestant faith. Soon after his conversion to Protestantism he found it necessary to flee from Paris for his life. During the next three years he lived in hiding under an assumed name. Much of this time was spent in the private libraries of friends. He was hard at work, and, best of all, he was thinking and praying.