Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

John Calvin (1509-1564)

The young French student trained in law and stoic philosophy who fled Paris in 1534 because of his links with supporters of the Reformation, and a few years later found himself called to Geneva, has had an extraordinary impact on our history and identity.

Calvin was born at Noyon in France 10 July 1509, studied arts in Paris from 1522 to about 1526 and law at Orléans and Bourges until 1531. In 1532 he published a commentary on the writings of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. By 1533 he had become associated with the Reformed cause and dedicated himself to the writing of theology. In October 1534 Protestants in Paris placed posters around the city and Calvin felt it advisable to leave.

In Basle in 1536 he published in Latin the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Passing through Geneva in July that year he was compelled by William Farel to join in the task of establishing the Reformation there. They moved too fast and in 1538 were banished. Calvin went to Strasbourg, sat at the feet of Martin Bucer, and pastored a French Congregation. In 1541 he was recalled to Geneva where he remained until his death in 1564. Through hosting refugees and the influence of his Academie on pastors returning to their own countries spread his ideas.

In the midst of the fierce religious debates and political conflicts of that era, he sharpened his understanding of what Christians should believe, how they should live in a worshipping community of ordered ministry and discipline, and how a Christian vision should impact a Christian society. 

Through his pastoral leadership, his writings in Latin and French, and by the influence of refugees from Britain and Europe who came to experience in Geneva what Knox called the most perfect School of Christ since the Apostles, Calvin's ideas and example took root as a major stream of Protestant Christianity alongside Lutherans and Anglicans.  Even for Presbyterians in 21st century New Zealand, many cultures and diverse experiences of faith later, it is difficult to understand ourselves without reference to Calvin. From early on Calvin became the centre of an international movement. For many Reformed Protestants being refugees and migrants became a part of their identity, chosen like the children of Israel, seeking God's presence and promises in alien contexts, living by their faith and their wits to make a world for their descendants that would bring glory to God.

Calvin's theology still provides us with the enduring framework of Presbyterian and Reformed theology and practice. People debate his personality and some of his decisions and not all find it easy to allow him to be a person of his time and place. The systematic clarity of his theology continues to inspire and impress, and possibly also seduce. There really are those who find it difficult to believe there could be anything significant about God Calvin did not map out. However if we see Calvin as a source of wisdom, not of infallibility, and as the writer of sermons and commentaries, as well as the famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, it may be easier to learn from him without seeing it as a hugely big deal if we think differently on some issues.

Other Links

Calvin Portal, http://www.john-calvin.org/

Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin's Commentaries

Margaret A. Mackay, Folk religion in a Calvinist context: Hungarian models and Scottish examples.

Reformiert Online, John Calvin, the Reformation in Geneva and the beginnings of the Reformation in France.

John Roxborogh, Did Calvin write "I greet thee who my sure redeemer art?"

Herman Selderhuis, The discovery of John Calvin (video)

Note there are also some embedded videos on a previous version of this page (here). Not all the links on the page still work however.

Reading on Calvin

Elwood, Christopher, Calvin for Armchair Theologians, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Hirzel, Martin Ernst, and Martin Sallmann. John Calvin's Impact on Church and Society, 1509-2009. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2009.

Selderhuis, H. J. John Calvin : A Pilgrim's Life, Inter-Varsity Press, 2009.

Sunshine, Glenn. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.