Magazine article History Today

Calvin's Legacy: Kathryn Hadley Examines the Life and Enduring Influence of the French Theologian 500 Years after His Birth

Magazine article History Today

Calvin's Legacy: Kathryn Hadley Examines the Life and Enduring Influence of the French Theologian 500 Years after His Birth

Article excerpt

From celebrations in Latin America to exhibitions, debates and conferences in the United States, Canada, Europe and Russia, commemorative events are taking place around the world to mark the quincentenary of the birth of the French humanist and religious reformer, Jean Calvin. Born in Noyon in northern France on July 10th, 1509, Calvin gave his last sermon in February 1564 and died on May 27th, that year. A dominant figure of the Reformed faith that was born in the Swiss Confederation, and is now commonly known as Calvinism, his legacy is truly international.

The Calvin09 year was inaugurated last November in front of the Reformers' Wall, a tribute to the key figures of the Protestant Reformation in the grounds of the University of Geneva, by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches and the Protestant Church of Geneva.

At the opening ceremony Setri Nyorni, the General Secretary of WARC, noted how: 'Calvin, the visionary' Reformer, sparked off a movement that has spread to the four corners of the earth: more than 80 million Christians living in 107 countries today acknowledge his legacy.'

Such influence is a reflection both of Calvin's life story and his efforts to systematise and unify the Reformed church. During his lifetime, Calvin travelled extensively throughout Europe. Between 1525 and 1532 he studied law at the universities of Grenoble and Bourges in France. He travelled to Paris in October 1533, but his beliefs endangered him and he fled to Basel in January 1535. It was there, in March 1536, that he published the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the compendium of his Reformed doctrines.

In September 1536, Calvin was appointed 'Reader in Holy Scripture' in Geneva and subsequently worked on reform with the French evangelist William Farel (1489-1565). Farel led the Reformation in the French speaking lands of the Swiss Confederation and carried the movement to Geneva. In January 1537, Farel and Calvin presented their Articles on the Organisation of the Church and its Worship to Geneva's ruling council. The work advocated the free use of excommunication and the imposition of a puritan moral discipline throughout Genevan society. However, in February 1538 a new civic council was elected that opposed many aspects of Calvin's doctrine and, following liturgical disputes, Calvin and Farel were banished.

Calvin left for Strasbourg, where he worked as a pastor for French expatriates and published the second Latin edition of his Institutes, as well as a French version. He was eventually recalled to Geneva in September 1541 and he swore a formal oath 'to be forever the servant of Geneva'. This time his charter of reform, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, was accepted and, although his proposed system of ecclesiastical government and strict code of moral discipline initially continued to meet opposition, by the mid-1550s most opponents of the Reformed church had been successfully defeated.

Calvin condemned the disunity of the Reformed churches as one of 'the chief evils of our time'. He exported his doctrine through his writings and with the creation of a model church and community. In Geneva, from 1541 until his death in 1564, he created a blueprint for a church and society which was initially imitated in Europe and North America. Reformed churches became united by a common doctrine and a church constitution for the first time. Calvin spread his doctrinal system via a series of published works, in particular through his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was published in Latin, an international language. He also founded the Genevan Academy in 1559, designed as a school for training Calvinist ministers who would thereafter export his gospels to France in particular. Geneva's geographical location on the crossroads of Europe between Italy, Switzerland and France was also critical in facilitating the spread of Calvinism. …

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