John Calvin the Making of the Reformer: Michael Mullett Introduces the Life and Work of a Remarkable Protestant Leader

By Mullett, Michael | History Review, March 2008 | Go to article overview

John Calvin the Making of the Reformer: Michael Mullett Introduces the Life and Work of a Remarkable Protestant Leader


Mullett, Michael, History Review


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Introduction

'The Whole of the Christian Religion in All its Parts.' Calvin's words, used to indicate his intention in his masterpiece the 'Institutes of the Christian Religion', suggest something of the scale--and the achievement--of his literary and educational ambition. Appearing first in the international languages of Latin, in 1536, as Christianae Religionis Institutio ('An Instruction in Christian Faith'), this book became the container vehicle by means of which Calvin's doctrinal system was to be exported through much of Europe, and beyond. Alongside the 'Institutes', Calvin authored a string of highly influential theological and controversial writings and extended commentaries on Scriptures. As with Martin Luther (1483-1546), Calvin's vast and abiding influence was generated in the first instance by an imposing literary output.

John's Calvin's literary legacy was supplemented by his creation, between 1541 and his death in 1564, of a model of church and society in Geneva that was imitated over the course of generations in important areas of Europe and in north America as an application of God's plan for humankind. As the Scots Calvinist reformer John Knox (c.1513-72) said, Calvin's Geneva was 'the most perfect school of Christ seen on earth since the days of the Apostles'. And Geneva under Calvin was a 'school' not only in the sense of a moral blueprint to be reproduced elsewhere--in old and New England, in the Netherlands and Scotland and other theatres--but in the more literal sense of a place of education.

The Genevan Academy, founded in 1559, included the schola publica (Calvin was its initial professor of theology), a university-related body out of which poured streams of Calvinist ministers who would take the reformer's gospels outwards, above all into his beloved France. There, in the terrible Wars of Religion between 1562 and 1598, Calvin's Christianity stood its best chance of being established as the official faith of one of Europe's oldest Catholic lands. Out of Calvin's ideological system--'Calvinism'--were forged a tight moral code, along with formulae of political opposition and resistance (in France, Scotland, England and America), the possible inspiration for capitalist economic innovation and, above all, a religious edifice of astonishing power, coherence and durability.

Calvin: A Brief Life

What were the origins and make-up of this extraordinarily creative individual? Like the other great sixteenth-century reformers, Luther and the Swiss reformer Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531), Calvin came from the ranks of self-improving 'plebeians', families who saw education--especially when it led to careers in the Church--as the key to upward social mobility. Gerard Cauvin, to give him his un-Latinised surname, was a self-made lawyer of the cathedral city of Noyon, in north-east France, his legal work bringing him into a professional relationship with the bishop and the cathedral clergy. His second son, Jean (John) was born in Noyon in July 1509, losing his mother in early childhood. Through his links with the cathedral establishment, Gerard was able to secure for John, then aged 12, a lucrative clerical sinecure. Some may be struck by the irony that the education of one of unreformed Catholicism's most strident critics was financed out of the creaking corruption of France's ecclesiastical apparatus.

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Calvin's character and qualities--his moral severity, his reserved politesse, his lawyerly mind, his dialectical aptitude, his adroit command of Latin and the classics--were all the products of his early formation and education, so it is worth reviewing those processes in order to see the child and youth as father of the man.

A key step, in 1520 or 1521, was for him to proceed to what was then Europe's most famous university, the 'Sorbonne' at Paris, which Calvin entered, along with three youths of the local noble family of de Hangest, which dominated the life of the Church in the diocese of Noyon. …

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