John Calvin was born Jean Cauvin in 1509 in Noyon, France.
His father Gérard Cauvin was severe. And controlling. He was a registrar of the government of Noyon, a solicitor in the ecclesiastical court, fiscal agent of the county, secretary of the bishopric, and attorney of the cathedral chapter. All that made him a government bureaucrat, a legal officer, and a religious boffin rolled into one. The worst kind of control freak, a religious one.
Let’s just say, Gérard Cauvin liked to be obeyed.
Calvin’s mother died when he was a child, leaving him under the control of the pedantic and imposing Monsieur Cauvin, who had decided that it would do his career no harm at all for him to hand his three sons – Charles, Jean, and Antoine – over to the church to become priests. There would be no negotiation.
He secured for them the best education available, insisted they fraternize only with the children of prominent families in Noyon, and fixed them up with ecclesiastical patrons.
When Calvin was only 12, his father had a tonsure shaved into his head, and he was told he was to report for duty as the chaplain to the altar of La Gésine in the cathedral of Noyon. He had been apprenticed into the family business – religion.
In 1523 he was sent to university to undertake theological studies in preparation to enter the priesthood. There, he excelled.
But a few years later, the domineering Gérard Cauvin fell out with the Catholic authorities in Noyon. Bitter and vindictive, he told Calvin to abandon theology. He was taking his sons back from the church!
Gérard Cauvin now thought a legal career would be more lucrative for the family than an ecclesiastical one. Compliant and heartbroken, Calvin left Paris to attend the University of Orleans to study law.
Calvin hated the law, but he submitted to his contrarian father and slogged his way through four years of study, until in 1531 he was released from his servitude. Gérard Cauvin had died.
Calvin was now free to return to theology. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. By the time John Calvin had ascended to power in Geneva, he had become precisely the kind of legalistic, religious bureaucrat his father had been.
Like Gérard Cauvin, he didn’t take kindly to being disagreed with. He routinely referred to his critics as pigs, riffraff, dogs, idiots, stinking beasts, and impudent donkeys (that last one was reserved for the peace-loving Anabaptist, Menno Simons).
His treatment of his theological opponents is well known. Michael Servetus was executed by being burned at the stake. Calvin rejected any suggestion he was too harsh on Servetus by claiming that he had wanted to behead him instead (it was quicker and therefore more “merciful”).
Luckily for another critic, Jacques Gruet, he got the “merciful” treatment and was beheaded. Jerome Bolsec was imprisoned, as was Pierre Ameaux, who was also paraded through Geneva on his knees to confess his sin of daring to disagree with Calvin.
Gérard Cauvin’s son ruled with an iron fist. Between 1542 and Calvin’s death in 1564, there were 76 banishments. In one year, there were 414 prosecutions for moral offences (which included wearing the wrong color clothing or banned hairstyles or not naming your sons after Old Testament characters).
When a plague swept through Geneva, 14 women were executed as witches for apparently persuading Satan to send the disease.
Calvin’s own step-daughter and son-in-law were condemned for adultery and executed.
On the occasion of his wife Idelette’s death, Calvin eulogized her with, “From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.” That was love-talk, coming from him.
Sebastian Castellio, a former friend of Calvin, who fell out with him over a point of theology, once remarked, “If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope, but one who burns men alive…”
The 18th Century Genevan philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau described Calvin this way:
“Who was ever more caustic, imperious, strong-willed and more divinely infallible, according to his own opinion, than Calvin? For him the least opposition, the least objection that someone dared to present was always considered a work of Satan, a crime deserving to be punished by fire.”
Yep, John Calvin was a terribly broken man. And like many broken men he broke others. But my heart goes out to him, as it does to his many victims. Like us all, he was a product of his upbringing.
And yet, throughout the last 500 years many people have taken great comfort and enormous blessing from the form of Christianity Calvin gave rise to, a form that believes the glory of God is the goal of all things and that God’s unfathomable sovereignty is essential to his deity.
In a world of travail and seeming chaos – as Calvin’s was and ours is – we’re terrified by the thought that we might be the masters of our own destinies. That’s too awful a burden for us to bear. The doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saints have offered millions a beautiful sense of freedom to abide safe in the arms of the God who chose them.
That such comfort comes to us through the teaching of such a broken man only amplifies the peace and the grace that comfort brings so many.