This is the third in my series 7 Broken Men, looking at how God has worked through even the most deeply flawed individuals throughout history. You can read the first two here and here.
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.
20 thoughts on “7 Broken Men: John Calvin”
Sadly though many of his followers today have adopted the same intransigent self righteous authoritatrian character.
Wow Mike. This is revelatory in that it says so much about Calvin and the form of European Christianity that proceeds from him. Thanks!
Some lives only matter – Calvinism
This post is remarkably gracious in that it humanizes the man and brings a certain consideration of his flawed life often rare in reflections on his writing. That you don’t bend for the low-lying fruit; making age-old calvinist jokes is nice too!
I wonder what church history books are you reading, Mike.
John Calvin is not a broken man. From your perspective he may be a broken man. But from John Calvin’s perspective he just really believed his theology was correct, and he really believed he was doing god’s work.
Con, did you miss the humanity in his-story. His executions and banishments. A brilliant theologian yes, but a torn personhood within the context of a broken and harsh world.
OK, so that explains a lot. Thanks for filling in some blanks for us Mike.
That explains why Calvin’s theology lacks a real concept of Gods love or grace.
“The fundamental conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism is not sovereignty but God’s character. If Calvinism is true, God is the author of sin, evil, innocent suffering and hell. That is to say, if Calvinism is true God is not all-loving and perfectly good. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” “God so loved the world.” Calvinists must explain this as meaning that God loves “all kinds of people,” not everyone. Or that “God loves all people in some ways but only some people [the elect] in all ways.” Arminians believe these interpretations distort the clear message of the Bible about God’s love. If Calvinism is true, John Wesley said, God’s love is “such a love as makes the blood run cold.” It is indistinguishable from hate—for a large portion of humanity created in his own likeness and image.”
I studied at Reformed Theological Seminary and our Christian History professor, Frank James, had a friend at Oxford named Pete Wilcox. Pete spent quite a bit of time studying the man you speak of, John Calvin. Just like all others before, he is a flawed man. However, Servetus is awfully misunderstood. Servetus denied the trinity and wrote about it. He was warned continuously because in the 16th century people who wrote heresy were burned at the stake. Calvin went to Servetus on at least 3 different occasions to help him try and recant. Michael would not and was summarily executed. Calvin was not just a theologian, he was a pastor. So yes, he is flawed, but not in the ways many people misunderstand him. Just a few thoughts!
I don’t think Calvin’s rep stands or falls on Servetus alone. Some say Calvin tried to avoid killing him. Others say Calvin was hell-bent on it. However, I was referring more generally to the controlling and oppressive regime that Calvin helped institute at Geneva. At its worst it was like a Christian form of ISIS.
Calvinism is heresy. It has contaminated modern seminaries. Nothing like calvinism to take Jesus out of the equation and squash the Holy Spirit in any church.
Mike’s post has got me reading a Calvin bio for the first time in over a decade. If you’re interested in learning more then you could do worse than reading Bruce Gordon’s ‘Calvin’ Yale Uni Press 2009.
If you have never heard Frank James talk on Calvin then here you go. The Calvin I Never Knew is really exceptional. James has two doctorates and is a master of his craft. I hope this encourages you as it has greatly furthered my hope in Christ and his power to use people for his glory and mission.
To be fair, Calvin’s eulogy of his wife was more complete than the sentence cited, and places that sentence in its context:
I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one who, if it has been so ordained, would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.
Mike Frost, what’s wrong with you?? Your own description of Calvin demonstrates a man who was not transformed by the gospel of Christ, but was only a religious tyrant!! When you use the term “his form of Christianity “ you, unwittingly though it may be, pegged Calvin for what he really was-a false teacher peddling a false gospel. How in the world can you write the biography that you have of this man and still credit him with any form of legitimacy!! When you stand before God, you will also have to stand before Calvin’s victims, but be assured, you won’t see John Calvin, for he will be burning in hell!!
Calvinism is heresy!!
I agree with Amy. You portray this horrible man who brought this heretical form of Christianity that is confusing people to this day. An yet your “heart goes out to him”. That would be like saying “Mein Kempf” still brings people comfort. He resorted to terrorism to defend his opinions because they were false. What is really sad is that, like a snake, his philosophy still contaminates seminaries today.