John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation

Categories: ReformationReligion

This paper is devoted to the period of Protestant Reformation in France and the key figure of this process- John Calvin. John Calvin was a Protestant theologian and the developer of the famous Calvinism theology as a system of Christian church. He is well known for his written works and his teachings, but not many know about his role played in Michael Servetus’s execution. These and some other issues will be discussed in this research. John Calvin was born under the name of Jean Chauvin in Picardie, in France.

His father sent him to Paris in 1523 to get ready for the priesthood.

There Calvin studied in College de la Marche and then in College de Montaigu till 1528. As he was doing quite well in ecclesiastics, he gained the chaplaincy and the curacy of Saint Martin de Martheville from his native city (Tracy, 1999). In 1529 Calvin resigned chaplaincy for the benefit of his younger brother, but however two years later he resumed and was holding it till 1534 (Gordon, 2002).

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Calvin proved to be a good student, but his father, who by the year 1528 had problems in relations with the ecclesiastic authorities in Noyon, took a decision, that his son should study law instead.

John didn’t argue and went to Orleans, to study law at the university there. In a year he moved to another university and took classes of Andrea Alciati. During his studies at both universities Calvin was very much under the impact of Melchior Wolmar, who was a leader of humanist ranks and was a supporter of Reformation ideas.

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When in 1531 the father of Calvin died, he had to come back to Paris and take up study of Hebrew. In 1532 John spent another year in Orleans as a student of law again.

In spring of the same year he paid his own money for publishing the text of Seneca’s De Clementia, adding his commentary. This was a confirmation of his humanistic views in connection with the Roman Church. At the same time the ideas of Reformation were rapidly spread in France, Calvin however was moving step by step to his position, he wrote in his commentary to Psalms that he “was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire.

" (Barth, 1995). One of his friends, who also shared the ideas of Reformation, was Nicolas Cop. When he became the rector of Paris University, they decided to use the chance to present their comments concerning the Reformation in front of cultured and intelligent audience. In November 1533 Cop held a speech in the Church of the Mathurins, which they gave the title “Christian Philosophy”, meaning the Gospel. The relation, he built between Law and Gospel, was closely connected to the ideas of Luther.

The final part of the speech was however independent and more concentrated on the one of the features of Calvinism, namely – salvation. The speech had all chances to produce a vivid impression on the audience and to attract supporters, but Cop spoke negatively about the hierologists of Sorbonne and called them “sophists”. This certainly caused their indignation, they sought for support from the government, and Cop had to escape. Calvin followed him due to their known close relation, but risked to return very soon.

He couldn’t get rid of his fears, that his support of Reformation ideas could be followed by imprisonment, like it was the case with some other reformers. He decided to become a wanderer in 1534, all the time changing his name. Two and a half years he was going from place to place, was imprisoned in Noyon, visited Paris, where he met Servetus for the first time. In Orleans he published his Psychopannychia, confutation of the theory about sleeping soul between death and the Last Judgment (Gordon, 2002). In 1535 Calvin visited Strasburg under the name of Basel.

There he finished his "Institutes of the Christian Religion", about the book he wrote: "My objects were, first, to vindicate my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord; and next that, as the same cruelties might very soon after be exercised against many unhappy individuals, foreign nations might be touched with at least some compassion toward them and solicitude about them. ” (Barth, 1995). After he had published this work, he worked in Ferrara in the court of Duchess Renee. A year later he met his younger brother Antoine and his half-sister Marie in Paris.

He traveled with them to Strasburg, but because of the war, had to go to Geneva, planning to remain only one night there. But Farel Guillaume, one of the like-minded persons, convinced him to stay there. Two years he spent at the side of Farel, but still the city could not stand the significant reforms offered by the Reformers and on Easter Monday in 1538 they both were ordered to leave the city. Calvin traveled to Strasburg, where he became minister to the French refugees in the Church of St. Nicolas (Brady, 1994).

Two years later he married Idelette de Bure, widow of Jean Stordeur of Liege, an Anabaptist, whom Calvin managed to turn into pedobabtist. They had a son, who lived only several days. Idelette de Bure died in 1549 and Calvin never married for the second time. Calvin didn’t have the plans to return to Geneva as his financial situation was rather poor at that moment, but very soon he got the opportunity to improve his position. In Strasburg he managed to practice the reform, which he could not launch in Geneva, and his fame started to grow very quickly. He received an offer to come out with a course of cathedral lectures.

In 1539 Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto sent a letter to Geneva, asking for it to be returned to Roman obedience and Bern government gave the right to answer to Calvin. There were serious changes in the government of Geneva, and as a result the friends if Calvin won the power in the city. For the second time Calvin followed the arguments of Farel and went to Geneva. He knew perfectly, that there were a lot of his enemies, and that not everybody was ready to support him, but his faith in God was his major support. The government prepared a house for him and a corresponding salary.

His work in Geneva started, the city turned into his main, but not the only one, center of activity. Geneva was a place, that gathered a lot of refugees from Holland, Italy, England, Spain, who were ready to listen and to support the ideas of Calvin. Also a number of students visited his lectures. His fame was growing, and more and more people were standing by him. At the age of fifty-five he died because of a disease. For Geneva he left one hundred and seventy dollar, faith, education and reconstructed government. Calvin chose Apostle’s Creed as the basis for his ideas, at the same time closely relating theology and ethics.

Calvin’s reformation was practical, with the strongest emphasis on the doctrine of predestination; he tried to teach people of the city to refer to it as a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Opposed to lenient views concerning grace and sin, propagated by the Roman Church, the Augustinian doctrine recovered in his words. Calvin did his best to change the face of Protestantism, as he managed to address openly and directly the matters, which other reformers didn’t know or didn’t want to discuss (Brady, 1994). His main target was the proper organization of the church governance and social organization of the church in the city.

He was said to be the first politic leader, who was able to build the social organization based on biblical principles. He brought very significant innovation, namely by incorporating church into the government of the city (Cameron, 1991). In the middle of 1550s the structure of Geneva was changed completely in accordance to Calvin’s ideas. As a result Geneva became the most important center of Protestantism in Europe and attracted the persecuted refugees from other countries. The branch of Calvin’s reforms became the prevalent branch of Protestantism from the seventeenth century. Calvin had the same problems as Luther with Anabaptists.

On the 16-17 of March in 1537 he had a public meeting with them, and using his strong argumentation disposed of their ideas, as confirmed by Council of Two Hundred. Along with a great number of supporters Calvin had his opponents as well. Calvin played a very important role in the execution of Michael Servetus – “the Spanish physician, radical reformer ('Anabaptist'), and unitarian. ” (Gordon, 2002). In 1531 Servetus published his ideas denouncing the Trinity, which was the key doctrine Catholics and Protestants could agree about. Three years later Calvin agreed to meet Servetus in person in Paris, Servetus however didn’t appear.

From 1546 till 1548 they exchanged letters, trying to convince each other, but finally Calvin had to stop the correspondence, as it was growing more and more rancorous. In 1553 Servetus was sentenced to death in absentia by Inquisition in Spain for spreading heresy. Calvin provided very important evidences to support the conviction. Servetus escaped from the prison, but was again arrested in Geneva on the initiative of Calvin. This time he was sentenced to burning on a stake, which took place in 1553. Then Servetus was buried together with the copy of his last work - De Trinitatis Erroribus.

Servetus was the only one, who was sentenced to death for his religious beliefs during the lifetime of Calvin, and there is finally no agreement about the correctness of Calvin’s actions concerning this issue. Hundreds of years later modern Calvinists do not support the actions of Calvin towards Servetus. Nowadays persecution, and what is more death sentence for religious beliefs and positions, seems to be barbarous. Calvin was certainly not the only reformer. The ideas of Calvin and Farel were really close, but Farel was a missionary, a preacher and not theologian or even less a statesman.

Calvin, being French would probably not be able to spread his influence so successfully either in Zurich or in Wittenberg, as Zwingli and Luther did it. Calvin was much younger than Luther and Zwingli and had an advantage of having a good foundation for spreading his ideas. He managed to build a system based on their new ideas. He proved to be better organizer and better thinker, at the same time lacking their genius and activity. His life was not as dramatic as those of Luther or Zwingli; he didn’t possess that genial humor or was able to raise popular enthusiasm.

And still he remained the most influential Reformer of the Protestant Church. References: Barth, K. (1995). The Theology of John Calvin, tr. by G. W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans. Brady, T. (1994).

Handbook of European History, 1400–1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. Leiden and New York. Breen, Q. (1968). John Calvin: A Study in French Humanism. Cameron, E. (1991). The European Reformation. Oxford and New York. Gordon, B. (2002). The Swiss Reformation. Manchester, U. K. , and New York. Tracy, J. (1999). Europe's Reformations, 1450–1650. Lanham, Md.

Updated: Apr 12, 2021
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John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation essay
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