John Calvin: Who He Is, What He Did, and Why He Matters

Who is John Calvin, you ask? I have intentionally studied Calvin’s life over the years and this post is somewhat of a brief biography of his life.

“When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose . . . but God, by the sweet guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course . . . God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame . . .”

 

John Calvin is associated with someone’s death. He wrote one of the most influential Christian theological books of all time. Privately, he was shy and awkward. In public, he moved around with stunning confidence. He was impatient and bashful, yet pastoral and caring. We have never seen — and probably will never see — anyone like him.

Who is John Calvin, you ask? I have intentionally studied Calvin’s life over the years. This post is somewhat of a brief biography of his life. Let’s start with the early years.

Early Life

First thing’s first: his name is not John Calvin. Well, at least not at birth. He was born as “Jean Cauvin.” We don’t know when and why Calvin changed his name, but we know that, as Bruce Gordon tells us, “Name changing was a commonplace among humanists of the sixteenth century.”

Calvin was born on July 10th, 1509 in Noyon, France. He was the first of four children. His mother died when he was a child. Calvin had brothers named Antoine and Charles, and a half-sister named Marie. His father, Gerard Cauvin, was over 50 when Calvin was born, and he eventually died of testicular cancer but was an influence in Calvin’s life. He (Calvin’s dad) remarried after his first wife died, although little is known about either one. While Calvin did not write much about his personal life, he respected his father.

John Calvin’s intellectual abilities were quickly noticed by his father and others. Calvin was on track to study theology and move forward into a position within the church. However, in 1526, his dad directed him to abandon his theological studies and to begin studying to become a lawyer. And he did, studying in Orleans and Bourges until 1531. His studies in law would later help him as a thinker and writer. However, John Calvin did not become a lawyer, but a pastor, and that was soon after his conversion.

Calvin’s Conversion

Calvin was eventually converted to Christ between ages 20-24. Historians and theologians do not agree upon the date and method of conversion. While Calvin did not write much about himself (unlike today, it was uncommon to speak about one’s personal life back then) the closest thing we have to an autobiography of his life is his commentary on the Psalms, in which he briefly mentions part of his conversion:

“When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose . . . but God, by the sweet guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course . . . God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame . . .”

He continues, “Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein . . . In short, whilst my one great object was to live in seclusion without being known, God so led me about through different turnings and changes, that he never permitted me to rest in any place, until, in spite of my natural disposition, he brought me forth to public notice.”

Calvin and the Institutes

It is estimated that Calvin wrote the first six chapters of the Institutes of the Christian Religion one year after his conversion, probably around the age of 26. This small book quickly became popular and distinguished Calvin as a thinker and theologian. He would add to it and re-write it the rest of his life. The book is known for its remarkable clarity, organization, and theological precision. John Calvin was an intellectual genius with remarkable administrative abilities, and it shows in this book. Many can attest to this book as one of the most popular theological books ever written. It is what Calvin is primarily known for. 500+ years later and lives are stilling being transformed by Calvin’s thoughts.

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