John Calvin – A Brief Biography

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John Calvin was another well-known reformer. Calvin and Luther lived during similar periods and knew each other. However, while Martin Luther was fighting with the Catholic Church, John Calvin fought a war against the libertines1. Both characters are centerpieces of the reformation who contributed in their own right. 

John Calvin a lawyer, theologian, and pastor, was born to Jeanne le Franc, an innkeeper, and Gerard Cauvin, a cathedral notary and registrar of the ecclesiastical court. Calvin’s mother died of an unknown cause during his childhood and Gerard enjoyed a prosperous career in his physical station. John Calvin was born on 10 July 1509 in the province of Picardy. Calvin who originally took a prosaic view to marriage thought it better to remain unmarried in order to devote himself to God. However, Calvin later married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children from her first marriage. When Calvin recalled the incident of Idette’s death, he said “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.”

Calvin was employed by the bishop as a clerk from a young age. He cut his hair to symbolize his dedication to the church. On top of this, he won the patronage of an influential family at the time, the Montmors. Through the Montmors’ assistance, Calvin was able to learn French by attending College de la Marche, philosophy in College de Montaigu, and Law at the University of Orleans first and then at the University of Bourges. It is this period in Bourges where Calvin studied the Koine Greek necessary to him for the study of the New Testament. Calvin earned his licentiate in law by 1532 and published his first commentary on an individual’s salvation by grace instead of by good works (Seneca’s De Clementia).

The tension between the Reformers and Catholics reached a boiling point by 1533. Nicholas Cop, the Rector of Calvin’s Alma Mater, friend, and reformer gave the inaugural address in the University of Paris, that displaced Calvin, allowing him to begin his ministry. Cop’s call for reform and renewal in the Catholic Church did not sit well with the faculty. Cop, like Luther, was denounced heretical. Calvin, being a close friend of Cop, was implicated. With both friends on the run, they decided it was prudent to leave Paris and eventually France, for friendlier pastures. The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred during the Affair of Placards2. The Roman Catholic Church responded to this with the violence that caused both Calvin and Cop to leave for Basel, Switzerland.

Calvin’s journey from France to Switzerland and published the first edition of his book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. He then made his way from Switzerland to Italy before traveling to Paris with his brother Antoine. When the Edict of Coucy gave heretics a 6-months period to reconcile the Catholic faith, Calvin decided to leave France for good. Although he set a course for Strasbourg, he was forced south to Geneva. Calvin’s stay in Geneva was meant to be short-lived. However, French reformer, William Farel convinced him to stay and assist his work of reforming the church there. Calvin took up a bunch of pastor-ly roles in Geneva ranging from bible lectures to marriages.

As the years progressed, problems arose in Geneva that caused Calvin and Farel to leave. Calvin and Farel’s rapport with the council in Geneva failed due to many reasons, the main of which was the right of ex-communication. The ministers regarded ex-communication as paramount to their authority but Geneva, a place where the town exercised ultimate control over the church, refused to concede. Calvin and Farel’s uncompromising attitude caused their expulsion in May 1538. Calvin served as a minister in Strasbourg after his expulsion from Geneva. Geneva later came to regret their decision of expelling the duo. Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter inviting Geneva back into the catholic faith and the city council sought an ecclesiastical authority to retort the invitation. Many candidates were considered but when all else failed, they sought Calvin’s help. Despite Calvin’s sour history with the council, he agreed and wrote his Responsio ad Sadoletun which strongly defended Geneva’s position concerning reforms in the church.

Calvin stayed after defending the city and was given an appointment upon request by the council. Calvin further cemented the reform works in Geneva and helped set up an ecclesiastical court. Regarding the matter of ex-communication, the city government retained the power to summon people before the court. The Consistory could judge only ecclesiastical matters and had no civil jurisdiction. Originally, the ecclesiastical court had the power to mete out sentences, with ex-communication as its most severe penalty. However, the government contested this power and the council decided that all sentencing would be carried out by the government. The right to ex-communication was eventually given back to the ecclesiastical council when another Genevan administrative assembly, the Deux Cents, reversed this decision.

Calvin’s main opposition against the reformation in Geneva came in the form of the libertines. The libertines’ downfall began with the February 1555 elections. By then, many of the French refugees had been granted citizenship. With their support, Calvin’s partisans elected the majority of the syndics and the councilors. The libertines took to the streets in protest and attempted to burn a house that was full of Frenchmen. The syndic Henri Aulbert tried to intervene by carrying with him the Baton of Office that symbolised his power. The libertines seized the baton in mockery. This gave the appearance that they were taking power and initiating a coup d’état. The actions of the libertines forced them to flee the city.

Calvin cemented his authority during his final years and enjoyed an international reputation as a reformer distinct from Martin Luther. Calvin worked on the final edition of his book the Institutes of the Christian Religion in his final years. He died on 27 May 1564, aged 54.

1Libertines, according to Calvin were people who believed liberation through grace exempted them from both ecclesiastical and civil law. The group consisted of wealthy, politically powerful, and interrelated families of Geneva.

2Affair of Placards was where unknown reformers put up placards in various cities of France attacking the Roman Catholic Church.


(3) Cottret 2000, p. 140, Cottret 2000, pp. 139–142; Parker 2006, pp. 96–97

(6)  Cottret 2000, pp. 8–12; Parker 2006, pp. 17–20

(8), (9) Ganoczy 2004, pp. 7–8; Cottret 2000, pp. 63–65, 73–74, 82–88, 101; Parker 2006, pp. 47–51; McGrath 1990, pp. 62–67

(10) McGrath 1990, pp. 76–78; Cottret 2000, pp. 110, 118–120; Parker 2006, pp. 73–75

(11) Cottret 2000, pp. 165–166; Parker 2006, pp. 108–111

(12) Cottret 2000, p. 235

(13)  McGrath 1990, pp. 195–196; Cottret 2000, pp. 259–262; Parker 2006, pp. 185–191

Compiled by J.L.