Brief Biography of John Calvin
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2011
This brief outline of the life of John Calvin gives a little perspective to the life of one of history’s most noted Christian scholars.
The Early Life of John Calvin
Gerard Calvin was a lawyer. He wanted his son John to seek a career in the church. Raised among the privileged, John was educated in good private schools, and finished his degree in the classical arts at the University of Paris. John excelled as a scholar and became proficient in Latin and philosophy. Just before he started his nine years of study for his theological degree, Gerard changed his mind and told John that he should study law.
John dutifully obeyed his father. He changed his plans and worked toward getting his degree in law. During his studies as a distinguished student he learned about the Evangelical faith. He took a serious interest in biblical studies which led him to the study of Greek, and Hebrew. John Calvin’s first book, a commentary on a Latin treatise by the philosopher Seneca, was published in 1532 when John was only 22 years old.
We don’t know when or exactly how John was converted to Christ. His own account shows that it produced a distinct change in his life. He became known as a “Lutheran” because he agreed with the basic principles of the Reformation which had become identified with Martin Luther.
John became a teacher in a college in Paris where many came to learn from him about the Scriptures. When persecution intensified against the Lutherans, Calvin had to leave the country. He took refuge in Basel.
In 1536 at Basel John published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was intended to be an elementary manual for general readers. It attempted to answer the many questions being asked about the biblical foundation of the Reformed Faith.
John, his brother and sister, and some friends were traveling to the “free city” of Strasbourg when armies and battles forced them to detour through what we now call Switzerland. They stopped for the night at an inn in Geneva.
Word spread quickly that the writer of the famous “Institutes” was in town. The pastor of the city, William Farel, hurried to the inn and asked John to remain in Geneva to help him with the demanding work of the church. John refused. He was headed for Strasbourg the next day and simply was not available. Farel persisted. In his frustration he swore an oath that God would curse all of Calvin’s studies if he did not remain!
John began to sense that God had a different plan for him than he had thought. He later writes, “I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course”. John remained in Geneva.
William Farel had persuaded John Calvin to remain with him in Geneva to help the work of the reformed church. After only eighteen months changes in Geneva caused both Calvin and Farel to be banished.
John Calvin of Geneva
For three years Calvin worked hard for the Reformation in Strasbourg as pastor of a small church of French refugees. He met such greats as Martin Buber and Philip Melancholic, but he never met Martin Luther. He began re-writing his Institutes to deal with the growing questions about the Reformed Faith. While there he also wrote musical versions of the Psalms to be used in worship.
When the situation changed again in Geneva, Calvin was invited back. The situation was different. Calvin had become a well known and respected theologian and reformer. He also had gotten married to his chosen wife, Idelette. On this basis Calvin was able to reorganize the structure of the church and the city of Geneva to conform to biblical orders (Pastors, Teachers, Elders and Deacons). He founded an Academy for training the children in 1559.
The work load became immense. His health began to fail. Calvin suffered migraines, lung hemorrhages, gout, and bladder stones. When he couldn’t walk to his pulpit and lectures he was carried.
As the gospel became known to the general public, opposition grew. The fallen human heart finds the teachings of Scripture to be offensive. He does not want to accept that God is really the Sovereign Lord over his creation, and that man is a fallen creature redeemed by grace through Christ alone. People would set their dogs on Calvin as he walked by. They would fire guns outside the church and shout to disturb his preaching. There were even anonymous threats against his life.
Calvin continued faithfully, but due to his serious disposition it was hard for friends to comfort him or to get his mind off the work and the persecutions. In his failing years he finished a final re-writing of the Institutes (1559), and published lengthy commentaries. He continued his teaching even from his death bed. Friends warned him to take it easy, but he replied, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”
John Calvin died in Geneva on May 27, 1564 just a few weeks before his 55th birthday. He left behind a very complete study of almost every verse of Scripture, and a thorough analysis of the biblical foundation for all the basic beliefs of the Christian Faith. By his own request he was buried in a simple unmarked grave somewhere in Geneva.