Christianity Knowledge Base
John Calvin
John Calvin
Jehan Cauvin

(1509-07-10)10 July 1509
Noyon, Picardy, France
Died27 May 1564(1564-05-27) (aged 54)
EducationUniversity of Paris
University of Orléans
University of Bourges
OccupationReformer, minister, author
Notable work
Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)
Theological work
Tradition or movement
Main interestsSystematic theology
Notable ideas
  • Predestination
  • Regulative principle of worship
  • Monergism
  • Covenantalism
  • Imputed righteousness
John Calvin signature
John Calvin
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John Calvin was a prominent French theologian during the Protestant Reformation and the father of the theological system known as Calvinism. Martin Luther and Calvin are arguably the most significant architects of the Reformation.

Biographical summary[]

As a student in Paris, he studied the liberal arts before continuing his studies in theology at his father's request. Later, when his father had a falling-out with the local bishop, he instructed John to pursue an education in civil law, which he did in Orleans. After graduating as a Doctor of Law in 1531, he returned to Paris.

Calvin's ambition was not to be a professional lawyer, but a man of letters. In 1532 he self-published a commentary on the Roman philosopher Seneca's Treatise on Clemency that evidenced considerable rhetorical skill, but otherwise went unnoticed.

During his time in Paris, Calvin converted from Roman Catholicism to evangelicalism, and subsequently became an informal leader to other Paris evangelicals. All that is known about the occasion is what he himself says in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms:

To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.

On his way to Basel in 1536, he passed through Geneva where reformer William Farel persuaded him to stay and help the cause of the church, which he did for nearly two years. As a result of government resistance, Farel and Calvin left Geneva and Calvin moved to Strasbourg where he pastored from 1538 until 1541. When Calvin's supporters won election to the Geneva city council, he was invited back to the city in 1541 where he remained until his death in 1564.

Calvin's writings[]

John Calvin was a prolific writer of theology. His most notable work was the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition of which was published in 1536, when he was 26 years old. Calvin revised the Institutes thoroughly several times. The first edition was a small, compact work, but the final edition published in 1559 was a thorough systematic theology comprising four volumes. Calvin also published commentaries on most of the Bible. These commentaries have proved to be of lasting value to students of the Bible and are still in print after over 400 years.

Calvin's theology[]


Calvin said that there could be no knowledge of self without knowledge of God. All men have a natural awareness of divinity, which is both planted in their minds and made evident through creation. However, man has suppressed or corrupted this knowledge, and confused the creation with the Creator. It is only when men contemplate the greatness of God that they can come to realize their own inadequacy. God is providentially in control of all things that come to pass, including evil things, but this does not make him the author of evil.


Man is created in the image of God. This image has been marred by the Fall, though not destroyed. Before the Fall, man's will was truly free; however, now it is corrupt and enslaved to sin. Man is totally unable to seek or choose God unless God chooses him first.

Jesus Christ[]

The person of Christ, the God-man, provides the solution to this moral dilemma. Christ is the only possible bridge between God and men. In the Incarnation, God and man were joined inseparably in one person, yet not in such a way that the divine and human were confused. The relationship between Christ's human and divine natures is paradigmatic for Calvin’s theology whenever the divine touches upon the human.

Calvin was the first person to describe the work of Christ in terms of the threefold offices of prophet, priest, and king. As prophet, Christ's teachings are proclaimed by the apostles for the purpose of our salvation. As priest, Christ’s sacrifice of himself and his mediation before the Father secures the salvation of men. As king, Christ rules the Church spiritually in the hearts of its members.

The Holy Spirit[]

The Holy Spirit unites men to Christ when Christ is apprehended thorugh faith in the promises of Scripture. The Spirit leads men to Christ; without him, saving faith is impossible.

Justification by faith[]

Justification by faith is the material principle of the Reformation. It is based upon the mercy of God, not the merits of humanity. Although the doctrines of election and predestination are linked with Calvin's name, the doctrine of election actually plays a relatively minor part of Calvin’s theology. As a second-generation Reformer, his primary concern was with the government and organization of the church rather than theology. Nonetheless, Calvin believed in unconditional election.


Calvin taught two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's supper. He differed from sacramentalists who believed that the sacraments were a means of receiving justifying grace. Rather, they are the badges, or marks, of Christian profession, testifying to God's grace.

Calvin was a paedobaptist, believing that infants were the proper objects of baptism. He differed from Catholic and Lutheran paedobaptists in arguing that baptism did not regenerate infants. Rather, it symbolized entrance into the New Covenant, just as circumcision did for the Old Covenant. His argument for infant baptism draws many parallels between the two signs.

Whereas Luther and the Catholic church believed that Christ's body was literally present in the Eucharist, and Zwingli taught that the Lord's Supper was a mere memorial, Calvin took a middle ground between the two positions. The elements were a symbol and therefore could not be the thing they signified; the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation confused the symbol and the substance. On the other hand, Zwingli's memorialism divorced symbol and substance completely. Calvin taught that when one receives the bread and wine, which are literal food and drink, in a spiritual sense he receives the spiritual food and drink of the Christian. Christ is spiritually present when the Eucharist is received by faith.

Church government[]

Calvin is the founder of the Presbyterian system of church government.

At the local level, Calvin's system consisted of a council of pastors representing the local assembly, and responsible for teaching and shepherding the churches. The Consistory, a larger council comprising pastors and lay elders elected according to district, was responsible for maintaining church discipline and watching over the moral lives of church members. At the regional level is the presbytery, then above this a provincial synod and a national synod.

Church government is closely tied to church discipline. Discipline is the ordering of church life in obedience to Christ in response to the teaching of Scripture. It has a threefold aim: the glory of God, purity of the Church, and correction of the offender.

The power of the Church to punish offenders was limited to excommunication. Typically, this meant denying them the Lord’s Supper, baptism for them or their children, or marriage. Although in Calvin's day the Consistory could recommend civil punishment to the city authorities which was often heeded.

Calvin and Calvinism[]

Calvinism is most noted for its understanding of soteriology which was codified at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 in the so-called Five Points of Calvinism.

There is some debate as to whether Calvin himself would have affirmed all five points as such. In his writings, he explicitly affirms total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. However, his affirmation of limited atonement is implicit at best. Some scholars, such as Norman Geisler, deny that Calvin would have endorsed limited atonement; others, such as Roger Nicole, say that his theology affirms all five points.

Calvin's influence[]

Separation of church and state[]

Calvin believed that the church not subject to the state, or vice versa. While both church and state are subject to God's law, they both have their own God-ordained spheres of influence. For example, the church does not have the authority to impose penalties for civil offenses, although it can call on the civil authorities to punish them. Conversely, the state is not to intrude on the operations of the church. However, it has a duty to protect the church and its ability to function as the church.

As a magisterial reformer, Calvin thought of the State as a Christian nation rather than a secular government. He did not advocate religious freedom in the same sense as the Baptists later would, for example. However, his ecclesiology sowed the seeds of the modern secular democracy.


Geneva became a safe haven for Protestant refugees, not only from France, but all over Europe. Calvin founded a school to instruct men in Reformed theology and then train them to return home, preach the Gospel, and plant churches. The city therefore became the nucleus of missionary activity; for example, in 1561, 140 missionaries are recorded as having left Geneva.

"Calvin didn't just plant small fledgling churches; he planted mega-churches that in turn planted more churches. It is difficult to fathom the extraordinary success of these Genevan sponsored missionaries. Even in our modern era, such statistics are unheard of."[1]

The missionary influence of Calvin extended not only to his native France, but also to Scotland, home of the Presbyterian Church, England, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and even Poland. Calvin also sent out the first two overseas missionaries in the history of Protestantism: an expedition to Brazil in 1556.

The Protestant work ethic[]

Calvin repudiated the distinction between "sacred" and "secular" duty and the prevailing notion that work is a necessary evil. Rather, he taught, work is a calling from God. Therefore, one glorifies God in his work by working diligently and joyfully.

Calvin did not invent capitalism, but he did teach that one of the rewards of hard work is wealth. His philosophy of work allowed capitalism to flourish where it was practiced.


  • Calvin, John, Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Transl. James Anderson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.
  • Ibid., Institutes of the Christian Religion. Transl. Ford Lewis Battles. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.
  • McGrath, Alister E., A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
  • Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1882.
  • Robert M. Kingdon, "The Geneva Consistory in the Time of Calvin," in Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620, Andrew Pettegree et al., eds. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

External resources[]

Writings by Calvin[]

Writings on Calvin[]