John Calvin was born 10 July 1509 in the cathedral city of Noyon, in north-eastern France. His family was on good terms with the city’s bishop, and it was this contact that gave Calvin the opportunity to associate with a family or two of nobility, and through these connections, develop his own sophistication and aristocratic tastes. It is thought that Calvin’s father steered him, from a very young age, through theological training toward what he hoped would be a career as an episcopal official with a lucrative income.
When he was fourteen years old, Calvin was sent to Paris for an additional five years of studies that culminated with a Bachelor of Arts degree earned at the Collège de Montaigu which was notorious for its excessive moral and academic rigor. Here he ruined his health with an immersion in studies which included the learning of Greek and the intense reading of both the Greek and Latin Church Fathers. But it became clear to John Calvin’s father he could no longer be assured that Church dignitaries would secure an important position for his son and he decided to send him to Orléans to pursue a career in law.
Calvin returned to Noyon in 1531 to tend to his dying father. Around this time, the Noyon bishopric entered into a dispute with the Calvin family, which was precipitated by the local Church having withdrawn economic and communal patronage from the Calvins. This dispute ultimately left John with embittered feelings toward his Church.
Emancipated from his father’s expectations and severed from his parish ties in Noyon, John Calvin returned to Paris to continue his Greek studies at the Collège de France which had been newly founded by King Francis I. It was here where he began to learn Hebrew as the third ancient language, in addition to Greek and Latin, that would round out his humanist education, and enable him to study the Old Testament in its original language.
During the next three to four years, Calvin traveled and met with early Protestant leaders. He emerged from his studies with a fully developed reformed theology of his own. Calvin made a declaration of this theology in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in 1536. John Calvin dedicated his book to King Francis I and it is, historically, the most important of Protestant Reform books.
Calvin was persuaded by Guillaume Farel to accompany him to Geneva in an attempt to reform the city. Initially Geneva’s city magistrates rejected the Reformers, but by 1541 Calvin was able gain their acceptance and founded his Reformed Church there, which was to become the center of Calvinism.
John Calvin’s strength as a religious leader enabled him to exert great influence with people (particularly the upper classes) in France, Holland, and Scotland, as well as with Lutherans living close to Geneva, and with the Puritans of New England in North America. His belief in double predestination (salvation and damnation from the beginning of time) and the inability of man to change these determinations were the most strongly influential of all reform ideas. Like Huldreich Zwingli, he refused to accept Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of the Lord’s Supper when he argued that Christ was present only spiritually in the communion bread. Also, like Zwingli, he was opposed to Anabaptists and anti-Trinitarians, encouraging their execution wherever they might be encountered.
John Calvin died 27 May 1564, aged 54.