Calvin Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Calvin’s theology, fundamentally similar to that of Martin Luther, was outlined in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the most important book of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin, however, strongly insisted on the import of predestination to Protestant theology and was more critical of the Catholic Church than was Luther. The work stirred into action Protestants throughout Europe.

Summary of Event

On All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1533, a young professor named Nicholas Cop was installed in the honorary post of rector of the University of Paris. In his inaugural address, he spoke of certain abuses in the Catholic Church and called for a return to a simpler, more biblical form of Christianity. The address was not extremely radical, and the so-called Christian humanists had been promulgating similar views for some time, but Francis I, king of France, was determined to suppress all signs of Protestantism Protestantism;France in his capital, and Cop’s speech caused a sensation. Cop and several of his followers had to flee from Paris, where fifty persons were arrested on suspicion of complicity with him. Institutes of the Christian Religion (Calvin) Calvin, John Cop, Nicholas Francis I (1494-1547) Marguerite de Navarre Luther, Martin Zwingli, Huldrych Farel, Guillaume Bucer, Martin Cop, Nicholas Francis I (king of France) Luther, Martin Marguerite de Navarre Zwingli, Huldrych Farel, Guillaume Bucer, Martin Servetus, Michael Calvin, John

John Calvin.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Among those who fled was a twenty-four-year-old scholar named John Calvin, a close friend of Cop who may have written the celebrated address for him. Calvin came from a French family that had close business ties with the Church, but his father and his brother had quarreled with Church authorities in their native town of Noyon; both died excommunicate. Young John Calvin was apparently destined for the priesthood, but when studying at Paris, he came under the influence of the still relatively new Christian humanism that stressed study of the ancient classics. Humanism;Christian Calvin studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew avidly, and he published a commentary on the Roman moralist Seneca.

Probably at his father’s behest he also turned his attention to law; he studied both law and classics at Paris Orléans and at Bourges. About the time of Cop’s inaugural address, he underwent a religious conversion, which changed his earlier apathy to eager participation in the new evangelical faith of Martin Luther and others.

After fleeing Paris he spent some time at the court of Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of Francis I, who had strong Protestant leanings. There he studied and meditated, formulating his theological position, and after a brief return visit to Paris, he decided to leave France because of continuing persecution.

He went to Basel in Switzerland, a town that was hospitable to a number of prominent religious refugees. There he composed the first edition of his great work, Christianae religionis institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1561), which he completed in the summer of 1535 but which was not published until March, 1536.

The original edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion, a master work of the Reformation Reformation;France , was a small piece along the lines of a catechism. During the remainder of his life Calvin revised it repeatedly, and the final definitive edition was published in 1559.

In most respects Calvin’s theology did not differ materially from that of Martin Luther, whose work Calvin had read and admired. Like Luther, he asserted the total sinfulness and depravity of humans, and denied that humans have free will. Thus, humans can in no way seek their own salvation, and all their works are without value.

These ideas led directly to the concept for which Calvin is most famous—predestination Predestination , an idea that is present in Luther’s theology but is not stressed as much as it is by Calvin. The concept of predestination sees God as arbitrarily choosing to grant salvation to certain souls, the elect, who have no control over their own destinies. Conversely, the majority of humans are also damned through God’s inscrutable will, although by their totally sinful natures they fully deserve eternal punishment in hell.

Calvin went further than Luther in repudiating the Catholic Church. While Luther continued to insist that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, Calvin called Christ’s presence merely spiritual. Luther retained ceremonial worship, but Calvin introduced a simple, austere service in which the sermon was central. Both reformers made the Bible the center of belief and the sole guide to human conduct. Institutes of the Christian Religion included a plea to Francis I to cease persecuting the Protestants and sought to convince the king of the rightness of the reformed beliefs.

After publishing his work, Calvin made a last brief visit to Paris, and then set out for the city of Strasbourg, but wartime conditions caused him to travel by way of Geneva, an incident that altered the entire course of his life. About half of Switzerland was Protestant at that time as a result of the work of Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich, who had been killed in battle in 1531. Protestant reform had been effected in Geneva by Guillaume Farel, a fiery French preacher who had settled there. Farel was impressed with Calvin and urged him to stay in Geneva. Calvin at first refused, but Farel insisted that if he left he would violate God’s command for him to stay there. Reluctantly, Calvin agreed to remain as one of the town’s clergy.

From the beginning he played a central role, writing incessantly and composing a set of articles for the organization of the Genevan church, which was accepted by the town authorities. Many Genevans opposed Calvin and Farel, however. The city of Berne was attempting to take over leadership of the Swiss Protestant Protestantism;Switzerland movement, and a majority of the city council of Geneva imposed liturgical changes in conformity to the dictates of Berne. On principle, Calvin and Farel refused to accept such changes, and they were expelled.

Calvin went to his original destination, Strasbourg, at the invitation of Martin Bucer, the influential South German reformer who presided over the Strasbourg church. Bucer and Calvin became close friends. Calvin was appointed pastor to the French refugees in the city, and it was there that he married. His friends in Geneva continued to agitate for his return, and he tried to stall their demands by saying that the Genevan church was a true church despite its flaws. In the end, his friends succeeded in recalling him to his old pastorate in September, 1541, but Calvin was reluctant to return, and Farel was not recalled with him.

He had received assurances that there would be no unwarranted interference in his work, and from the first day of his return he began remolding the Genevan church. His “Ecclesiastical Ordinances” (1541), though modified in 1561, were adopted by the town, and provided that the ministers would have considerable disciplinary powers over the people, especially through the power of excommunication. The powers of the Church and the state over religion and morals remained closely related in Calvin’s Geneva, and the two institutions operated on a basis of close cooperation.

In the years until his death on May 27, 1564, he became celebrated throughout Protestant Europe. Institutes of the Christian Religion became a kind of handbook for Protestants and was translated into several languages. It was originally published in Latin but subsequently Calvin published new editions in both Latin and French. Calvin himself became the unofficial leader of the Reformed faith and maintained a voluminous correspondence with Protestants in all parts of the Continent and the British Isles, who constantly sought his advice on many problems.


Through his writings and his personal influence, John Calvin molded the character of Protestantism outside Germany and Scandinavia, which retained the original Lutheranism. In Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Scotland, the basic form of Protestantism came to be Calvinist, and the movement also spread later into Germany. Protestantism Calvin’s theology greatly influenced the Church of England until about the 1630’, and an academy that he founded at Geneva became the training ground for hundreds of Protestant pastors from all nations.

Calvin attempted to turn Geneva into a city of model Christians, an effort in which he was only partially successful. Strict regulations on conduct were introduced and rigidly enforced, and the church played the dominant role in civic life. Calvin also strongly opposed heresy; in 1553, he was responsible for the burning at Geneva of Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician who denied the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and others who disagreed with Calvin’s theology were expelled from the city.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Reprint. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2001. This paperback edition of Calvin’s great work is one of several readily available in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cottret, Bernard. Calvin: A Biography. Translated by M. Wallace McDonald. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2000. This biography seeks to recount the history of Calvin’s hopes, ideas, and actions. Less focused on Calvin himself than most biographies, this account is more interested in the institutions he created and the effects he has had upon the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harkness, Georgia. John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1958. Classic analysis and critic of Calvinism and Calvinist ethics from the point of view of modern Presbyterianism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKinnon, James. Calvin and the Reformation. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962. A general survey of the Reformation that emphasizes the part played by Calvin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naphy, William G. Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation. 1994. Reprint. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. This meticulously researched study of the Genevan Reformation includes twenty-seven statistical tables and eleven appendices on Calvin’s Geneva. Focuses on the challenges posed to the Reformation by the large number of refugees that flooded into Geneva.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberman, Heiko A. The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. Edited by Donald Weinstein. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Posthumous collection of essays by one of the foremost Reformation scholars of the twentieth century. Attempts to recover an adequate picture of Calvin, opposed to the figure historians have created. Argues that medieval religious thought was essential to both Calvin’s and Luther’s understandings of Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Thomas H. L. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Study in the Theology of John Calvin. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1952. Attempts to reach the heart of Calvin’s theology through his doctrine of humanity’s knowledge of God.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Walliston. John Calvin: The Organizer of Reformed Protestantism, 1509-1564. Reprint. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. A still-useful biography that remains one of the best available in English. The reprint edition includes a bibliographical essay by J. T. McNeill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wendel, François. Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. One of the best general accounts of Calvin’s theology, with a succinct summary of his life. Credits Calvin with being the first person to systematically apply Humanist methods of literary criticism to the study of the Bible, although his mature theology in Institutes of the Christian Religion marked a profound break with Humanism.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

1523: Gustav I Vasa Becomes King of Sweden

1550’s-c. 1600: Educational Reforms in Europe

May, 1559-Aug., 1561: Scottish Reformation

Apr. or May, 1560: Publication of the Geneva Bible

July 29, 1567: James VI Becomes King of Scotland

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Categories: History