We now turn to John Calvin, another member of the elite squadron of Protestant reformers. Okay, to present them as a squadron isn’t really fair, since they didn’t agree on a whole lot (Calvin sided with Zwingli over Luther on his view of the mass, for instance, which was a sore point for the German), but it makes it sound more impressive. Calvin was actually French, which you wouldn’t know from his name, but he was actually born Jean Cauvin in 1509. He did most of his work in Geneva, a French-speaking city that would become part of Switzerland, but was active in other parts of Europe as well. And, not surprisingly, he was a very polarizing figure, with supporters regarding him as a hero of sorts, and opponents pointing out that he was a misogynist with dictatorial tendencies. Unfortunately, it seems pretty much inevitable that the people who protested tyrannical practices in the Catholic Church were all too eager to introduce their own in their reformed theologies.
John Calvin’s father, a lawyer named Gérard, originally wanted Jean to be a priest, but later changed his mind and decide his son should follow in his own footsteps and study law. John succeeded in obtaining his law degree, but remained more interested in religion, a field he was free to pursue further after Gérard’s death in 1531. He embraced Protestantism in 1533, and subsequently fled France, where Protestants were being harshly dealt with by the government. He attempted to reform the church in Geneva, but was exiled when the city authorities didn’t take too kindly to his attempts. A few years later, however, the Genevans brought him back, and he was free to institute his new organization of the church, which lacked bishops and monasteries (hence the rather strained pun in the title of this post), but had a system of pastors, elders, and deacons. He also developed the Consistory, a court made up of ministers and elders that would try citizens for religious and moral offenses. There was an ongoing struggle for power between the Consistory and the civil authorities, with the latter occasionally stepping in to make sure the religious leaders didn’t have too much power. I’ll admit to being a little confused because it seems to be agreed upon that the Consistory never had the power to sentence someone to death (excommunication was their harshest punishment, and at times they didn’t even have that), yet Calvin was able to rule in several capital cases. I have to suspect that Calvin and his church gang exercised more power than they were ever officially given. This page tells us, “Two members of the consistory, accompanied by a minister, visited every parish to see that all was well and that people could see that they were being checked on,” which really makes it sound like Geneva was effectively a police state under Calvin. The reformer was also a major supporter of witch hunts and executions, and firmly in favor of the patriarchy.
As far as his religious beliefs, Calvin adopted a lot of Zwinglian ideas, including the literal reading of the Bible. He felt that the Lord’s Supper and other sacraments were purely symbolic, and that salvation was through faith alone. The doctrine with which Calvin is most closely associated, though, is that of predestination. He didn’t invent the concept, but he fervently supported it, and it’s probably still the main point by which Calvinist churches are distinct from other Protestant denominations. I actually come from a Presbyterian family, although I don’t recall hearing much about predestination back when I went to Sunday school. I guess it’s a rather complicated concept to try to explain to kids, but in truth I don’t think the adults understand it either.