John Calvin

Protestant Reformer

Institutes of the Christian Religion

As a persecuted Protestant, Calvin found it necessary to travel from place to place, and at Angoulême in 1534 he began the work of systematizing Protestant thought in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, considered one of the most influential theological works of all time. Completed at Basel in 1536 and later frequently revised and supplemented, the original work contained the basic Calvinist theology. In the Institutes Calvin diverged from Catholic doctrine in the rejection of papal authority and in acceptance of justification by faith alone, but many of his other positions, including the fundamental doctrine of predestination, had been foreshadowed by Catholic reformers and by the Protestant thought of Martin Luther and Martin Bucer.

Work in Geneva

In 1536, Calvin was persuaded by Guillaume Farel to devote himself to the work of the Reformation at Geneva, and there Calvin instituted the most thoroughgoing development of his doctrine. At first the Genevans were unable to accept the austere reforms and departures from established church customs, and in 1538 the opposition succeeded in banishing Farel and Calvin from the city. Calvin went to Basel and then to Strasbourg, where he spent three fruitful years preaching and writing.

By 1541 the Genevans welcomed Calvin, and he immediately set himself to the task of constructing a government based on the subordination of the state to the church. Once the Bible is accepted as the sole source of God's law, the duty of humans is to interpret it and preserve the orderly world that God has ordained. This goal Calvin set out to achieve through the establishment of ecclesiastical discipline, in which the magistrates had the task of enforcing the religious teachings of the church as set forth by the synod. The Genevan laws and constitution were recodified; regulation of conduct was extended to all areas of life. Ecclesiastical discipline was supplemented by a systematized theology, with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper given to unite believers in the fellowship of Jesus.

Involvement in Controversies

Calvin wrote extensively on all theological and practical matters. He was involved in many controversies. Among them were his violent opposition to the Anabaptists; his disagreement with the Lutherans over the Lord's Supper, which resulted in the separation of the Evangelical Church into Lutheran and Reformed; and his condemnation of the anti-Trinitarian views of Michael Servetus, which ended in the notorious trial and burning of Servetus in 1553.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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