Calvin, John (1509-1564)
John (Jean) Calvin, the great reformer, was born at Noyon, Picardy, France on 10 July 1509 and died 27 May 1564 at Geneva. His father, a lawyer, was a respected man, and his mother, the daughter of a well-to-do councilor in Noyon, was a pious woman, who implanted in the talented boy's receptive mind his earnest religious sense. At the age of 12 he received a church benefice, the income of which enabled him to study law in Paris. His residence in the universities of Bourges and Orleans made a permanent impression on him, for he met there men like Melchior Wolmar and Robert Olivetan, who sympathized with Luther's teaching.
By 1534 he had broken completely with his past, left the Catholic Church, and devoted himself to the study of theology. He could, of course, not remain in Paris, where his life was no longer certain; he stayed briefly in Angoulême, Nerac, and Noyon, and then went to Strasbourg and Basel, and in 1536 published his famous Institutio religionis christianae, which "secured for him the leadership of the Reformed Church for centuries." Then he went to Italy, where he spent some time at the court of the Duchess of Ferrara. On his return to Strasbourg by way of Geneva, William Farel detained him at Geneva and won his cooperation in the work of the Reformation. Calvin was soon in the foreground of the Protestant movement in the city. With energy and severity he introduced ecclesiastic reforms, which roused his opponents to stubborn resistance. On 3 February 1538, they obtained control of the city in the election of councilors, and Calvin and Farel had to leave, betaking themselves to Basel. In September 1538 Calvin went on to Strasbourg, where he spent three years of great significance for his religious outlook. Then he returned to Geneva and there created a religious organization that for centuries was a model of Christian order and morals for the entire Protestant Church, and through his extensive correspondence he extended his activity throughout Protestant Christendom. Toward antagonists he was ruthlessly intolerant. Michael Servetus, the noted physician and scientist, had to atone at the stake for his denial of the Trinity. Calvin was also unyielding in his dealings with the Anabaptists, though he never recommended the death penalty. With an understanding rare at the time he distinguished between the seditious-fanatical Anabaptists and the quiet, simple, pious group, winning many of the latter over to the Reformed Church by his powers of persuasion.
Calvin had already made contacts with the Anabaptists during his first stay in Geneva. Early in 1537 some Dutch Anabaptists had come to Geneva and, to the dismay of Calvin and Farel, found acceptance for their preaching. Two of them, Hermann of Gerbihan or Gerbehaye (Hulshof, 187, note) and Andry Bendit of Engelen in Brabant, were taken before the council on 9 March 1537. These men wanted to defend their faith in a public disputation with the Geneva reformers, and after some hesitation the council consented. The disputation was held on 16 March in the Franciscan monastery of Riva; it lasted two days, and dealt with baptism, ban, the nature of the soul. According to the official report of the council Calvin did not participate directly; hence Gaberei, Beza, and others cannot be right in saying that Calvin brilliantly defeated the Anabaptists (Hulshof, 186 and following). It seems instead that the Anabaptists withstood Farel with some success, even though they expressed themselves awkwardly. The council, of course, declared them defeated and expelled them from the city. Soon after, on 29 March, there was a second disputation in Geneva, in which Calvin took part, with two Anabaptists of Liége, Jean Bomeromenus, a printer, and Jean Stordeur, uneducated men, by no means a match for the reformers; but they defended their faith with courage. On 30 March both were banished but their influence was felt in the city for a long time. On 7 September 1537 the clergy reported to the council that there were several Anabaptists among the inhabitants of the city.
When Calvin came to Strasbourg he made contacts with the Anabaptists there. His attitude toward them is shown in a letter he wrote on 11 September 1538, soon after his arrival, to Farel in Neuchâtel, saying, "In Metz, where everything is already hostile to the true religion and the council has sworn to annihilate it with the assistance of the priest, the leaven of the Anabaptists has slipped in to create new offense. Two were thrown into the Moselle, one was disgracefully branded and expelled. As far as I could ascertain, one of them was the barber who accompanied Hermann (von Gerbihan). I fear that this pestilence is widespread among the common people in Metz" (Schwarz I, 45; see Hulshof, 193).
At the synod of the Strasbourg Evangelical Church in 1539, which was held chiefly to deal with the Anabaptists, Calvin was the spokesman. He persuaded two Anabaptists whom he had already met in Geneva to renounce their faith in favor of the Reformed confession. These were Jean Stordeur, whose widow, Idelette de Bure, Calvin married on Bucer's suggestion in August 1540, and Hermann of Gerbihan. He gave details in his letters to Farel. On 6 February 1540 he wrote, The Anabaptist Hermann, who had a disputation with us in Geneva, asked me for a conference. He grants that he was in serious error on infant baptism, Christ's humanity, and many other points. On some other questions he still has some doubts, but he is hopeful because he has already overcome so much. His companion Jean (Stordeur) has finally brought his son, who is already quite large, for baptism. I hesitated a while because of the child's weakness, since he said that was his principal reason for postponing the baptism. Finally he said he would not stop the people whose obstinate insistence on baptism he could by no means withstand" (Schwarz I, 87 f.).
Three weeks later, on 26 February Calvin wrote to Farel, "Hermann has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the church. He has confessed that outside the church there is no salvation, and that the true church is with us; therefore, it was apostasy when he belonged to a sect separated from it; for this misstep he asked forgiveness. He accepted instruction on the freedom of the will, the deity and humanity of Christ, rebirth, infant baptism, and other things. Only on the question of predestination he hesitated somewhat; yet he almost subscribed to this too, except that he could not understand the difference between the foreknowledge of God and foreordination. But he asked that this might not prevent his being received into the fellowship of the church with his children. I received him with fitting readiness, and when he asked forgiveness I gave him my hand in the name of the church; then I baptized his little daughter, who is over two years old. If my faith does not deceive me, he is a pious man. When I admonished him to lead others back to the right way, he said: 'That is the least that I can do, to exert myself no less in building up than I did before in tearing down.' Jean too, who lives in Ulm, is said to have come to his senses. But in order that we may not boast of these things, the Lord humbles us in a thousand ways" (Schwarz I, 90).
This Jean was probably Johannes Bomeromenus (Hulshof, 106), who was banished from Strasbourg in 1537 and had probably gone to Metz, and not Jean Stordeur, as is often assumed. The greatest achievement in Calvin's conversion labors in Strasbourg was the return of the former preacher of the St. Nikolai Church, Paul Volz, to the Reformed Church. But he had not gone to the Anabaptists, as Krohn and others including zur Linden suppose, but to the Schwenkfeldians (Hulshof, 197; Röhrich, Mitteilungen III, 215). Beza reports that Calvin converted many Anabaptists in Strasbourg; but this is at least exaggerated. No names are known of any others whom he won; but the number of children Calvin received into the church is said to have been large.
On 21 January 1546, Calvin wrote to Farel in Neuchâtel that he had just met an Anabaptist Belot in Geneva. The letter also throws light on Calvin's attitude to the Anabaptists at that time. He says, "In these days an Anabaptist, when he was laying out foolish writings publicly for sale, was at my instigation arrested. You of course know the nature of these people from experience. But I have never been aware of such wild defiance before. Although I first addressed him politely, as is my custom, it did not suit him for a moment to talk otherwise with me than if he were dealing with a dog. When they led him to the city hall, he at once wanted to sit beside the first syndic; when he was turned away from there, he gave himself with raised head and rolling eyes the majestic aspect of a prophet and answered if it suited him with a few words the questions directed to him; frequently he was altogether silent. A dispute then arose between us on swearing. When I asked him if the law of the Lord did not give us directions for living, he uttered the horrible dogma of the Anabaptists: The Old Testament is done away! I quoted the words of Paul. All Scripture is profitable, that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). I insisted that he answer; but not a word could I get out of him. Therefore I now explained this entire question, so that everyone might recognize the invincible ignorance of this man together with his equally great impudence. When he saw himself thus pushed, he uttered the usual frivolous phrase of the sectarians, that no man has a more comfortable life than the parsons. I answered with a few words, not so much to defend our class as to ward off the boldness of this beast. Then he called me covetous. This produced general laughter; for all knew that I had just this year refused a large personal salary and indeed so seriously that I assured them under oath that I would not preach another sermon if they did not leave off. They knew too that I had not only refused such extraordinary generosity, but had even returned some of my regular salary, not less than 20 crowns. And so he was attacked by all with abusive terms. I answered modestly, he would probably be rich in my position; it was no sign of avarice if I am poor with all the opportunity of becoming rich; but he could be accused by me on a matter of life and death, namely of theft; if he denied it I would offer my head for punishment for slander if it were not true. For it was certain that he was selling broadsheets for two and a half sous which had cost him four deniers. And it was not due to a fixed tax that he sold them so dearly. When he was silent as usual I began to talk about the sinlessness of the Anabaptists. When he had sufficiently shown his defiance, he was expelled from the city. Two days later, when he was again seized in the city, he was beaten, his books publicly burned, and he himself was told not to come again, on penalty of the gallows. This is a man or rather a beast of desperate wickedness."
It is a pity that nothing more is known about this Belot.
Calvin deals with the Anabaptists in three books. The first, Psychopannychia, which contains the name Anabaptist for the first time, attacks the doctrine of the "sleep of the soul." The position of the German Anabaptists on the question is not known, but in France the doctrine was so widespread among the Anabaptists in the 1530s that Calvin found it necessary to write a tract against the sleep of the soul, which was published in 1542 in Strasbourg and had the title, Vivere apud Christum, non dormire animas sanctas, qui in fide Christi decedunt (Corpus Reformatorum XXIII, 170 and following; a new edition by W. Zimmerli in 1932). In 1545 appeared an almost unaltered second edition with the new title, Psychopannychia, qua repellitur quorundam imperitorum error, qui animas post mortem usque ad ultimum judicium dormire putant. The word "Psychopannychia," which really means "wakefulness of the soul," quite the reverse of "sleep of the soul," was later misunderstood to mean sleep (Zimmerli, 10). The original draft of this booklet was written in 1534, while Calvin was living in France. The Brieve Instruction (see below) also attacks the doctrine of the sleep of the soul. (Concerning the further course of the teaching of the sleep of the soul in Socinianism and in the religious movements of the revolution in England, see Karl Müller, Kirchengeschichte II, 2, 136, 470, note 4.) The second book, entitled Brieve Instruction pour armer tous bons fideles contre les Erreurs de la secte des anabaptistes, Geneve 1544, is a refutation of the Seven Articles of Schleitheim, Brüderliche Vereinigung der Deutschen Mennonitengemeinden, which was sent to him for refutation (Hulshof, 189). In the introduction he says that the Anabaptists in contrast to the Libertines recognized the Holy Scriptures and like the church accepted it as a guide for living, and that there was thus a common foundation from which an effort could be made to reach an understanding. This book deals with the following: (1) infant baptism; (2) the ban; (3) admitting to communion, "on which they say nothing with which we do not agree"; (4) the right to bear arms; (5) the shepherds (preachers); (6) the power of princes; (7) the oath. In addition two points arc treated which were not held by all Anabaptists: the Incarnation, and the life of the soul between death and the resurrection (zur Linden, 416).
In the third book, Contre la secte phantastique et furieuse des Libertins, qui se nomment spirituels (Geneve, 1545), Calvin expressly acquits the Anabaptists of the unrestrained doctrines and deeds of the Libertines. He says that there were at first some Anabaptists who thought and taught as they did, but it was generally recognized that such absurdity is contrary to reason, and their best authors are ashamed of such doctrines.
Calvin's judgment of Menno Simons is incomprehensible; he knew him, to be sure, only through a letter from Martin Micron. In an opinion sent to Micron he said, "Nothing can be prouder, nothing more impudent than this donkey" (Calv. IV, 176; HRE XII, 592).
Calvin's close acquaintance with the Anabaptists was bound to be of influence upon him. Even if it is not true, as has been asserted, that he took his doctrine of the communion from them, it is certain that their doctrine and practice of church discipline was of significance as a pattern. He himself indignantly denied this idea and said that the Anabaptists had taken their idea of church discipline over from him. "That the ban is a good and sacred institution we do not deny; and we confess that it is not only useful but even essential to the church. Yea, what these unfortunate and thankless people teach about it they learned from us, only they in their ignorance and presumption have ruined the doctrine which we keep pure" (zur Linden, 417). The falsity of this position is obvious; the Anabaptists held this doctrine of church discipline (the Seven Articles of Schleitheim were adopted in 1527) at a time when Calvin was still a Catholic and scarcely 18 years old.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 7th American ed., Philadelphia, 2 vols. n.d.: v. I, 314-317.
Harkness, Georgia. John Calvin, the Man and His Ethics. New York, 1931.
Herzog, J. J. and Albert Hauck, Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche, 24 vols. 3rd edition. Leipzig: J. H. Hinrichs, 1896-1913: v. III, XII.
Hoop Scheffer, J. G. de. "Calvijn tegen Menno Simons." Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1873): 80-103.
Hulshof, Abr. Geschiedenis van de doopsgezinden te Straatsburg van 1525 tot 1537. Amsterdam, 1905.
Köhler, W. Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter (1937): 1-4.
Linden, Friederich O. Melchior Hofmann: Ein Prophet Der Wiedertäufer. Haarlem: Ed Erven F. Bohn, 1885. Available in full electronic text at https://archive.org/details/melchiorhofmanne00linduoft.
Quistorp, Heinrich. Die letzten Dinge im Zeugnis Calvins: Calvins Eschatologie. Gütersloh : Bertelsmann, 1941.
Schwarz, R. Joh. Calvins Lebenswerk in seinen Briefen, 2 vols. Tübingen, 1909.
Walker, Williston. John Calvin, the organiser of reformed Protestantism, 1509-1564.New York, 1906. Available in full electronic text at https://archive.org/details/johncalvinorgan00walkgoog.
John Calvin's works available in Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Cite This Article
Neff, Christian. "Calvin, John (1509-1564)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 16 Jan 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Calvin,_John_(1509-1564)&oldid=123652.
Neff, Christian. (1953). Calvin, John (1509-1564). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 January 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Calvin,_John_(1509-1564)&oldid=123652.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 495-498. All rights reserved.
©1996-2018 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.