This post owes a great deal to Diarmid MacCulloch's Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Allen Lane 2003) a work as witty (in parts) as it is magisterial (always).
Calvin was born in Noyen in Picardy, the son of a lawyer. He taught theology at the Sorbonne and Roman law at Orléans and Bourges. Through his studies he came into contact with French humanism and had contacts with two influential Erasmian groups: that around the king’s sister Marguerite d’Angoulême (1492-1549) and the similar group at the court of Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux and the theologian Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples.
In October 1534 posters (placards) appeared at Paris street corners attacking the Mass, leading to considerable disorder as outraged Parisians rioted against the ‘foreigners’ who were said to have perpetrated the outrage. François called a halt to reform and Calvin and Lefèvre fled France. During 1535 and 1536 Calvin was in Basel, devoting his time to writing. In August 1536 he arrived at Geneva by accident when, because of the wars between the king and the emperor, he failed to reach the Protestant stronghold of Strassburg. There he found the fiery Guillaume Farel, another French exile, attempting to reform the city. At his insistence, Calvin became ‘Reader in Holy Scripture’ in the city. This opened an important new phase in the history of Protestantism.
Geneva was situated on the crossroads of routes between northern and southern Europe and had a large immigrant population. It was in the hands of a small governing elite that never wholly supported Calvin. He was expelled in 1538 and spent three years in Strassburg (where he married the widow of an Anabaptist), but following a change in the composition of the city council he was invited back in 1541, and it was after this period that Geneva assumed its distinctive identity.
In March 1536 during his exile in Basel Calvin published (anonymously) the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion and dedicated it to François I. The final edition was published in 1559. The Institutes was a systematic exposition of the Reformed faith – something Luther could never have written. His exposition was based – of course – on the Bible, but also on St Augustine of Hippo. Calvin’s fundamental doctrine was that of the sovereignty of God and it is from this concept that he derived his doctrine of ‘double predestination’ which he developed in his re-workings of the text.
As Scripture then clearly shows we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those who he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgement, he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation.This went much further than Lutheranism as developed by the moderate Philipp Melanchthon.
Calvin’s predestination was not an invitation to religious passivity but to striving. The saved need constantly to demonstrate that they are saved, both to themselves and to the world, and this means a life of continual struggle against sin. It also means a quest to set up a better society. This leads to an ambivalence in Calvin: if God’s kingdom can be set up on earth, what is the Christian’s relationship to the secular ruler. Should he obey him, as Paul had insisted, or were there occasions when it was right to resist?
In common with other magisterial reformers, Calvin rejected Anabaptism. He saw the Church as the community of the elect, but also a visible body containing a mixture of saints and sinners just like Israel.
Calvin’s Geneva was ‘the reformed answer to Mûnster’. MacCulloch, 237. Its government was laid out in the Ordinances of 1541. Following the Strassburg model, there was a fourfold structure of church government: pastors were to preach the word, doctors to teach at all levels, elders to be elected by the council and to hold general disciplinary responsibilities deacons to look after charitable giving, either practical or administrative. Together the pastors and the senior doctors (including Calvin himself) formed a Company of Pastors. Pastors and elders combined in a committee known as the Consistory, which policed the morals of the citizens. There was to be compulsory testing and examination of faith. Certain Christian names (such as Claude, the name of the former patron saint of Geneva) were banned on the grounds that they were ‘absurd’ and ‘stupid’. There were vigorous laws against swearing, and scripts of plays were submitted to Calvin for his approval.
The governmental structure of Geneva was dualistic: at the head of the civil government was a small elite of the native-born Genevan patriciate; at the head of the Church’s government was a small exiled elite of mainly Frenchmen. This was copied over Europe.
Geneva became an international centre. There were more than thirty printing houses in the city, run by Germans, French, Italians and other Swiss. Religious refugees poured into the city from England and France. The Scotsman John Knox described Geneva as
the maist perfyt schoole of Chryst that ever was in the earth since the dayis of the Apostillis.
'To the modern eye, it would appear that by the late 1550s, the Calvinist International was preparing for the Revolution of the saints.’ Richard Mackenney, Sixteenth Century Europe: Expansion and Conflict (Macmillan, 1993) 165.
Calvin’s autocratic theology was challenged by some radical Protestants. The Savoyard Sébastien Châteillon (now more usually called Sebastian Castellio) quarrelled with him on the canonicity of the Song of Solomon, which forced Calvin into a rather inconsistent defence of Church tradition. Castellio was forced to retreat to Basel
where the city and Church authorities were rapidly developing the principle that no one who hated Calvin could be all bad. MacCulloch, 242.Calvin’s greatest challenge came from a maverick physician from Navarre, Miguel Serveto (Michael Servetus). In 1553 he published his anti-Trinitarian Christianismi Restitutio in Lyon. When he was condemned by the Inquisition in Lyon, he fled to Geneva where he was arrested and ordered by the civic authorities to be burned. Calvin wanted a more merciful execution but he did not oppose the burning, which took place on 27 October. Most of his fellow Protestant leaders approved the sentence. It established Calvin as a serious defender of the Reformation. In 1559 the Council appointed him to head a new institution of higher education, the Academy, which soon recruited students from all over Europe.