John Calvin Biography

A Giant in Reformed Christianity

John Calvin
Godong/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

John Calvin possessed one of the most brilliant minds among Reformation theologians, sparking a movement that revolutionized the Christian church in Europe, America, and ultimately the rest of the world.

Calvin saw salvation differently than Martin Luther or the Roman Catholic Church. He taught that God divides humanity into two groups: the Elect, who will be saved and go to heaven, and the Reprobates, or damned, who will spend eternity in hell. This doctrine is called predestination.

Instead of dying for the sins of everyone, Jesus Christ died only for the sins of the Elect, Calvin said. This is called Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption.

The Elect, according to Calvin, cannot resist God's call to salvation upon them. He called this doctrine Irresistible Grace.

Finally, Calvin differed totally from Lutheran and Catholic theology with his doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. He taught "once saved, always saved." Calvin believed that when God began the process of sanctification on a person, God would keep at it until that person was in heaven. Calvin said no one could lose their salvation. The modern term for this doctrine is eternal security.

Early Life of John Calvin

Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509, the son of a lawyer who served as lay administrator of the local Catholic cathedral. Understandably, Calvin's father encouraged him to study to become a Catholic priest.

Those studies began in Paris when Calvin was only 14. He started at the College de Marche then later studied at the College Montaigu. As Calvin made friends who supported the fledgling reform of the church, he began to drift from Catholicism.

He also changed his major. Instead of studying for the priesthood, he switched to civil law, starting formal study in the city of Orleans, France. He finished his legal training in 1533 but had to flee Catholic Paris because of his association with church reformers. The Catholic church had begun hunting heretics and in 1534 burned 24 heretics at the stake.

Calvin bounced around for the next three years, teaching and preaching in France, Italy and Switzerland.

John Calvin in Geneva

In 1536, the first edition of Calvin's major work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, was published in Basel, Switzerland. In this book, Calvin clearly laid out his religious beliefs. That same year, Calvin found himself in Geneva, where a radical Protestant named Guillaume Farel convinced him to stay.

French-speaking Geneva was ripe for reform, but two factions were battling for control. The Libertines wanted minor church reform, such as no compulsory church attendance and wanted magistrates to control the clergy. Radicals, like Calvin and Farel, wanted major changes. Three immediate breaks from the Catholic Church took place: monasteries were closed, the Mass was prohibited, and papal authority was renounced.

Calvin's fortunes shifted again in 1538 when the Libertines took over Geneva. He and Farel escaped to Strasbourg. By 1540, the Libertines had been ousted and Calvin returned to Geneva, where he began a long series of reforms.

He redid the church on an apostolic model, with no bishops, clergy of equal status, and lay elders and deacons. All elders and deacons were members of the consistory, a church court. The city was moving toward theocracy, a religious government.

The moral code became criminal law in Geneva; sin became a punishable crime. Excommunication, or being thrown out of the church, meant being banned from the city. Lewd singing could result in the person's tongue being pierced. Blasphemy was punished by death.

In 1553, Spanish scholar Michael Servetus came to Geneva and questioned the Trinity, a key Christian doctrine. Servetus was charged with heresy, tried, convicted, and burned at the stake. Two years later the Libertines staged a revolt, but their leaders were rounded up and executed.

The Influence of John Calvin

To spread his teachings, Calvin established primary and secondary schools and the University of Geneva. Geneva also became a haven for reformers who were fleeing persecution in their own countries.

John Calvin revised his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1559, and it was translated into several languages for distribution throughout Europe. His health began to fail in 1564. He died in May of that year and is buried in Geneva.

To continue the Reformation beyond Geneva, Calvinist missionaries traveled to France, the Netherlands, and Germany. John Knox (1514-1572), one of Calvin's admirers, brought Calvinism to Scotland, where the Presbyterian Church has its roots. George Whitefield (1714-1770), one of the leaders of the Methodist movement, was also a follower of Calvin. Whitefield took the Calvinist message to the American colonies and became the most influential traveling preacher of his time.

Sources: History Learning Site, Calvin 500, and

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "John Calvin Biography." Learn Religions, Sep. 9, 2021, Zavada, Jack. (2021, September 9). John Calvin Biography. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "John Calvin Biography." Learn Religions. (accessed June 8, 2023).