John Calvin (1509-1564)’s View on Church & State: Part 1

John Calvin (1509-1564)’s View on Church & State: Part 1


John Calvin’s view on Church and State can not be discussed without understanding the Man and his Background; his Theological and Spiritual insight. Also, it is of utmost importance to know his analytical, historical, pastoral, and polemical discussions of doctrines. The Synthesis shaped his view on the Church and State.

 The Man – John Calvin:

Calvin was a french Protestant Reformer, regarded as second in importance only to Martin Luther, a critical figure in the Protestant Reformation. Calvin’s work of reformation is not by heavy-handed use of the civil magistrate but with the preaching of God’s Word and the building of the Church. Church government was lacking in Geneva and all over Protestant Europe. Calvin was also called “the organizer of Protestantism” because he developed an adaptable model of church government in his pastoral work of organizing evangelical churches in Strasbourg and Geneva. The cultural impact of that “Presbyterian” model has extended beyond church polity to influence modern democratic political theory. In the sixteenth century, new social institutions emerged to replace the deteriorating ones that had once held medieval civilization together; Calvin’s model influenced many new institutions. 

 Early Life:

Calvin was born in northwestern France, twenty-five years after the birth of Martin Luther. His actual name, Jean Cauvin, became “Calvin” years later when as a scholar, he adopted the Latin form (Calvinus). Noyon’s birthplace was an old and vital center of the Roman Catholic Church in northern Europe. Noyon has a resident bishop, and the city’s economic, political, and social life revolved mainly around the Cathedral. From a middle-class status, Calvin’s father ‘Gerard’ had risen to become the bishop’s secretary after serving the Church in various offices, including notary public. As a result, young Calvin was closely tied to church affairs from the beginning. He was brought up with children of the aristocracy, a background that made him a much more progressive reformer than Martin Luther. 

  In a bid to enable his son to advance to a position of ecclesiastical importance, Calvin’s father made sure he received the best possible education. Calvin was enrolled at age fourteen at the University of Paris, the intellectual center of Western Europe. He eventually attended the College de Montaigu; the same Institution Erasmus had attended some thirty years earlier. Although Calvin pursued a similar career in theology, his life took an unexpected turn for several reasons. The new learning of the Renaissance (humanism) was waging a successful battle against scholasticism, the old Catholic theology of the late Middle Ages; Calvin encountered the new learning among the students and was powerfully attracted to it. At the same time, a strong movement for reform in the Church, led by Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples (1455–1536), had flourished in Paris, not far from the university; Calvin became a close friend of some of Lefevre’s disciples. Also, Luther’s writings and ideas had circulated in Paris for some time, causing a moderate stir; Calvin undoubtedly became familiar with them during his student years. Finally, Calvin’s father had a fallout with the Church officials in Noyon, including the bishop.

 Thus in 1528, just as Calvin had completed his master of arts degree, his father sent word for him to leave theology and study law. Dutifully, the son migrated to Orleans, where France’s best law faculty was located. Calvin threw himself into his law studies, winning acclaim for mastery of the material. He often taught classes for absent professors. After about three years of study at Orleans, Bourges, and Paris, he earned a law doctorate and his law license. Along the way, he had learned Greek and immersed himself in classical studies, which were of great interest to contemporary humanists. He associated closely with a group of students at odds with the teachings and practices of Roman Catholicism. When his father died in 1531, Calvin was free to choose the career he favored. Excited and challenged by the new learning, he moved to Paris to pursue an academic life. Had he not been converted to Protestantism, he would undoubtedly have lived out his days in Paris as a leading Renaissance scholar. When the French king, Francis I (reigned 1515–1547), decided that persecution was the solution to the Protestant problem, Calvin realized it was no longer safe to live in Paris or anywhere else in France. For the rest of his life, therefore, he was a refugee.

By now a successful lawyer, Calvin was invited to Geneva to build the new Reformed Church. Calvin’s efforts radically changed the face of Protestantism, for he directly addressed issues that early Reformers didn’t know how or didn’t want to answer. His most important work involved the organization of church governance and the social organization of the Church and the city. He was the first major political thinker to model social organization entirely on biblical principles. At first, his reforms did not go over well. He addressed the issue of church governance by creating leaders within the new Church; he developed a catechism designed to impose doctrine on all the members of the Church. He and Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) imposed a strict moral code on the citizens of Geneva; this moral code was derived from a literal reading of Christian Scriptures. Naturally, the people of Geneva believed that they had thrown away one Church. Only to see it replaced by an identical twin; in particular, they saw Calvin’s reforms as imposing a new form of the papacy on the people, only with different names and people. So the Genevans tossed him out. 

In early 1538, Calvin and the Protestant reformers were exiled from Geneva. Calvin, for his part, moved to Strasbourg where he began writing commentaries on the Bible and finished his massive account of Protestant doctrine, ‘The Institutes of the Christian Church. Calvin’s commentaries are almost endless, but within these commentaries, he developed all the central principles of Calvinism in his strict readings of the Old and New Testaments. Calvin wrote commentaries to explain scriptural writings ostensibly. Still, in reality, he, like theologians before him, used the commentaries to argue for his theology as he believed was present in scriptural writings. They are less an explanation of the Bible than a piece-by-piece construction of his theological, social, and political philosophy.

In 1540 a new crop of city officials in Geneva invited Calvin back to the city. As soon as he arrived, he set about revolutionizing Genevan society. His most important innovation was the incorporation of the Church into city government; he immediately helped to restructure municipal government so that clergy would be involved in municipal decisions, particularly in disciplining the populace. He imposed a hierarchy on the Genevan Church and began a series of statute reforms to impose a strict and uncompromising moral code on the city.

By the mid-1550s, Geneva was thoroughly Calvinist in thought and structure. It became the most important Protestant center of Europe in the sixteenth century. Protestants were driven out of their native countries of France, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands and came to Geneva to take refuge. By the middle of the sixteenth century, one-third and one-half of the city were made up of these foreign Protestants. In Geneva, these foreign reformers adopted the more radical Calvinist doctrines; most of them had arrived as moderate Reformers and left as thorough-going Calvinists. It is probably why Calvin’s brand of reform eventually became the dominant branch of Protestantism from the seventeenth century onwards. From Calvin’s background, we can see how his views on Church and State were shaped.


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