Asking people about John Calvin elicits a variety of responses. Some idolize him to the point of near infallibility, while others think giving him the moniker dictator is too generous. Some consider him to be among the greatest minds in church history, while others believe him to be the orchestrator of the worst forms of heresy. Some deny any character defects while others immediately mention Servetus, any blemishes on his record, and declare him a moral monster. Neither of these extremes is accurate. For Calvin, As with any historical figure, the truth about who he was is complex. Whatever one’s view of Calvin, there is no denying that this “complicated” man had a major influence on the development of the Protestant church and theology for years to come. Calvin was a bright mind who had to be pushed into the role of a leader and reformer of the church. When one looks at the life of John Calvin they will see his undeniable growth from a hard-headed, Parisian scholar to a faithful, warm, compassionate, and flawed shepherd.
In the pursuit of understanding Calvin throughout this series we will look to the five key periods of his life: His early life and education, his years as a fugitive, his first stint in Geneva, his time in Strasbourg, and his return and final years in Geneva. During each of these periods, Calvin dealt with hardship, pain, and opposition. These trials developed Calvin’s mind, heart, and practice and when they’re examined in sequence one gets a full picture of the Genevan Reformer.
Early Life and Education
John Calvin was born in the year 1509 in Noyon Picardy to Girard and Jeanne Cauvin. Little is known about Calvin’s early years, and what is known is gleaned from scarce references throughout Calvin’s writings. There isn’t much information known about his mother except that she passed away when Calvin was 6 years old. Calvin’s father was a successful man and had connections with the wealthy de Hangest family who would act as Calvin’s patrons throughout his education and early life.
This patron relationship made sense, Calvin was an intelligent young man with great promise of becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Young Calvin also seemed to have a cordial, if somewhat cold, relationship with his father. He was a dutiful son and obeyed his father regarding his education and career choice. He left his home town in 1523 for Paris to begin his theological training while the de Hangest family supplied the needed funds.
Calvin spent time first at the College de la Marche. Here he studied under the celebrated humanist Maturin Cordeire, whom Calvin spoke of fondly. After a short stint at Marche, he moved to the more prestigious College de Montaigu and studied under the cruel Pierre Tempete, Calvin did not speak fondly of him. Tempete was known for striking students for small mistakes, and sometimes to simply remind them of his authority. This cold teacher-student relationship and poor living conditions likely account for Calvin’s infamous temper (especially in his early days) and his long struggles with poor-health. However, not everything he experienced had a negative effect, Calvin’s work ethic and schedule throughout his career mirrored his time at the College de Montaigu which accounts for all the work he accomplished in such a short time. At this point, Calvin seemed to be on the fast track to the priesthood, but his father would soon change his academic trajectory.
Calvin’s father was an important figure in his hometown. He was a successful businessman and managed the finances of the diocese and county. His knowledge of finance and driven nature, coupled with his growing issues with the local church, compelled him to push Calvin out of the study for priesthood into the study of law. Calvin submitted to his father’s will and began studying law in Orleans around 1528. During this time he became adept regarding all things Seneca, a man whom he would study and emulate for the rest of his life. Calvin’s time in Orleans would shape his mind and equip him to lead in ways he never expected. While Calvin excelled in his studies, he was about to be introduced to Reformation theology, and his time in France would soon come to an end.