John Calvin’s life never went as he expected. When he went to school in Paris and Orleans, he believed he would study to enter the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. But as would be the formula of Calvin’s life, God had other plans. During his education, Calvin came into contact with the Lord of creation and would undergo a conversion that would move him in a direction he never expected.
Convert on the Run
In the early 1530’s Calvin’s father passed away. After returning home for the funeral, Calvin continued his studies bouncing between Paris and Orleans and in 1533 experienced a sudden conversion and saw the corruption of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote of this change in his famous Letter to Sadoleto:
Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, dutybound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears. And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me, but instead of defense, earnestly to supplicate you not to judge that fearful abandonment of your Word according to its deserts from which in your wondrous goodness you have at last delivered me.
Following his conversion, Calvin began to fervently study the Church Fathers alongside his legal training. There is little information about Calvin from this time both in historical records and his own writing. Nevertheless, one can see that Calvin grew proficient in his understanding of the Fathers with an unrivaled ability to quote them from memory and constant references throughout his writings. As Calvin began to grow into his newfound Protestant faith he made friends of like mind. While this would bless his soul it would hinder his secular academic and law career, and it would put him on a path he never thought he would walk.
Calvin didn’t hide his new views, but he did remain within the Roman Catholic church. His ability to stay would end with the Placards Affair. In 1534 short treatises were distributed through France bashing the Roman Catholic Mass. These tactless flyers caused a vicious backlash against Protestants. Anyone who held Reformed views was a target and Calvin eventually fled France with his friend du Tillet. He landed in Basel for time and wrote, or at least revised and finished, the first edition of the Institutes. He penned it as a catechism detailing the essence of the Christian faith and included an apologetic letter to Francis I defending the Evangelical church against persecution.
This work, now the most famous and influential of the Reformation, would circulate and give him name recognition as a brilliant theologian. When Francis I gave Protestant fugitives the chance to return to France to recant within 6 months Calvin entered his homeland for the final time to finish his family business.
A Providential Detour
On his return to Basel, Francis I and Charles V went to war, which blocked the normal route to Basle, so Calvin had to detour through the city of Geneva (providence!) Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation in Geneva, heard that Calvin was coming into the city and met with him to convince him to join in the work at Geneva. In Calvin’s mind, this was as far as possible from the contemplative and scholarly life that he desired in Basel. He cordially declined their request. After persisting to no avail Farel said that God would curse Calvin’s studies if he didn’t stay. Calvin recounts this famous event in the introduction to his commentary on Psalm 30, he wrote,
Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the Gospel. Immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set on devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by my entreaties, he proceeded to utter a threat that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance when the necessity was so urgent. I was so struck with fear by this threat that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken…
Calvin, much like Luther, was affected by the common mysticism and superstitions of the 15th-century. Farel’s threat was not something he took lightly and it shook him to the core. Calvin heeded the warning and stayed with Farel in Geneva. While this was the start of a long and deep friendship, it was also the start of a difficult tenure in a city where many people opposed the Reformation and the preaching duo. The brightest mind of the Reformation took up residence in Geneva, and he had no idea about the difficulties and controversies that were before him.