Church history

What sort of man was John Calvin? We can get a feel for him from his letters

It started with a conversation discussing various matters, when the subject of John Calvin came up. I was absolutely flabbergasted when my interlocutor said that Calvin was a hard man – someone who would not have been very nice to know.

Dumbfounded, I dropped the subject because I really didn’t have a defense. I had never heard such an accusation before, and had been brought up to think that Calvin belonged on a pedestal right next to Augustine, Luther and other church fathers. Did that mean I considered Calvin a saint? No, of course not. Calvin was a man like us, who had to daily contend with a sinful nature. But he was also a great man, specially gifted by God, so I was flabbergasted as to where this negative view of Calvin had come from. So when the next opportunity arrived I searched and found in my library a booklet which answered my questions.

Why so negative?

My first question was where this negative view of Calvin had come from. What I had never realized before is that there are umpteen books that attack Calvin, and I’m not even talking about the books that attack his theology – the umpteen I mention here is just the books that attack Calvin the person!

This is what I learned after opening a book that had long been in my library but was still unread. You know the type – it was one of those books purchased with the thought that it might come in handy one day. Well it became handy indeed. The book, or rather booklet (it is just 96 pages), is called the The Humanness of John Calvin and was written by a Richard Stauffer. This Swiss pastor shows that he is well acquainted with the writings of both Calvin and his critics – early in the book Stauffer, especially in the footnotes, gives extensive quotes from those who were no friends of Calvin.

In the introduction Stauffer remarks:

“Luther, by his spontaneity and his exuberant spirit, ….succeeded in awakening sympathy from his very opponents, and Zwingli commanded respect as a lucid patriot and a courageous soldier in the very ones who would contest his theology, but the French reformer not only has suffered calumny [slander] from his enemies, he has also been misunderstood and misinterpreted by his great-grand children.”

In a footnote he cites Emile Doumergue, who correctly noted: “In relation to repugnance and hatred, one finds that Protestants rivaled Catholics.” However, a little further he also gives an example of a Catholic who slandered Calvin, by the name of Jerome-Hermes Bolsec. Bolsec had been Roman Catholic, then Protestant, and then after returning to Rome, he wrote a biography of Calvin that was simply insults and lies, or as Stauffer put it, “no more than a vile tract.”

“Calvin was accused in it with being ambitious, presumptuous, arrogant, cruel, evil, vindictive, and above all, ignorant. Also he was described as an avaricious and greedy man, as an imposter who claimed he could resurrect the dead, as a lover of rich fare, worst yet: as a gadabout and a Sodomite, who, for his infamous habits, had been sentenced in the city of his birth, Noyon, to be branded with a red-hot iron.”

Stauffer continues over the next couple of pages quoting mainly Roman Catholic but also Protestant writers who have done their utmost to picture the Reformer as a thoroughly evil man.

Jealousy prompted hatred

That Roman Catholics hated him is understandable because Calvin more than any other was able to show the evil of Roman doctrine, which enslaved people to men rather than make them servants of the living Savior.

But where does this hatred – for that is what it is – of Calvin come from in the Protestant camp? I think we must seek the answer in the way that Calvin, more than anyone, sought to give all honor for our salvation to Jesus Christ. He opposed all forms of what later would be called Arminianism. It is not our own efforts that save us but only the completed sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who didn’t bow their knee as he did, were shown up by Calvin’s humility, and that likely made him enemies.

Another reason for the hatred toward Calvin is, without doubt, that he labored without ceasing to help the spread of the Reformed doctrine. He was a giant, and so he was a target. While giving a write-up on the book Letters of John Calvin, one reviewer noted Calvin

“…regularly lectured to theological students, preached on average five times a week and authored enough material to fill forty-eight enormous volumes. [Such a busy man] could scarcely be expected to show enthusiasm for correspondence. Yet the Complete Works of John Calvin include another eleven volumes of his correspondence.”

His letters show his nature

Calvin’s many, many writings reveal a humble, caring man. He penned the following as a dedication in honor of his Latin teacher, one Mathurin Cordier, (whose Latin grammar textbook was still being used in the 19th century). This appears at the beginning of Calvin’s commentary on 1 Thessalonians:

“…. it was under your guidance that I entered on a course of studies, and made progress at least to the extent of being of some benefit to the Church of God. When my father sent me as a boy to Paris I had done only the rudiments of Latin. For a short time, however, you were an instructor sent to me by God to teach me the true method of learning, so that I might afterwards be a little more proficient…. for me it was a singular kindness of God that I happened to have a propitious beginning to my studies…. It was my desire to testify to posterity that, if they derive any profit from my writings, they should know that to some extent you are responsible for them.”

Reader, do you here recognize the description given by Jerome-Hermes Bolsec? I know I do not.

Here is another, this one addressed to John Knox, in which Calvin expresses his joy at the advance of the Gospel in Scotland. Remember John Knox had studied under Calvin in Geneva. At the same time he uses the opportunity to express his sympathy to John Knox who had just lost his wife. Calvin wrote:

“Your distress for the loss of your wife justly commands my deepest sympathy. Persons of her merit are not often to be met with. But as you have learned from what source consolation for your sorrow is to be sought, I doubt not but you endure with patience this calamity. You will salute very courteously all your pious brethren. My colleagues also beg me to present to you their best respects.”

At the time of Calvin’s death in 1564, Farel who years before had persuaded Calvin that his task lay in Geneva, wrote that he wished he could have died instead:

“Oh, why was I not taken away in his stead, and preserved to the church which he has so well served, and in combats harder than death? He has done more and with greater promptitude than any one, surpassing not only the others by himself. Oh, how happy he has run a noble race! May the Lord grant that we run like him, and according to the measure of grace that has been dealt out to us.”

Shortly before his death Calvin wrote to Farel and, though Calvin was dying, his concern was for Farel. He told Farel, an old man at this time, that there was no need to rush to Calvin’s deathbed:

“Farewell, my most excellent and upright brother; and since it is the will of God that you should survive me in the world, live mindful of our intimacy, which, as it was useful to the church of God, so the fruits of it await us in heaven. I am unwilling that you should fatigue yourself for my sake. I draw my breath with difficulty, and every moment I am in expectation of breathing my last. It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is to all his followers a gain both in life and death. Again I bid you and your brethren farewell.”

Conclusion

Let me finish this article by quoting once again from the booklet The Humanness of John Calvin. The author concludes with words written by Nicolas des Gallars, who was one of Calvin’s colleagues in Geneva for several years:

What labors, what sleeplessness and worry he bore, with what keenness and finesse he foresaw dangers, with what zeal he guarded against them, what fidelity and understanding he showed in everything, what a kind and obliging spirit he had toward those who came to him, how quickly and frankly he answered those who asked him even the most serious question, with what wisdom he settled both privately and publicly the difficulties and problems which were posed for him to settle, with what sensitivity he comforted those who grieved and lifted up the broken and discouraged, how resolutely he opposed the enemies, how ardently he attacked the prideful and the obstinate, with what grandeur of spirit he endured misfortune, with what restraint he behaved in prosperity, and finally with what dexterity and élan he discharged all the duties and responsibilities of a true and faithful servant of God, I could certainly not be able to convey fully by the use of any words.

I have quoted only a few excerpts by or about Calvin and would direct any one interested in finding out more to investigate either The Humanness of Calvin, or his letters. It will certainly close the door upon some of the slander which passes for serious study in some quarters.

A version of this article was first published in the July/August 2002 issue. Rene Vermeulen published more than 150 articles in the pages of Reformed Perspective from 1984-2010.

 

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