Simply saying the name ‘John Calvin’ is enough to start a fight in certain circles. His teachings, the branch of theology that stems out of his ministry and writings, and those who associate themselves with him and his “T.U.L.I.P.” (never mind the fact that the ‘five points of Calvinism’ were created more than 50 years after his death) can create a perfect storm resulting in division that is somewhat unique among theologically-minded Christians.
Depending on whom you ask about John Calvin, one would likely get any number of descriptions of the man. His opponents might call him a heretic and a tyrant. Those outside of Christianity may see him simply as a philosopher or a well-known religious leader. Christians who ascribe to reformed theology may see him as a man of conviction, an exemplary theologian, and a thoughtful, prolific author of many doctrinal works and commentaries.
However you look at him, one of the titles rarely associated with John Calvin is that of a ‘pastor,’ and this is exactly the type of misconception which stands in the way of us, almost 500 years after his death, learning just how important this title was in shaping the identity of this man of God.
John Calvin was born in the Northeastern part of France in 1509. He entered this world the son of a well-to-do attorney and lived in an upper-class family. His father was no ordinary attorney, but a Church lawyer, so religion and the Roman Catholic Church were something familiar for the young Calvin.
At the age of 14 and the urging of his father, he moved to Paris to study, in preparation for entering the Roman Catholic priesthood. During the course of his studies, Calvin began to develop into a thoughtful and devoted Christian humanist. In 1527, at the behest of his father, Calvin gave up his pursuit of the Roman Catholic priesthood and instead began to study law, to become an attorney.
However, in 1531, when his father passed away, Calvin abandoned his law studies and returned to his true love, Christian humanism. Upon becoming fully immersed in religious studies at the College de France in Paris, Calvin studied Greek and Hebrew and inched his way closer to true conversion and a genuine pursuit of God. While the details of his conversion remain somewhat of a mystery, all we know is that it happened sometime between 1532 and 1534. He simply addresses this time in his life as the point during which God softened his heart, and thus, Pastor Calvin was born.
In 1536, Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion in response to Francis I’s of France persecution of Protestants. This was, by all accounts, a massively important work and placed him among the other influential leaders of the Reformation. It certainly caught the attention of a zealous French Reformer named William Farel.
Farel was ministering in Geneva, Switzerland. When he learned that Calvin was passing through Geneva, he met him in an attempt to persuade him to stay in the city, to help with the reforms there. Calvin had already made plans to live the quiet life of a scholar in Strasbourg, so he politely declined Farel’s offer.
This did not sit well with Farel, so he resorted to scare tactics, threatening to call down curses from heaven on Calvin's plans for a peaceful, scholarly life. Incredibly, the Lord used Farel's terrifying antics to convince Calvin to stay in Geneva. This decision would shape the rest of Calvin's legacy, paving the way for a life of pastoral ministry.
Nonetheless, Calvin's first stay in Geneva didn’t last long. He and Farel attempted reform, only to be met with opposition from the Genevan city council. Alas, this Swiss city was not yet ready for John Calvin and his uncompromising devotion to the holy life prescribed in the Scriptures.
When things came to a head with the city council, Calvin and Farel were fired. For Calvin, this meant he was finally able to go to Strasbourg. There, alongside German Reformer Martin Bucer, he pastored a congregation of French Protestant refugees. During his time in Strasbourg, he not only ministered in the church, but also wrote some of his most important works. And he met and married a widow named Idelette de Bure.
Despite the fact that his years in Strasbourg were pleasant and fulfilling, the Lord had other plans for Calvin. In 1541, at the invitation of the Geneva city council, he returned to the city that had cast him out just three years earlier. Calvin's willingness to return to Geneva showed the love and devotion in his heart. He was a pastor who cared for people and who was much more focused on God’s work than his own comfort and preferences.
This second time around, Calvin’s life in Geneva was still not without hardships. After the immense joy he experienced living in Strasbourg for three years, coming back to Geneva was motivated by his desire to be used by God. From a human perspective, it would have made more sense to stay in the city where he felt more “at home.” However, setting aside his personal preferences, he worked tirelessly to bring about reform not only in the Genevan church, but in the entire city. As a result, he faced numerous challenges.
On one occasion, he was forced to deal with a heretic named Michael Servetus, who vigorously denied the doctrine of the Trinity. Calvin is often blamed for Servetus’ death, but it was actually the Geneva city council that passed down the sentence of execution. For his part, Calvin graciously and repeatedly plead with Servetus to repent and recant his heretical views. Through this, he demonstrated his love for the sinner and his desire to see him reconciled to God.
Another trial came in 1549, when Calvin lost his wife Idelette to illness. This was understandably difficult for him to overcome, but he remained a faithful minister and continued to serve dutifully in Geneva. Reform did not come quickly and easily, but Calvin persevered through hardship and sorrow because of his devotion to God and his love for the people in Geneva.
There is much to be learned from John Calvin. His faithful ministry in the face of adversity is something to be emulated. As is the devotion and care with which he viewed the Word of God.
Importantly, Calvin also demonstrated that the work of a pastor and the work of a theologian need not be divided. Pastors ought to be theologically-minded and should seek to train their people to be so as well. In other words, pastoral ministry and theological work go hand-in-hand.
This principle was lived out in the life of John Calvin, theologian and pastor.