Essential facts about John Calvin, as well as a very extensive reading list! 

Born July 10, 1509, at Noyon in northern France. 2 brothers, 2 half-sisters. Father Gerard: clerk for clergy. Mother Joan: very pious. Raised Roman Catholic. Childhood distinctions: academic achiever. 1518 Mother died, John taken into very powerful d’Hangest household [note all dates of Calvin’s youth—but not facts—are disputed]. 1521 To Paris for school at Colleges de la Marche and Montaigu. 1526 Abruptly sent by his father to study law at Orleans. Became friends with Protestant Reformers Pierre Robert and Melchior Wolmar. 1529 Followed Wolmar to Bourges law school, possibly already converted to Reform. 1531 Father died in disgrace in Noyon over missing funds. John received law degree. 1533 In Paris helped Nicolas Cop draft a speech sympathetic to Reform, became a fugitive. Even acquaintance Marguerite, the king’s sister, could not protect him. 1534 Fled France. 1535 Settled in Basel and wrote theological masterpiece Institutes of the Christian Religion which he revised and expanded for a lifetime. 1536 Settled in Geneva (a city-state then but later part of Switzerland), where he and William Farel became civic powers as well as church powers until vanquished by rivals. 1538 Helped Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. 1540 Married widow Idelette de Bure. 1541 Wooed back to Geneva where he was more powerful than before—this time without Farel. 1542 Only son James died. 1549 Idelette died. John remained in Geneva writing copiously and preaching—often in stormy civic battles—until death on May 27, 1564. By his request buried in an unmarked grave.

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         No discussion of the life of John Calvin can be complete without considering the accumulation of opinion about him and his ideas from 1564 to the present time. The truth is that in spite of his enormous contributions John Calvin is more reviled than any other theologian of the last 2000 years by many in both the church and secular realms.
         The historian/philosopher Will Durant ranted angrily: ‘...we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.’ [Will Durant, The Reformation (Vol. 6 of ‘The Story of Civilization’). New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1957, page 490]
         As a scholar Durant was absurd in his subjectivity but his hatred of Calvin is not unique. Why did this happen?

Why is Calvin so unpopular with some people?
Go HERE for an explanation.

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John Calvin's collected works--Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia--edited by JW. Baum, AE. Cunitz, and E. Reuss, contain 59 volumes. Of this The Institutes of Christian Religion occupies only four volumes. Calvin's commentaries on the Bible number 35 volumes!


The texts of many of his works in English are available on the Internet, especially at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Of the numerous English translations of the complete Institutes esteemed Calvin scholar T.H.L. Parker characterizes the most 'recent' ones this way:
1. Henry Beveridge, Edinburgh, 1845-6: accurate translation but stodgy English.
2. Ford Lewis Battles, London, 1960: inaccurate translation in 'modern' English.
The Best Latin edition is by P. Barth and W. Niesel, Munich, 1957-1962.
Keesecker, William F., editor, A Calvin Treasury, 0664253989
McNeill, John T., editor,
Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Vol.), Westminster John Knox Press, 1960. Translation of the final, massive 1559 versionHC.
Lane, Tony and Hilary Osborne, editors,
The Institutes of Christian Religion, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1986. One of many abridged versions. PB
Bonnet, Jules, editor,
Letters of John Calvin. UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980. English translation of portions of 1855-57 French edition. PB
The Bondage and Liberation of the Will: A Defence of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice Against Pighius, 1996. PB
A Reformation Debate : Sadoleto's Letter to the Genevans and Calvin's Reply, Fordham Univ. Press, 2000 . HC
Calvin's Calvinism : Treatises on 'The Eternal Predestination of God' and 'The Secret Providence of God', Reformed Free Publishing Assn., 1987. PB
Heart Aflame: Daily Readings from Calvin on the Psalms, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1999. PB


Genesis HC
Harmony of the Law: Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3, Vol 4
Isaiah PB (Abridged)
Jeremiah and Lamentations  HC
Ezekiel HC (1 0f 2)
Daniel HC (1 0f 2)
Minor Prophets (5 volume set) HC
Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi
A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke V.1 PB V. 2
PB V. 3 (includes James and Jude) PB
Gospel According to St. John 1-10 PB
Gospel According to St. John 11-21 and The First Epistle of John PB
The Acts of the Apostles 1-13  PB
The Acts of the Apostles 14-28  PB
Romans and Thessalonians PB
Romans PB
First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians PB
Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon PB
The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians PB
The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter PB


Major Biographies

Calvin scholar T.H.L. Parker recommended only three biographies in English :
Ganoczy, Alexandre. The Young Calvin, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987. HC
Parker, T.H.L.,
John Calvin: a biography, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975. ?PB
Walker, Williston,
John Calvin, the organizer of reformed Protestantism, 1509-1564. New York, London: Putnam, 1906. HC
Parker refuted William Bousma's 1988 biography as arrogant psycho-babble. He noted the following biography in French as fawning but the most detailed of all biographies:
Doumergue, E., Jean Calvin: les hommes et les choses de son temps, 7 volumes, Switzerland, 1899-1927.

Other works:

Bainton, Roland H., The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952. Noted Luther scholar. PB
Barth, Karl,
The Theology of John Calvin, 1995. PB
Benedetto, Robert et. al., editors,
Interpreting John Calvin, 1997. HC
Benoit, Jean-Daniel.
Calvin in His Letters. UK: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1986. Discussion of the letters.
Beza, Theodore,
The Life of John Calvin. 16th Century. Calvin's colleague. PB
Cottret, Bernard,
Calvin: a biography. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000. HC
De Greef, Wulfert,
The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide. ?PB
Dowey, Edward A.,
The Knowledge of God in Calvin's Theology, 1952. An important work. ?PB
Durant, Will,
The Reformation (Vol. 6 of 'The Story of Civilization'). New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1957. A rabid Calvin detractor. HC
Furcha, E.J., editor,
In Honor of John Calvin: Papers from the 1986 International Calvin Symposium. ?PB
Geisler, Norman,
Chosen But Free. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1999. On 'moderate Calvinism'. HC
George, Timothy F., editor,
John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform, Westminster John Knox Press, 1990. PB
Kelly, Douglas F.,
The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World : The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th Through 18th Centuries, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1992. PB
Kingdon, Robert,
Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva, Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.  PB
McNeill, John T.,
The History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford Univ. Press, 1954. PB
Niesel, W.,
The Theology of Calvin, 1952. An important work. PB
Parker, T.H.L.,
Calvin: an introduction to his thought. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995. An important work. PB
Parker, T.H.L.,
Calvin's New Testament Commentaries: Edinburgh, 1993. An important work. PB
Parker, T.H.L.,
Calvin's Old Testament Commentaries: Edinburgh, 1993. An important work. PB
Parker, T.H.L.,
Calvin's Preaching: Edinburgh, 1992. An important work. PB
Parker, T.H.L.,
Calvin's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1952. An important work. ?PB
Wendel, Francois,
Calvin: Origins and development of his religious thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. A major work. PB

Series titled 'Articles on Calvin and Calvinism', edited by Calvin scholar Richard C. Gamble and published by Garland, New York, from 1986-1992:
Vol. 1: The Biography of Calvin HC
Vol. 2:
Calvin's Early Writings and Ministry HC
Vol. 3:
Calvin's Work in Geneva HC
Vol. 4:
Influences upon Calvin and Discussion of the 1559 Institutes HC
Vol. 5:
Calvin's Opponents HC
Vol. 6:
Calvin and Hermeneutics HC
Vol. 7:
The Organizational Structure of Calvin's Theology HC
Vol. 8:
An Elaboration of the Theology of Calvin HC
Vol. 9:
Calvin's Theology, Theology Proper, Eschatology HC
Vol. 10:
Calvin's Ecclesiology: Sacraments and Deacons HC
Vol. 11:
Calvin's Thought on Economic and Social Issues and the Relationship of Church and State HC
Vol. 12:
Calvin and Science HC
Vol. 13:
Calvinism in Switzerland, Germany, and Hungary HC
Vol. 14:
Calvinism in France, Netherlands, Scotland, and England HC

Series titled 'Columbia Series in Reformed Theology' by various authors, published by Westminster/Knox:
Jones, Serene, Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety, 1995. HC
Puckett, David L.,
John Calvin's Exegesis of the Old Testament, 1995. HC
Tamburello Dennis E.,
Union With Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard, 1994. HC
Princeton Theological Monograph Series, published by Pickwick:
Hesselink, I. John, Calvin's Concept of the Law, No. 30, 1992. PB
Wyatt, Peter,
Jesus Christ and Creation in the Theology of John Calvin, No. 42, 1996. PB
'Texts and Studies in  Religion' published by Edwin Mellen Press:
Compier Don H., John Calvin's Rhetorical Doctrine of Sin, V. 86, 2001. HC
Reynolds, Blair,
The Relationship of Calvin to Process Theology As Seen Through His Sermons, Vol 61,1993. HC
Reynolds, Blair,
Sermons on Jeremiah (by Calvin), Vol. 46, 1990. HC
Reynolds, Blair,
Sermons on Micah (by Calvin), Vol 47, 1990. HC

Note this reading list is not exhaustive. Literature by and about Calvin and his theology is voluminous.

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         If John Calvin had a soft spot in his heart for anyone it was for his wife Idelette, even though he had calculatingly selected her in 1540. ‘I am not one of those in-sane lovers who, when once smitten with the fine figure of a woman, em-brace also her faults,’ he coolly warned his matchmakers. It was essential only that she possess purity, patience, and the good sense to run a household. Luther had found exactly that kind of wife. Catherine van Bora ran Luther’s house like a clock, doted on him, bore his children, even gardened and farmed. That was the kind of wife John Calvin wanted!
         The young widow Idelette was that kind of wife.
         But John found her efficiency less and less relevant. He loved her. And when she began to sicken just a few years after they married it almost crushed him. He cared nothing for her ability to work. By early 1549 everyone including John and Idelette herself knew she was dying. She asked only one thing of him—to care for her children from her first marriage. I won’t neglect them he promised. ‘I know you will not neglect what you know has been committed to God,’ the dying Idelette had replied. He tearfully wrote his friend Viret:

I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordered, would not only have been the willing sharer of my poverty, but even of my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children than about herself...


         Imagine John Calvin’s profound guilt and shame eight years later. His step-daughter—yes, the daughter of his precious Idelette—was caught in adultery. That was a monstrous sin in the Geneva of 1557. John could not leave his house for many days after that. Many thought it was the public humiliation. But more likely it was his betrayal of Idelette’s trust.
         ‘For surely this happened because I have neglected my step-daughter,’ he cried.          

[Sources: Will Durant,
The Reformation (Vol. 6 of ‘The Story of Civilization’). New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1957, and Jules Bonnet, editor. Letters of John Calvin. UK: Banner of Truth Trust, translation of portions of 1855-57 edition in French, 1980]

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         John Calvin was regarded by many of his contemporaries as a stern, irritable man. He hinted at these ‘vices’ in his own writings. ‘I am in no way more harsh [than Viret],’ he wrote but reluctantly added, ‘at any rate in this matter’. He hinted at his temper in a sermon about marriage, ‘I know my infirmity, that perhaps a woman might not be happy with me’. On his death bed he lamented, ‘my vices have always displeased me’. Perhaps not only irritability but also self-importance were exposed in 1545 when John Calvin by letter solicited Luther’s opinion on what John had written. Luther refused, arguing that his responses by letter were often carried around and exploited independent of Luther’s main writings. John was enraged. In a fury he wrote:

[Luther] allows himself to be carried beyond all due bounds with his love of the Church we must always be upon our guard, lest we pay too great a deference to men...If this specimen of overbearing tyranny has sprung forth already as the early blossom in the spring-tide of a reviving Church, what must we expect in a short time...Let us therefore bewail the calamity of the Church...


         Calvin’s rage was unwise. In 1545 Luther was not only a dying man but one often immobile from excruciating bouts with kidney stones. Yet in 21st Century eyes even John’s self-important rage pales beside his intolerance of opposing views. For Calvin the persecuted became Calvin the persecutor. He particularly disliked a man named Servetus for his expressed views on Christian doctrines. In a letter to a friend John warned:

Servetus lately wrote to me and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies...He would like to come here if it is agreeable to me. But I do not wish to pledge my word for his safety. For, if he comes, I will never let him depart alive, if I have any authority...

         That grim warning—‘I will never let him depart alive’—was not just rhetoric. Foolishly, Servetus did show up in Geneva. And John Calvin did have some ‘authority’. Servetus was arrested and condemned to die. Genevans feared no interference because the Catholics in France had also given Servetus a death sentence. Just what was John Calvin’s part in the execution? Could he have prevented it? It seemed his mercy extended only to recommending beheading instead of burning. Genevans burned Servetus to death in 1553.

[Sources: T.H.L. Parker,
John Calvin: a biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, and Jules Bonnet, editor, Letters of John Calvin. UK: Banner of Truth Trust, abbreviated English translation of 1855-57 edition in French, 1980.]

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                   John Calvin as a youth was not accustomed to failures. He alone among his brothers was taken into the extremely powerful d’Hangest household in Noyon. The d’Hangests regarded John a genius. When the d’Hangest boys went to Paris for refined education John went also. His rise was fast. By the time he entered law school in Orleans at 17 the teachers regarded him more a colleague than a student. At Bourges John at 20 socialized in the royal court of Princess Marguerite. By the age of 22 John not only had the highest law degree possible but was writing a scholarly work on the Roman philosopher Seneca that he was sure would surpass similar work by the famed scholar Erasmus.
         But 1531 began a steady stream of failure!
         John’s father died in disgrace, suspected of mismanaging church funds. John’s brother Charles was excommunicated. In 1532 John’s publication on Seneca caused no sensation at all. In 1533 John was a fugitive, suspected of being a heretic. Princess Marguerite warned him to stay away from her court. In 1534 John fled France on horseback with friend Louis du Tillet and his two servants. They stopped for the night at Metz near the German border. One of the servants realized that neither John nor du Tillet wanted to backtrack into France. So in the night he stole their money and fled on one of the horses back into France.
         John Calvin, the ‘genius’, at 25 had no country, no job, no money...

[Sources: many including T.H.L. Parker,
John Calvin: a biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.]

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                   In contrast to Martin Luther’s earlier ‘Tower Experience’ there seems to have been no one moment of revelation or conversion to Protestantism for John Calvin. His conversion began in Orleans in about 1527 when John was an 18-year-old law student. His mentors were undoubtedly Melchior Wolmar and John’s relative Pierre Robert. Both men had gone back to reading the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, a pursuit highly discouraged by the Catholic church. Indeed, this pursuit by Wolmar and Robert (also known as ‘Olivetan’) convinced them the 16th Century practices of the Catholic church were very corrupt forms of Christianity. Both men would decide to join Luther and the evangelicals. Did John agree? Later he would write:

...out of obedience to my father's wishes, I tried my best to work hard [at Law], yet God at last turned my course in another direction by the secret rein of his providence. What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to receptivity a mind too stubborn for its years—for I was so strongly devoted to the superstitions of the Papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, [although I was] still a beginner, a raw recruit...


         The main question in John Calvin’s mind was whether to stay within the Catholic church and try to reform it with his ‘purer doctrine’ or leave the Catholic church to openly join the evangelicals of Martin Luther. Events accelerated the decision for John. In 1533 Catholic officials labeled John a suspected heretic. Even John’s sympathetic acquaintance Marguerite, the king’s sister, could not protect him. If John Calvin had not fled France he would have surely been one of the many victims—like his friend Estienne de la Forge—burned to death by mobs stirred up by Catholic officials in 1534 and 1535. By 1536 he had published his theological masterpiece Institutes of the Christian Religion, a ‘pure doctrine’ far removed from Catholicism.

[Quotation after T.H.L. Parker,
John Calvin: a biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975; italics and parenthetical insertions added]

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         Within decades of John’s death, opposition to strict ‘Calvinism’ grew up around the teachings of the Dutch theologian Arminius. Although Arminius himself was dead by 1618 a meeting was held by churchmen that year and the following year at Dordrecht in Holland. This came to be known as the ‘Synod of Dort’. The Synod of Dort concluded the truth of five teachings of John Calvin—that came to be remembered by the acronym ‘T-U-L-I-P’. This particular scheme of five teachings or ‘points’ was not derived from John Calvin at all but formulated to refute five points in which Arminius disagreed with Calvin. The five have nevertheless come to define Calvinism for many.

1. Total Depravity (T)
Is mankind basically good or basically depraved? Calvin wrote in the Institutes, ‘The mind of man is so completely alienated from the righteousness of God that it conceives, desires, and undertakes everything that is impious, perverse, base, impure, and flagitious. His heart is so thoroughly infected by the poison of sin that it cannot produce anything but what is corrupt; and if at any time men do anything apparently good, yet the mind always remains involved in hypocrisy and deceit, and the heart enslaved by its inward perversity.’
2. Unconditional Election (U)
Did man not choose to believe and determine his own salvation? In the Institutes Calvin wrote, ‘In conformity, therefore, to the clear doctrine of Scripture, we assert that by an eternal and immutable counsel God has once for all determined both whom He would admit to salvation, and whom He would condemn to destruction. We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on His Gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom He devotes to condemnation, the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment.’
3. Limited Atonement (L)
Did not Christ make salvation available for all of mankind? Calvin wrote in the Institutes, ‘it must be noted that so long as we are apart from Christ and separated from him, all that he has done and suffered for the salvation of the human race is useless and of no importance.’ This the Synod interpreted as atonement limited to believers only.
4. Irresistible Grace (I)
Did man not attain salvation by exercising his free will and receiving grace? No, according to Calvin in the Institutes: ‘The Apostle teaches not only that grace to will the good is offered us if we will accept it, but that God makes and forms that will within us, which is to say no other thing than that God by his spirit trains, inclines, moderates our heart, and that he rules it as his own possession.’
5. Perseverance of the Saints (P)
Can the elect fall from grace and lose salvation? No, Calvin assured readers of the Institutes that God ‘not only promises to give a new heart to his elect so that they may walk according to his precepts, but that they may walk therein in fact.’ The effect is lasting. ‘The Spirit of God, being consistent with himself, nourishes and confirms in us the love of obedience that he instilled into us from the beginning.’

         The Synod of Dort believed the first four of these five points were interdependent. The acceptance of one required the acceptance of all four. Serious theologians have debated these five conclusions and their foundation in Calvin’s Institutes for hundreds of years. Those who hold to the conclusions of the Synod of Dort are called ‘hard-line Calvinists’. In Chosen But Free, published in 1999, Norman Geisler presented extensive discussions for each of the five points. Those who through the years have modified the five points Geisler called ‘Moderate Calvinists’. The modifications of the Moderates presented by Geisler are much more widely accepted by ‘Calvinists’ of the 21st Century than those discussed above for the Synod of Dort. Many today refer to their own beliefs in terms of how many of the five points they believe. So, some call themselves ‘three-point Calvinists’ or ‘four-point Calvinists’ and so forth. Amazingly, according to Geisler, Calvin himself would have been a ‘four-point Calvinist’ using the Synod of Dort as a basis. Geisler insisted Calvin did not believe in ‘Limited Atonement’.
         But the hatred of Calvin by many like Durant stems from his doctrines of predestination and the ‘elect’. God’s election before time began of both the saved and the damned just was not the act of a loving God. Moreover, many could not reconcile predestination with free will. Did not believers or non-believers have any influence on their own salvation? It is a major irony John Calvin is invariably remembered for predestination. As the German scholar Paul Wernle said, ‘It cannot be over-emphasized: faith in predestination is a long way from being the center of Calvinism; much rather is it the last consequence of faith in the grace of Christ in the presence of the enigmas of experience.” Election and predestination were not cornerstones of Calvin’s Institutes. He considered the concepts logical outgrowths of his complete development of Christianity from the Bible.

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Heroes of History is compelled to emphasize that in spite of the carping of later secular critics Calvin's theology was not a disaster within the Christian world but a colossal success. Go within the webring of the
'Scottish Divines' for just a few examples of 'Calvinism' flourishing far away from Geneva.

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