In a new occasional feature, a contemporary writer introduces a classic thinker. First: Tony Lane on John Calvin
John Calvin was a second-generation reformer. He was born in 1509 at Noyon, in northern France, and in the early 1530s was converted to the Protestant cause. In 1536 he was appointed to ministry at Geneva, where he remained until his death in 1564, apart from three years of exile (1538-41) spent mostly in the (then German) city of Strassburg.
Calvin is best known for his Instruction in the Christian Religion (commonly called the Institutes). This work went through four major editions in Calvin’s lifetime. The first was of pocketbook length and appeared in 1536, while the definitive 1559 edition was about five times its length. Alongside these Latin editions there were French translations, mostly by Calvin himself. The French editions are important for the history of the developing French language, as no work of such weight had previously been published in French.
Calvin also devoted considerable time to expounding the text of scripture, through commentaries and lectures as well as sermons – many of which survive. His lectures at the Genevan Academy were not on doctrine but on the Old Testament. He is arguably the only writer ever to belong without question both to the first rank of theologians and to the first rank of commentators.
As a second-generation reformer, Calvin inherited a body of doctrine. In particular, he stood in the Reformed strand of Protestantism, as opposed to Lutheranism (confined mostly to Germany and Scandinavia). His exposition of Reformed theology was fresh and original, but most of what he taught was held in common with others, such as the first-generation reformers Zwingli and Bucer.
This article was published in the February 2014 edition of Reform.