JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564)

Calvin was born in northwestern France, twenty-five years after the birth of Martin Luther. His actual name, Jean Cauvin, became "Calvin" years later when as a scholar he adopted the Latin form (Calvinus). After about three years of study at Orleans, Bourges, and Paris, he had earned a doctorate in law and his law license. Along the way he had learned Greek and had immersed himself in the classical studies, which were of great interest to the contemporary humanists. He associated closely with a group of students at odds with the teachings and practices of Roman Catholicism. When his father’s death in 1531 left Calvin free to choose the career he favored, he did not hesitate. Excited and challenged by the new learning, he moved to Paris to pursue a scholarly life. When the French king, Francis I (reigned 1515–1547), decided that persecution was the solution to the Protestant problem, Calvin realized it was no longer safe to live in Paris or anywhere else in France. For the rest of his life, therefore, he was a refugee.

In Basel (Switzerland) early in 1536 Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Traveling to Strassburg (a free city between northern France and Germany) in 1536, Calvin stopped for the night in Geneva. Calvin immediately set to work reorganizing the church and its worship. When the city council disagreed with the proposals of Calvin and Farel, they were banished from the city in April, 1538.

Calvin spent the following three years (1538–1541) in Strassburg, enjoying his long-sought period of peaceful study. There he associated closely with Martin Bucer, whose ideas, particularly on predestination, the Lord’s Supper, and church organization, markedly influenced Calvin’s own. In Strassburg Calvin also pastored a congregation of Protestant refugees from France, organizing its church government after what he believed to be the New Testament pattern and compiling a liturgy and a popular psalm book, which eventually became the Genevan Psalter (1562.)

In 1541 the city of Geneva implored him to return.The city council, now much more attentive to Calvin’s proposals, approved his reforms with few changes. He began a long, unbroken tenure as Geneva’s principal pastor. Though constantly embroiled in controversy and bitterly opposed by strong political factions, Calvin pursued his tasks of pastoring and reform with determination.

In addition to traditional areas of Christian works, such as arranging for the care of the elderly and poor, many of Calvin’s reforms reached into new areas: foreign affairs, law, economics, trade, and public policy. Calvin exemplified his own emphasis that in a Christian commonwealth every aspect of culture must be brought under Christ’s lordship and treated as an area of Christian stewardship. Calvin worked on the recodification of Geneva’s constitution and law, mollifying the severity of many of the city’s statutes and making them more humane. In addition, he helped negotiate treaties, was largely responsible for establishing the city’s prosperous trade in cloth and velvet, and even proposed sanitary regulations and a sewage system that made Geneva one of the cleanest cities in Europe. Although the legal code, much of it adopted upon Calvin’s recommendations, seems strict by modern standards, nonetheless it was impartially applied to small and great alike and was approved by the majority of Geneva’s citizens. As a result, Geneva became a "Christian republic," which the Scottish reformer John Knox called "the most perfect school of Christ . . . since the days of the apostles." Church and state served as "separate but equal" partners.

Besides the Institutes, Calvin also wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible as well as the Geneva Catechism, first in 1536 with revisions in 1542 and 1560. He was a driving force behind the Genevan Psalter, although most of the work was done by Farel and Beza and musicians such as Bourgeois. He also encouraged his brother-in-law William Whittingham to write the Genevan Bible, published in 1599 and very popular in England and among the Puritans.

During Calvin's last years, Geneva was home to many religious refugees who carried away the desire to implement a Genevan reform in their own countries. His personal letters and published works reached from the British Isles to the Baltic. The Geneva Academy, founded in 1559, extended the circle of his influence. His lucid use of French promoted that language much as Luther's work spread the influence of German. By the time he died, Calvin, in spite of a reserved personality, had generated profound love among his friends and intense scorn from his enemies. His influence, which spread throughout the Western world, was felt especially in Scotland through the work of John Knox.

Calvin’s motto was "Promptly and sincerely I offer my heart to you, O Lord."

John Knox and The Reformation in Scotland

The Reformation developed very slowly in Scotland. By 1540 a number of Protestant preachers had been burned at the stake which served to raise public consciousness toward Protestantism.

In 1547 a young Protestant preacher by the name of John Knox, along with many other Protestants, were forced to take refuge in St. Andrew's castle. Having been ordained to the Roman priesthood, Knox was converted to Reformation doctrines by George Wishart who had fled Scotland and gone to Geneva where he translated the Helvetic Confession to English.The French, siding with the Scottish Catholics, led by Mary Queen of Scots, attacked the castle forcing its defenders to surrender. Knox and others were carried off to be galley slaves, i.e. rowers, in French ships. After nineteen months he was released and went to England where he preached from a Reformed perspective. He also was helpful to Cranmer there in writing the 42 Articles of Faith.

Mary Queen of Scots (ruled 1542-1567) increased her dependency on Catholic France. This infuriated Scottish nationalists, moving them to sympathize with her antagonists, the Protestants, led by Knox. Knox, eventually found his way to Geneva, where he became a devoted student of John Calvin. Knox summed his impression of Geneva by saying, "Never was there a more godly city." While in Geneva, Knox worked on a translation of the English Bible known as the Geneva or "Breeches" Bible. In Genesis the account reads, "And God sewed breeches for Adam and Eve." Knox, seeing how many patriotic Scotchmen were finished with Mary because of her French dependency, returned to Scotland. Within a week mobs were destroying monasteries and Catholic sanctuaries to Knox's disgust. Knox was a Protestant, not an anarchist, nor an iconoclast. A civil war broke out lasting for nearly a year until Queen Elizabeth of England sent aid to the Scottish Protestants. Mary, still holding the crown with Scotland's consent, went to France.

 In 1560 the Scottish Parliament adopted a Reformed confession of faith, known as the Scot's Confession, for the nation. They also passed anti-Catholic laws inflicting capital punishment on those who dared to celebrate mass three times or more. Throughout the nation Reformed theology and the Presbyterian system of church government, i.e., congregational election of pastors and elders, superseded the appointment system of bishops. Larger geographical areas were organized into presbyteries where ruling and teaching elders gathered as an assembly to vote on church concerns. A general assembly of elders covering the nation of Scotland was also established and met when there were issues confronting the presbyteries as a whole.

The thoroughly democratic republican style of Presbyterian government was stamped indelibly on the consciences of the Scottish people, making them a bridgehead for representative government wherever, in the future, they should migrate.

After hostile feelings calmed down, Mary, who had gone to France, returned to Scotland still the legal possessor of the crown. She passed through several marriages which greatly alarmed and frustrated the moral conscience of her people. She was imprisoned and her one year old son, James was made king in 1567 with a regent in place until he reached majority. She managed to escape Scotland and flee to England where her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, put her in the London Tower and eventually had her executed for her conspiracies against the English crown, to which Mary also laid claim.

In 1647, the Scottish General Assembly adopted the Westminister Standards for use in the Church. In 1706 Scotland joined England to form Great Britain.

The Heidelberg Catechism on Ursinus and Oleveianus

Zacharias Ursinus

With Caspar Olevianus, he was instructed by Frederick III, elector of the Palatinate, to draw up a confession which could be used for the instruction of the people of the Palatinate and could serve as a basis of unity.

Ursinus had earlier written a small Catechism in Latin, which also had proceeded from the idea of comfort. It had suggested to Ursinus the theme of this Catechism, and much of this earlier work was absorbed into the Heidelberger. It is hard for us to believe that Ursinus was only 28 years old at the time, but he had been steeped from infancy in Reformational theology and he was a man of brilliant gifts with which God had endowed him. The work began in 1562 and took nearly a year. It was a great time for Confessions: the Thirty-Nine Articles had been adopted by the Church of England; Bullinger had written his beautiful Second Helvetic Confession; and Spanish persecutors in the Lowlands were hunting the author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès.

Caspar Olevianus

God used more than one man to write the Heidelberg Catechism. Zacharius Ursinus was its theologian. But Caspar Olevianus left his own indelible mark on it. He had studied in Geneva for two years and had been greatly influenced by Calvin.

History has not recorded for us what precise part each of the two authors of the Catechism played in its formation; and speculations on the subject by historians have proved fruitless. But it does seem to be a manifestation of God's great wisdom when, in the formulation of this marvelous creed, God used both the theologian Ursinus and the preacher Olevianus. Not only is the Catechism an unsurpassed summary of the Christian faith with the touch of a theologian; but it is a confession eminently suitable to preach: it has the touch of a man who was himself a gifted and eloquent preacher and pastor.

Ursinus was 28 years old; Olevianus was 26. It is hard to believe that they were so young. The Catechism gives evidence of authorship by spiritually and theologically mature men. And so they were. Maturity before one's thirties -- that is the measure of their God-given abilities.

The Catechism is a teacher's book and a preacher's book. It is a systematically-arranged treatise covering the whole of the Christian faith; but it is not the doctrine of the classroom or lecture hall; it is the doctrine of the pulpit and the faith of the people of God. The systematic theology of the creed reflects the gifts of Ursinus; the passionately pastoral approach of comfort in doctrine is the delicate touch of the preacher.