French-born theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) was one of the great voices of the Protestant Reformation. He is often called the greatest systematic theologian of the Reformation and is the most influential figure in the entire Reformed theological tradition. His monumental book Institutes of the Christian Religion has been called one of the ten books that shook the world.
Yet Calvin is also considered one of the most controversial theologians in the long history of Christendom. His views on the doctrines of election and predestination were and are off-putting to Christians and non-Christians alike but they were not much different from other influential theologians like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther. Calvin is also criticized for his involvement in how Reformed leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, addressed those who rejected the Christian faith at the time of the Reformation.
Despite the controversy and given his stature and influence in church history, there are three things you may not know about John Calvin as a person. I hope these details might make you reflect upon Calvin with a sense of historical perspective and empathy.
- Calvin as a reflective introvert was reticent, awkward, and didn’t make friends easily.
Unlike Luther, whose bold, talkative, and charismatic personality sparked the juggernaut called the Protestant Reformation, Calvin was a second-generation reformer (twenty-six years younger than Luther) who was quiet, shy, and reflective. His reserved personality no doubt contributed to his reputation for being cold, cerebral, and unsociable. Yet the people who knew him well, such as his famous student Theodore Beza, spoke of his graciousness and his genuine concern for those who suffered. And despite his fiery temper, Calvin found common cause with other significant leaders of the Reformation such as Philip Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, and Martin Bucer.
2. Calvin was classmates with Ignatius of Loyola at the University of Paris.
A little known fact of history is that two of the greatest figures of the Reformation clash between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century, John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), went to school together at the University of Paris. (Talk about having a distinguished list of alumni—Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas had also studied at the University of Paris some three centuries earlier.) As part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation (a direct response to the Protestants), Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus—popularly known as the Jesuits. It was the Jesuits who provided a strenuous Catholic critique of Calvin’s Protestant theology. One can only wonder if these two brilliant and powerful men, in the midst of historical tumult, ever desired to get together to reminisce about their school days together.
3. Calvin’s heavy beard may have reflected his challenge to authority.
As we see in paintings, virtually all of the leading Protestant Reformers sported heavy beards. While we don’t know the exact reason for this, some have suggested that beards were intended to contrast with the common practice of Catholic priests and monks being clean-shaven.So when Calvin is featured in paintings with a beard resembling the members of the rock ‘n’ roll band ZZ Top, it is possible that he and his Protestant compatriots are evidencing their rebellion to the authority of the Church of Rome—a tradition that some contemporary Calvinists have carried on. Rebelling against authority appears to be a human custom.
We All Have Feet of Clay
It is inevitable that a leader will be scrutinized more than most people. In evangelicalism today we hear a lot about the debate between the theological schools of Calvinism and Arminianism. In light of this, Calvin is often thought to be a contentious figure. But do any of these points cause you to think differently about John Calvin the man?
No human being is greater than any other. Yet God has called certain people to carry out his purposes in this world. Those people, including you and me, come with gifts, talents, and flaws.
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you read any of John Calvin’s works? Which of the three points above do you find most engaging?
For more on the life and thought of John Calvin, see chapter seven of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.