3 Things You May Not Know about John Calvin the Person

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. 

  1. 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? 

Resources

For more on the life and thought of John Calvin, see chapter seven of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.

  One thought on “3 Things You May Not Know about John Calvin the Person

  1. Robert Sherfy
    August 4, 2020 at 8:52 am

    Interesting article on a very controversial man. Thanks.

    • August 4, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Thanks, Robert.

      Ken Samples

  2. Jeremy O'Brien
    August 6, 2020 at 6:12 am

    Ken – Based on RTB’s website, it appears that RTB’s statement of faith is based on a reformed theology similar to what Calvin advocated. Can you confirm if that’s the case? If so, I don’t understand why RTB can’t accept other theologies such as Armenianism and Christian Universalism. While I support RTB’s scientific defense of the faith, I cannot support its theological position. Would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

    • August 6, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Jeremy:

      RTB’s Statement of Faith reflects a Protestant Evangelical viewpoint only. A conservative Baptist, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Anglican, non-denominational, etc. could and have affirmed the statement.

      RTB has staff scholars and a scholar community that is made up of many denominations within Christendom.

      Hugh Ross himself does not affirm all of what are known popularly as the five points of Calvinism (historically Dort’s response to the Arminian Remonstrance).

      We have a scholar community that has numerous Arminians/Wesleyans and those who affirm middle knowledge.

      RTB does not accept universalism because we see it as being patently unbiblical and historically heretical.

      If you doubt my word, feel free to contact Hugh Ross himself and ask him about whether RTB is a solely Calvinistic ministry. And also ask him if he sees universalism as being an acceptable biblical viewpoint.

      This will have to be my last interaction with you because I have a lot of work to complete.

      Sincerely in the Triune God.

      Kenneth Samples

      PS I’ll let Fuz Rana and Hugh Ross see your inquiry and my response to you.

  3. Rusty Richards
    August 14, 2020 at 3:04 pm

    Does “off putting”’mean ambiguous or controversial?

    • August 14, 2020 at 3:16 pm

      Rusty:

      Off putting means unpleasant, unappealing,
      or uninviting.

      Ken Samples

  4. Steve Presswood
    August 18, 2020 at 4:07 pm

    I see the question above about Calvinism and the corresponding answer. Thanks for that. I was ready to ask a similar question so won’t be redundant. My sense, in following articles for sometime, is that there is a bias in the NUMBER of articles that favor a Calvinistic view. I love theology but think the niche RTB has “created” for itself in the broader apologetic space, focusing on how science squares with Scripture, is the best one for it. And, to be encouraging and clear, I am very thankful for the team and your many and varied and scholarly contributions.

    • August 18, 2020 at 6:58 pm

      Steve:

      Greetings in the name of the Triune God.

      If you would have said there is an abundance of articles from Ken Samples that focuses upon historical theology (and particularly Augustine, Pascal, and Lewis), I would have agreed with you. But I actually seldom write about Calvin and Reformed theological distinctives (for example, I have never addressed the popular five points of Calvinism).

      Some Christians mistakenly think Augustine simply means Calvinism. But that is an unfortunate oversimplification. Augustine has influenced both Catholics and Protestants and a good number of those Protestants are not Reformed (Lutherans, Baptists, Wesleyans, etc.).

      One reason I wrote the above piece on Calvin is because Calvin is such a polarizing figure. Just as some Reformed Christians can be pugnacious about their distinctive beliefs, so I have encountered just as many non-Reformed Christians whose pugnaciousness makes them flaming anti-Calvinists. I hoped my article might reveal that Calvin was also a pilgrim Christian who was flawed yet deserving of our empathy. I wish the war between Calvinists and Arminians would come to an end with a respectful recognition of their common ground and differences and also for the need for graciousness.

      I think far too many evangelical Christians have formed opinions about Calvin and so-called Calvinism without really taking the time to understand the man and the tradition he belonged to. For example, I’m confident that Calvin would be aghast to hear the term “Calvinism.” In fact, he requested to be buried in an unmark grave because he didn’t want attention to be drawn to himself.

      An important part of my ministry is dedicated to contending for truth, promoting unity, and acting in charity.

      I like to think my writings evidence that RTB’s science-faith apologetics emphasis is rooted deeply in historical theology.

      Thanks for your honest and yet gracious comments.

      Peace.

      Ken Samples

    • August 21, 2020 at 1:21 pm

      Thanks, Steve.

      Ken Samples

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: