The spread of Calvinism was unusual. In contrast to Catholicism, which had been maintained by civil and military force, and Lutheranism, which survived in becoming a religion of politics, Calvinism had, for the most part, only its consistent logic and its fidelity to the Scriptures. Within a generation it spread across Europe.
1.1 John Calvin
John Calvin was born in 1509. He died in 1564. He was the son of a lawyer and born in Noyon, Picardy. He was therefore a Frenchman. In addition he received citizenship of the independent city of Geneva. Calvin early developed a love for scholarship and literature. In 1523 he went to the University of Paris where he studied theology. In order to support himself during his years a student, Calvin ministered at a small chaplaincy attached to Noyon Cathedral. In 1528 he went to Orleans for further studies in Law, and one year later continued them in Bourges. Calvin was encouraged by his father to study Law however in 1531 when his father died he felt free to resume his more loved religious studies. In the year that his father died, Calvin went to the College de France of Paris to study the Greek language. This college was known for its Humanistic approach, as all the colleges that Calvin ever attended later were leaning toward Humanism. Not surprisingly this influenced Calvin. Soon he admired the famous Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam.
At some point between 1528 and 1533 he discovered the central truth of grace in Christ which later became part of the emphasized Protestant beliefs. He turned his life to God. "God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion" was how Calvin described this experience.
Many historians regard the time from 1531 to 1533 as the key time of Calvin’s personal development. Calvin was highly critical of the abuses in the French Catholic church, but he never doubted that he was God’s chosen instrument in the spiritual regeneration of the world. At this time in France his ideas would have been heretical especially after the Day of the Placards incident when Francis I. felt personally threatened by the Protestants and joined with the Sorbonne and the Parlament of Paris to hunt followers. Calvin lived at a dangerous time for people with a biblically reformed mindset, so in 1533 he left Paris. In the following year 24“heretics” were burned at the stake. From 1533 to 1536 he wandered through France, Italy and Switzerland.In 1536 Calvin published the first edition of "Institutes of the Christian Religion" in Basel. He revised the final version several times before it was published in 1559.3 This book was an excellent systematic of Christians beliefs, based on the authority of Holy Scripture only. The later versions expanded on how church should be organized. In July 1536, Calvin was invited to Geneva again. He had tried to go to Strasbourg but the spread of the Habsburg-Valois Wars forced him to return to Geneva where the fiery Protestant Guillaume Farel persuaded him to stay. Geneva today is a Swiss city. But by the time of Calvin’s arrival the city was struggling to achieve independence against two authorities trying to exercise control over Geneva. The first was the Duke of Savoy, the second the Bishop of Geneva. In that time Geneva was not part of the Swiss confederation (not until 1815) yet, but already had agreements signed with several of states of the Swiss Confederation. The city allied with the states of Bern and Fribourg against Savoy. The bishop fled Geneva and by 1535 Savoy was defeated. In May 1536 the city adopted religious reforms:
• monasteries were dissolved
• The mass was abolished
• The papal authority renounced
Geneva’s citizens were split between a mild reform (such as no compulsory church attendance) and a radical reform which were more Calvin and Farel’s preferred direction. The mild reformers were called the Libertines and they wanted magistrates firmly in control of the clergy.
Calvin wanted a city controlled by the Christian law - a theocracy. In 1538, the Libertines won the day, Farel and Calvin left the city left for Strasbourg. From 1538 to 1541 Calvin stayed in Strasbourg, where he learned a lot from Martin Bucer, a moderate Protestant reformer of Germany. Calvin was especially attracted by Bucer’s ideas of shaping ecclesiastical organizations.
In 1540 Calvin attended a Catholic/Protestant conference at Hagenau, followed by similar conferences at Worms and Regensburg in the following year. After the Libertines lost power in 1540, Calvin returned to Geneva in September 1541. However, with the moral condition of the city they left it took Calvin 14 years until he could fully realize a liturgy, doctrine, and self governing church with a proper moral standard in line with applied New Testament biblical ethics.
1.2 John Calvin’s Central Beliefs:
Calvinism was based around the absolute power and supremacy of God. The world was created so that mankind might get to know the Creator. Calvin taught that man is sinful and in need to approach God through faith in Christ - not through mass and pilgrimages. Calvin considered the New Testament, baptism and the Eucharist exist as divine guidance for man to live in faith. According to Calvin, a mankind who faces its holy creator has is realizing its sinfulness. However, God had chosen (elected) men before the world began already (the Elect) to enjoy him and a had plan to have man experiencing eternal salvation, while others through their personal rejection of this plan and their detest to give glory according to their choice would finally experience suffering and everlasting damnation. In Calvin’s teaching they were called the Reproates. The chosen (the Elect) are only saved by grace, which can never be earned by Man’s merits. Predestination to today is a core doctrine of Calvinism.Calvin’s services were plain and simple. He placed great importance on the sermon. His sermons were very logical and educating.6 Though he himself liked music, he distrusted its use in religious services believing that it distracted people from the matter in hand - the worship and the seeking knowledge of God. Musical instruments were banned from churches – even though congregational singing was permitted and this proved to be both popular and an effective way of ‘spreading’ the message. All matters related to worship came from the Scriptures - so Psalms took the place of hymns in services.