Vol. 8, Chapter VIII. John Calvin and His Work

The literature in § 58.


65. John Calvin Compared with the Older Reformers

Illustration, John Calvin

From the original oil painting in the University Library of Geneva. This picture represents the Reformer as teaching or preaching, and is considered the best.

We now approach the life and work of John Calvin, who labored more than Farel, Viret, and Froment. He was the chief founder and consolidator of the Reformed Church of France and French Switzerland, and left the impress of his mind upon all other Reformed Churches in Europe and America.

Revolution is followed by reconstruction and consolidation. For this task Calvin was providentially foreordained and equipped by genius, education, and circumstances.

Calvin could not have done the work of Farel; for he was not a missionary, or a popular preacher. Still less could Farel have done the work of Calvin; for he was neither a theologian, nor a statesman. Calvin, the Frenchman, would have been as much out of place in Zürich or Wittenberg, as the Swiss Zwingli and the German Luther would have been out of place and without a popular constituency in French-speaking Geneva. Each stands first and unrivalled in his particular mission and field of labor.

Luther’s public career as a reformer embraced twenty-nine years, from 1517 to 1546; that of Zwingli, only twelve years, from 1519 to 1531 (unless we date it from his preaching at Einsiedeln in 1516); that of Calvin, twenty-eight years, from 1536 to 1564. The first reached an age of sixty-two: the second, of forty-seven; the third, of fifty-four. Calvin was twenty-five years younger than Luther and Zwingli, and had the great advantage of building on their foundation. He had less genius, but more talent. He was inferior to them as a man of action, but superior as a thinker and organizer. They cut the stones in the quarries, he polished them in the workshop. They produced the new ideas, he constructed them into a system. His was the work of Apollos rather than of Paul: to water rather than to plant, God giving the increase.

Calvin’s character is less attractive, and his life less dramatic than Luther’s or Zwingli’s, but he left his Church in a much better condition. He lacked the genial element of humor and pleasantry; he was a Christian stoic: stern, severe, unbending, yet with fires of passion and affection glowing beneath the marble surface. His name will never rouse popular enthusiasm, as Luther’s and Zwingli’s did at the celebration of the fourth centennial of their birth; no statues of marble or bronze have been erected to his memory; even the spot of his grave in the cemetery at Geneva is unknown. But he surpassed them in consistency and self-discipline, and by his exegetical, doctrinal, and polemical writings, he has exerted and still exerts more influence than any other Reformer upon the Protestant Churches of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races. He made little Geneva for a hundred years the Protestant Rome and the best-disciplined Church in Christendom. History furnishes no more striking example of a man of so little personal popularity, and yet such great influence upon the people; of such natural timidity and bashfulness combined with such strength of intellect and character, and such control over his and future generations. He was by nature and taste a retiring scholar, but Providence made him an organizer and ruler of churches.

The three leading Reformers were of different nationality and education. Luther, the son of a German peasant, was trained in the school of monasticism and mysticism, under the influence of St. Augustin, Tauler, and Staupitz, and retained strong churchly convictions and prejudices. Zwingli, the son of a Swiss country magistrate, a republican patriot, an admiring student of the ancient classics and of Erasmus, passed through the door of the Renaissance to the Reformation, and broke more completely away from mediaevalism. Calvin, a native Frenchman, a patrician by education and taste, studied law as well as theology, and by his legal and judicial mind was admirably qualified to build up a new Christian commonwealth.

Zwingli and Luther met once face to face at Marburg, but did not understand each other. The Swiss extended to the German the hand of fellowship, notwithstanding their difference of opinion on the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist; but Luther refused it, under the restraint of a narrower dogmatic conscience. Calvin saw neither, but was intimate with Melanchthon, whom he met at the Colloquies of Worms and Regensburg, and with whom he kept up a correspondence till his death. He rightly placed the German Reformer, as to genius and power, above the Swiss, and generously declared that, even if Luther should call him a devil, he would still esteem Luther as a most eminent servant of God. Luther saw, probably, only two books of Calvin, his reply to Sadolet and his tract on the Lord’s Supper; the former he read, as he says, with singular delight (“cum singulari voluptate”). How much more would he have been delighted with his Institutes or Commentaries! He sent respectful greetings to Calvin through Melanchthon, who informed him that he was in high favor with the Wittenberg doctor.

Calvin, in his theology, mediated between Zwingli and Luther. Melanchthon mediated between Luther and Calvin; he was a friend of both, though unlike either in disposition and temper, standing as a man of peace between two men of war. The correspondence between Calvin and Melanchthon, considering their disagreement on the deep questions of predestination and free-will, is highly creditable to their head and heart, and proves that theological differences of opinion need not disturb religious harmony and personal friendship.

The co-operative friendships between Luther and Melanchthon, between Zwingli and Oecolampadius, between Farel and Calvin, between Calvin, Beza, and Bullinger, are among the finest chapters in the history of the Reformation, and reveal the hand of God in that movement.

Widely as these Reformers differed in talent, temperament, and sundry points of doctrine and discipline, they were great and good men, equally honest and earnest, unselfish and unworldly, brave and fearless, ready at any moment to go to the stake for their conviction. They labored for the same end: the renovation of the Catholic Church by leading it back to the pure and perennial fountain of the perfect teaching and example of Christ.


66. Calvin’s Place in History

1. Calvin was, first of all, a theologian. He easily takes the lead among the systematic expounders of the Reformed system of Christian doctrine. He is scarcely inferior to Augustin among the fathers, or Thomas Aquinas among the schoolmen, and more methodical and symmetrical than either. Melanchthon, himself the prince of Lutheran divines and “the Preceptor of Germany,” called him emphatically “the Theologian.”

Calvin’s theology is based upon a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He was the ablest exegete among the Reformers, and his commentaries rank among the very best of ancient and modern times. His theology, therefore, is biblical rather than scholastic, and has all the freshness of enthusiastic devotion to the truths of God’s Word. At the same time he was a consummate logician and dialectician. He had a rare power of clear, strong, convincing statement. He built up a body of doctrines which is called after him, and which obtained symbolical authority through some of the leading Reformed Confessions of Faith.

Calvinism is one of the great dogmatic systems of the Church. It is more logical than Lutheranism and Arminianism, and as logical as Romanism. And yet neither Calvinism nor Romanism is absolutely logical. Both are happily illogical or inconsistent, at least in one crucial point: the former by denying that God is the author of sin — which limits Divine sovereignty; the latter by conceding that baptismal (i.e. regenerating or saving) grace is found outside of the Roman Church — which breaks the claim of exclusiveness.

The Calvinistic system is popularly (though not quite correctly) identified with the Augustinian system, and shares its merit as a profound exposition of the Pauline doctrines of sin and grace, but also its fundamental defect of confining the saving grace of God and the atoning work of Christ to a small circle of the elect, and ignoring the general love of God to all mankind (Joh_3:16). It is a theology of Divine sovereignty rather than of Divine love; and yet the love of God in Christ is the true key to his character and works, and offers the only satisfactory solution of the dark mystery of sin. Arminianism is a reaction against scholastic Calvinism, as Rationalism is a more radical reaction against scholastic Lutheranism.

Calvin did not grow before the public, like Luther and Melanchthon, who passed through many doctrinal changes and contradictions. He adhered to the religious views of his youth unto the end of his life. His Institutes came like Minerva in full panoply out of the head of Jupiter. The book was greatly enlarged and improved in form, but remained the same in substance through the several editions (the last revision is that of 1559). It threw into the shade the earlier Protestant theologies, — as Melanchthon’s Loci, and Zwingli’s Commentary on the True and False Religion, — and it has hardly been surpassed since. As a classical production of theological genius it stands on a level with Origen’s De Principiis, Augustin’s De Civitate Dei, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, and Schleiermacher’s Der Christliche Glaube.

2. Calvin is, in the next place, a legislator and disciplinarian. He is the founder of a new order of Church polity, which consolidated the dissipating forces of Protestantism, and fortified it against the powerful organization of Romanism on the one hand, and the destructive tendencies of sectarianism and infidelity on the other.

In this respect we may compare him to Pope Hildebrand, but with this great difference, that Hildebrand, the man of iron, reformed the papacy of his day on ascetic principles, and developed the mediaeval theocracy on the hierarchical basis of an exclusive and unmarried priesthood; while Calvin reformed the Church on social principles, and founded a theocracy on the democratic basis of the general priesthood of believers. The former asserted the supremacy of the Church over the State; the latter, the supremacy of Christ over both Church and State. Calvin united the spiritual and secular powers as the two arms of God, on the assumption of the obedience of the State to the law of Christ. The last form of this kind of theocracy or Christocracy was established by the Puritans in New England in 1620, and continued for several generations. In the nineteenth century, when the State has assumed a mixed religious and non-religious character, and is emancipating itself more and more from the rule of any church organization or creed, Calvin would, like his modern adherents in French Switzerland, Scotland, and America, undoubtedly be a champion of the freedom and independence of the Church and its separation from the State.

Calvin found the commonwealth of Geneva in a condition of license bordering on anarchy: he left it a well-regulated community, which John Knox, the Reformer of Scotland, from personal observation, declared to be “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles,” and which Valentin Andreae, a shining light of the Lutheran Church, likewise from personal observation, half a century after Calvin’s death, held up to the churches of Germany as a model for imitation.

The moral discipline which Calvin introduced reflects the severity of his theology, and savors more of the spirit of the Old Testament than the spirit of the New. As a system, it has long since disappeared, but its best results remain in the pure, vigorous, and high-toned morality which distinguishes Calvinistic and Presbyterian communities.

It is by the combination of a severe creed with severe self-discipline that Calvin became the father of the heroic races of French Huguenots, Dutch Burghers, English Puritans, Scotch Covenanters, and New England Pilgrims, who sacrificed the world for the liberty of conscience. “A little bit of the world’s history,” says the German historian Haeusser, “was enacted in Geneva, which forms the proudest portion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A number of the most distinguished men in France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain professed her creed; they were sturdy, gloomy souls, iron characters cast in one mould, in which there was an interfusion of Romanic, Germanic, mediaeval, and modern elements; and the national and political consequences of the new faith were carried out by them with the utmost rigor and consistency.” A distinguished Scotch divine (Principal Tulloch) echoes this judgment when he says: “It was the spirit bred by Calvin’s discipline which, spreading into France and Holland and Scotland, maintained by its single strength the cause of a free Protestantism in all these lands. It was the same spirit which inspired the early and lived on in the later Puritans; which animated such men as Milton and Owen and Baxter; which armed the Parliament of England with strength against Charles I., and stirred the great soul of Cromwell in its proudest triumphs; and which, while it thus fed every source of political liberty in the Old World, burned undimned in the gallant crew of the ‘Mayflower,’ the Pilgrim Fathers, — who first planted the seeds of civilization in the great continent of the West.”

Calvin was intolerant of any dissent, either papal or heretical, and his early followers in Europe and America abhorred religious toleration (in the sense of indifference) as a pestiferous error; nevertheless, in their conflict with reactionary Romanism and political despotism, they became the chief promoters of civil and religious liberty based upon respect for God’s law and authority. The solution of the apparent inconsistency lies in the fact that Calvinists fear God and nothing else. In their eyes, God alone is great, man is but a shadow. The fear of God makes them fearless of earthly despots. It humbles man before God, it exalts him before his fellow-men. The fear of God is the basis of moral self-government, and self-government is the basis of true freedom.

3. Calvin’s influence is not confined to the religious and moral sphere; it extends to the intellectual and literary development of France. He occupies a prominent position in the history of the French language, as Luther, to a still higher degree, figures in the history of the German language. Luther gave to the Germans, in their own vernacular, a version of the Bible, a catechism, and a hymn-book. Calvin did not translate the Scriptures (although from his commentaries a tolerably complete version might be constructed), and his catechism and a few versified psalms never became popular; but he wrote classical French as well as classical Latin, and excelled his contemporaries in both. He was schooled in the Renaissance, but, instead of running into the pedantic Ciceronianism of Bembo, he made the old Roman tongue subservient to Christian thought, and raised the French language to the dignity of one of the chief organs of modern civilization, distinguished for directness, clearness, precision, vivacity, and elegance.

The modern French language and literature date from Calvin and his contemporary, François Rabelais (1483-1553). These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny, the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style, — a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

Calvin sharpened the weapons with which Bossuet and the great Roman Catholic divines of the seventeenth century attacked Protestantism, with which Rousseau and the philosophers of the eighteenth century attacked Christianity, and with which Adolf Monod and Eugène Bersier of the nineteenth century preached the simple gospel of the New Testament.


67. Calvin’s Literary Labors

The best edition of Calvin’s Opera by the Strassburg professors, Baum, Cunitz, and Reuss (now all dead), embraces so far 48 quarto vols. (1863-1892); the remaining volumes were prepared for publication by Dr. Reuss before his death (1891). He wrote to me from Neuhof, near Strassburg, July 11, 1887: “Alles ist zum Druck vorbereitet und ganz fertig mit Prolegomenis, etc. Es bleibt nichts mehr zu thun übrig als die Correctur und die Fortsetzung des immer à jour gehaltenen Index rerum et nominum, et locorum S. S., was ein anderer nach meinem Tode besorgen kann. Denn ich werde die Vollendung nicht erleben. Für den Schluss habe ich sogar noch ein Supplement ausgearbeitet, nämlich eine französische Bibel, extrahirt aus den französischen Commentaren und Predigten, nebst allen Varianten der zu Calvin’s Zeiten in Genf gedruckten Bibeln.” Vol. 45 sqq. are edited by Erichson.

Older editions appeared at Geneva, 1617, in 7 vols., in 15 fol., and at Amsterdam, 1667-1671, in 9 vols. fol. The English translation, Edinburgh, 1843-1854, has 62 vols. 8°. Several works have been separately published in Latin, French, German, Dutch, English, and other languages. See a chronological list in Henry: Das Leben Joh. Calvins, vol. III. Beilagen, 175-252, and in La France Prot. III. 545-636 (2d ed.).

The literary activity of Calvin, whether we look at the number or at the importance of works, is not surpassed by any ecclesiastical writer, ancient or modern, and excites double astonishment when we take into consideration the shortness of his life, the frailty of his health, and the multiplicity of his other labors as a teacher, preacher, church ruler, and correspondent. Augustin among the Fathers, Thomas Aquinas among the Schoolmen, Luther and Melanchthon among the Reformers, were equally fruitful; but they lived longer, with the exception of Thomas Aquinas. Calvin, moreover, wrote in two languages with equal clearness, force, and elegance; while Augustin and Thomas Aquinas wrote only in Latin; Luther was a master of German; and Melanchthon, a master of Latin and Greek, but his German is as indifferent as Luther’s Latin.

Calvin’s works may be divided into ten classes.

1. Exegetical Writings. Commentaries on the Pentateuch and Joshua, on the Psalms, on the Larger and Minor Prophets; Homilies on First Samuel and Job; Commentaries on all the books of the New Testament, except the Apocalypse. They form the great body of his writings.

2. Doctrinal. The Institutes (Latin and French), first published at Basel, 1536; 2d ed., Strassburg, 1539; 5th Latin ed., Geneva, 1559.

Minor doctrinal works: Three Catechisms, 1537, 1542, and 1545; On the Lord’s Supper (Latin and French), 1541; the Consensus Tigurinus, 1549 and 1551 (in both languages); the Consensus Genevensis (Latin and French), 1552; the Gallican Confession (Latin and French), 1559 and 1562.

3. Polemical and Apologetic.

(a) Against the Roman Church: Response to Cardinal Sadoletus, 1539; Against Pighius, on Free-will, 1543; On the Worship of Relics, 1543; Against the Faculty of the Sorbonne, 1544; On the Necessity of a Reformation, 1544; Against the Council of Trent, 1547.

(b) Against the Anabaptists: On the Sleep of the Soul (Psychopannychia), 1534; Brief Instruction against the Errors of the Sect of the Anabaptists, 1544.

(c) Against the Libertines: Adversus fanaticam et furiosam sectam Libertinorum qui se Spirituales vocant (also in French), 1545.

(d) Against the Anti-Trinitarians: Defensio orthodoxae fidei S. Trinitatis adversus prodigiosos errores Serveti, 1554; Responsum ad Quaestiones G. Blandatrae, 1558; Adversus Valentinum Gentilem, 1561; Responsum ad nobiles Fratres Polonos (Socinians) de controversia Mediatoris, 1561; Brevis admonitio ad Fratres Polonos ne triplicem in Deo essentiam pro tribus personis imaginando tres sibi Deos fabricent, 1563.

(e) Defence of the Doctrine of Predestination against Bolsec and Castellio, 1554 and 1557.

(f) Defence of the Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper against the Calumnies of Joachim Westphal, a Lutheran fanatic (two Defensiones and an Admonitio ultima), 1555, 1556, 1557, and a tract on the same subject against Hesshus (ad discutiendas Heshusii nebulas), 1561.

4. Ecclesiastical and Liturgical. Ordinances of the Church of Geneva, 1537; Project of Ecclesiastical Ordinances, 1541; Formula of Oath prescribed to Ministers, 1542; Order of Marriage, 1545; Visitation of the Churches in the Country, 1546; Order of Baptism, 1551; Academic Laws, 1559; Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and Academic Laws, 1561; Liturgical Prayers.

5. Sermons and Homilies. They are very numerous, and were mostly taken down by auditors.

6. Minor Treatises. His academic oration, for Cop in Paris, 1533; Against Astrology, 1549; On Certain Scandals, 1550, etc.

7. Consilia on various doctrinal and polemical subjects.

8. Letters. Calvin’s correspondence was enormous, and fills ten volumes in the last edition of his works.

9. Poetical. A hymn to Christ, free metrical versions of several psalms, and an epic (Epinicion Christo cantatum, 1541).

10. Calvin edited Seneca, De Clementia, with notes, 1532; a French translation of Melanchthon’s Loci, with preface, 1546; and wrote preface to Olivetan’s French Bible, 1535, etc.

The Adieus to the Little Council, and to the ministers of Geneva, delivered on his death-bed in 1564, form a worthy conclusion of the literary labors of this extraordinary teacher.


68. Tributes to the Memory of Calvin

Comp. the large collection of Opinions and Testimonies respecting the Writings of Calvin, in the last volume of the English edition of his works published by the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, 1854, pp. 376-464. I have borrowed from it several older testimonies.

No name in church history — not even Hildebrand’s or Luther’s or Loyola’s — has been so much loved and hated, admired and abhorred, praised and blamed, blessed and cursed, as that of John Calvin. Living in a fiercely polemic age, and standing on the watch-tower of the reform movement in Western Europe, he was the observed of all observers, and exposed to attacks from every quarter. Religious and sectarian passions are the deepest and strongest. Melanchthon prayed for deliverance from “the fury of theologians.” Roman Catholics feared Calvin as their most dangerous enemy, though not a few of them honorably admitted his virtues. Protestants were divided according to creed and prejudice: some regarding him as the first among the Reformers and the nearest to Paul; others detesting his favorite doctrine of predestination. Even his share in the burning of Servetus was defended as just during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but is now universally deplored or condemned.

Upon the whole, the verdict of history is growingly in his favor. He improves upon acquaintance. Those who know him best esteem him most. The fruits of his labors are abundant, especially in the English-speaking world, and constitute his noblest monument. The slanderous charges of Bolsec, though feebly re-echoed by Audin, are no longer believed. All impartial writers admit the purity and integrity, if not the sanctity, of his character, and his absolute freedom from love of gain and notoriety. One of the most eminent skeptical historians of France goes so far as to pronounce him “the most Christian man” of his age. Few of the great luminaries of the Church of God have called forth such tributes of admiration and praise from able and competent judges.

The following selection of testimonies may be regarded as a fair index of the influence which this extraordinary man has exerted from his humble study in “the little corner” on the south-western border of Switzerland upon men of different ages, nationalities, and creeds, down to the present time.


Tributes of Contemporaries (Sixteenth Century)

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

From a letter to Bucer, Oct. 14, 1539.

“Present my respectful greetings to Sturm and Calvin (then at Strassburg], whose books I have perused with singular pleasure (quorum libellos singulari cum voluptate legi).”

Martin Bucer (1491-1551)

Calvin is a truly learned and singularly eloquent man (vere doctus mireque Facundus vir), an illustrious restorer of a purer Christianity (purioris Christianismi instaurator eximius).”

Theodore Beza (1519-1605)

From his Vita Calvini (Latin) at the Close (Opera, XXI. 172).

“I have been a witness of Calvin’s life for sixteen years, and I think I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all a most beautiful example of the life and death of the Christian (longe pulcherrimum vere christianae tum vita tum mortis exemplum), which it will be as easy to calumniate as it will be difficult to emulate.”

Compare also the concluding remarks of his French biography, vol. XXI. 46 (Aug. 19, 1564).

John Sturm of Strassburg (1507-1589)

“John Calvin was endued with a most acute judgment, the highest learning, and a prodigious memory, and was distinguished as a writer by variety, copiousness, and purity, as may be seen for instance from his Institutes of the Christian Religion … I know of no work which is better adapted to teach religion, to correct morals, and to remove errors.”

Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590)

An Italian convert to Protestantism. Professor at Strassburg and Heidelberg.

From a letter to the Landgrave of Hesse.

“Calvin, whose memory is honored, as all Europe knows, was held in the highest estimation, not only for eminent piety and the highest learning (praestanti pietate et maxima eruditione), but likewise for singular judgment on every subject (singulari in rebus omnibus judicio clarissimus).”

Bishop Jewel (1522-1571)

“Calvin, a reverend father, and worthy ornament of the Church of God.”

Joseph Scaliger (1640-1609)

“Calvin is an instructive and learned theologian, with a higher purity and elegance of style than is expected from a theologian. The two most eminent theologians of our times are John Calvin and Peter Martyr; the former of whom has treated sound learning as it ought to be treated, with truth and purity and simplicity, without any of the scholastic subtleties. Endued with a divine genius, he penetrated into many things which lie beyond the reach of all who are not deeply skilled in the Hebrew language, though he did not himself belong to that class.”

“O how well Calvin apprehends the meaning of the Prophets! No one better … O what a good book is the Institutes! … Calvin stands alone among theologians (Solus inter theologos Calvinus).”

This judgment of the greatest scholar of his age, who knew thirteen languages, and was master of philology, history, chronology, philosophy, and theology, is all the more weighty as he was one of the severest of critics.

Florimond De Raemond (1540-1602)

Counseiller du Roy au Parlement de Bordeaux. Roman Catholic.

From his L’histoire de la naissanse, progrez, et decadence de l’hérésie de ce siècle, divisé en huit livres, dedié à nôtre saint Père le Pape Paul cinquième. Paris, 1605. bk. VII. ch. 10.

“Calvin had morals better regulated and settled than N., and shewed from early youth that he did not allow himself to be carried away by the pleasures of sense (plaisirs de la chair et du ventre) … With a dry and attenuated body, he always possessed a fresh and vigorous intellect, ready in reply, bold in attack; even in his youth a great faster, either on account of his health, and to allay the headaches with which he was continually afflicted, or in order to have his mind more disencumbered for the purposes of writing, studying, and improving his memory. Calvin spoke little; what he said were serious and impressive words (et n’estoit que propos serieux et qui portoyent coup); he never appeared in company, and always led a retired life. He had scarcely his equal; for during twenty-three years that he retained possession of the bishopric (l’evesché) of Geneva, he preached every day, and often twice on Sundays. He lectured on theology three times a week; and every Friday he entered into a conference which he called the Congregation. His remaining hours were employed in composition, and answering the letters which came to him as to a sovereign pontiff from all parts of heretical Christendom (qui arrivoyent à luy de toute la Chrétienté hérétique, comme au Souveraine Pontife)….

“Calvin had a brilliancy of spirit, a subtlety of judgment, a grand memory, an eminent erudition, and the power of graceful diction…. No man of all those who preceded him has surpassed him in style, and few since have attained that beauty and facility of language which he possessed.”

Etienne Pasquier (1528-1615)

Roman Catholic. Consellier et Avocat Général du Roy an la Chambre des Comptes de Paris.

From Les Recherches de la France, p. 769 (Paris, 1633).

“He [Calvin) wrote equally well in Latin and French, the latter of which languages is greatly indebted to him for having enriched it with an infinite number of fine expressions (enrichie d’une infinité de beaux traits), though I could have wished that they had been written on a better subject. In short, a man wonderfully conversant with and attached to the books of the Holy Scriptures, and such, that if he had turned his mind in the proper direction, he might have been ranked with the most distinguished doctors of the Church.”

Jacques Auguste de Thou (Thuanus, 1553-1617)

President of the Parliament of Paris. A liberal Roman Catholic and one of the framers of the Edict of Nantes.

From the 36th book of his Historia sui Temporis (from 1543-1607).

“John Calvin, of Noyon in Picardy, a person of lively spirit and great eloquence (d’un esprit vif et d’une grande eloquence), and a theologian of high reputation among the Protestants, died of asthma, May 20 [27], 1564, at Geneva, where he had taught for twenty-three years, being nearly fifty-six years of age. Though he had labored under various diseases for seven years, this did not render him less diligent in his office, and never hindered him from writing.”

De Thou has nothing unfavorable to say of Calvin.


Testimonies of Later French Writers

Charles Drelincourt (1595-1669)

“In that prodigious multitude of books which were composed by Calvin, you see no words thrown away; and since the prophets and apostles, there never perhaps was a man who conveyed so many distinct statements in so few words, and in such appropriate and well-chosen terms (en des mots si propres et si bien choisis)…. Never did Calvin’s life appear to me more pure or more innocent than after carefully examining the diabolical calumnies with which some have endeavored to defame his character, and after considering all the praises which his greatest enemies are constrained to bestow on his memory.”

Moses Amyraut (1596-1645)

“That incomparable Calvin, to whom mainly, next to God, the Church owes its Reformation, not only in France, but in many other parts of Europe.”

Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704)

From his Histoire des Variations des Eglises Protestantes (1688), the greatest polemical work in French against the Reformation.

“I do not know if the genius of Calvin would be found as fitted to excite the imagination and stir up the populace as was that of Luther, but after the movement had commenced, he rose in many countries, more especially in France, above Luther himself, and made himself head of a party which hardly yields to that of the Lutherans. By his searching intellect and his bold decisions, he improved upon all those who had sought in this century to establish a new church, and gave a new turn to the pretended reformation.

“It is a weak feeling which makes us desirous to find anything extraordinary in the death-beds of these people. God does not always bestow these examples. Since he permits heresy for the trial of his people, it is not to be wondered at that to complete this trial he allows the spirit of seduction to prevail in them even to the end, with all the fair appearances by which it is covered; and, without learning more of the life and death of Calvin, it is enough to know that he has kindled in his country a flame which not all the blood shed on its account has been able to extinguish, and that he has gone to appear before the judgment of God without feeling any remorse for a great crime….

“Let us grant him then, since he wishes it so much, the glory of having written as well as any man of his age; let us even place him, if desired, above Luther; for whilst the latter was in some respects more original and lively, Calvin, his inferior in genius, appears to have surpassed him in learning. Luther triumphed as a speaker, but the pen of Calvin was more correct, especially in Latin, and his style, though severe, was much more consecutive and chaste. They equally excelled in speaking the language of their country, and both possessed an extraordinary vehemence. Each by his talents has gained many disciples and admirers. Each, elated by success, has fancied to raise himself above the Fathers; neither could bear contradiction, and their eloquence abounds in nothing more largely than virulent invective.”

Richard Simon (1638-1712)

One of the greatest critical and biblical scholars of the Roman Catholic Church.

From his Critical History of the Old Testament (Latin and French).

“As Calvin was endued with a lofty genius, we are constantly meeting with something in his commentaries which delights the mind (quo animus rapitur); and in consequence of his intimate and perfect acquaintance with human nature, his ethics are truly charming, while he does his utmost to maintain their accordance with the sacred text. Had he been less under the influence of prejudice, and had he not been solicitous to become the leader and standard-bearer of heresy, he might have produced a work of the greatest usefulness to the Catholic Church.”

The same passage, with additions, occurs in French. Simon says that no author “had a better knowledge of the utter inability of the human heart,” but that “he gives too much prominence to this inability,” and “lets no opportunity pass of slandering the Roman Church,” so that part of his commentaries is “useless declamations” (déclamations inutiles). “Calvin displays more genius and judgment in his works than Luther; he is more cautious, and takes care not to make use of weak proofs, of which his adversaries might take advantage. He is subtle to excess in his reasoning, and his commentaries are filled with references skilfully drawn from the text — which are capable of prepossessing the minds of those readers who are not profoundly acquainted with religion.”

Simon greatly underrates Calvin’s knowledge of Hebrew when he says that he knew not much more than the Hebrew letters. Dr. Diestel (Geschichte des Alten Test. in der christl. Kirche, 1869, p. 267) justly pronounces this a slander which is refuted by every page of Calvin’s commentaries. He ascribes to him a very good knowledge of Hebrew: “ausgewählt mit einer sehr tüchtigen hebräischen Sprachkenntniss.”

Pierre Bayle (1647-1706)

Son of a Reformed minister, educated by the Jesuits of Toulouse, converted to Romanism, returned to Protestantism, skeptical, the author of a Dictionnaire historique et critique.

“That a man who had acquired so great a reputation and so great an authority should have had only a hundred crowns of salary, and have desired no more, and that after having lived fifty-five years with every sort of frugality, he left to his heirs only the value of three hundred crowns, including his library, is a circumstance so heroical, that one must be devoid of feeling not to admire it, and one of the most singular victories which virtue and greatness of soul have been able to achieve over nature, even among ministers of the gospel. Calvin has left imitators in so far as regards activity of life, zeal and affection for the interest of his party; they employ their eloquence, their pens, their endeavors, their solicitations in the advancement of the kingdom of God; but they do not forget themselves, and they are, generally speaking, an exemplification of the maxim that the Church is a good mother, in whose service nothing is lost.

“The Catholics have been at last obliged to dismiss to the region of fable the atrocious calumnies (les calomnies atroces) which they had uttered against the moral character of Calvin; their best authors now restrict themselves to stating that if he was exempt from the vices of the body, he has not been so from those of the mind, such as pride, passion, and slander. I know that the Cardinal de Richelieu, or that dexterous writer who has published under his name ‘The Method of Conversation,’ had adopted the absurdities of Bolsec. But in general, eminent authors speak no more of that. The mob of authors will never renounce it. These calumnies are to be found in the ‘Systema decretorum dogmaticorum,’ published at Avignon in 1693, by Francis Porter. Thus the work of Bolsec will always be cited as long as the Calvinists have adversaries, but it will be sufficient to brand it eternally with calumny that there is among Catholics a certain number of serious authors who will not adopt its fables.”

Jean Alphonse Turretin (1617-1737)

Professor of theology of Geneva and representative of a moderate Calvinism. The most distinguished theologian of his name, also called Turretin the younger, to distinguish him from his father François.

“John Calvin was a man whose memory will be blessed to the latest age (vir benedictae in omne aevum memoriae).… He has by his immense labors instructed and adorned not only the Church of Geneva, but the whole Reformed world, so that not unfrequently all the Reformed Churches are in the gross called after his name.”

Montesquieu (1689-1755)

Author of De l’esprit des lois (the oracle of the friends of moderate freedom).

“The Genevese should bless the birthday of Calvin.”

Voltaire (1694-1778)

“Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations.”

“The famous Calvin, whom we regard as the Apostle of Geneva, raised himself up to the rank of Pope of the Protestants (s’érigea en pape des Protestants). He was acquainted with Latin and Greek, and the had philosophy of his time. He wrote better than Luther, and spoke worse; both were laborious and austere, but hard and violent (durs et emportés)…. Calvinism conforms to the republican spirit, and yet Calvin had a tyrannical spirit…. He demanded the toleration which he needed for himself in France, and he armed himself with intolerance at Geneva…. The severity of Calvin was united with the greatest disinterestedness (au plus grand desintéressement).”

Jean Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778)

A native of Geneva. The apostle of the French Revolution, as Calvin was the apostle of the French Reformation.

From Lettres écrites de la montagne.

“Quel homme fut jamais plus tranchant, plus impérieux, plus décisif, plus divinement infaillible à son gré que Calvin, pour qui la moindre opposition … était toujours une oeuvre de Satan, un crime digne Du feu!”