Calvin and Geneva: The Protestant Reformer

On 10 July 2009 the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin (1509-64), the controversial and influential French protestant theologian and reformer.
At almost fifty-five he died in Geneva on 27 May 1564 and was buried in the Plainpalais Cemetery, Rue des Rois, Geneva, Switzerland. In the sixteenth century the cemetery was outside the city walls and used for common burials where his actual burial spot is unidentified.
Calvin and Geneva
In the middle of the sixteenth century reformers and reformed exiles of communities of many languages including French, Dutch, German, Italian and, especially, English gathered to pray and to follow the teaching of the great names of the Reformation, Jean Calvin, John Knox and Th?odore de B?ze. Services are still held at the Calvin Auditory for members of the Church of Scotland and the Dutch and Italian Reformed Churches.
Jean Calvin established a college in Geneva to include the teaching of religion. In two sections, its Academy has since become the University of Geneva. He preached at Geneva’s Protestant Cathedral of St. Pierre. In its shadow stands the Jean Calvin Auditory where he lectured his reformed theology. A small chapel constructed on the site of other religious edifices, the Calvin Auditory is in the sober, even austere, Gothic style. Extensive renovation was completed in 1959.
At the University of Geneva, the Reformation Wall is a city landmark. Work began in 1909 to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin and the 350th of the foundation of the Academy of Geneva. In Geneva’s Bastion Park the monument is backed against part of the ancient defensive walls that surrounded the city until middle of the nineteenth century.
At the centre of the Wall, five meters high, are the four great figures of the movement: Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) one of the first to preach the Reformation in Geneva, Jean Calvin (1509-1564) the “pope” of the Reformers, Th?odore de B?ze (1513-1605) first rector of the Academy, and John Knox (1513-1572) founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland. Behind the statues stands the motto of the Reformation and of Geneva “Post Tenebras Lux”… After darkness, there is light.
On either side statues and bas-reliefs represent the great Protestant figures of the different Calvinist countries and crucial moments in the development of the movement representing 150 years in the history of Protestantism. During the Reformation Geneva was called the ‘Protestant Rome’.
Inaugurated in 2005, the award-winning International Museum of the Reformation is housed in a historical villa where the city’s citizens voted to adopt the Protestant Reformation in 1536. Using state-of-the-art and audio-visual displays it traces the turbulent history of the Protestant movement initiated by John Calvin and its ideas to the present time. The Museum is holding a special exhibition in 2009 to mark the 500th anniversary of Jean Calvin’s birth.
A major international conference will be held in Geneva from 24 to 27 May on the theme Calvin and his Influence 1509-2009. It will attempt to take the full measure of Calvin’s influence across the generations, and around the world, from his lifetime to today, in the domains of theology, politics, culture and society. Members of Reformed churches and others will participate.
A special version of the 1599 Geneva Bible will be issued as well as a commemorative coin, and other events will be held to honour aspects of Jean Calvin’s life and work. A quotation by John Adams (1735-1826), second President of the United States, states … “Let not Geneva be forgotten or despised. Religious liberty owes it most respect”.
The Protestant Reformer (1509-64)
Jean Cauvin, his real name, was born in Noyon, France and raised in a staunch Roman Catholic family. His father was an administrator in the town’s cathedral. He was destined for the priesthood because of the close ties with the bishop and noble family. His friends and classmates from the aristocracy were culturally influential on his early life. At age of fourteen, he went to Paris in preparation for university study. There he changed his name to the Latin form Ioannis Calvinus which, in French, became Jean Calvin.
Closely tied to the Roman Catholic Church, by 1527 he had developed friendships with reform minded individuals. They set the stage for Calvin’s eventual switch to the Reformed faith. Also at this time Calvin’s father advised him to study law rather than theology. By 1528 he went to Orleans to study civil law and moved to other places while studying under various scholars. By 1532 he finished his law studies and published his first book.
The following year he fled from Paris because of contact with individuals who, through lectures and writings, opposed the Roman Catholic Church. For the next three years, Calvin lived in places outside France under various names. He studied on his own, preached and began work on his first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), the first systematic account of reformed Christian doctrine.
During a visit to Geneva he met the Protestant reformer, Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) who persuaded him to stay where they attempted to reorder society on reformed Christian principles. Theological conflicts resulted in their exile in1538 and Calvin went to Strasbourg where he became a renowned preacher and was pastor to protestant French refugees.
In 1541 he was invited back by the Council of Geneva at a time of great political and social turmoil. He was hesitant to return but managed to establish a strict moral, social and religious code in the city. His years were filled with teaching, preaching and the writing of commentaries, treatises and various editions of his influential Institutes of the Christian Religion. His Protestant theological system and that of his successors develops Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone into an emphasis on the grace of God and centres on the doctrine of predestination. Reformed churches that are not Lutheran, including state Churches of Holland and Scotland, are based on Calvinism.
Calvin stresses the supreme power of God and man’s corruption without God’s grace. Like Luther, Calvin believed that faith must be based on Scripture alone, that justification could only be achieved through faith, and that men had no freedom of choice. Unlike Luther, he believed that the chosen ones were predestined for salvation and the rest for damnation; he also believed that the church should control the state.
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Presbyterianism started with the sixteenth century followers of Calvinism. In Scotland the principles of Presbyterianism were formulated in 1560 by John Knox (1514-72) who met Calvin in Geneva, and it became the established church in 1696. Maintained by the Church of Scotland, the John Knox House Museum in Edinburgh holds an exhibition about the life and times of the leader of Scottish Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian Church. He lived for a short time in the house before he died there in 1572.
Ita Marguet, March 2009
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. The author lived and worked in Geneva and visited the John Knox House Museum, Edinburgh in August 2008.