John Calvin was a sixteenth-century Catholic French theologian. By advice of his father, he studied law at university. This was an opportunity to be acquainted with humanism, classical languages, and philosophy. In 1533, he became in contact with some folks who were against the Catholic doctrines, and this opened the door for Calvin to question his Catholic faith and experienced a conversion. However, it was not until 1536 where he arrived Geneva and left Catholicism in its totality. By the same year, he had prepared what it became the first edition of the Institutes, a manual of basic teachings of the reformed faith. In it, he had the opportunity to offer his vision about the church sacraments and fundamental doctrines and along with his political views in relation to the church. In the next four editions of the Institutes, he would discuss other doctrines developing significantly this theological thought such as predestination.
Calvin, in some sense, was a refugee because of his evangelical faith. Due to his teachings, he experienced persecution and was found in trouble very often. In some ways, the persecution and troubles Calvin faced during this time was also an opportunity to reflect about his calling as preacher and pastor. In this regard, theologian Elsie McKee argues that Calvin must be understood under his social-cultural context. For her, Calvin developed a pastoral-piety focused ministry, and by this she means a wide label that allows modern readers to take under the same umbrella all kinds of works developed by Calvin such as scholar, theologian, teacher, pastor, preacher, etc. Part of the problem modern readers and contemporaries of Calvin had was the fact that Calvin was one the most intellectually rigorous theologians of the Reformation, she argues. This caused that Calvin’s writings to be misinterpreted by some. Not a surprise, caricatures of Calvin’s theology were developed even during his own life. Another area, according to McKee, that prevents us to see Calvin’s emphasis on pastoral piety is the overemphasis of individualism. Calvin worked under a premise the Christian faith is developed and manifested in community. Christian liturgy shows this point. In fact, in general, one might say that Calvin tended to address the whole Christian community as the main audience in his writings. Although Calvin’s writings are theological, it is also true that his main emphasis is biblical. Scholars as Richard Mueller have defended this point arguing that it is a mistake to claim that Calvin’s discussions are organized systematically, theologically speaking, as we understand the term today.
One of the most known Calvin’s theological and philosophical thoughts is his belief that human wisdom has basically two components the knowledge of God and the knowledge of the self. However, this is also a theme where we observe the divergence in reading Calvin. For example, Edward Dowey argues that in the Institutes, Calvin’s twofold understanding of knowledge, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of oneself, constitutes the foundation of his all theological thought in his treatise. Calvin’s twofold notion of knowledge seems to be based on the two different, yet related ways people have knowledge of God: through the natural order where God is known as creator, and through Scripture where God is known as redeemer, as Edward Dowey argues. The implications of Calvin’s claim can be many, especially in the way we should understand his notion of knowledge, faith, and so on. Nonetheless, Dowey’s first claim seems to be an overstatement because despite the prominent place Calvin gives to his understanding of knowledge, Calvin’s emphasis in the Institutes is not philosophical or theological, but biblical: how to live well the Christian life (or being a pious Christian).
In this respect, McKee has argued that although Calvin’s theology is intellectual, it is a mistake to separate heart and head in Calvin’s thought. Instead, both heart and head must be understood together. For Calvin the importance of knowing of ourselves constitutes the first step to have a certain knowledge of God. Such knowledge of oneself starts with the realization of our own misery and calamity that exists in the humankind, and because of this, there is a need for God and his redemption. Without having a real assessment of our need for God, we can’t know God as a redeemer. Calvin’s emphasis on pastoral piety is observed in this example. But one question which arises here is whether the knowledge of oneself might refer to some kind of introspection and that the knowledge of God might refer to the cognitive and intellectual study of the Scriptures. Under this assumption, there is no surprise that some theologians, such as Robert Kendall, understand the knowledge of God as a notion purely intellectual or a product of reason excluding anything related to the will.
One way to approach this issue is making a brief assessment to determine whether for Calvin the knowledge of God is a function of the intellect or not. Taking Calvin’s concept of faith as an example, it would be an error equaling Calvinian faith with mere intellectual/cognitive knowledge. This is so because in his definition of faith he goes further than asserting that faith is a firm knowledge of God. Such knowledge must be sealed in both the human heart and mind. As Richard Muller claims, Calvin follows Aristotle who believes mind is a faculty of the intellect and will, so any dualistic understanding between intellect and will is problematic. It is well known that Calvin supported the idea of the Company of Pastors during the sixteenth century to prepare candidates for ministry, he also developed catechisms for his congregants, and played a significant role in the Reformation movement developing the evangelical faith. But despite the fact it is sometimes downplayed, a very important thing Calvin did in the early Genevan church was promoting a holistic pastoral theology. Such thing can be well observed in the way he applied Scriptures to the situation of his listeners. As J. Selderhius has noted, Calvin’s sermons tended to build bridges between the past (Scripture testimony) and the present (his audience). Of course, as Mueller notes, there’s no sense to call Calvin a theologian of piety or apply anachronisms to him. However, his emphasis on Christian piety and its importance in the life of believers deserves further attention that it’s been granted by modern theologians.
Regarding other works Calvin did for the early Genevan church’s sake was consolidating the ministry he and others had developed, highlighting the work of the minister and his responsibilities before the church. For Calvin, the pastor should put the common good in the community first before individual wellness. For instance, such an emphasis was noted on how the Calvin and the company of pastors addressed the outbreak of plague in 1543. As historian Scott Manetsch observes, the practice of that time was selecting certain ministers to take care of the sick members attacked by the plague. However, many reformed ministers believed each pastor should take care of the members of his congregation, including sick people. This is what, they argued, the pastor’s responsibility before God and what the office required of them. Not it is a surprise that Beza, after Calvin’s death, continued developing Christian piety, emphasizing the importance of character of all believers in becoming like Christ.
Finally, one of the most negative episodes in Calvin’s life was the one dealing with Michael Servetus. In a nutshell, Calvin consented the death of Servetus because this one was considered a heretic. Servetus was a Spanish theologian and doctor who had known the evangelical faith, but he rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus agreed with his reformed contemporaries, at least partially, but considered that the work done was not enough. That is, he believed more reformation was needed in the new evangelical faith. And one of those areas that needed more work was Christology, Doctrine of Baptism, and the Doctrine of the Trinity. Although Calvin and Servetus’s relationship was a long one, such relationship was not free of issues and hot debates. Servetus’s problems complicated when Catholics prisioned him and he later escaped, and decided to go to Geneva, where Calvin was a pastor by that time. While visiting Calvin’s congregation, he was arrested there leading him to his burning at a stake. Despite his role in Servetus’s death, Calvin also tried at least twice, that Servetus repented from his heretic position — something Servetus did not. At the end, Calvin supported the decision of the Council of Geneva and sent Servetus to the stake. Significant controversy has stirred up from this episode in Calvin’s life. However, having into account that by that time blasphemy was considered deserving a capital punishment, and that Calvin tried that Servetus might change and repent, this episode should not be something to create a caricature of Calvin’s piety. At the end, Calvin was also a man of his time.