Calvin’s Preaching: Earliest Influences and Conversion

The first part of the office of pastor is “[…] to proclaim the Word of God, to instruct, admonish, exhort and censure, both in public and private.”[1] These words, from the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Church at Geneva, demonstrate the importance Calvin placed on the preaching of the Word. Calvin has come down to us through history as a systematic theologian and commentator, but his collection of sermons, preached mostly at St. Peter’s church in Geneva, remains his largest body of work.

Calvin, however, did not set out to become an influential preacher. Born to a Roman Catholic family in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509 and sent to Paris to study theology at the age of fourteen, young John Calvin probably knew little if any of the preaching of the Reformation. The University of Paris was still heavily entrenched in Medieval theology. He was well known at his hometown school for his brilliance in learning, his quick intelligence, and his excellent memory. It is said that he far outstripped the other boys his own age. These abilities proved helpful to him upon his arrival in Paris.

At the University of Paris, one had to first pass through the school of humanities before studying theology, medicine, or law. But since all classes were conducted in Latin, each student had to become fluent in that language before they could even begin studying. In addition, the time spent learning Latin in this “grammar course” as it was called, did not count toward the degree. Calvin’s first biographer, Theodore Beza indicates that young Calvin “[…] so profited that he left his fellow-students in the grammar course behind and was promoted to dialectics and the study of the other so-called arts.”[2] Within a year, Calvin was studying philosophy for his Bachelor of Arts degree.

It was during his study of philosophy that Calvin learned the art of “disputation.” Rather than essays and written exams, each student had to publicly defend a thesis or set of theses before a master using the syllogistic method. This method of learning and thinking was so ingrained that one can see it demonstrated in Calvin’s later works. “The syllogisms that abound in Calvin’s own writings testify to the thoroughness of his training at Paris.”[3]

After a few years, Calvin’s life underwent a radical change. His father, Gerard, told young John to leave theology and begin studying law. Many, including Calvin himself, believed that this was because Gerard determined that Calvin could make more money as a lawyer than as clergy, but it could have been that Gerard, seeing the coming of the Reformation, determined that John’s future would be more secure in law than theology. Whatever the reason, Calvin moved to Orleans and spent the next three years studying law.

This was a startling change for Calvin. The schools were run differently and the students had more freedom than at Paris. It was during this time that Calvin learned Greek from his friend Melchior Wolmar, who placed first in his class even though he devoted almost all of his time to Greek and published annotated editions of two books of the Iliad. Wolmar and Calvin became life-long friends and Calvin would later dedicate a commentary to his old friend. Wolmar was by this time firmly committed to the Reformation and “[…] according to some writers it was he who won Calvin for the evangelical faith.”[4] This is certainly possible, but it is also possible that his other friend, Robert Pierre, Olevitan, was more influential in his conversion. Since Calvin himself provides no details regarding this aspect of his conversion one can only surmise, but it seems certain that each man played an influential role in Calvin’s conversion.

[1] John Calvin, “Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” trans. J. K. S. Reid, Calvin: Theological Treatises
[2]
Theodore Beza, “Life of Calvin,” as quoted in T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 4.
[3] Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, 9.
[4] Ibid, 18.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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