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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 72. Calvin’s Conversion. 1532.


Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms (Opera, XXXI. 21, 22, Latin and French in parallel columns), and his Reply to Sadolet (Opera, V. 389). See above, p. 296.

Henry, I. ch. II. Stähelin, I. l6–28. Kampschulte, I. 230. Lefranc, 96 sqq.

A brilliant career—as a humanist, or a lawyer, or a churchman—opened before Calvin, when he suddenly embraced the cause of the Reformation, and cast in his lot with a poor persecuted sect.


Reformation was in the air. The educated classes could not escape its influence. The seed sown by Lefèvre had sprung up in France. The influence from Germany and Switzerland made itself felt more and more. The clergy opposed the new opinions, the men of letters favored them. Even the court was divided: King Francis I. persecuted the Protestants; his sister, Marguerite d’Angoulème, queen of Navarre, protected them. How could a young scholar of such precocious mind and intense studiousness as Calvin be indifferent to the religious question which agitated the universities of Orleans, Bourges, and Paris? He must have searched the Scriptures long and carefully before he could acquire such familiarity as he shows already in his first theological writings.

He speaks of his conversion as a sudden one (subita conversio), but this does not exclude previous preparation any more than in the case of Paul.412412    Quum superstitionibus papatus magis pertinaciter addictus essem, quam ut facile esset e tam profundo luto me extrahi, animum meum, qui pro aetate nimis obduruerat, subita conversione (par une conversion subite)ad docilitatem subegit." Opera, XXXI. 21. Lefranc (p. 40) weakens the sense of this decisive passage. A city may be taken by a single assault, yet after a long siege. Calvin was not an unbeliever, nor an immoral youth; on the contrary, he was a devout Catholic of unblemished character. His conversion, therefore, was a change from Romanism to Protestantism, from papal superstition to evangelical faith, from scholastic traditionalism to biblical simplicity. He mentions no human agency, not even Volmar or Olivetan or Lefèvre. "God himself," he says, "produced the change. He instantly subdued my heart to obedience." Absolute obedience of his intellect to the word of God, and obedience of his will to the will of God: this was the soul of his religion. He strove in vain to attain peace of conscience by the mechanical methods of Romanism, and was driven to a deeper sense of sin and guilt. "Only one haven of salvation," he says, "is left open for our souls, and that is the mercy of God in Christ. We are saved by grace—not by our merits, not by our works." Reverence for the Church kept him back for some time till he learned to distinguish the true, invisible, divine essence of the Church from its outward, human form and organization. Then the knowledge of the truth, like a bright light from heaven, burst upon his mind with such force, that there was nothing left for him but to obey the voice from heaven. He consulted not with flesh and blood, and burned the bridge behind him.

The precise time and place and circumstances of this great change are not accurately known. He was very reticent about himself. It probably occurred at Orleans or Paris in the latter part of the year 1532.413413    So Kampschulte (I. 242), Lefranc (p. 98 "dans la seconde moitiéde l’année 1532 "), and, apparently, also the Strassburg editors, vol. XXI. 191. Beza seems to date the conversion further back (to 1628 or 1627) and traces it to the influence of Olivetan, and so also Henry and Merle d’Aubigné (I. 635). Stähelin (I. 21) puts it forward to the beginning of 1533. Calvin spent the greater part of the year 1532 to 1533 at Orleans. Op. xxi. 191. In a letter of October, 1533, to Francis Daniel, he first speaks of the Reformation in Paris, the rage of the Sorbonne, and the satirical comedy against the queen of Navarre.414414    Ep. 19 in Op. X. Part II. 27. Bonnet, I. 12. Herminjard, III. 106. Lefranc, 109 sqq. In November of the same year he publicly attacked the Sorbonne. In a familiar letter to Bucer in Strassburg, which is dated from Noyon, Sept. 4 (probably in 1534), he recommends a French refugee, falsely accused of holding the opinions of the Anabaptists, and says, "I entreat of you, master Bucer, if my prayers, if my tears are of any avail, that you would compassionate and help him in his wretchedness. The poor are left in a special manner to your care; you are the helper of the orphan.... Most learned Sir, farewell; thine from my heart."415415    "Tuus ex animo." Op. X. Part II. 24. Bonnet, Letters, I. 9-11. Herminjard, III. 201, locates this letter in 1534, which is more likely than 1532. The letter presupposes a previous acquaintance with Bucer. This might be dated back with Kampschulte (I. 231) to the year 1528, if Calvin were that unnamed "Noviodunensis juvenis" whom Bucer, in a letter to Farel, dated May 1, 1528, mentions as having fled from persecution at Orleans to Strassburg to study Greek and Hebrew; but Bucer probably referred to Pierre Robert Olivetan, who was likewise from Noyon, and a relative and friend of Calvin, and perhaps brought Calvin into contact with Bucer. Herminjard, II. 132 (note 5), conjectures that the young man was Froment. But Froment was a native of Dauphiné, not of Noyon. Comp. Op. X. Part II. 1; xxi. 191.

There never was a change of conviction purer in motive, more radical in character, more fruitful and permanent in result. It bears a striking resemblance to that still greater event near Damascus, which transformed a fanatical Pharisee into an apostle of Jesus Christ. And, indeed, Calvin was not unlike St. Paul in his intellectual and moral constitution; and the apostle of sovereign grace and evangelical freedom had not a more sympathetic expounder than Luther and Calvin.416416    Audin, following in the track of Bolsec, traces Calvin’s conversion to wounded ambition, and thereby exposes, as Kampschulte justly observes (I. 242), his utter ignorance and misconception of Calvin’s character, whose only, ambition was to serve God.

Without any intention or effort on his part, Calvin became the head of the evangelical party in less than a year after his conversion. Seekers of the truth came to him from all directions. He tried in vain to escape them. Every quiet retreat was turned into a school. He comforted and strengthened the timid brethren in their secret meetings of devotion. He avoided all show of learning, but, as the old Chronicle of the French Reformed Church reports, he showed such depth of knowledge and such earnestness of speech that no one could hear him without being forcibly impressed. He usually began and closed his exhortations with the word of Paul, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" This is the keynote of his theology and piety.

He remained for the present in the Catholic Church. His aim was to reform it from within rather than from without, until circumstances compelled him to leave.



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