John Calvin: A Gallery of Calvin’s Supporters and Opponents

Olivetan [1503–1538]

Olivetan, which means “Midnight Oil,” was a nickname acquired because of his habit of studying late into the night. His real name was Pierre Robert, and he was Calvin’s cousin. According to Beza, Olivetan was the one who set the evangelical fires burning in Calvin’s heart. 

Although they knew each other in Calvin’s hometown of Noyon, the cousins became more intimately acquainted while studying in Paris and Orleans. Already a Protestant, Olivetan aroused the suspicions of the authorities, and he was forced to flee to Bucer’s Strasbourg in 1528. 

In 1532, the Waldensian Christians of Italy’s Piedmont area decided to join the Reformation. Olivetan visited the Waldensians and was commissioned to translate the Bible into French. When Calvin fled France and arrived in Basel in 1535, Olivetan was there placing the finishing touches on this pioneering work. Calvin may have assisted his cousin in the final phase of translating the New Testament. He did write a Latin and a French preface to the pioneering work, which clearly reflected, for the first time, his evangelical convictions. 

From 1533 to 1535, Olivetan helped to win Geneva to the Reformation, that city where his younger cousin would spend the greater part of his life. Olivetan returned to Italy and the Waldensians where he died at the early age of 32. The cousins seem to have been rather close, for Olivetan left his library to Calvin.

Lefevre D’Etaples [ca. 1455–1536]

In his formative years, Calvin became aware of the native French reform movement, spearheaded by the great biblical scholar, Lefevre D’Etaples. Lefevre began an intensive study of the Bible and came to the conclusion that the Scriptures must be the sole source of authority. He advocated what he called the “literal-spiritual” interpretation of Scripture. Lefevre argued that the only proper meaning of Scripture is that intended by the Holy Spirit. Luther was profoundly influenced by Lefevre’s “literal-spiritual” interpretation of Scripture.

Drawing heavily on Paul’s epistles, Lefevre also came to understand that man was saved only by God’s mercy and grace, which are received by faith alone. Neither good works nor human merit contribute to salvation. He advocated a rigorous doctrine of predestination, and his view of justification by faith alone anticipated Luther’s.

As he examined the Scriptures, he was amazed that he could find no mention of the pope, indulgences, purgatory, seven sacraments, priestly celibacy, or worship of Mary. Not surprisingly, he was charged with heresy by the Sorbonne in 1521. Lefevre then joined his pupil, Bishop Briconnet, to assist in reforming the diocese at Meux. Also at Meux was Guillaume Farel, who was later to become so important to Calvin and Geneva. In 1525, hostility to his reforms became so intense that Lefevre was again forced to Strasbourg for a time. When he returned, he lived out the remainder of his life at Nerac, under the protection of the King’s sister, Marguerite d’Angouleme.

A fugitive from the Roman Catholic authorities, young Calvin proceeded to Nerac where he met the aging Lefevre in the Spring of 1534. It was reported that Lefevre said that Calvin would be “an instrument in the establishing of the Kingdom of God in France.” Apparently, Calvin came away from his meeting with the elder Lefevre convinced that reform would not come about by remaining within the Roman Church. Shortly thereafter, Calvin resigned his benefices and thus broke decisively with Rome.

Francis I [1515–1547]

Francis I was the King of France during Calvin’s early career as a Reformer. During most of his reign he was entangled in several wars with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and therefore could not devote his attention to religious matters. Initially, Francis was reasonably tolerant of the French Reformers, due primarily to the influence of his sister Marguerite d’Angouleme. He even maintained cordial relations with the pioneer of the reform movement in France, Lefevre D’Etaples. But all that changed in October, 1534. 

It was to Francis I that Calvin wrote his famous letter which was prefaced to the first edition of the Institutes. The King had become incensed by the protest of French Protestants known as the “Affair of the Placards.” In the early morning hours of October 18, 1534, Protestants distributed throughout Paris leaflets denouncing the Roman mass. One was even placed on the King’s bedroom door. Francis dramatized his anger by accompanying a solemn religious procession to the Cathedral of Notre Dame to symbolically purify Paris from the abomination. His anger did not stop with ceremonies. A policy of persecuting Protestants was inaugurated and would remain in effect until the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Hundreds of Protestants were imprisoned by Francis and 35 were burned at the stake, including several close friends of Calvin. The Instituteswere written with the French martyrs on his mind. His book, as he writes to Francis in the prefatory letter, was to “vindicate . . . my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord.” 

Francis also played an interesting role in Calvin’s arrival in Geneva. Because Francis was at war with the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, Calvin was unable to take a direct route to Strasbourg as he intended, and was forced to take the momentous detour to Geneva.

Guillaume Farel [1489–1565]

It was Farel who persuaded a young, timid, and unwilling John Calvin to serve the cause of the Reformation in Geneva. Intending merely to pass through Geneva, spending a single night, Calvin was detained by Farel, “not so much by counsel and exhortation,” he later wrote, “as by a dreadful curse, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me.” 

A fiery redhead, Farel was involved in the native reform movement in France, led by Lefevre D’Etaples. When persecution forced him to flee in 1523, he became a leader of a band of evangelists, preaching mainly in French speaking Switzerland. He was also at the center of evangelistic efforts which brought the cities of Bern and Geneva into the Protestant fold. After Farel persuaded Calvin to remain in Geneva, the two Frenchmen proceeded to institute many reforms in the city. Farel probably was Calvin’s closest and dearest friend through the years. They endured much together. They were both expelled from Geneva in 1538, and it was again the persuasions of Farel that prompted Calvin to return in 1541. Farel had since gone to Neuchatel, where he continued to work in close harmony with Calvin in Geneva. 

A rift occurred between the two friends in 1558, when 69 year-old Farel married a young girl. Calvin refused to attend the wedding. But their friendship survived. It was to Farel that Calvin wrote one of his last letters and, in a touching gesture, asked Farel to “remember our friendship.” Though aged and infirm, Farel felt it his duty to attend his dear friend on his death-bed in 1564. The following year, Farel followed Calvin in death.

Pierre Viret [1511–1571]

With Farel and Calvin, Pierre Viret formed the triumvirate which founded the Reformed Church in French Switzerland. From Protestant Bern, Viret and Farel made a missionary journey to Geneva. In June, 1535, Viret and Farel routed the Catholic defenders in a marathon debate. Shortly thereafter the mass was suspended and the Catholic clergy abandoned Geneva to the Protestants. Enemies tried to poison the reformers. Only Viret ate the poisoned meal. 

Although he recovered, his health was permanently damaged. Geneva officially declared itself in the Protestant camp in May, 1536. Just a short time later, Farel prevailed upon a young John Calvin to remain in Geneva to assist in the reform of the city. 

After Farel, Viret was one of Calvin’s closest friends. Their paths had crossed earlier in Basel, after Francis I initiated persecution of Protestants in the wake of the placard affair. Viret was at Calvin’s side at the Lausanne disputation in 1536, he smoothed the way for Calvin before his return to Geneva after his banishment in 1542, and labored side by side with Calvin in Geneva from 1559 to 1561. It was said that his sermons were more popular than Calvin’s. 

Viret is chiefly known as the Reformer of Lausanne. Not long after Geneva was won to the Protestant cause, he and Farel introduced Protestantism to the city of Lausanne. Viret remained in that city for 22 years, maintaining a close association with Calvin’s Geneva. In the face of the strong opposition of the city of Bern, Viret was deposed in 1559, after which he went to Geneva. 

Under the auspices of the Genevan church, Viret served as an active evangelist in France and presided over the Reformed Synod of Lyon in 1563.

Martin Bucer [1491–1551]

In many ways, Bucer was Calvin’s teacher and mentor. During his exile from Geneva, Calvin came under the influence of Bucer in Strasbourg. Calvin accepted a call from the French-speaking congregation in Strasbourg, and the two reformers developed a keen friendship. In three formative years [1538–1541], Calvin sat at Bucer’s feet, absorbing Bucer’s views of predestination, church organization, and ecumenism. 

Bucer had been converted to Protestantism when he heard Martin Luther’s defense at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. Shortly thereafter, he, along with Matthew Zell, Wolfgang Capito, and Casper Hedio, assumed the leadership in the reformation of Strasbourg. Bucer is best known for his efforts to reconcile Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther on the matter of the Lord’s Supper. Although Bucer failed, he continued in his efforts to unite the Lutheran and Reformed branches of Protestantism. 

He was exiled from Strasbourg during the Augsburg Interim of 1548 and sailed for England to assist Archbishop Cranmer with the English Reformation. Bucer was appointed Regius professor at Cambridge and influenced the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. His influence was cut short when he died in England in 1551.

Jacopo Sadeleto [1477–1547]

Sadeleto, Archbishop of Carpentras and Bishop, was one of the ablest of the Roman Catholic theologians during Calvin’s life. His encounter with Calvin was the first notable challenge of the Counter—Reformation to recover lost territory. 

Calvin and Farel had been banished from Geneva in 1538. Calvin had accepted the invitation of Bucer to come to Strasbourg. Farel ended up in Neuchatel. Calvin would have remained contented with his ministry in Strasbourg had it not been for Cardinal Sadeleto. Having observed the banishment of the Protestants in Geneva, Sadeleto seized the opportunity to try to lure the city back into the Roman fold. He addressed an enticing letter to the city’s leadership. 

However, Geneva was not about to return to the shackles of Rome. Calvin was asked to answer Sadeleto on their behalf. Calvin’s reply to Sadeleto was written in six days. With devastating eloquence, Calvin effectively countered Sadeleto’s argument. It was a religious and literary masterpiece. 

Calvin skillfully defended the Evangelicals against charges of heresy and schism. Calvin even challenged Cardinal Sadeleto himself to return to the true faith of the church Fathers. As he made clear in his reply, Calvin did not believe that he or the other Protestant leaders were innovators in religion. Indeed, the reason that the religious movement of the sixteenth century was called the “reformation,” rather than the “revolution,” was because Protestants were seeking to “re-establish” and “re-form” the true church, which had declined under the ever increasing political aspirations of the Renaissance Popes. 

The Genevans were profoundly affected by his impassioned reply to Sadeleto. Soon after, an invitation was sent to Calvin requesting him to return to his pastoral duties in Geneva.

Sebastian Castellio [1515–1563]

Once a friend and colleague, Sebastian Castellio became one of Calvin’s severest critics. They met during Calvin’s exile in Strasbourg. When Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he invited Castellio to return with him as the rector of the Latin school. After Geneva was ravaged by the plague, both Castellio and Calvin offered to serve as pastor to the hospital treating the plague victims. But when church officials asked Castellio to go, he refused. Calvin offered to take his place but the Genevan Senate prevented it. The friendship was never the same again. Castellio took offense at some of Calvin’s theological positions. In particular, he felt the Song of Songs was obscene and should be expunged from the canon of Scripture. When he sought ordination in Geneva, Calvin opposed him. 

Castellio decided to leave Geneva for greener pastures and Calvin graciously consented to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf. After a brief sojourn in Lausanne with Pierre Virat, Castellio returned to Geneva. A short time later, he publicly denounced the ministers of Geneva, charging them with drunkenness, impurity, and intolerance. The outburst resulted in banishment from Geneva. 

Castellio went to Basel, a city known for its tolerance. There he translated some of Bernard Ochino’s writings, which favored Unitarianism and polygamy. After several years of poverty, he was finally made a professor of Greek at the university. Anonymous tracts against Calvin appeared and Castellio was strongly suspected of being the author. When he died in December, 1563, Theodore Beza saw it as the judgment of God. 

Castellio was nowhere more eloquent in his opposition to Calvin than during the Servetus affair. His famous book, Concerning Heretics was a plea for religious toleration, directed mainly at Calvin. Castellio wrote: “To burn a heretic is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.” 

Castellio was the greatest liberal of his age and one of the few advocates of religious toleration in a time when the penalty for heresy was death. As one of the most vocal opponents of Calvinism, he exerted considerable influence on the development of Arminianism and Socinianism.

Theodore Beza [1519–1605]

A Frenchman and a lawyer like Calvin, he was Calvin’s successor at Geneva. Beza became a Protestant after a severe illness in 1548. He visited Geneva and then was appointed professor of Greek at the Academy in Lausanne, where he remained for a decade. During this time at Lausanne, Beza proved to be an ardent supporter of Calvin. He sided with Calvin against Bolsec in the controversy over predestination and came to Calvin’s defense after the execution of Servetus. 

One of Calvin’s crowning achievements in Geneva was the founding of the Academy. Although not well known at the time, Beza was chosen as professor of Greek and rector of the Genevan Academy in 1559. A deep and abiding friendship grew between Calvin and Beza. After arriving in Geneva, Beza ably represented the cause of Protestantism at the famous Colloquy of Poissy with Catherine d’Medici and advised the French Huguenots in the wars of Religion in France. 

Upon Calvin’s death, he assumed Calvin’s mantle, taking full leadership of the Academy, while also serving as moderator of the Venerable Company of Pastors. Of Calvin, he said: “I have been a witness of him for sixteen years and I think that I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an example of the life and death of the Christian, such as it will not be easy to depreciate, and it will be difficult to imitate.” 

In 1565, he published a Greek Text of the New Testament, which came to exert enormous influence on Protestant biblical studies. After the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, Beza took a bold step and argued that an inferior magistrate could revolt against the government. 

Beza’s ardent and logical defense of double predestination, biblical literalism, church discipline, and other Calvinistic ideas has led many modern scholars to consider him one of the formative influences of seventeenth-century Reformed scholasticism.

Heinrich Bullinger [1504–1575]

Bullinger was a fellow Reformer in Switzerland and close friend to Calvin. After the disastrous Second War of Kappel in 1531, in which Zwingli was killed on the battlefield, Bullinger, the illegitimate son of a priest, was chosen as Zwingli’s successor. With Zwingli gone, a man was needed in Zurich who would preserve and consolidate the accomplishments of the Reformation. In Bullinger, such a man was found. 

The Protestant Reformation had long been divided on the matter of the Lord’s Supper even since Zwingli and Luther could not reach an agreement at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. With the emergence of Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, there were now three main branches: the Lutheran, Zwinglian and Calvinist. The Zwinglian and Calvinist branches finally reached an agreement, only because of the willingness of two men, Bullinger and Calvin. As early as 1547, Calvin and Bullinger began discussing the matter and finally reached an agreement in 1549, when Calvin and Farel went to Geneva and met personally with Bullinger. The result was known as the Consensus Tigurinus or the Zurich Consensus. 

Bullinger engaged in a multifaceted ministry of preaching and teaching, as well as carrying on an enormous amount of correspondence with many of the great men of Europe, including Calvin. He was especially influential in the English Reformation. CH

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #12 in 1986]

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