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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Calvin (1509–1564)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Arthur Cushman McGiffert (1861–1933)
 
JOHN CALVIN was born in the village of Noyon, in northeastern France, on the 10th of July, 1509. He was intended by his parents for the priesthood, for which he seemed to be peculiarly fitted by his naturally austere disposition, averse to every form of sport or frivolity, and he was given an excellent education with that calling in view; but finally at the command of his father—whose plans for his son had undergone a change—he gave up his theological preparation and devoted himself to the study of law. Gifted with an extraordinary memory, rare insight, and an uncommonly keen reasoning faculty, he speedily distinguished himself in his new field, and a brilliant career was predicted for him by his teachers. His tastes however were more literary than legal, and his first published work, written at the age of twenty-three, was a commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia,’ which brought him wide repute as a classical scholar and as a clear and forceful writer.  1
  Though he had apparently renounced forever all thoughts of a clerical life, he retained, even while he was engaged in the study of law and in the more congenial pursuit of literature, his early love for theology; and in 1532, under the influence of some of Luther’s writings which happened to fall into his hands, he was converted to the Protestant faith and threw in his fortunes with the little evangelical party in Paris. His intellectual attainments made him a marked man wherever he went, and he speedily became the leading spirit in the circle to which he had attached himself. Compelled soon afterward by the persecuting measures of King Francis I. to flee the country, he took up his residence at Basle and settled down, as he hoped, to a quiet literary life. It was during his stay here that he published in 1536 the first edition of his greatest work, ‘The Christian Institutes,’ in which is contained the system of theology which has for centuries borne his name, and by which he is best known to the world at large. Probably no other work written by so young a man has ever produced such a widespread, profound, and lasting influence. In its original form, it is true, the work was only a brief and simple introduction to the study of the Scriptures, much less imposing and forbidding than the elaborate body of divinity which is now known to theologians as ‘Calvin’s Institutes’: but all the substance of the last edition is to be found in the first; the theology of the one is the theology of the other—the Calvin of 1559 is the Calvin of 1536. The fact that at the age of twenty-six Calvin could publish a system of theology at once so original and so profound—a system, moreover, which with all his activity of intellect and love of truth he never had occasion to modify in any essential particular—is one of the most striking phenomena in the history of the human mind; and yet it is but one of many illustrations of the man’s marvelous clearness and comprehensiveness of vision, and of his force and decision of character. His life from beginning to end was the consistent unfolding of a single dominant principle—the unwavering pursuit of a single controlling purpose. From his earliest youth the sense of duty was all-supreme with him; he lived under a constant imperative—in awe of, and in reverent obedience to, the will of a sovereign God; and his theology is but the translation into language of that experience; its translation by one of the world’s greatest masters of logical thought and of clear speech.  2
  Calvin’s great work was accompanied by a dedicatory epistle addressed to King Francis I., which is by common consent one of the finest specimens of courteous and convincing apology in existence. A brief extract from it will be found in the selections given below.  3
  Soon after the publication of the ‘Institutes,’ Calvin’s plans for a quiet literary career were interrupted by a peremptory call to assist in the work of reforming the Church and State of Geneva; and the remainder of his life, with the exception of a brief interval of exile, was spent in that city, at the head of a religious movement whose influence was ultimately felt throughout all Western Europe. It is true that Calvin was not the originating genius of the Reformation—that he belonged only to the second generation of reformers, and that he learned the Protestant faith from Luther. But he became for the peoples of Western Europe what Luther was for Germany, and he gave his own peculiar type of Protestantism—that type which was congenial to his disposition and experience—to Switzerland, to France, to the Netherlands, to Scotland, and through the Dutch, the English Puritans, and the Scotch Presbyterians, to large portions of the New World. Calvin, to be sure, is not widely popular to-day even in those lands which owe him most, for he had little of that human sympathy which glorifies the best thought and life of the present age; but for all that, he has left his mark upon the world, and his influence is not likely ever to be wholly outgrown. His emphasis upon God’s holiness made his followers scrupulously, even censoriously pure; his emphasis upon God’s will made them stern and unyielding in the performance of what they believed to be their duty; his emphasis upon God’s majesty, paradoxical though it may seem at first sight, promoted in no small degree the growth of civil and religious liberty, for it dwarfed all mere human authority and made men bold to withstand the unlawful encroachments of their fellows. Thus Calvin became a mighty force in the world, though he gave the world far more of law than of gospel, far more of Moses than of Christ.  4
  Calvin’s career as a writer began at an early day and continued until his death. His pen was a ready one and was seldom idle. In the midst of the most engrossing cares and occupations—the cares and occupations of a preacher, a pastor, a teacher of theology, a statesman, and a reformer to whom the Protestants of many lands looked for inspiration and for counsel—he found time, though he died at the early age of fifty-four, to produce works that to-day fill more than threescore volumes, and all of which bear the unmistakable impress of a great mind. In addition to his ‘Institutes,’ theological and ethical tracts, and treatises, sermons, and epistles without number, he wrote commentaries upon almost all the books of the Bible; which for lucidity, for wide and accurate learning, and for sound and ripe judgment, have never been surpassed. Among the most characteristic and important of his briefer works are his vigorous and effective ‘Reply to Cardinal Sadolet,’ who had endeavored after Calvin’s exile from Geneva in 1539 to win back the Genevese to the Roman Church; his tract on ‘The Necessity of Reforming the Church; presented to the Imperial Diet at Spires, A.D. 1544, in the cause of all who wish with Christ to reign’—an admirable statement of the conditions which had made a reformation of the Church imperatively necessary, and had led to the great religious and ecclesiastical revolution; another tract on ‘The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church,’—marked by a beautiful Christian spirit and permeated with sound practical sense; still another containing ‘Articles Agreed Upon by the Faculty of Sacred Theology at Paris, with the Antidote,’ and finally an ‘Admonition Showing the Advantages which Christendom might Derive from an Inventory of Relics.’ Though Calvin was from boyhood up of a most serious turn of mind, and though his writings, in marked contrast to the writings of Luther, exhibit few if any traces of genial spontaneous humor, the last two works show that he knew how to employ satire on occasion in a very telling way for the overthrow of error and for the discomfiture of his opponents.  5
  In addition to the services which Calvin rendered by his writings to the cause of Christianity and of sacred learning, must be recognized the lasting obligation under which as an author he put his mother tongue. Whether he wrote in Latin or in French, his style was always chaste, elegant, clear, and vigorous. His Latin compares favorably with the best models of antiquity; his French is a new creation. The latter language indeed owes almost as much to Calvin as the German language owes to Luther. He was unquestionably its greatest master in the sixteenth century, and he did more than any one else to fix its permanent character—to give it that exactness, that lucidity, that purity and harmony of which it justly boasts.  6
  Calvin’s writings bear throughout the imprint of his character. There appears in all of them the same horror of impurity and dishonor, the same stern sense of duty, the same respect for the sovereignty of the Almighty, the same severe judgment of human failings. To read them is to breathe the tonic air of snow-clad heights; but they are seldom if ever touched with the tender glow of human feeling or transfigured with the radiance of creative imagination. There is that in David, in Isaiah, in Paul, in Luther, which appeals to every heart and makes their words immortal; but Calvin was neither poet nor prophet,—the divine afflatus was not his,—and it is not without reason that his writings, vigorous, forceful, profound, as is their context, and pure and elegant as is their style, are read to-day only by theologians or historians.  7
 
 
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