“What God has Joined, Let No One Separate”: John Calvin and the Doctrine of the Church


Jean Calvin at fifty-three years old by René Boyvin
Jean Calvin at fifty-three years old by René Boyvin (from Wikimedia Commons)

Calvin was born July 10, 1509 in Lyons which is 60 miles north-east of Paris. We know very little about his youth. In his commentary on the Psalms he gives us a brief glimpse in the Preface. T. H. L. Parker said in his biography of Calvin (1975; 2005) that Calvin’s theology was “so old-fashioned, that it seemed a novelty.” He was an ironic figure who stood for unity and yet saw the first of the religiously motivated civil wars. Calvin lost his mother at an early age. His father did remarry. Calvin was a tender and emotional man. His father sent him to Paris to study for the priesthood. He was always obedient to his father. For some reason his father later changed his mind, and asked him to study law. This he did, studying at Paris, Orléans, and Bourges. We are not certain why his father requested this change of field. We know that his father wanted him to get a good job. One speculation is that Calvin’s father got wind of Luther and thought that the church would soon fall, becoming no longer a lucrative position.

The Reformation in France never really took off. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was one humanist writer who incited talk of reform. Calvin was influenced by this theme in France, and interacted with groups who desired reform. At some point along the way he was converted, but we are not certain when this occurred. It seems that there is a point in time that Calvin marked as his conversion. This is unlike Luther, who developed his understanding gradually over time. Also unlike Luther, he did not seem to struggle for a long time. He recognized the truth, changed his mind, and never contemplated going back. In 1532, he published his first book, A Commentary on De Clementa, a work on Seneca. At some point he came into contact with a man named Nicolas Cop who had been converted to the gospel. Asked to give a speech, Cop called for reform. There is some question whether Calvin actually wrote the speech. Calvin and Cop were kicked out of the school, and were ostracized because they were associated with the Reformation. He had to flee France, and seems to have gone to Italy and Switzerland.

Switzerland: Cantons and Towns
Switzerland: Cantons and Towns1

In 1536, he appears in Basel, where he publishes the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This book is two things. First, it is an apology for the Protestant cause to the king of France, and second it is a statement of the Christian faith. It is a remarkably Protestant work for a man who is relatively young. We do know that he was headed for Strasbourg at this time, in pursuit of a quiet life out of the limelight. On his way, he passed through Geneva, then a small town. He wanted to stay one night, but a man named Guillaume Farel implored him to stay longer. Farel was a redheaded, loud-mouthed, powerful Reforming preacher. He was a mover and a shaker. He destroyed more than he built. He was wise enough to know his own weaknesses, and knew that he was not an educator or a leader capable of establishing a long-term movement. Farel told Calvin that the Lord had informed him that Calvin was to stay in Geneva, and forced him to stay against his will.

Geneva was a growing middle-class city. It was profligate, with democratic organization and little influence by the church. The city leadership recognized the need for moral guidance in their city. Calvin remained a pastor there throughout his life. He did not look down upon the work of the preacher, but elevated it as the most important and influential position in the church. He was not a pointy-headed intellectual who spent his life in graduate school. He preached through Matthew, and proceeded in order throughout the New Testament. He drew up a confession of faith, reintroduced Psalm singing into the church, and worked within the council to bring about civil law that favored Reform and the termination of sinful things such as adultery, homosexuality, theft, etc.

Soon many in the city thought him too strict, and ran him out of town. Farel left for Neuchâtel and Calvin left for Strasbourg. Part of the difficulty was that Farel and Calvin were both viewed as Frenchmen. Martin Bucer called on Calvin, insisting that he come to Strasbourg. Here Calvin pastored a congregation of perhaps 400 to 500 French refugees. He liked Strasbourg, a quieter city than Geneva where he could be out of the limelight. It was a sad time. While here, he lost many of his dear friends, including his nephew and several of his dear friends. Another event that was almost worse was when Louis du Tillet, perhaps a university classmate, returned to the Roman Catholic Church. This became personal when du Tillet wrote Calvin and said that his banishment from Geneva was because of God’s judgment on his life. He also had some friends who decided that he needed a good wife. He gave his friends a list of things he wanted in a wife. The first two that they found would not do. They then found a woman named Idelette De Bure whom he did marry. They had one son who died within a few days. Critics immediately said that this was a sign of God’s judgment on his actions.

Calvin wrote commentaries on much of Scripture, except for Revelation, which he said he did not understand. Meanwhile, the city of Geneva was running wild. A man named Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote the council and attempted to bring the city back to Rome. He wrote a work that was an apology for the Catholic Church attempting to reel the city in. Nobody was willing to answer Sadoleto until Calvin did in his Responsio ad Sadoletum (Letter to Sadoleto). When the city councilors read Calvin’s response, they invited him back. When he did return, he had a mandate to reform the city. He drew up a new form of government for the church. There were four offices: pastor, doctor/teacher, elder, and deacon.2

  1. The responsibilities of the pastor were “to proclaim the Word of God, to instruct, admonish, exhort and censure, both in public and private, to administer the sacraments and to enjoin brotherly corrections along with the elders and colleagues.”3 In addition, the pastors were expected to meet weekly for the purpose of “conserving purity and concord of doctrine among themselves.” Those within the city were required to be present weekly unless they had “legitimate excuse.” Those from the villages and rural areas were expected to appear “as often as they [were] able,” but no less than once per month.4
  2. The responsibilities of the doctors were “the instruction of the faithful in true doctrine, in order that the purity of the gospel be not corrupted either by ignorance or by evil opinions.” This responsibility included “aids and instructions for maintaining the doctrine of God and defending the Church from injury by the fault of pastors and ministers.” To pursue these ends, Calvin called for the institution of a school that would train in theology and the biblical languages. This school would be for the training of men for ministry, but it was also for the training of Geneva’s children (boys and girls) so that they could become responsible citizens.5
  3. The responsibilities of the elders were to “have oversight of the life of everyone, to admonish amicably those whom they see to be erring or to be living a disordered life, and, where it is required, to enjoin fraternal corrections themselves and along with others.” These were elected from various civic councils based upon their spiritual qualifications.6
  4. The responsibilities of the deacons were separated into two classes because, “there were always two kinds [of deacons] in the ancient Church, the one deputed to receive, dispense, and hold goods for the poor… the other to tend and care for the sick and administer allowances to the poor.” These two classes of office were called “procurators” and “hospitalers,” and the division of duties between those who receive and those who dispense with funds was to ensure that gifts of charity were used for their intended purpose.7 In Calvin’s Geneva, the primary responsibility of the deacons had to do with the care of the sick as well as the poor and destitute at a central hospital constructed within the city. The ministers were responsible to ensure that the procurators had adequate supplies and provisions, and when necessary, the ministers would request allocations of funds and supplies from the civil authorities. The hospital was further to be staffed with a doctor and surgeon. Although primarily tasked with works of charity (to both the sick and the poor), it appears as though deacons were also to some extent responsible for maintaining civil order in the churches.8

These four offices were particularly significant as Calvin established the way in which church life was to work in Geneva. The pastors and elders together would meet weekly on Thursdays to handle matters of church discipline.9 They dealt with many different kinds of sins in their weekly sessions. Although this could include doctrinal error, the vast majority of cases considered by the Consistory had to do with practical issues of sinful living. For example, this could include instances of child/spousal abuse, alcoholism, blasphemy, violence, superstition (the Consistory’s word for Catholic practice), or disinterest in the pastor’s sermons.10 An important, and delicate, issue in the organization of the Consistory had to do with the authority to exercise church discipline. In other Reformed cities in the Swiss Confederation, the civil authorities held that power, and thus the church was effectively ruled by the city council. In some ways, this was the arrangement under which Zwingli operated. Calvin, however, desired to retain the power of church discipline within the church courts. He felt that this was not the proper role of the civic authorities, and that only the church (led by its elders) could enact church discipline. Of course, the civic authorities naturally expected that they ought to have this power, which would frequently engender controversy. In the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, Calvin implemented his own view, without drawing undue attention to it, by simply stating that in the event of persistent and unrepentant sin, the unrepentant person would “be excommunicated and the matter reported to the authorities.”11

The records from these Consistory meetings are largely unknown to scholarship. A small portion of these records have been transcribed, and work is still being done on transcribing these records. A recent work (which I hope to soon read) by Scott Manetsch focuses on the proceedings of these Consistory meetings.12 Here is the publisher’s abstract of that work:

In Calvin’s Company of Pastors, Scott Manetsch examines the pastoral theology and practical ministry activities of Geneva’s reformed ministers from the time of Calvin’s arrival in Geneva until the beginning of the seventeenth century. During these seven decades, more than 130 men were enrolled in Geneva’s Venerable Company of Pastors (as it was called), including notable reformed leaders such as Pierre Viret, Theodore Beza, Simon Goulart, Lambert Daneau, and Jean Diodati. Aside from these better-known epigones, Geneva’s pastors from this period remain hidden from view, cloaked in Calvin’s long shadow, even though they played a strategic role in preserving and reshaping Calvin’s pastoral legacy. Making extensive use of archival materials, published sermons, catechisms, prayer books, personal correspondence, and theological writings, Manetsch offers an engaging and vivid portrait of pastoral life in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Geneva, exploring the manner in which Geneva’s ministers conceived of their pastoral office and performed their daily responsibilities of preaching, public worship, moral discipline, catechesis, administering the sacraments, and pastoral care. Manetsch demonstrates that Calvin and his colleagues were much more than ivory tower theologians or “quasi-agents of the state,” concerned primarily with dispensing theological information to their congregations or enforcing magisterial authority. Rather, they saw themselves as spiritual shepherds of Christ’s Church, and this self-understanding shaped to a significant degree their daily work as pastors and preachers.

The Consistory served a number of purposes. Along with the regular responsibility of discipline, it also served as a means of providing counsel and reconciliation and encouraged regular attendance at church services.13 A couple selections from the Consistory records that I have access to provide a brief sampling of the kinds of issues commonly addressed in Consistory sessions.

[On 2 November 1542, Jehan Mouri of Peissy appeared before the Consistory] because he fornicated in this city and he is married, and other reasons. Answers that he did not fornicate and that someone puts this crime on him because he is examining the rights of the Council. Although he was found in a tavern with this girl with a pot of wine and a quart loaf, he did not fornicate with her, because he is married, and he takes God to witness that it is not so. Admittedly he was behind this house and told the host to take him up to another room in order, he said, that the watch would not make him pay for a pot of wine. And the host took him up and he drank the said pot of wine with the said girl and the quart loaf and had a tart made, which he says he had made for the girl’s mother, who was ill. The Consistory advises and is of the opinion that he be remanded to Monday before the Council. [Court records indicate that he was sentenced for the crime on 18 December 1542; the nature of the sentence is unknown.]

[On 10 January 1544, the wife of Loys Piaget appeared before the Consistory.] Answers that she received Communion in the morning, and Monsieur Amied Gervays gave her to drink, and she received it for the honor of Jesus and did not let it fall and would not want to receive it thus. And she no longer prays to saints, and she formerly prayed for the dead, and she has frequented the sermons as much as she could. And she says she still says the Ave Maria and does not think this is idolatry, and it does not seem to her she does wrong to pray to the Virgin Mary, and she has no faith in saints but in God and in the Virgin Mary. And one may do what one wants with her. She believes the Virgin Mary is a creature, the mother of Our Lord, her son she bore. She answers that she wants to believe only in the Word of God and does not believe she does wrong by invoking the Virgin Mary. And she does not know whether any other than Our Lord should be adored. And says that if she has adored the Virgin Mary may the Consistory pardon her. The opinion of the Consistory is that since she is possessed by the devil, that for the present she be commanded to go to the sermon three times a week for six weeks, and catechism, and that she be given strict remonstrances, or remanded before the Council, and that here in a week the confession of her faith be examined, and she be admonished more thoroughly to frequent the sermons. And that she cease to carry or say her rosary and her knotted cords, and every day for a week, and appear here next Thursday and be given strict remonstrances. Ordered to go to the sermon every day for a week.14

These churches were unified under a synod that met periodically. The synod was important for mission work and the prevention of error. Calvin was missions-oriented, sending missionaries to France and Brazil. He established an academy for young people with rigorous standards. During this time, Bloody Mary took the throne in England, and many of the English Protestants fled to Calvin’s Geneva. Learning in Calvin’s school, these “Marian exiles” returned to England under Elizabeth I and become known as the Puritans. The Puritans were heavily influential for the development of Christianity in the British empire. John Knox called this school the “most perfect school of Christ on earth.” Setting up a system of public education, Calvin was influential in the establishment of education in Europe.

Michael Servetus
Michael Servetus (from Wikimedia Commons)

We must take some time to consider the affair with Michael Servetus. This is an opportunity to exercise careful historiography. Servetus was an anti-Trinitarian heretic from Spain. He was so notorious that he was condemned to death by the Catholic Church, which persecuted heretics. Under the death penalty, he came to Geneva after telling Calvin in advance. Calvin wrote him and told him not to come. Despite Calvin’s insistence that it would only cause trouble, Servetus came. He was thrown into prison, and was burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva. There are several factors we must remember about the world of this day. By laws dating to Justinian, it was legal to put a heretic to death. In a Christian empire, the heretic was guilty of death based on the laws of stoning in the Old Testament. Justinian’s code had been adopted by most of the countries of Europe. Calvin argued that the Protestants looked wrong if they refused to persecute the heretics whom the Catholics persecuted. Calvin actually pleaded for a lighter sentence than burning. Calvin was not a member of the city at this time, so he was not allowed to vote. We would not do this today, but we must understand this story in light of contemporary context.

Calvin revised his Institutes up to five times. He suffered nearly all his life from stomach ulcers. His wife died in 1549, and he lived on alone until 1564.

Calvin’s Theology

He did not come up with the acronym TULIP, but he did teach the things it expresses. He taught unconditional election, the idea that God chooses, and does not tell us why. He did teach limited atonement, but it was not a major theme in his teachings. William Cunningham was one of Calvin’s most die-hard followers, and he said that he only remembered one place in Calvin’s writings where he taught limited atonement but that he could not remember where it was. Some teach that Calvin’s view was that God’s atonement was “sufficient for all but efficient for some.” Calvin was very cautious about describing people’s sins as sacrificed for twice. However, he did not want to denigrate the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Calvin was very missionary-minded, unlike extreme hyper-Calvinists who did not believe in witnessing. This was the view of some extreme Particular Baptists, who objected to William Carey’s suggestion that they ought to witness to other nations. Irresistible grace is the idea that if God is going to reach out and save you he will be successful. Perseverance of the saints is also a major theme in Calvin’s thought.

Calvin emphasized God’s sovereignty, providence, and the perspicuity of Scripture. Calvin also revisited the doctrine of the Trinity. He gave the Presbyterian form of government to ecclesiology. We must remember that this is partly a function of the church-state alliance of Geneva during this time. There is a unity to this system, not a tight unity like the hierarchical Catholic system, but a loose unity within the synod. Occasionally, the local synods gather into an assembly, with an appointed moderator. Baptists also do this in their associations, but of course these do not share the same top-down structure found within Presbyterian forms of government.

Contrasting Luther & Calvin

Luther Calvin


Middle class

Fought his way out of the Catholic Church

Thought his way out of the Catholic Church

Philosophical training

Legal training

Physically strong

Physically weak

Devoted family life

Devoted scholar

Aristocratic support (Frederick the Wise)

Lay representation



Justification by faith

Sovereignty of God


Spiritual presence

Normative principle

Regulative principle

Theology developed through experience

Theology developed through system

Church state


Interesting Podcast about Calvin’s Consistory

Over on the Mortification of Spin podcast, there is an interesting episode on Calvin and the Geneva consistory that features an interview of Scott Manetsch, author of the book on the Consistory that I mentioned earlier. It’s about 30 minutes long, and well worth your time.

Here’s the blurb from the original blog post:

With us today is Dr. Scott Manetsch from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His charge for us is to consider the importance of reading and “knowing” John Calvin. Dr. Manetsch wears many hats: a professor of Church History and the History of Christian thought, author of Calvin’s Company of Pastors, and old friend to Carl Trueman. (It goes without saying, his most trying role is that of his friendship to Carl. Surely heaven’s reward is to be great for such a long-suffering saint!). Tune in to hear Dr. Manetsch attest to Calvin’s exemplary, intense pastoral care as he shares inspiring stories from Calvin’s ministry.

You can listen to the podcast over on their site, or right here below if you like as well. Also, here’s a link to Scott Manetsch’s book recommended by Carl Trueman, as well.


Portions of this lecture are adapted from lecture notes taken during the course “CH 602: Church History” with Dr. Brenton Cook, 2008–2009.

  1. R. Tudur Jones, The Great Reformation: A Wide-Ranging Survey of the Beginnings of Protestantism (Bridgend: Gwasg Bryntirion, 1997), 48.

  2. Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), quoted in Lewis W. Spitz, ed., The Protestant Reformation (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1966), 122.

  3. ibid.,

  4. ibid., , 124.

  5. ibid., , 126–127.

  6. ibid., , 127.

  7. ibid., , 128.

  8. ibid., , 129.

  9. Rudolph W. Heinze, Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion (AD 1350-1648), ed. John D. Woodbridge et al., The Baker History of the Church 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2004), 184.

  10. “Keeping Company with Calvin,” Mortification of Spin, April 2016, accessed April 29, 2016, http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/podcast/39662; Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 185.

  11. ibid., , 184.

  12. Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609, Reprint edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  13. Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 185.

  14. Denis R. Janz, A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts With Introductions, Second Edition, 2nd Revised edition edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 260.