Calvin plays a key role in the history of the Churches and Christianity. Mostly he is lauded as a great sage, a virtual Protestant Saint, and, of course, the mastermind behind the Reformation. As so often with these matters, the truth is somewhat different.
Calvin was born in 1509. This was over 80 years after the reformer John Wycliffe was burned at the stake; and Wycliffe’s burning did not take place until over 40 years after he himself died. The Catholics had to dig his body up to burn it. So the total time between Wycliffe’s Bible translating and other reforming activities, and the start of Calvins’, is the better part of two centuries. Calvin was very, very far from being in the forefront of the Reformation.
Calvin was born in France to a strongly Catholic family, and was expected to become a Priest. He was very bright, and already working as a clerk to a Bishop at the age of twelve. He subsequently attended the prestigious College de Montaigu in Paris. This is the same college where Ignatious Loyola saw fit to remain for seven years. Ignatious Loyola, of course, was the founder of the infamous, counter-reformation Jesuits. Ignatious and Calvin were not contemporaries at the college, but there is a strong indication here of the sort teaching that Calvin was immersed in.
There is no clear narrative of Calvin’s conversion, something which is debated to this day. Yet by 1536, at the age of just 27, Calvin had published his key work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”. Notice here that by this age he had not merely begun his research, not merely written the book, was not still searching for a publisher, but had already done all of these things, and the book was published. Even Jesus did not begin his Ministry until the age of thirty. How did Calvin have such a meteoric rise to respected Reformation Author, given his background, and given not only the lack of any clear account of his conversion, but the likelihood that he accredited his personal Christianity to his Catholic Baptism as a baby? Infant Baptism is very significant in Calvin’s story as we shall see in the next paragraph.
Michael Servetus was a Spanish Doctor and polymath, and was the first European to accurately describe the flow of blood through the heart. He was also a radical Christian reformer. He did not accept the standard doctrine of the Trinity, was opposed to Calvin’s view of predestination, and like many radical reformers did not accept Infant Baptism. The term Anabaptist was used for those reformers who only accepted baptism given to adults following a conscious decision for Christ. Servetus was condemned to death by the Catholics. He escaped but fell into the hands of Calvin in Geneva, where he was duly burned at the stake. His was not the only execution carried out in the Geneva Theocracy that Calvin led. Beheading, drowning and burning were all methods of execution used. The execution of Servetus stands out because of his fame at the time, his scientific accomplishments, and particularly for the justifications used for his execution such as the rejection of Infant Baptism. Jesus never used force or manipulation on anybody. He spoke the truth and those who would not accept it were left to go their own way. Even the valid-in-its-time execution of a woman for adultery was quashed by Jesus. The idea that Calvin was a true disciple of Jesus Christ is untenable in view of his actions.
The other reason to reject Calvin as a Christian is his preaching of predestination. Calvin’s version of predestination makes God into an unjust ogre, who punishes men for eternity on account of living a sinful life; a sinful life about which they had no choice, because God made them sinful. See more on this both here, Predestination 101, and here, Free Will and Predestination: No Contradiction.
It is not possible to come to a compromise conclusion about Calvin. Perhaps he was one of the Greatest Christians who ever lived, as many believe. Alternatively he was a fraud, with the mission of destroying and sowing discord among the radical reformers. Just one part of his legacy today is that many reject God because they have accepted Calvin’s monstrous depiction of Him. We all have to decide whether Calvin was Great or Fake. Our decision on that point matters deeply.
See also The Parable of Sergeant Dodd.