Many people have categorized John Calvin as a particularly severe and judgmental man. Their insights are based not so much on the many eyewitness accounts or on Calvin’s own perception of himself, but on the multitude of misconceptions about his theology. This is crazy. Why not go to the people who knew him to find out what he was really like? And it wouldn’t hurt to look at what he thought of himself, too.
- “a bow that was always tightly strung.” -Wolfgang Musculus, a minister and professor
- “of a rather timid disposition” -Theodore Beza, personal friend and biographer of Calvin
- “I assure you that by nature I am shy and timid.” -Calvin
- “a person rather overmuch attentive, not to say troublesome, in the frequency of my correspondence.” -Calvin
- “[his preaching was] marked by much grace, strength and simplicity and yet was completely lacking in ostentation.” – Theodore Beza
- “every day I talk to all those who need to see me, even the youngest and the poorest.” -Calvin
- “He was constantly filled with a great sense of compassion, as if he could see for himself the distress which overtook the churches and the dreadful massacres perpetrated against the poor believers.” – Beza
- “His only difficulty was that his body had trouble keeping up with his mind, although at times he tried hard to make it do so.” -Beza, p. 95
- “even when we thought he was resting, he continued to give himself unstintingly to the work.” -Beza
- “God had bestowed upon him such a measure of wisdom and discernment that no one was ever any the worse for having followed his advice.” – Beza
- “He sat supporting his head with one hand, as he often did.” -Beza
- “You could see from his face how he was rejoicing in the Lord with the whole congregation.” -Beza
- “Besides a temperament that was by nature prone to anger, there were a number of things that tended to make him irritable and difficult to get on with. These included, for example, his own lively mind, the lack of discretion on the part of many of those around him, and the many varied affairs he had to deal with concerning the church of God. …But he was far from seeking to make excuses for this failing. On the contrary, no one was more aware of it, or more conscious of its importance, than he was himself.” -Beza
- “…his remarkable affability, which meant that he could meet the very young on their own level when the need arose.” -Beza
- “gentleness in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others” -Beza
- “in what way was he any different from the rest of us, except that he surpassed all of us in humility and went to a lot more trouble than any of us?” -Beza
- “Some have accused Calvin of being short-tempered. I do not want to make this man out to be an angel. However, I cannot fail to mention the remarkable extent to which God made use of the very forcefulness of his character.” -Beza
Was Calvin aloof? Disapproving? So cranial that he had no heart?
Not at all. He was always accessible and eager to converse. He wrote more letters than any other protestant reformer, and at a guess from what I’ve read so far, I’d say 70% of those or more were to good friends who he retained his entire life, in spite of theological differences. His letters are full of relational content. He apologizes for the lateness of the letter. He inquires about the health of the family. He explains in great detail how he hoped not to offend. He begs a recently widowed friend to come for a visit and a change of pace. He includes greetings from his wife to his friends’ wives. He congratulates a father on the marriage of his daughter, and sends condolences when a man loses his child to the plague. Also, the hospitality of John Calvin’s home was famous in all of protestant Christendom.
From Calvin’s own admission, it’s true that Calvin had an occasional temper flare-up. The trigger seemed to be when there was a particularly erroneous statement made about essential doctrines of the faith, and none of Calvin’s peers detected it, but instead embraced it without looking into it. That was what angered him. But most of the time he was able to discuss theological differences with gracious and elegant rhetoric, but occasionally the foolishness of others got the better of him. When this happened, nothing worked better to calm him and bring him back into the room after he had stormed out, than the famed “architect of subtleties,” reformer Martin Bucer. This gentle man was especially gifted in peacemaking, and as a good friend of Calvin’s, could always bring peace to the situation.
We find all kinds of personality synopsis for Calvin on the internet. Some say he was a crazed control-freak who burned up people who didn’t believe the same thing as him. This is far from the truth. Initially, he had to be forcibly put into a position of authority by an older man who needed his help in Geneva. Calvin was well known by the Council of Pastors as well as the Consistory in Geneva (the ruling bodies of the church and state, respectively), as shunning control and deferring to others’ judgment, though he readily gave his advice when they asked. All major decisions that were made in Geneva were made by a ruling body, not by Calvin. The “burning” incident was the heretic Servetus, who Calvin had, for many years, attempted to reconcile, or at least to convince Servetus to stop preaching his heresy. The decision for Servetus to be put to death was not Calvin’s alone, and Calvin begged his fellow pastors to give Servetus a more merciful death. Calvin was the one who visited Servetus in prison, and spent much of the night before his death with him, to try to convince him to come back to the truth. If anything, Calvin was the most merciful Genevan authority involved in this situation. But because his name is tied with everything Geneva, he frequently gets bad-mouthed over this.
Who was he? A genius, an introvert, a man who could remember and quote everything he read, a good friend, a passionate disposition that occasionally erupted, and very much a human.