27 May 2009

Interviewing John Calvin

My evenings of late have been occupied with preparation work for a church history class I'll be teaching in Sicily at the end of June. While looking through some old files, I came across a paper my son, Matt, wrote for his high school history class. I thought you might enjoy reading it--a mock interview with John Calvin:

Interview with John Calvin

Q1. I’m here now with John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland. Mr. Calvin, I have several questions to ask you. Perhaps we can start by asking who taught you Greek. Why was that important to you?

Well, before I learned Greek I was taught that the Greek language was dangerous. One guy even said, “We are finding a new language called Greek. We must avoid it at all costs, for this languages gives birth to heresies. Especially beware of the New Testament in Greek; it is a book full of thorns and prickles.” With that “pricking” my interest, I just had to know why Greek was supposed to be so dangerous.

When my dad made me change schools to study law, I ran into a teacher named Wolmar who taught me Greek and law at the same time. Later in life I dedicated one of my commentaries to him. In my dedication to him in my 2 Corinthians commentary, I wrote, “One of the most important things that happened to me was in those early days when I was sent by my father to learn civil law but, under your instigation and teaching, with the study of laws mixed Greek, of which you were then professor summa cum laude. . . . To you it is, however, that I not a little owe it that I was at least taught the rudiments; and this was afterwards a great help to me.”

Q2. What happened when you heard that your close friend, Etienne de la Forge had been burned as a seditious man?

I had already left the country of France for Basil after the affair of the placards. The king of France, Francis I, was very angry over the many handbills denouncing the Roman Mass that had been placed all around France. He arrested over 200 people and burned my friend, Etienne. I had stayed in his house often and it really bothered me. I realized when he died that I could not be silent. And so I wrote my Institutes with greater passion.

Q3. Wow, that leads right into what I was going to ask next. Calvin, why did you write your Institutes?

In my law lessons, we had to become very familiar with the Corpus iuris civilis; the Body of Civil Law in your tongue. This was made of three parts: Codex, Digesta, and Institutiones. The Codex contained the authoritative statement of Roman law. The Digesta contained the legal opinion of ancient lawyers and the historical commentary on the Codex. The Institutiones was a basic but authoritative textbook of law students. I used this as a model for writing a basic textbook of the Christian faith. I even called it the Institutes of Christian Religion. Even right after I became a follower of the truth proclaimed by the Reformers and felt like a learner myself; many sought me out for answers to their Bible questions. And so I wrote the Institutes for these who loved and wanted to know more about the truth, but something else happened that added to the reasons why I wrote the Institutes.

Q4. What was that?

Well, it goes back to your earlier question about my friend, Etienne. He and many others were burnt to death. As new Protestants, we expected persecution from the Roman Church. But people in the King’s court had persuaded the King that these people were seditious men who wanted to do no more than destroy the government. If I could explain who these people really were, then maybe the king would stop his burnings. But even if he didn’t, then the rest of the surrounding nations would know the truth about these people and what they actually believed. I was really disturbed about the lies I heard when I lived in Germany. The French court was telling the Protestant Germans that the executed men were political prisoners. But I knew the truth and so made that public in my letter to Francis I in my prefatory address of the Institutes.

Q5. This is fascinating stuff! But tell me, why did you continue to include your letter to Francis I in your Institutes even after he had died?

My first title to the book explains that I had two reasons for writing. First, I wanted to give an instruction of the basic beliefs necessary for knowledge of the doctrine of salvation. But I also wanted the writing to be a defense to the King on behalf of my persecuted friends and fellow believers. My address to the king explains both these purposes very clearly. Since many Christians continued to struggle after Francis I was dead, I thought keeping the prefatory address to him in my book would help people to use the Institutes for both of the purposes for which it was written.

Q6. The Renaissance was a rediscovery of Greek and Roman literature. How were you affected by it?

In many ways, in fact I would have a hard time telling you where the Renaissance did not influence me. If I had to pick one area to talk about, I would say my learning Greek was a prime example of how the Renaissance influenced me. The learning of Greek under Wolmar was most important to me. In my debates years later, many people were amazed at my ability to quote Greek and Italian writers.

Q7. Calvin, you may be surprised to know that in the country where I live, United States, we have complete freedom of religion and a separation of church and state. How does that compare with your time?

Wow! That is amazing! In my day, the king of France controlled the religious affairs and the Pope of the Romanist Church controlled the king. In fact, the Pope freed the king, Francis I, from prison and secured his allegiance, to be sure. Even in Geneva where I ministered, we had no concept of a church entirely divorced from the state and the state removed from church matters. I would be most interested to know how that works.

Q8. What caused you and your associate Farel to be banished from Geneva?

Ah yes, I was wondering when that would come up. And it ties with what we were just talking about. You see, the city council was trying to tell the church leaders what to do in their churches—including Farel and me. They told us to use unleavened bread in our communion service, but Farel and I ignored them. The next day they ordered us to use unleavened bread and threatened to banish us if we refused to comply. That next Lord’s Day, we didn’t have a communion service, and that infuriated the city council. They told us that as soon as they found our replacements, we would face banishment from the city. They tried unsuccessfully to find replacements for two days, but their anger overtook them and they banished us anyway. Farel and I went to different cities and told people we had been mistreated by the Geneva city council, but Geneva denied our charges. One of the cities came to our defense, but by that time we had already packed and left.

Q9. I notice Reformers Luther, Bucer and Melanchthon influenced you. Did you have any direct influence on any other Reformers I might know about?

Yes, there is one other Reformer I had contact with that I haven’t mentioned yet. His name was John Knox from Scotland. We met when I was in Geneva. Around that time many English puritans were dissatisfied with the Great Bible forced on them by the Church of England. And so when they fled to Geneva from persecution in England under Mary, they began a translation of the Scriptures into English with a series of study notes and helps. John Knox, others and I all contributed to the Geneva Bible. I tried hard to help these struggling English believers to see what a truly reformed church looked like.

Q10. Tell me more about your schooling. Where I live, we have levels of advancement called grades. We go through grades 1-12 before we head off to college or into a trade. What was your education like?

Nothing like that! I was twelve when I entered college. Due to my father’s career and connections, I attended school with the sons of noblemen. Many of them were my friends. When I was twelve I attended the College de la Marche. There I had to study Latin since all my lectures and reading at university would be in that language. After that, I went to the College de Montaigu for my Bachelor of Arts degree. The studies there were divided. I studied what we called the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. I also studied the quadrivium: arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. One thing I found helpful in my studies was to repeat everything I had learned that day before going to sleep that night. And to call to my mind the previous day’s lectures when I awoke the next morning.

That sounds helpful; I should try doing that. Well, Calvin, we seem to be out of time. Thank you for giving me your time and telling me so much about your life and the time in which you lived.

Books consulted:

Estep, William R. Renaissance & Reformation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Hillerbrand, Hans. Ed. The Reformation. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972.

Lindner, William. John Calvin. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998.

Editorial comments and research assistance provided by Douglas and Royale McMasters

© 2001 Matthew McMasters