French-born theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) was one of the great voices of the Protestant Reformation. He is often called the greatest systematic theologian of the Reformation and is the most influential figure in the entire Reformed theological tradition. His monumental book Institutes of the Christian Religion has been called one of the ten books that shook the world.

Yet Calvin is also considered one of the most controversial theologians in the long history of Christendom. His views on the doctrines of election and predestination were and are off-putting to Christians and non-Christians alike but they were not much different from other influential theologians like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther. Calvin is also criticized for his involvement in how Reformed leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, addressed those who rejected the Christian faith at the time of the Reformation.

Despite the controversy and given his stature and influence in church history, there are three things you may not know about John Calvin as a person. I hope these details might make you reflect upon Calvin with a sense of historical perspective and empathy.

  1. Calvin as a reflective introvert was reticent, awkward, and didn’t make friends easily.

Unlike Luther, whose bold, talkative, and charismatic personality sparked the juggernaut called the Protestant Reformation, Calvin was a second-generation reformer (twenty-six years younger than Luther) who was quiet, shy, and reflective. His reserved personality no doubt contributed to his reputation for being cold, cerebral, and unsociable. Yet the people who knew him well, such as his famous student Theodore Beza, spoke of his graciousness and his genuine concern for those who suffered. And despite his fiery temper, Calvin found common cause with other significant leaders of the Reformation such as Philip Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, and Martin Bucer.

2. Calvin was classmates with Ignatius of Loyola at the University of Paris.

A little known fact of history is that two of the greatest figures of the Reformation clash between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century, John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), went to school together at the University of Paris. (Talk about having a distinguished list of alumni—Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas had also studied at the University of Paris some three centuries earlier.) As part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation (a direct response to the Protestants), Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus—popularly known as the Jesuits. It was the Jesuits who provided a strenuous Catholic critique of Calvin’s Protestant theology. One can only wonder if these two brilliant and powerful men, in the midst of historical tumult, ever desired to get together to reminisce about their school days together.

3. Calvin’s heavy beard may have reflected his challenge to authority.

As we see in paintings, virtually all of the leading Protestant Reformers sported heavy beards. While we don’t know the exact reason for this, some have suggested that beards were intended to contrast with the common practice of Catholic priests and monks being clean-shaven. So when Calvin is featured in paintings with a beard resembling the members of the rock ‘n’ roll band ZZ Top, it is possible that he and his Protestant compatriots are evidencing their rebellion to the authority of the Church of Rome—a tradition that some contemporary Calvinists have carried on. Rebelling against authority appears to be a human custom.

We All Have Feet of Clay

It is inevitable that a leader will be scrutinized more than most people. In evangelicalism today we hear a lot about the debate between the theological schools of Calvinism and Arminianism. In light of this, Calvin is often thought to be a contentious figure. But do any of these points cause you to think differently about John Calvin the man?

No human being is greater than any other. Yet God has called certain people to carry out his purposes in this world. Those people, including you and me, come with gifts, talents, and flaws.

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you read any of John Calvin’s works? Which of the three points above do you find most engaging? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.


For more on the life and thought of John Calvin, see chapter seven of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.


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About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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