Was John Calvin Ordained?

A question that has often been asked of Presbyterians who believe that ordination that is required for the pastoral ministry runs like this: Was John Calvin ever ordained? Indeed, it is often assumed that he was not, in fact, ordained. If not, what does mean for the Presbyterian theory of ordination? If so, by who, when, and where? 

This historical question with ecclesiological ramifications is taken up in Vol. 3 of Thomas Smyth's Complete Works and in the individual volume titled Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. There is both a chapter titled "A Supplementary Vindication of the Ordination of Calvin" and further discussion of Calvin's ordination in Appendix V. These remarks affirm that Calvin was indeed ordained, and while specific records of this historical fact are lacking, the event itself cannot be denied based on the evidence given by Smyth. 

He begins his essay by affirming an important point: "The validity of Presbyterian ordination depends, IN NO MANNER OR DEGREE, upon the ordination of Calvin." The problems or challenges for Presbyterians that might result from a certain answer to the question above may equally present problems or challenges for those opposed to Presbyterian church government. As Smyth argues further on, the same lack of details that the historical record yields regarding the date, location and persons involved in Calvin's ordination might apply to the parallel case of Bishop Joseph Butler more than a century later, whose ordination is nevertheless disputed by no one (hence "they who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones"). However, in fact, this is an historical question that does not make or break the Presbyterian doctrine of ordination for the pastoral office, which stands upon Scripture.

Delving into the historical question, Smyth adduces the testimony of Calvin himself, Theodore Beza and Franciscus Junius the Elder to show that he was indeed an ordained presbyter. He also highlights the practice of the Presbytery of Geneva, and the fact that this point was not controverted within his lifetime by his Roman Catholic or other enemies who had reason to make his supposed lack of ordination a point of contention. 

Both the historical record and the implications of whether Calvin was unordained, ordained in the Roman Church, or ordained as Protestant minister of the gospel (or both) are addressed by Smyth head-on. He presents a solid argument to show that Calvin was indeed ordained by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbytery of Geneva. 

Take time to familiarize yourself with Smyth's remarks on this question because it has been raised for centuries and is still raised today, although the question, this writer believes, was clearly settled in the 19th century, if not earlier. In Smyth's separate biography of Calvin, see Chap. IX, pp. 84-101, and Appendix V, pp. 160-162; in Vol. 3 of Smyth's Complete Works, see Chap. IX, pp. 360-368, and Appendix V, pp. 390-391 (the biography is dated 1856, and Vol. 3 of Smyth's Complete Works was published in 1908; the latter discussion of Calvin's ordination is a slightly expanded edition of the earlier). This is a question with an answer to be had, and Smyth has answered well. 

Happy Birthday to John Calvin!

The man who contributed so much to American Presbyterianism from his exiled home by Lake Geneva, Switzerland, the French Huguenot pastor John Calvin, was born on July 10, 1509. He was the man who first sent Protestant missionaries to the New World (France Antarctique, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1557), and it was his compatriot French Huguenots who settled the first Protestant colonies in America in Parris Island, South Carolina (1562) and Fort Caroline, Florida (1564) - all of three of which colonies were planted by the French Calvinist Admiral Gaspard Coligny. From these early settlements to the Pilgrims' Plimoth Plantation to Jamestown, Virginia, to the War of 1776, the man who influence did so much to establish the American colonies and republic was John Calvin. 

We give tribute to the man and his legacy with a list of resources on our site about this hero of the faith. 

Take a look at these resources as we remember the birthday of a man raised up by God who did so much to further the kingdom of God in Europe, America and around the world. 

May 27, 1564: Death of John Calvin

On the anniversary of the death of John Calvin, we look to two American Presbyterian biographies of the great French Reformer to get a glimpse of the closing scenes of his life. 

Thomas Cary Johnson, John Calvin and the Genevan Reformation, p. 87:

"He preached for the last time on the 6th of February, 1564; he was carried to church and partook of the communion for the last time on 2d of April, in which he acknowledged his own unworthiness and his trust in God's free election of grace and the abounding merits of Christ; he was visited by the four syndics and the whole Little Council of the republic on the 27th of April, and addressed them as a father, thanking them for their devotion, begging pardon for his gusts of temper, and exhorting them to preserve in Geneva the pure doctrine and government of the gospel; he made a similar address to all the ministers of Geneva on the 28th and took an affectionate leave of them; he had these ministers to dine in his house on the 19th of May, was himself carried to the table, ate a little with them and tried to converse, but growing weary had to be taken to his chamber, leaving with the words, 'This wall will not hinder my being present with you in spirit, though absent in the body.' [William] Farel (in his eightieth year) walked all the way to Geneva from Neuchatel to take leave of the man whom he had compelled to work in Geneva, and whose glorious career he had watched without the least shadow of envy.

With the precious word of God, which he had done so much to make plain to his own and all subsequent ages, in his heart and on his tongue, he died on the 27th of May, 1564."

Thomas SmythCalvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin, pp. 77-82:

"Let us, then, before we take our leave, draw near, and contemplate the last act in the drama of this great and good man's life. Methinks I see that emaciated frame, that sunken cheek, and that bright, ethereal eye, as Calvin lay upon his study-couch. He heeds not the agonies of his frame, his vigorous mind rising in its power as the outward man perished in decay. The nearer he approached his end, the more energetically did he ply his unremitted studies. In his severest pains he would raise his eyes to heaven and say, How long, Lord! and then resume his efforts. When urged to allow himself repose, he would say, 'What! would you that when the Lord comes he should surprise me in idleness?' Some of his most important and laboured commentaries were therefore finished during this last year.

On the 10th of March, his brother ministers coming to him, with a kind and cheerful countenance he warmly thanked them for all their kindness, and hoped to meet them at their regular Assembly for the last time, when he thought the Lord would probably take him to himself. On the 27th, he caused himself to be carried to the senate-house, and being supported by his friends, he walked into the hall, when, uncovering his head, he returned thanks for all the kindness they had shown him, especially during his sickness. With a faltering voice, he then added, 'I think I have entered this house for the last time,' and, mid flowing tears, took his leave. On the 2d of April, he was carried to the church, where he received the sacrament at the hands of [Theodore] Beza, joining in the hymn with such an expression of joy in his countenance, as attracted the notice of the congregation. Having made his will on the 27th of this month, he sent to inform the syndics and the members of the senate that he desired once more to address them in their hall, whither he wished to be carried the next day. They sent him word that they would wait on him, which they accordingly did, the next day, coming to him from the senate-house. After mutual salutations, he proceeded to address them very solemnly for some time, and having prayed for them, shook hands with each of them, who were bathed in tears, and parted from him as from a common parent. The following day, April 28th, according to his desire, all the ministers in the jurisdiction of Geneva came to him, whom he also addressed: 'I avow,'' he said, 'that I have lived united with you, brethren, in the strictest bonds of true and sincere affection, and I take my leave of you with the same feelings. If you have at any time found me harsh or peevish under my affliction, I entreat your forgiveness.'  Having shook hands with them, we took leave of him, says Beza, 'with sad hearts and by no means with dry eyes.'

'The remainder of his days,' as Beza informs us, 'Calvin passed in almost perpetual prayer. His voice was interrupted by the difficulty of his respiration; but his eyes (which to the last retained their brilliancy,) uplifted to heaven, and the expression of his countenance, showed the fervour of his supplications. His doors,' Beza proceeds to say, 'must have stood open day and night, if all had been admitted who, from sentiments of duty and affection, wished to see him, but as he could not speak to them, he requested they would testify their regard by praying for him, rather than by troubling themselves about seeing him. Often, also, though he ever showed himself glad to receive me, he intimated a scruple respecting the interruption thus given to my employments; so thrifty was he of time which ought to be spent in the service of the Church.'

On the 19th of May, being the day the ministers assembled, and when they were accustomed to take a meal together, Calvin requested that they should sup in the hall of his house. Being seated, he was with much difficulty carried into the hall. 'I have come, my brethren,' said he, 'to sit with you, for the last time, at this table.' But before long, he said, 'I must be carried to my bed;' adding, as he looked around upon them with a serene and pleasant countenance, 'these walls will not prevent my union with you in spirit, although my body be absent.' He never afterwards left his bed. On the 27th of May, about eight o'clock in the evening, the symptoms of dissolution came suddenly on. In the full possession of his reason, he continued to speak, until, without a struggle or a gasp, his lungs ceased to play, and this great luminary of the Reformation set, with the setting sun, to rise again in the firmament of heaven. The dark shadows of mourning settled upon the city. It was with the whole people a night of lamentation and tears. All could bewail their loss; the city her best citizen, the church her renovator and guide, the college her founder, the cause of reform its ablest champion, and every family a friend and comforter. It was necessary to exclude the crowds of visitors who came to behold his remains, lest the occasion might be misrepresented. At two o'clock in the afternoon of Sabbath, his body, enclosed in a wooden coffin, and followed by the syndics, senators, pastors, professors, together with almost the whole city, weeping as they went, was carried to the common burying ground, without pomp. According to his request, no monument was erected to his memory; a plain stone, without any inscription, being all that covered the remains of Calvin.

Such was Calvin in his life and in his death. The place of his burial is unknown, but where is his fame unheard?"

Thornwell's Analysis of Calvin's Institutes

James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) employed John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion as his textbook at Columbia Theological Seminary because, as Bruce Gordon notes, he "regarded Calvin's book as the fullest expression of Reformed theology" (John Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion': A Biography, p. 117). 

Benjamin Morgan Palmer recounts remarks by a student concerning Thornwell's opening lecture on the Institutes: "I remember well the account he gave of his visit to Calvin's grave, and of his musings upon the molding influence of the mighty Reformer upon theological thought: and the statement of his conviction, that the emergencies of the conflict with Rationalistic infidelity were now forcing the whole Church more and more to occupy Calvin's ground. His pale face alternated with flushes of red and white, as he was speaking, and his eye dilated until it seemed almost supernaturally large and luminous. Deeply moved myself, and fired with an enthusiasm for Calvin, which I hope never to lose, I turned a moment's glance to find the class spell-bound by the burst of eloquence and feeling" (The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, p. 534). Gordon comments: "Thornwell must have divined some secret knowledge to have known where Calvin was buried" (Ibid., p. 118).

There are modern study guides to Calvin's Institutes, such as J. Mark Beach, Piety's Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin's Institutes with Study Questions (2010), but what we find in Thornwell's Collected Writings, Vol. 1, in Appendices C and D, starting at p. 597, although incomplete, constitutes a valuable 19th contribution to the study of Calvin's magnum opus

Titled "Analysis of Calvin's Institutes, With Notes and Comments" and "Questions on Calvin's Institutes," the former is a summary and analysis of the first three books of the Institutes, while the latter is drawn from the first book. One wishes that we had more of Thornwell's insightful comments and study questions on the rest of the book, but what we have here is a treasure. His analysis is skillful, and his questions are probing, both intended to elucidate a deeper understanding of Calvin's teaching. 

If you are seeking a guide to this world-changing book, consider Thornwell's 19th century contribution to studies of the Institutes.