John Calvin: The Reformer and Educator

This year, 2009, marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birthday. Why should we take the time to remember someone of so many years past? Simply because of how God used him to impact the Protestant Reformation and to shape theology with his life, teachings, writings, and emphasis on the sovereignty of God. His system of theology set the course for Protestant thinking. God used John Calvin in a most remarkable way and enabled him to clearly define Christianity in its purest, most biblical and Protestant form.

When we think of John Calvin, we usually do so in a manner that suggests a person who was driven to write volumes of books, treatises, and letters focused on theology and doctrine. Those who know Calvin through his writings and teachings first think of his emphasis on the sovereignty of God and God’s revelation in the Scriptures. Those who are not that familiar with those resources often think of him as the man who taught the “horrible decrees” connected with predestination. They envision the thin man with a pointed face and goatee who was sickly most of his life or the man who encouraged burning at the stake those considered to be heretics.

In discussions over the years with people regarding Calvin, I can generally tell whether a person has actually read Calvin’s writings or simply heard about him from other sources that may or may not be sympathetic towards his teachings. For example, I was recently interviewed by a high school student for a history project because of my Presbyterian affiliation and age. Listening to the young man, especially as we talked about Calvin, I could tell he was getting a picture of Calvin from someone who had never read Calvin. I had to tell him that he was being taught from a perspective that misunderstood what Calvin and Calvinism were all about.

Without counting them all, I have more than ten biographies of John Calvin and have been reading back through some of them for the past several weeks. I was sparked to do this by a new biography by Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP). Though many of my following comments will reflect aspects of all the biographies, much of Selderhuis’ work helped with this article and is the biography I would recommend to you. You will find it comprehensive, readable, and consistent with other biographies, though written in a different style and format.

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Most of you know enough about Calvin to also discern the difference between what people say Calvin said and what he actually said. Calvin was a holistic thinker who understood the importance of thinking God’s thoughts after Him, and the Scriptures were the spectacles through which he was enabled to see God’s truth. It was his rule of faith and practice. He wanted to know everything he could know about God; but as he learned, he realized that God was incomprehensible and there were things that he could not know. Hence, he concentrated on the things that God showed him in the Scriptures. Knowing God is the sovereign God, Calvin knew that through His general grace (common grace) that all truth was God’s truth; and whether he found truth in the special revelation of God’s Word or in the general grace areas of life, truth was all about God.

However, for our purpose here, we want to focus our thinking on John Calvin as an educator. So much of our educational philosophy and foundations can be traced back to him, whether we speak of education in the home, the school, or the church. There is so much to be said, but I will of necessity be selective.

While Robert Raikes is called the father of the modern Sunday school, a careful reading of Calvin’s life will reveal that three hundred years prior to Raikes, Calvin had a Sunday afternoon school for children and youth, primarily to teach them the catechism of the Christian faith.

When Calvin agreed to Guillaume Farel’s insistence that he come to Geneva to teach and preach. Calvin agreed but to do it in the following way. First, he would establish the Reformed faith among the people of Geneva to enable them to be people of the Word. This of course required their being able to read and then understand the Scriptures. Ronald Wallace points out in his Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation that “it is not surprising that when the citizens of Geneva accepted the Reformed faith, they also at the same time agreed to make a new start with the education of the young.” Calvin’s plans included schooling as his first priority. Wallace points out that in the 1540’s some of the greatest educational experts of the time were at work in Geneva.

Acting on his main concern of establishing the Word of God in the Reformed sense, Calvin would always have as his priority catechizing the youth. In 1537 Calvin wrote his first catechism, Instruction in the Faith. This way of learning using questions and answers was designed to teach the young the Christian faith. He wrote, “The Church of God will never preserve itself without Catechism.” “‘True Christianity’ should be taught in ‘a certain written form.’ Such catechetical instruction would promote unity, supply deficiencies even of some ‘pastors and curates’ and help people not to be led astray by ‘presumptuous persons.'” Not only did Calvin spend his Sunday afternoons teaching children the catechism, he also had the council of Geneva insist that parents assume a major responsibility in the process. About four times a year, church leaders would meet with children and their parents to evaluate and examine their progress in the teaching. This is how Calvin’s catechism became a key resource along with Scriptures.

Calvin was desirous that covenant children be confirmed, generally around the age of 12, and make a public profession of faith, which for him was the door from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. When they could recite the catechism from memory, it was generally accepted as a public profession of faith; and they were admitted to the Lord’s Table. Calvin’s catechism became extremely popular and was translated into several different languages. It was a key reference in the later writing of the Heidelberg Catechism and a good companion to his Institutes.

Calvin insisted that the Geneva Academy, which was his second priority to teaching the children, was to have teachers of the highest standard anywhere. The Geneva Academy opened with 600 students and during its first year grew to more than 900. There were two sections of the institution. Students first went to college with seven grades where they learned to read French, Greek, and Latin. This was called the schola privata. Part two of the institution was called schola publica. In this second level students were taught to be exegetes of the Bible, to learn the basics and be able to explain them. They preached and were evaluated. On Saturdays, students focused on practical theology led by ministers that Calvin and Theodore Beza had discipled. The records show that students came to Geneva from all over Europe. Working with Theodore Beza, the educational institution became second to none.

Following his constant reference to the church as the mother with God as the Father, Calvin did not hesitate to refer to the church as “l’ecole de Dieu,” the school of God. A mother gives birth, nourishes, and educates her children, which according to Calvin is the role of the church. Thorough knowledge of the Bible was essential, because only by knowing the Bible was a believer able to know what God wanted and how God must be worshiped. Calvin wrote that even up to the grave God calls us to His school.

Calvin not only helped establish many schools, he was clearly a promoter of Christian education, or should I say education that is Christian through and through. According to Selderhuis, another important influence Calvin had in Geneva was to give children a significant place in the church. Selderhuis points out that Calvin mobilized the children for singing. With his emphasis on proper schooling, Calvin also believed that the parents could learn from the children.

However, Calvin did not see education as an end in itself. He believed that he had a twofold mandate from God: to train men for the ministry of the Word and to train men for the civil government. His Mondays were spent discipling pastors. This practice allowed him to impress upon clergy the importance of having a pastor’s heart and scholar’s mind and the importance of developing the ability to teach truth in a comprehensible way. Calvin was known for his brevity. One biographer said this characteristic did not refer to length of articles, sermons, or lectures, but to sentence structure. Calvin was a writer-educator.

For Calvin, the educational process required knowing something of the humanities as well as the Word of God. As you read Calvin’s writing, especially in Institutes of the Christian Religion, you quickly find him quoting people such as Plato and Aristotle.

“We have given the first place to the doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it. But it must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us.”

-John Calvin,
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III

Whatever we know of Calvin, he was not only a scholar but a real pastor. He was not only a preacher but a teacher par excellence. He insisted that all clergy be learned men with the ability to teach truth to the ordinary person as well as the highly educated.

I remember how impressed I was as a young Christian when I worked al a summer camp whose seal was the Calvinistic seal. The seal showed a heart held securely in a hand; and the slogan was, my heart I give thee promptly and sincerely, or another translation could be willingly and honestly.

It is obvious from Calvin’s leaching and life example that the only successful teacher and educator is the one who lives a life consistent with his teaching. Some of Calvin’s biographies have been titled, The Genius of Geneva, The Man God Mastered, Calvin the Contemporary Prophet, and Selderhuis’ John Calvin: A Pilgrim s life. He set a standard for us to be people of the Word with an understanding of the world into which the Word of God has penetrated. He set a standard for godly living by following the Word of God. He challenged us to see God’s hand in all things working to accomplish His purpose and to know, whether we understand or not, that God controls all things that come to pass. He will complete the work He has begun in us; and yes, there will be a final restoration of all things. It was Calvin’s understanding and insistence on the sovereignty of God over all things that has given us a kingdom perspective. along with a world and life view that enables us to see truth and reality as God reveals it to us through His special and His common grace.

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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