The typical caricature of John Calvin is of a rigid, stoic, relentless tyrant, who taunted the unregenerate, reminding them of their reprobation and their inability to come to God.
Not only is this caricature slanderous; it is also unfair and without historical warrant.
This blog post will reveal a softer, more human side of John Calvin. A man who was not only was greatly influenced by his friends, but needed them and cherished them.
Calvin’s latest biographer writes,
“These relationships could be complicated and might have to weather many storms, but no one worked harder than Calvin to preserve them.”
Really, John Calvin? Yep, this biographer is actually talking about the infamous Calvin.
So, who are these friends? Who are the ones who stood by the great Frenchman?
Church history speaks highly of this primary mentor of John Calvin, who was 18 years his senior. The summary below helps explain his place in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century:
“Martin Bucer was a Dominican monk who was strongly attracted to the ideas being promoted by Martin Luther. In 1521 Bucer left the Dominicans and became a Reformation leader in Strasbourg where he became noted for his efforts to promote tolerance and understanding between different groups which were breaking away from Roman Catholicism. In particular, he tried to mediate between Luther and Zwingli in 1524 over the meaning of certain aspects of the Lord’s Supper.”
Most historians credit Bucer for guiding the young Calvin into the future face of Reformed theology.
F. Bruce Gordon states,
“Martin Bucer, in his relentless pursuit of unity, became Calvin’s model churchman, and the greatest influence on his formation as a minister and teacher.”
It is always important to ask, “What kind of mentor was Bucer? Did he instruct Calvin like a Rabbi to a student or was his methods less informal?”
Dr. Gordon explains,
“Bucer put himself out for Calvin in every respect: he provided accommodation in his own home, introduced him to his circle of friends, and finally found a house with a shared garden where they might easily meet and converse.”
This is organic, hands-on, Deuteronomy 6 type discipleship. It is the type of discipleship that Jesus emulated for us and the benefits are obvious; the disciple is learning from the classroom of life, rather than from a scripted lecture that purposefully avoids the complicated uncertainties of a sin-cursed existence.
Yet, though history describes Bucer as a promoter of tolerance and Christian unity, the reader must not conclude that the Strasbourg reformer was hesitant to “speak the truth in love” to the prideful Calvin.
The best example was retold by one of Calvin’s biographers.
“After reading Bucer’s reply (by letter), Calvin was dumbstruck and humiliated by his overweening pride—he could not sleep and was agitated for three days. Furthermore, he realized he had the gall to admonish an experienced man of the church and needed to be taught a lesson in humility and generosity of spirit.”
Ahhhh…that is a true friend (Prov. 27:6).
Now, though Bucer was his spiritual father in the faith, Calvin enjoyed the friendship of another individual, one who could be described as your classic crazy Uncle.
His name is Guillaume Farel.
This is the best one-sentence summary of Guillaume Farel,
“Guillaume Farel was an incendiary, prophetic and highly divisive figure who had led the Reformation in the French-speaking lands of the Swiss Confederation and carried the movement to Geneva.”
Calvin would certainly agree. His first interaction with Farel is etched in the lore of church history.
“Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city (Geneva). And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscience of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.”
Amazing. That sounds like my crazy Uncle Dennis. This is the uncle that tried to coerce me to start smoking at age 15.
Anyways, this interaction fused a lifelong friendship, between Farel and Calvin, which was built on the sweat and tears that often came with the ministry of the gospel.
Was Farel always good for Calvin? Most historians do not believe he was. Farel’s zeal wrapped in foolishness is likely the reason that Calvin got booted out of Geneva the first time and in Calvin’s worst moments, the influence of Farel could be seen in the outbursts of the normally stoic Calvin.
Look at the reactions of Calvin’s contemporaries,
“Martin Bucer, along with the other Swiss Reformers, had wisely discerned that the talented young Calvin needed to be separated from Farel, whom he (Bucer) pointedly did not invite to Strasbourg.”
Did Calvin listen to his friends? Did the mature Calvin distance himself from the fiery Farel at the twilight of his ministry? Yes, but he still remained fiercely loyal to Farel till the bitter end.
One final thought:
Friends can be a blessing or a curse.
In reality, both Farel and Bucer were influential in the development of Calvin. Yet the Christian should take seriously the exhortation to avoid being in the ‘council of the wicked’ (Psalm 1:1). The influence of the caustic Farel was hindering the Frenchman from becoming like the apostle Paul, who was gentle as a nursing mother in his care of the Thessalonian believers (1 Thess. 2:7).
On a personal note, I do not have a lot of friends. Quite frankly, I do not even consider myself to be a very good friend. I am finding that the older I get, the more I long for deep, mutually-sharpening friendships. It seems like the gap between acquaintance and friend continues to widen every year I walk on this earth. Yet my closest friends are the ones that are faithful to ‘speak the truth in love’ and challenge me to ‘walk worthy of my calling’. They are concerned more for my spiritual health, then the superficial health of our relationship. Those types of friends are rare. That is the type of friend I want to be to others.