John Calvin: Life as a Student

Robert Ventura

Calvin’s Life as a Student

John Calvin was a man who gave himself completely to his studies. Regardless of his particular course work (whether Latin, Logic, Law, Greek, Hebrew, etc.), he applied himself entirely to it with much earnestness and discipline. B. B. Warfield commenting on Calvin says, “He was an eager student, rapidly and solidly mastering the subjects to which he turned his attention, and earning such admiration from his companions as to be esteemed by them rather a teacher than a fellow pupil.”[1] Theodore Beza, a personal friend of Calvin’s, wrote in his memoir of his companion,

Calvin afterward removed to the College of Mont Aigu, and there had a Spaniard as his master, a man of considerable attainments. Under him Calvin, who was a most diligent student, made such progress that he left his fellow-students behind in the Grammar course, and was promoted to the study of Dialectics and other so-called Arts.[2]

Concerning the type of rigorous schedule that Calvin kept in his early college days, T. H. L. Parker says that a day for Calvin would typically be like this:

Up at four o’clock for the morning office [a prescribed devotional service], followed by a lecture until six, when mass was said. After mass came breakfast, and then, from eight until ten, the grande classe with a discussion for the ensuing hour. Eleven o’clock brought dinner, which was accompanied by readings from the bible or the life of a saint and followed by prayers and college notices. At twelve the students were questioned about their morning’s work, but from one to two was a rest period with public reading.

Parker continues,

Now vespers [evening prayers] were said, and after vespers a discussion on the afternoon class took place. Between supper, with its attendant readings, and bed-time at eight in winter or nine in summer there was time for further interrogation and for chapel.[3]

This kind of earnest, rigorous and disciplined life that Calvin had developed as a student would mark him all his days. Throughout the entirety of his life, he was a man who worked tirelessly and effectively for the kingdom of God. It is clear that whatever his field of study, Calvin was a student of the highest order. He was committed to nothing short of academic excellence in all that he did.

Calvin’s Life of Humility

True humility is something that all ministers of the Word of God must regularly strive for all of their days. In being humble, preachers are being most like our Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 2:1-8). Commenting on the Apostle’s words as found in Titus 1:7 that a pastor must not be “self-willed,” Calvin remarked,

Thus we have the meaning of St. Paul in a few words: namely, those who are called to preach the Word of God, must take heed that they be not self-willed, but be willing to be taught: they must be meek and quiet spirited; not puffed up with pride, but endeavoring to edify others; they must not think that they know all things, but on the contrary desire to learn continually, and be gentle in behavior.[4]

Commenting on Calvin’s humility William Wileman writes,

Calvin was not without meekness and humility . . . a good deal of trouble had been given in Geneva by Troillet, who was unworthy of the position to which he aspired. But when death laid his finger on this man, he sent for the pastor he had so abused and wronged. Calvin hastened to the dying man, forgave him, and comforted him.

Wileman goes on to say concerning Calvin,

He has been charged with fierceness and bigotry. The charge comes with ill grace from the lips that speak it. When disputes ran high between Luther and some other reformers concerning the manner of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine, Luther whose temper was naturally warm heaped many hard names upon those who differed from him. Calvin came in for his share of this. In a letter to Henry Bullinger he says: “I hear that Luther has at length published an atrocious invective, not so much against you as against us all. In these circumstances I can scarcely venture to ask for your silence; since it is unjust that the innocent should be thus attacked without having an opportunity to clear themselves; although it is at the same time difficult to decide whether that would be expedient. But I hope that you will remember in the first place how great a man Luther is, and how many excellent endowments he excels; with what fortitude and constancy, with what dexterity and efficacious learning, he has hitherto applied himself, both to overthrow the kingdom of the Antichrist, and to spread the doctrine of salvation. It is a frequent saying with me that, if Luther should even call me a devil, my veneration for him is notwithstanding so great that I shall ever acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God.[5]

This letter proves much concerning Calvin’s disposition of humility. Although at various other points in this letter he had to comment about Luther’s behavior and said, for example, that he wished Luther would “direct the vehemence which is natural to him against the enemies of the truth, and not brandish it also against the servants of the Lord,” nevertheless, we see that Calvin was still willing to hold Luther in high esteem, as a real man of God, not reacting with angry passion or arrogant pride against him.

Today sadly, there seem to be many who are quick to pick up pens and cut men into pieces with their verbal assaults, showing little or no grace toward those with whom they differ, but not Calvin. In the above-cited instances, we see a man who was willing to forgive one who wronged him, and he was willing to regard a man who had written slanderously about him as, nonetheless, a choice servant of Christ.

Rob Ventura is one of the pastors of Grace Community Baptist Church of North Providence, Rhode Island and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is an author and blogger for Reformation 21 and has co-authored two books on Reformation Heritage Books A Portrait of Paul and Spiritual Warfare.

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1932), p. 3.

[2] Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” Banner Of Truth Issue 227-228 (Aug/Sept.1982), p. 11.

[3] T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 25.

[4] Leroy Nixon, John Calvin, Expository Preacher (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), pp. 61-62.

[5] William Wileman, John Calvin, His life, His teaching and His Influence (Choteau, Old Paths Gospel Press, 1981), pp. 130-131.


Robert Ventura