Conversion to the Reformation

The question of when Calvin experienced his conversion to the Reformation is the object of countless investigations, in which the documentary evidence is sparse. Calvin himself reports that he experienced such a conversion (subita conversio).

Calvin reports no date. It must have been before 4th May 1534, for at that time Calvin went to Noyon and renounced his living – which is to be understood as a consequence of his turning away from Catholicism. The conversion could also have taken place already in 1533. That is to be accepted if Calvin was involved in the drawing up of the so-called Cop-talk. But that is uncertain.

The doctor Nikolaus Cop, rector of the Paris University, at which Calvin studied, held an address for the opening of the semester in the church of the Mathurin on 1st November 1533. This address, an interpretation of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, was in content a praise of the Gospel. Cop therefore declared his belief in the Reformation. The Franciscans, in whose church the talk was held, accused Cop immediately of heresy, and a few weeks after the talk, Cop fled from Paris to his home-town Basel. A controversial point of discussion in Calvin-research is the question of whether Cop’s talk came at least in part from Calvin. If that is true, Calvin would already have been of Reformational conviction in Autumn 1533. In October 1534 the so-called Poster Affair took place in Paris. Posters against the mass were put up in public. On them the “Lutherans,” as those of Reformational conviction were described, were named as initiators of the conspiracy against the public order and religion. Calvin had aroused attention in the run up to the poster action by declaring openly his Protestant faith and by canvassing for it energetically. In any case, Calvin also fled from Paris and searched for a quiet residence where he would be able to continue his studies. He intended to write a catechism for the French speaking Protestants. So he took off to Basel in the first few weeks of the year 1535.

Ultimately, one will have to be careful in the precise dating. It may have been an individual event for Calvin, but it could also have been a matter of a longer process. However, the following result remains decisive: Calvin had experienced a “conversio” by the year 1534 – a turning to the Gospel, which led to distinct consequences.