Lawyers for Reformation
Written by Michael Rix (The Master's Seminary)
Martin Luther and John Calvin are both giants in the history of the Protestant Reformation. Church historian, Mark Knoll, has written: "If Luther sounded the trumpet for reform, Calvin orchestrated the score by which the Reformation became a part of Western civilization." While much has been written about their influence on church history and their theology, it is not widely known that both Luther and Calvin were studying to become lawyers when the sovereign hand of God reoriented their life trajectories toward becoming the great Reformers they are known as today. While we know that God governs the affairs of men, it is worth contemplating that had the Lord not intervened in the lives of Luther and Calvin, that each would have carried on the wishes of their fathers to become lawyers rather than great leaders of the Reformation.
Martin Luther was born to Hans Luther and his wife Margarethe in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. Hans came from a peasant family. It was through sheer diligence and industry that he worked his way to becoming a leaseholder of copper mines. In Martin's childhood years Hans worked as a miner, overseeing two smelting furnaces, to painstakingly provide for young Martin’s education. Hans wanted his eldest son to similarly raise his station in life by becoming a lawyer. Hans hoped that if his son entered a noble profession, he would escape the peasant class and bring honor to the family name.
In obedience to his father’s wishes, at the age of 19 Luther entered the University of Erfurt, where he received his Bachelor’s degree in 1502 and his Master’s in 1505. Both would prepare him for further study of the law and a doctorate in jurisprudence. After completing his Master’s degree in January 1505, Luther remained at Erfurt to receive specialized training in the law.
Luther excelled in his legal studies and was apparently well on his way to fulfilling his father’s wish. However, after only six months as a law student, Luther’s heavenly Father decided to interrupt his earthly father’s plans. In June of 1505, Luther was returning from his family home in Mansfield to back to Erfurt when he was caught in a violent thunderstorm. He was paralyzed by the storm and attached great spiritual significance to it. Luther had been struggling with the state of his soul even while studying at Erfurt. In fear, he believed God had unleashed the very thunder of heaven to judge him. In a moment of deep desperation he cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners: “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk.” Two weeks later, Luther withdrew from law school and entered the monastery, much to the dismay of his father. The rest of Luther’s story, from being a fastidious monk agonizing over his soul to his discovery of justification by faith in Christ alone, and his work as a great reformer of the Church, is well chronicled. However, none of it would have occurred had God not intervened in the life of young Luther while he was obediently carrying out the wishes of his father.
John Calvin’s own journey towards becoming a great reformer of the Church, while different in many respects from Luther’s, nonetheless bears some remarkable similarities with regard to Calvin’s initial pursuit of a legal career redirected by God’s sovereign design. Calvin was born 1509 in the town of Noyon in the Picardy region of France. Unlike Luther’s more common roots, John Calvin’s father, Gérard, had a prosperous career as the cathedral notary and lawyer to the ecclesiastical court. While Martin Luther’s father had dreamed of his son becoming a lawyer and was devastated by the news that his son had decided to enter the priesthood; John Calvin’s father intended for his son to enter the priesthood.
At the age of twelve, Gérard Calvin arranged for his son to be employed by the church bishop as a clerk. Young John received the tonsure, cutting his hair to symbolize his dedication to the Church. He went on to win the patronage of an influential family and with their assistance was able to attend the Collège de la Marche in Paris. It was there that he learned Latin. John Calvin’s father then enrolled him at the Collège de Montaigu as a philosophy student where he was on a path to enter the priesthood.
But Gérard had a change of mind concerning his son’s direction in life after coming into conflict with the church. He considered that maybe a career in the law would be more profitable for his son. John Calvin obediently stopped studying for the priesthood and transferred to the University of Orleans where he began to pursue his licentiate in civil law under Pierre de l’Estoile, the leading law professor in France. Calvin excelled in his legal studies and distinguished himself to the point that he was often called upon by his professors to teach classes when they were absent.
Calvin’s father died two years before he was awarded his Licentiate in Law in 1532. Gifted with a keen legal mind, Calvin was well on his way towards a promising career. But the course of Calvin’s life would change with his conversion. While Calvin had been exposed in his education to humanism as well as Lutheran ideas that came into France, Calvin himself mentions no human agency in the account of his conversion, which he gives very little detail about. In the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, Calvin wrote:
I tried my best to work hard [in the study of law], yet God at last turned my course in another direction by the secret rein of his providence. What happened first, since I was too obstinately addicted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, was that God by an unexpected [or “sudden”] conversion subdued and reduced my mind to a teachable frame. And so this taste of true godliness…set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies in law more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether.
After his conversion Calvin returned to Paris from Orleans and immediately threw himself into the Reformation cause. The rest is history. Calvin went on to write his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and lead the Reformation effort from Geneva, Switzerland. Like Martin Luther, Calvin was obeying his father’s wishes to become a lawyer when divine intervention compelled him instead to obey the call of his heavenly Father.
The story of how these two great Reformers had their lives redirected brings to mind Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the Lord’s purpose that will stand.” Would Luther and Calvin have made excellent lawyers? Without a doubt they had the requisite gifts and talents to excel at the bar; however, in God’s providence these men had a greater case to argue, the cause of reforming the Church, and for that we can all be grateful.
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