Triple John

The early years of John Calvin have attracted a lot of attention. One reason for that fact is the lack of hard evidence. We know, for example, hardly anything of value about Calvin’s education. Yes, we know that he studied at Collège Montaigu in Paris. But what was his curriculum? And who were his teachers? We don’t know.

But we’d like to know it for sure. So, there are quite a lot of hypotheses. One persistent hypothesis is the one that describes a considerable influence to John Maior (or Maïr). This hypothesis has been en vogue during a couple of decades. It has been supported by François Wendel, Willem Dankbaar, but above all by Karl Reuter. Reuter made a case for it in his book Das Grundverständnis der Theology Calvins (1963). He claimed that Major’s influence upon Calvin could be proved by several key doctrinal positions of the latter, such as his doctrine of divine providence, his doctrine of sin and justification, but above all his ‘anti-pelagian’ doctrine of God. Behind the back of John Major he discerned several theologians and philosophers: Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini. Major’s influence on Calvin is said to be ‘ockhamistic’, but also ‘scotistic’. Indeed, that’s the third John: John Duns Scotus. The supposed influence of John Duns Scotus, via John Major, on John Calvin has been widespread. Even the famous scholar Heiko A. Oberman was convinced of a fundamental connection between Duns and Calvin.

Is there evidence for this connection? Bruce Gordon is very obvious in his biography of John Calvin (2009):

“It has been suggested that he studied Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini and other key luminaries of medieval theology, but again nothing can be established with certainty. It is not even known whether he studied theology in Paris” (p.8).

And T.H.L. Parker says in his biography of Calvin (1975):

“It is further conjectured that the Scottish theologian, John Major, who was a regent (i.e. professor) at Montaigu between 1525 and 1531, taught the young Calvin. One or two writers even go so far as to assert that Major taught Calvin theology. The only foundation for the notion is that Major and Calvin were contemporary at Montaigu (…)”. (p.13).

The definitive verdict had been spoken nearly a decade before Parker wrote his book. In his book Le Jeune Calvin (1966; transl. The Young Calvin) Alexandre Ganoczy investigated all of Calvin’s early writings. But he didn’t find any traces of John Major, not to mention John Duns Scotus or other medieval theologians, except two of them: Gratianus and Petrus Lombardus. Both of them wrote a textbook on canon law resp. theology. Calvin knew these books and quoted them extensively in his 1536 Institutio. In short, John Major’s influence on John Calvin seems to be very limited. And as far as the influence of Duns is concerned, it seems quite certain that Calvin didn’t read him up to 1536. Maybe, he read him later. But that’s another question.

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3 thoughts on “Triple John

  1. Hi. I am interested in the impact of Duns Scotus on Calvin and also in the engraving of the courtyard, I presume, of the collège Montaigu. I lead tours in the history of ideas in the Latin Quarter of Paris and am providing information to a young man who is using 3D technology to reconstitute the Paris Latin Quarter. After confection by the revolutionaries, the collèges were sold to investors who dismantled them and sold the stones. Otherwise, it would be very much like Oxford and Cambridge. So, where can I find the source of that engraving? Do you recall? I am in contact with the Calvin specialist in Paris, Olivier Millet. His biography of Calvin did not go into the influence of John Major. Too bad. I know another university prof who is the specialist on John Duns Scot. But, I think you are quite right. Montaigu was mainly for young boys studying the ars which was preparatory to theology so I doubt that he studied theology there. But, he was so brilliant. He may well have sat in on classes here and there in other colleges, etc. Besides, as you point out, there is so little evidence one way or the other. Your conclusions seem sound. Wishing you well. Kermit

    • Hi Kermit,
      Thank you for your comment. Interesting to read about your tours and the effort to reconstitute the Quartier Latin of Paris. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I got the picture from. It was on the internet, so much is sure. Probably one of these sites: http://www.renaissance-france.org/rabelais/pages/universite3.html or: http://www.jesuites.com/actu/2006/carnavalet.htm. You could try one of these sites to find the original.
      The relation with Duns is intriguing indeed. The influence of John Major however is pretty questionable, as I argue here. It seems quite certain that Calvin was a ‘self-made man’ with regard to theological training. But the influence of Martin Bucer, in Calvin’s Strasbourg years, is another important factor.
      I’m not familiar with the biography of Oliver Millet. It sounds promising, because he certainly is an expert on Calvin.
      Best wishes,
      Arjen

  2. Pingback: Reformation on All Saints Day: Calvin in Paris | Qualitative Theology

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