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.