Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Because of Calvin’s prominence in the work of the Reformation and because of his influence throughout the continent of Europe, no single reformer was attacked so fiercely by innumerable opponents as the reformer of Geneva. And, although many doctrines of the reformers came under the furious attacks of enemies of the Reformation, and although many doctrines taught by Calvin himself were opposed by heretics of every sort, no single doctrine was more bitterly hated than Calvin’s teaching of sovereign predestination, including both election and reprobation.
The passing of the centuries has not brought an end to these attacks. One would have some difficulty counting the supposed Calvinists who are resentful of Calvin’s teaching on predestination. Sometimes this doctrine is forthrightly denied. Sometimes, in a more subtle way, heretics claim to agree with Calvin, but insist that he never taught sovereign and double predestination. Sometimes Calvin’s doctrine is destroyed by silence—professed Calvinists refuse to speak of it or to preach it.
And if there are those who will, in a somewhat grudging way, express a cool loyalty to Calvin’s doctrine of election, they express violent disagreement with Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation. In fact, no single doctrine of all Calvin’s teaching has been so frequently repudiated as the truth of sovereign reprobation. So true is this that one can very well make this one doctrine the dividing line between true Calvinists and pseudo-Calvinists. Indeed, every claim that Calvin taught a universal atonement, a well-meant gospel offer, a gracecommon to all men, a free will of man, is a claim smashed on the rock of Calvin’s insistence on the biblical truth of sovereign predestination, including sovereign reprobation.
Perhaps no single controversy in the life of Calvin brought out more clearly Calvin’s insistence on the absolute sovereignty of God in election and salvation, but also in reprobation and damnation, than the controversy that Calvin had with Jerome Bolsec. To that controversy we now turn.
Bolsec’s Life and Teaching
Not much is known of Bolsec’s early life. He was probably born in Paris in the early part of the sixteenth century. He entered the Carmelite monastic order but soon began a pattern which was to characterize his entire life. He had a quarrelsome and turbulent character and was bold beyond the boundaries of discretion. These characteristics came out in his sermons, and he was soon expelled from the monastery.
Embittered by the treatment he received, he left the Romish Church and embraced Protestantism. Strangely, he sought refuge with the Duchess of Ferrara. It was at her home that John Calvin also stayed for a few months. She was an extremely interesting lady. Schaff writes of her:
She was small and deformed, but noble, pious, and highly accomplished lady…. She gathered around her the brightest wits of the Renaissance, from Italy and France, but she sympathized still more with the Spirit of the Reformation, and was fairly captivated by Calvin. She chose him as the guide of her conscience, and consulted him hereafter as a spiritual father as long as he lived.
Things did not go so well with Bolsec, however. The Duchess of Ferrara admitted him to her home as an almoner, i.e., one who distributes money to the poor on the behalf of others, whether a king or queen, a rich member of the nobility, or a monastery. During his stay with this gracious woman, Bolsec acquired an education in medicine and proudly bore the title of “Doctor of Medicine” the rest of his life. But again his temperament got him into trouble and he was forced to leave her home. Theodore Beza, the colleague and successor of Calvin and author of Calvin’s biography, claims that Bolsec was guilty of deception. Whether it was in connection with his position as almoner or involved something else, Beza does not say.
In 1550 Bolsec settled in Geneva, became the private physician of M. de Falais, and claimed to be an ardent admirer of Calvin. M. de Falais was a nobleman who lived in Geneva and was a personal friend of Calvin.
If Bolsec had left well enough alone and stuck to his profession, things might have been different. But he was too proud for that, and his pride led him to dabble in theology. The more he became acquainted with what Calvin taught, the more he came to question Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. But he was not content to learn more at the feet of one of the pastors in Geneva; he openly launched a frontal attack on Calvin and the truth of predestination, especially reprobation. He publicly asserted that Calvin’s god was a liar and a hypocrite, who encouraged the basest criminals and operated as Satan.
Such blasphemy could not go unpunished. The Venerable Company of Pastors admonished him for such folly, and Calvin attempted to instruct him on the biblical teaching concerning this doctrine. But it is impossible to teach God’s truth to a proud man. Although he seemed for a time to submit, he soon reverted to his public opposition and blasphemy against God. The Venerable Company of Pastors brought him before their body. They examined him concerning his views, and in their assembly he boldly expressed what he believed. Schaff sums up his position in these words:
He acknowledged that a certain number were elected by God to salvation, but he denied predestination to destruction; and, on closer examination, he extended election to all mankind, maintaining that grace efficacious to salvation is equally offered to all, and that the cause, why some receive and others reject it, lies in the free-will, with which all men were endowed. At the same time he abhorred the name of merits. This, in the eyes of Calvin, was a logical contradiction and an absurdity; for he says, “If some were elected, it surely follows that those who come to Christ are drawn by the Father through the peculiar operation of the Holy Spirit on the elect, it follows either that all must be promiscuously elected, or that the cause of election lies in each man’s merit.”
It is of more than passing interest what Calvin has to say about the relation between Bolsec’s position and the whole concept of merit. Bolsec, as so many others who have followed him in his views, piously repudiated the idea that man could merit with God. But Calvin says, correctly, that the position that Bolsec took necessarily implies merit. If Bolsec wanted an election dependent upon the choice of man’s will whether to take God’s gracious offer of the grace of salvation or reject it, then those who chose to receive that grace merited with God, all their pious protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
The Resolution to the Conflict
It seemed for a time that Bolsec was willing to accept the admonition of the Venerable Company of Pastors who exhorted him to be silent about his views and submit to the discipline of the church. But Bolsec was a proud man. He did not alter his position, and he refused to listen to his pastors.
The episode in his life that really brought his case to a head was a very dramatic one. It seems that it was the practice in Geneva to hold a meeting on Friday of every week in St. Peter’s Church to instruct the people more fully in the truths of God’s Word. It was conducted much like a worship service. At the meeting held on October 16, 1551, John de St. André was preaching. His text was John 8:47: “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.” It is clear on the surface that this text teaches sovereign reprobation in that it ascribes the unbelief of the Jews to the fact that God has not chosen them to be His people. St. André understood the text. He explained it to mean that those who are not elect will never believe God’s words, but will oppose God until they die because God gives His grace only to the elect.
Bolsec could not restrain himself. While St. André was preaching, Bolsec suddenly arose and began a long harangue against the preacher. He shouted that the everlasting destination of all men was not decided by God before they were born, that God did not determine that some go to hell and others to heaven, but that man’s eternal fate is in his own hands and God willed to punish only those who refused His overtures of love, while blessing only those who accepted His promises. Bolsec heaped verbal abuse upon the clergy of Geneva and, turning to those who were present, warned them to reject the false teachings of their pastor.
What Bolsec did not know was that, near the beginning of his harangue, Calvin had walked into the sanctuary and was standing in the doorway listening to everything Bolsec said. Calvin permitted Bolsec to speak his piece, but then he stepped forward and began an address to those present in which he refuted every argument of Bolsec with Scripture, demonstrated with many quotes that he made from memory that the truth of sovereign predestination was not an innovation but was the teaching of the venerable church father Augustine, and showed that Scripture itself taught reprobation. Beza, in commenting on this event, he wrote that so complete was Calvin’s address that “all felt exceedingly ashamed for the brazen-faced monk, except the monk himself.”
The lieutenant of the police was also present. He arrested Bolsec and put him in prison for publicly abusing the ministers and for disturbing a worship service and the public peace.
Preparations for Bolsec’s trial were made the same afternoon. The Venerable Company of Pastors drew up a summary of Bolsec’s theological position. They submitted this to the Council, the ruling body in the city, responsible for the enforcement of civil law. They requested the Council to try Bolsec and require that he give an account of himself. Bolsec also shortly prepared his defense, in which he defended his theological position and asked the Council to place Calvin and the pastors before questions to which they were to give specific answers.1
But the Venerable Company of Pastors also decided to ask the Council to seek the advice of the other cantons in Switzerland, which had, primarily under the influence of Zwingli and Bullinger, become Protestant. The attempt to do so, however, served only to reveal that the truth of sovereign predestination was not widely accepted. The advice from the cantons was disappointing, to say the least.
The errors as defined by the Council and on which they wanted the cantons to decide were, as outlined by Schaff:
1.That faith depends not on election, but election on faith.
2.That it is an insult to God to say that he abandons some to blindness, because it is his pleasure to do so.
3.That God leads to himself all rational creatures, and abandons only those who have often resisted him.
4.That God’s grace is universal, and some are not more predestinated to salvation than others.
5.That when St. Paul says that God has elected us through Christ, he does not mean election to salvation, but election to discipleship and apostleship
The Venerable Company of Pastors also sent a letter to the churches outlining the errors of Bolsec’s position. But the other Swiss churches demonstrated their own weaknesses with respect to the truth of sovereign predestination. For the most part the churches advised the church of Geneva to be more tolerant of the views of others and to deal more gently with those who denied what they called a mysterious and perplexing doctrine. For the most part, these churches agreed with the ministers in Geneva on the doctrine of unconditional election; but they wavered on the question of reprobation and wanted no condemnation of those who opposed it.
Bullinger, perhaps the greatest theologian among the Swiss churches (other than Geneva) and the author of the Second Helvetic Confession, was more emphatic. He took exception entirely to the doctrine of reprobation and expressed displeasure with the position Geneva had adopted. He too warned against the conclusions that could be drawn from the position that God is sovereign also in reprobation. Bullinger’s unwarranted criticism of the position ofCalvin and the other Genevan pastors was the occasion for a disruption of the otherwise cordial relations between Calvin and Bullinger, although their relationship was restored before Calvin’s death, when Bullinger moved closer to Calvin’s position.
It is not surprising that Luther’s colleague Melanchthon also took vehement exception to Calvin’s position. But Melanch-thon’s position was synergistic,2 and not at all in agreement with Luther himself, who in his great work, The Bondage of the Will, took a position almost identical to that of Calvin.
…to be continued.
1.If one would inquire how the civil government could involve itself in religious and doctrinal questions, the answer is to be found in the unique relation between the state and the church in Geneva, but also in many other Protestant countries, such as the Netherlands and the British Isles. The civil magistrate was required in this concept to “promote the true religion.”
2.Synergism, as we noted in an earlier article on Melanchthon, is the view that salvation is a cooperative effort between God and man.