John Calvin and The Reformation In Geneva

Life of Calvin. Calvin’s dates are 1509-64. He was born in Noyon, Picardy, France. He came from a good family. His father was secretary to the bishop of Noyon. At the age of twelve he was made a beneficiary chaplain in and near Noyon, which brought him an income. But he was never ordained priest and took no degree. Having been provided with an income, he entered the university of Paris where he completed his undergraduate studies. Leaving Paris, he went to the university of Orleans to study law. He also took up the study of Greek with a Lutheran teacher, Melchior Wolmar. Having already mastered the Latin in the university of Paris, he continued his study in Greek and in addition took up the study of Hebrew in the College de France in Paris. Thus far he had shown no particular interest in matters of religion. At this time he was still untouched by the Reformation, its doctrines and struggle. Yet he was not ignorant of the issues; for Luther’s books had already penetrated France. But in 1533 Calvin was converted and henceforth religion was to him a matter of prime importance. He now began the work of an evangelist in Bourges. Receiving tidings of the death of his father he went to Noyon, the place of his birth. Here he again preached the gospel to the people of Noyon and of the neighboring towns. A few were converted to his gospel but the majority was hostile and Calvin sought a new field of labor in Paris.

Here in Paris Calvin wrote an inaugural address for Cop, the newly elected rector of the university of Paris. Though written by Calvin, it was delivered by Cop. The key-note of the discourse was the “Grace of God the one sole fountain of man’s renewal, pardon, and eternal life.” It was spoken on all saints day, yet it contained not a word about the saints. The result was that a storm broke loose and Cop and Calvin were pronounced heretics. The officials of the city went to arrest Calvin, but he eluded them and fled to a city, Angouleme by name, and found safety in the home of a friend, Louis du Tillit. Finding here a large library he spent his time in reading and meditation. After a half year Calvin left his hiding and went to Poitiers, where he drew disciples around him. The fruit of his labors here was the organization of a small congregation.

From this city Calvin went to Noyon where he severed the last link that bound him to the papacy by resigning his benefices. From Noyon he went to Paris, and met Le Febre and other reformers. Feeling perhaps that France was too perilous for him, he quitted Paris and set out for Germany. Hardly had he crossed the borders of Germany, when persecutions once more broke out in France. Had Calvin been in Peris when the storm broke, he would certainly have been numbered among the victims. This persecution had been occasioned by the publication of a tract or placard fiercely denouncing the mass. The paper was headed, “True articles on the horrble, great, and intolerable abuses of the Popish Mass.”

The year 1534 found Calvin safely in Protestant Basel. He was now twenty five years old. Here he wrote his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” dedicated to Francis I of France. The work had been begun in Anguoleme. It is prefaced with a letter to the king, and its purpose was to defend his (Calvin’s) slandered fellow believers. On the publication of his Institutes in 1536, Calvin once more visited Noyon, the place of his birth. From there he proceeded to Basel, and August of this same year found him in Geneva. He had come to rest only for the night to depart on the morrow. But he was pressed into service in Geneva by Farel. Calvin first refused. He believed his sphere was his library and his proper instrument of work his pen. He believed he could best edify all the churches from the privacy of a study room. But Farel commanded Calvin to remain, and imprecated upon his studies the curse of God, should he make them the excuse for declining the call.

Reform of Geneva prior to Calvin’s arrival. Geneva for two centuries had been governed politically by its bishops and the Count of Savoy. But in 1526 it had gained its independence and made alliance with Berne and the Swiss. The new government, formed of citizens of liberated Geneva, allowed Wm. Farel, Peter Viret, and Antoine Froment to preach the Gospel in Geneva, and it officially adopted the advocated reforms. The mass was abolished, images and relics were removed, the bishops were banished, all Catholic worship was forbidden, a school and a hospital were founded, daily sermons, simple communion, and a strict discipline was introduced.

The character of the Genevan reform prior to the arrival of Calvin. The Genevans, being a liberty-loving people, had expelled the pope’s bishop, who had fastened himself upon them as a political as well as an ecclesiastical ruler. The hatred of the Genevans of Rome and all things Romish, also explains the action of the Genevan new government, according to which it introduced the ecclesiastical reforms advocated by Far ell. It was hatred of Rome that made them do this but not love of God and of the truth and of holy living. Fact is that, as their treatment of Calvin was to indicate, the great majority of them were haters of God and of his truth and of holy living. They were licentious and loose-living. For centuries Geneva had known almost nothing of moral discipline. This was the case not only in Geneva but throughout Europe, in every city of the patriarchate of the Pope of Rome. Wittenburg, the center of the Lutheran Reformation, was that corrupt, that Luther more than once threatened to quit the city.

As to Geneva, before the expulsion of Rome, its clergy was profligate, its government tyrannical, and its people demoralized. The Genevans reveled, danced, played at cards and fought in the streets; they sang indecent songs, uttered fearful blasphemies, indulged in short, in all sorts of excesses. The people had adopted Protestantism but not with their hearts. Many of them were still papists at heart; some were Anabaptists, and others were deeply tainted with infidel and materialistic philosophy. And this whole population was in the church and were members of it in good standing, however unworthy. There was no church discipline. All these libertines were allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper under the reign of the Roman bishops. In those days everybody belonged to the church, infidel and believer, saint and sinner alike. And the great weakness of the Lutheran Reformation was that it allowed the world to continue in the church.

The world was in the church when Calvin arrived in Geneva, and this despite the fact that Geneva had embraced Protestantism. The great achievement of Calvin was that through the vigorous exercise of church discipline by the ruling ministry which he restored to the church, the world in Geneva was cast out of the church.

The new political government in Geneva after the expulsion of Rome. If we are to have understanding of Calvin’s struggles and achievement in Geneva, we must know how its government was organized. There was 1) the Council-General, the convention of all the citizens of Geneva; 2) the Council of two hundred, called the Great Council and chosen by the Council-General; 3) the Little Council or Senate formed of twenty five members and chosen by the Great Council. As was said, the Great Council was chosen by the Council-General, but in 1542 this was changed, contrary to the protests of Calvin. In this year the election of the Great Council was taken away from the people and given to the Little Council or Senate. The Council of twenty five was the ruling body in Geneva.

Calvin’s first labors in Geneva. Calvin was appointed to give lectures on the Scriptures and to preach, which he did, not in the school, for there was none, but in the Cathedral; and not to students, for there were none, but to the common people.

Within three months from the commencement of these labors he had compiled a brief but comprehensive creed of the Christian faith, and a Catechism for the instruction of the youth. Both were adopted and approved by the Council of two hundred.

Calvin also recommended that the government appoint certain persons who, in connection with the ministers, should take oversight over all the citizens of Geneva and report the unworthy to the church for discipline and, if need be, for excommunication out of the church. This recommendation was adopted by the Council of Two Hundred.

Calvin next drafted a number of rules for the reformation of the morals of the city. The government adopted these rules and placed them on the statute books. These rules forbade games of chance, oaths and blasphemies, dances and lascivious songs, and the farces and masquerades in which the people had publicly indulged. They enjoined all persons to attend the sermons on the Sabbath and on the week-days and retire to their homes at nine o’clock at night. The masters of hotels and cabarets were to see to it that their guests observed these regulations.

Calvin banished from Geneva. The fundamental cause. This cause was the hatred of Calvin by the worldly element in Geneva, the libertines. This element continued in their lascivious ways. Calvin thundered reproof from the pulpit against their vices. This was more than they could endure. Especially did they resent the “excommunication”. For the ministers would remove from the rolls of the church the names of members who lived in sin but would not repent.

The immediate occasion of Calvin’s banishment. The opposition to Calvin’s ‘‘excommunication’’ was so strong that the Council of two hundred ruled that the Lord’s Supper should be refused to no one. Calvin, of course, refused to comply. The libertines also demanded that the Lord’s Supper be dispensed with unleavened bread. Again the civil authorities so ruled without consulting the ministers. This was laying the church in bondage and Calvin therefore refused to comply also respecting this matter, though he had no objection to dispensing the Lord’s Supper with such bread. That to him was a matter of indifference.

The sentiment of Calvin became known. As the Sabbath approached upon which the Lord’s Supper was to be served the fury of the libertines increased. They ran through the streets at night yelling, “to the Rhone with them (the pastors). They would stop before the pastors’ houses and fire off their firearms. Frightful confusion prevailed in Geneva. “I have lived here,” says Calvin himself, describing these agitations, “engaged in strange contests. I have been saluted in mockery of an evening before my own door, with fifty or sixty shots of harquebuses. You may imagine how that must astound a poor scholar, timid as I am, and as I confess, I always was.”

On the Sabbath that the Lord’s Supper was to be administered, the two churches in Geneva were filled to capacity. The libertines were there too in great force. In the one church Calvin preached; in the other Farel. Calvin, as did Farel in his church, expounded in his sermon the nature of the Lord’s Supper; he described the attitude required of those who would worthily partake of it; and recalling the disorders which had reigned in the city in the past weeks, he declared that this day the Lord’s Supper would not be dispensed to prove that the disorders were not those of the majority assembled. Sooner should his blood dye the boards he stood upon than that he would be guilty of the profanation demanded of him, namely, that he serve the Lord’s Supper to libertines who were present in large numbers. “We protest before you all”, he said, “that we are not obstinate about the question of bread, leavened or unleavened; that is a matter of indifference, which is left to the discretion of the church. If we decline to administer the Lord’s Supper, it is because we are in great difficulty, which prompts us to this course.”

In the evening Calvin preached again. While he was preaching, a storm broke loose, on account of what he was saying. Swords were drawn, and infuriated men pressed forward to the pulpit. A single stroke and Calvin’s career would have been ended. But friends threw themselves between the pulpit and the mob, and remonstrated with it. The result was that the affair passed without bloodshed.

The next day the Council of Two Hundred met, and pronounced sentence of banishment upon Calvin and Farel. The sentence was ratified on the following day by the Council general or assembly of the people. The Council rested its sentence of banishment upon the question of unleavened bread. Herein it acted deceitfully. For Calvin had made it plain that the question of unleavened bread was with him an open one. The real reason of the banishment was that Calvin and Farel had refused to serve the Lord’s Supper to the libertines on account of their blasphemies and immoralities. Before being condemned, Calvin asked to be heard in his defense before the Council-general, but his request was refused. It is important to mark at this stage that the principle on which Calvin rested his whole scheme of church government was: holy things are not to be given to the unholy. In other words, what he labored for in the first place is purity of the church and in the second place morality in the state.

Calvin now went to Stasburg, where he remained for two years and a half before returning to Geneva. In his new sphere at Strasburg, Calvin preached four times a week and discharged all the other duties of a faithful pastor. He also lectured every day on theology to the students of the Academy, taking as his text book the Bible. The fame of his lectures drew students from other countries, and Stasburg promised to rival Wittemburg as a school of theology.

Yielding to the petition of the Genevans that he return, Calvin was back in Geneva. The public feeling in Geneva regarding Calvin had undergone a great change. The faction of the libertines, reinforced by Anababtists and Papists, had grown ungovernable. Licentiousness and tumult ran riot now that Calvin was gone. The Council, helpless in the face of these disorders, repented of what it had done. And the citizens all cried out, “Calvin, Calvin!” We wish Calvin, the good and learned man, and true minister of Jesus Christ.”—the citizens, exclusive of course of the libertines and the papists. Calvin did not want to return. Going back was like lying down on a bed of torture. The thought, he tells us, filled him with horror. But his brethren in Stasburg told him that Geneva was his post of service and Bucer bade him beware of the punishment of Jonas for refusing to go and preach repentance to Nineveh. This was enough for Calvin. He went back.