Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Calvin in Strassburg
After a brief stay in Basel, Calvin went to Strassburg, a city in southern Germany where the Swiss reformation had already taken root. The three years he spent in this city were probably the happiest years of his life. He had no need to fight a Council, no need to oppose a stubborn people at every turn of the way, no need to do battle with enemies on every side. He had peace and quiet, time for study and writing, opportunity to do work in the fields of liturgy and church polity.
Calvin was appointed to the faculty of the University in the city and was called to be pastor of a church of French refugees. He had occasion to meet with Lutheran theologians and sharpen his own theological views. He worked on revisions of his Institutes and developed his views on church polity, the basic principles of which are incorporated in our own “Church Order of Dordrecht.” He developed a liturgy for the church which included an order of worship (much like the order of worship we still use), liturgical forms, and versions of Psalms.
These were productive years. Calvin engaged in voluminous correspondence with all the leading figures of Europe. He wrote a number of his important works, one of which was his letter to Sadolet. Sadolet was a Roman Catholic cardinal who wrote a letter to the people of Geneva in an effort to win them back to Rome. It was, from a certain human point of view, a masterful and persuasive piece of work. Calvin’s response was without any bitterness or rancor against the Genevans, but was instead the clearest and most helpful defense of the reformation which could be found anywhere. It is “must” reading for anyone who wishes to know why reformation in the 16th century was necessary.
Calvin even married during his stay in Strassburg. His wife was Idelette de Bure, the widow of a prominent Anabaptist whom Calvin had converted to the true faith and who had died in the pestilence. She was the mother of several children, but poor and in feeble health. Calvin took responsibility for her children as well as for her, but lived with her only nine years. Calvin remained single the rest of his life. With Idelette Calvin had one son who died in infancy, a loss which Calvin bore the remainder of his life.
Second Stay In Geneva
But the happy years in Strassburg were soon to come to an end. The situation in Geneva steadily deteriorated. Three parties were vying for power and the city was sinking into anarchy.
In 1541 Calvin was formally asked to return. Strassburg was reluctant to let him go. Calvin was even more reluctant to leave his happy life in Strassburg and take on the horrors of Geneva. But, compelled by God, he returned to the whirlpool (Calvin’s word) of struggle and controversy where he stayed until death took him to the church triumphant.
One evidence of the stature of the man was his conduct upon his return. The first Sunday he en tered the pulpit of Saint Pierre before a huge crowd gathered partly to hear him again, but partly to listen to him lambast his opponents and smugly proclaim “I told you so.” But in a letter to Farel, Calvin tells what he did. “After a preface, I took up the exposition where I had left off – by which I indicated that I had interrupted my office of preaching for the time rather than that I had given it up entirely.” Nothing could have been more prosaic and yet more effective. It was as if Calvin resumed his ministry with the words: “As I was saying….”
The struggles with the Council continued for a very long time, and the efforts to subdue the city so that Christ’s rule was present did not cease until many who opposed Calvin left for other places. His enemies were hateful and not afraid to show it. People called their dogs by Calvin’s name, openly reviled him in the streets, sometimes threatened his life, disturbed him in his studies, and vowed to do harm to his family.Through it all Calvin endured, preaching, teaching, writing, bearing the yoke of Christ’s suffering for the cause of the gospel.
Money and pleasure meant nothing to him. He repeatedly refused more money offered him by the Council. He lived sparingly and without luxury. He was willing even to sell his beloved books when it became necessary. The pope himself was so impressed with Calvin’s total lack of covetousness that he expressed his firm conviction that if he had in his retinue only a dozen men like Calvin, he could conquer the world.
Calvin preached regularly in the church in Geneva, sometimes as often as five times a week; his sermons were taken down in longhand, and many have been published. They make for some very fine reading. He established the famous Academy in Geneva which became a center of learning for students from all over Europe who, having received their education in Geneva, returned to their own lands to spread the gospel of the Reformation to their own people. John Knox studied in Geneva, and it was he who remarked that the most perfect school of Christ which could be found on earth since the days of the apostles was the city of Geneva. In the Academy he lectured, and his commentaries, still some of the best, were the results of these lectures. I rarely, if ever, prepare a sermon without checking what Calvin had to say on a given text.
Within the city itself Calvin’s struggles were with a party called Patriots. They were the descendants of the original citizens of the city, dyed-in-the-wool Roman Catholics when Calvin came, and much, given to riotous living. As refugees streamed into Geneva from all over Europe to escape persecution, the Patriots resented the fact that the control of the city was passing into foreign hands. They hated Calvin and did all in their power to destroy him. When the church was able finally to excommunicate the leaders for their licentiousness, and the Council approved, these men fled.
But Calvin’s theological controversies were the most important. Calvin wrote against the papacy to show its evils and demonstrate how far it had departed from the doctrines of Christ. He had to fight to defend the truths of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ against many who attacked these doctrines, not the least of whom was Servetus, burned at the stake in Geneva for blasphemy.
But his controversies swirled especially around his defense of the truths of sovereign and particular grace in .the work of salvation. And, as is usually the case, the most vicious attacks were concentrated against the doctrine of sovereign predestination. Many hated this doctrine and sought to destroy it. Perhaps the most interesting controversy over this doctrine was with the heretic Bolsec. Bolsec once interrupted the preaching of one of Geneva’s pastors, getting up in the middle of the sermon and making a speech against the truth of predestination. What Bolsec did not know was that Calvin had entered the sanctuary and was listening to Bolsec’s tirade. After Bolsec finished, Calvin mounted the pulpit and, in a masterful sermon, extemporaneous but an hour long, explained the doctrine and proved it from Scripture.
But Bolsec was not deterred. He continued to fight against this truth publicly in Geneva. He was arrested for his opposition to the church and Council and was tried for heresy and public defamation of the ministers. The advice of the other Swiss reformers and churches was sought before Bolsec was condemned. To Calvin’s bitter disappointment, not one church or reformer, with the ‘exception of Fare& could be found to back Calvin’s position completely and without compromise. Their caution or disagreement was concerning Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.
Nevertheless, Calvin persevered, and Bolsec was condemned and banished from the city. From the controversy emerged one of Calvin’s most important works, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” a work which, along with another work on Providence, has been published in the book, Calvin’s Calvinism.
Calvin’s Death and Importance
Calvin departed to be with his Lord on May 27, 1564. He had suffered many infirmities prior to his death, so many in fact that one wonders how he could surmount them all. One student of church history claims that Calvin had no fewer than 12 major illnesses at the end of his life, many of which involved excruciating pain.
On May I9 Calvin summoned the pastors of Geneva and spoke his farewell to them. From that time he remained in bed, although he continued to dictate to a secretary. Farel, now 80 years old, came to see his old friend, although Calvin urged him not ‘to come. He spent his last days in almost continual prayer, and his prayers were mostly quotations from the Psalms. Although his voice was broken by asthma, his eyes and mind remained strong. He saw all who wished to come, but asked that they rather pray for him. As the sun was going down around 8:00 he fell into a calm sleep from which he did not awake until he awoke in glory. He had lived 54 years, 10 months, 17 days.’ Calvin is the proof that God uses men according to His own good pleasure. Weak and shy by nature, Calvin was cast into the center of the maelstrom of the Reformation. It was a role he never wanted, and which he called his daily cross. But he knew, as few men know, that discipleship is exactly characterized by denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following the Lord.
And so God used him as the key figure in the Reformation and in subsequent church history. Although, with the exception of the doctrine of the sacraments, Luther and Calvin agreed on all points of doctrine, Luther was ordained by God to smash, the imposing and seemingly indestructible citadel of Roman Catholicism. Calvin was divinely appointed to build on the ruins a new house, a glorious temple, the church where God makes His dwelling.
Calvin was a man of iron will. Almost ‘his entire stay in Geneva he was ill. Yet he surmounted all his ailments, and never permitted sickness and pain to interfere with his work. He worked incessantly with little or no sleep, until even his wife in exasperation asked for a bit of time to see him.
Calvin was above all a preacher and expositor of Holy Scripture. His preaching was his strength, and it remains of unparalleled influence to the present. His theology was rooted in exegesis, because God’s Word was the standard for him of all truth and right. His commentaries are still the very best available, and modern “scholarly” commentaries, so many of which are really sellouts to higher criticism, seem scarcely worthy of notice in comparison.
Calvin’s influence spread throughout Europe and ultimately throughout the world. That influence was not only his theology, but also his liturgy, his church polity, and his piety. The heritage of Calvin is also, let it never be forgotten, the heritage of genuinely Reformed piety. It would be well if a book were written only on that aspect of Calvin’s life.
Calvin was not the dramatic personality which was Luther. Nor did Calvin “wear his heart on his sleeve,” as Luther did. Especially in his old age, Luther became something of a crab and spoke far too vehemently in his opposition to those who did not agree with him on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. But Calvin always respected Luther for the great work Luther did in the work of reformation. He told others, not so generous towards Luther, that even if Luther would call him a devil, he would still honor him as God’s chosen vessel.
Calvin could appreciate Luther for what Luther did because Calvin’s life was consumed by the glory of God. His enemies called him a God-intoxicated man – drunk with God! What more wonderful thing could be said of a man? The deepest principle of his theology was God’s glory, and the real essence of all he wrote was this great truth. But it was also Calvin’s life. He lived and died with God’s glory his deepest desire. He is one in this cloud of witnesses whose voice shouts to us down the corridors of time.