Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Jerome Bolsec, as we saw last time, was an enemy of the truth of sovereign predestination. When he went so far as to interrupt a worship service in Geneva in order to oppose the preaching of that truth, he was arrested by the civil authorities for disturbing the peace. The Venerable Company of Pastors in Geneva urged the city Council to examine Bolsec’s doctrinal positions, and to seek the advice of other cantons in Switzerland to arrive at the truth of the matter. As it turned out, however, the other Swiss churches were a disappointment. They agreed with the ministers in Geneva on the doctrine of unconditional election, but were of a mind to advise toleration of those who opposed the “perplexing doctrine” of reprobation.
The End of the Matter
Two events ended the matter. The Council refused to accept the advice of the churches from the neighboring cantons, and instead condemned the views of Bolsec. Nevertheless, the sentence passed upon Bolsec was almost certainly less severe than it could have been: Bolsec was banished from Geneva, under pain of being whipped if he returned.
The second consequence of the poor advice of the Swiss cantons was the preparation of a tract by Calvin entitled On the Eternal Predestination of God, in which Calvin set forth his mature and fully developed views on sovereign, eternal, and double predestination. It, along with another tract on the doctrine of providence, has been published under the title Calvin’s Calvinism.* This tract is sometimes called the Consensus Genevensis or Genevan Agreement. It was given this name because it expressed the position of the Genevan churches.
Jerome Bolsec was banished from Geneva on December 23, 1555. He never returned to the city, but he did return to the Roman Catholic Church, where he rightly belonged; for his doctrine was that of Rome, not of the Reformation, and his views were Semi-Pelagian and not Calvinistic. Before he died, he wrote a biography of Calvin that was full of slander, evil stories, and terrible accusations. The biography would have died at birth, I am sure, if it had not been for the fact that the Romish Church took hold of it and promoted it as a genuine story of the life of Calvin and the kind of man he was. But at last, even Roman Catholic scholarship, bound by scholarly integrity if not love for Calvin, killed it.
It is difficult to imagine, but it is, in fact, true, that there are men within the Reformed churches who come to Bolsec’s defense and criticize Calvin for the Bolsec affair. Calvin is, e.g., charged with a hatred for Bolsec, not out of disagreement with Bolsec’s theological position, but out of a determination to defend his own position as dictator of Geneva. Calvin is charged with seeing in Bolsec a threat to his domination in the city and church, and with using his power and influence to rid the city of someone whom he considered a challenger to his absolute sway within the canton.
One cannot take such a stand without calling into question Calvin’s theology. And so, this also is done. Calvin is charged with gross error in his position on predestination, and Bolsec’s position is honored and set forth as the truth of Scripture. The enemies of sovereign predestination are legion.
But, more seriously, Reformed and Presbyterian writers would prefer that the entire episode of Calvin’s dealings with Bolsec remain unknown. These, and there are many, claim that a position similar to that of Bolsec was really Calvin’s position; that Calvin never really taught what is said to be Calvin’s theology; and that later theologians (among whom are mentioned Theodore Beza, the fathers at Dordt, the Westminster divines, Turretin, Kuyper, Hoeksema — to name but a few) have rashly and wrongly twisted Calvin’s theology into something Calvin never taught or intended. These books (and there are many) do not want to talk about the Bolsec controversy, for they are unable to explain Calvin’s condemnation of Bolsec when, according to them, Calvin held views almost identical to Bolsec.And, as if that bit of historical legerdemain were not sufficient, even the theologians present at the
Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 sought support for the well-meant gospel offer by claiming that it was taught by Reformed writers in “the most flourishing period of Reformed theology” — when, in fact, it is the very doctrine that was part and parcel of Bolsec’s views so strongly condemned by Calvin.
If anyone disputes this analysis of the situation, he need only read Calvin’s Treatise On the Eternal Predestination of God. It is all there. While Bolsec’s name is not mentioned, and while another enemy of sovereign predestination, Pighius by name, is mentioned in that treatise, the fact remains that the treatise was occasioned by the heresy of Bolsec and the sympathetic treatment of Bolsec by the other Swiss theologians.
Every genuinely orthodox theologian from Calvin to today has agreed that Calvin’s teachings on election and reprobation are the teachings of the Word of God. All who have even a superficial understanding of the great church father Augustine also agree that Calvin did not bring into theology an innovation, a new doctrine, something invented by him, but that he taught nothing more than Augustine himself had taught and insisted was crucial to the truth of the sovereignty of God in His work of grace in salvation. The great Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly, both representing the best theologians that the age knew and, perhaps, that the world has ever seen assembled within a few years of each other, put its stamp on Calvin’s teaching as being in all parts biblical.
Why do men refuse to accept what is so obviously the case, namely that election and reprobation are biblical, confessional, and the teachings of the Reformers? The answer can only be that man wants no part of the absolute sovereignty of God. He prefers to salvage some remnants of his tattered pride and place some responsibility for his salvation in his own hands. He refuses to admit that God is sovereign also in the damnation of the wicked. He refuses to acknowledge that God does all His good pleasure and reveals in all the works of His hands that He alone is God.
The church has never claimed that this is an easy doctrine. It is not easy to understand; it is not easy to preach; it is not easy to hold and confess. It crushes all human pride. It leaves man nothing and God everything. It insists that not man rules, not even in his own affairs, but that God, the Creator, the Sustainer of all, is also the Potter, who is sovereign over the clay to make vessels of honor and dishonor as it pleases Him. God wills the salvation of the elect in Jesus Christ, and that decree of election is the “fountain and cause” of faith, of all good works, and of the fullness of salvation in Christ. But God also wills the damnation of the reprobate to everlasting hell in the way of their sin as manifestation of His supreme justice and infinite holiness.
It is, in the final analysis, impossible that one maintain the sovereignty of God in election (as many try to do) and deny the sovereignty of God in reprobation. To deny the latter will result in a denial of the former. Calvin understood that. Dordt understood that. Dordt insisted that election and reprobation were one decree, though with two sides: “That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree…” (Canons I, 6).
Let those churches and ministers who preach the whole counsel of God and claim to be Calvinists preach also the doctrine of eternal, unchangeable, and sovereign reprobation and maintain it against all opposition.
*It is available from the Reformed Free Publishing Association.