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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Was Geneva a Theocracy?

Published Monday, March 2, 1992 By Michael S. Horton

From the first-hand accounts, Oxford’s Gillian Lewis notes: “The city of Geneva possessed a significance which was symbolic and mythical. Her friends saw her as the mirror and model of piety, a haven of refuge, a roosting-place for fledglings, a stronghold to train and dispatch abroad soldiers of the Gospel and ministers of the Word.” And yet, there were enemies as well, enemies who saw Geneva as “Satan’s sanctuary, a source of heresy, atheism, and libertinage and a centre for the active dissemination of sedition.” (1)

Just as soon as Geneva embraced the Reformation officially and severed its loyalties to the bishop and Duke of Savoy, the city was flooded with refugees from all over Europe. Overnight Geneva became, after Wittenberg, Zurich, and Strasbourg, a capitol of the Protestant faith. Foreign visitors expressed amazement as they observed both the theological and practical attractions of the city.

Nevertheless, the impressions we received from our high school teachers, more than likely, had little in common with those reported by first-hand witnesses, friend or foe. Images abound of a tyrant in a black academic gown, organizing a sixteenth-century equivalent of the secret police to insure that no one, at any time or any place, was enjoying himself. The amazing thing about this is not the image itself, but the fact that it has survived in the public imagination even though it has been refuted by the consensus of the world’s leading Renaissance and Reformation historians for over half a century. The foundation for this public myth is the assertion that Geneva was a theocracy and Calvin was its pope.

The Reluctant Reformer

Oxford professor Alister McGrath writes, “Before the Reformation Geneva was an episcopal city in decline.” (2) In 1535 the city council abolished the mass and the bishop responded by excommunicating the Genevan population. Months later they minted their first coins, which read, “After darkness, light!” Protestant Berne came to Geneva’s defense militarily and Geneva gained its independence from the Duke of Savoy. Nevertheless, the city was in severe debt and administratively confused, much as we are used to seeing with the new independent republics of what used to be the Soviet Union. While the bishop threatened the use of force, the people voted for the Reformation on May 25, 1536.

But that is only the beginning. Without qualified leadership, Geneva was on the verge of collapse. What the new republic desperately needed was a young visionary.

John Calvin was trained in theology and law, the latter being his chosen course, studying under some of the most sensitive intellects of the Renaissance, and had finished his first published work, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. Combining his interests in language and civil law, this work explored the Roman philosopher’s concern (and, no doubt Calvin’s as well) for leniency and compassion in the execution of civil justice. Seneca and Calvin both lived during difficult times, when power was used for personal advantage to such a point that church and society both had become demoralized.

At this time, Calvin was becoming a “Lutheran” and read every evangelical tract he could find. Fleeing the authorities in Paris, Calvin set off on July 15, 1536, for the reformed city of Strasbourg, where Martin Bucer was centered. However, the French King and the Emperor were engaged in a war which blocked the road to Strasbourg from France. Frustrated, but undaunted, Calvin took a detour to Geneva for the night. That’s right, for the night.

Little did Calvin know what awaited him in God’s providence. The chief reformed pastor, Guillaume Farel, a stern older gentleman, greeted the young reformer. Calvin was anonymous, and wanted it to stay that way. Here is his own account:

Nobody there knew I was the author [of The Institutes]…until finally Guillaume Farel kept me at Geneva, not so much by advice and argument, as by a dreadful curse, as if God had laid his hand upon me from heaven to stop me….Then someone…discovered me and made it known to others. Upon this Farel…went out of his way to detain me. And after having heard that I had several private studies for which I wished to keep myself free…, he gave vent to imprecation, that it might please God to curse my leisure and the peace for my study that I was looking for, if I went away and refused to give them support and help in a situation of such great need. These words so shocked and moved me that I gave up the journey I had intended to make.

However, conscious of my shame and timidity, I did not want myself to be obliged to carry out any particular duties. (3)

Dr. McGrath observes, “Withdrawn in personality and intellectual in inclination, he gave little indication of being of potential value in the cut-and-thrust world of Genevan politics of the 1530s.” (4) At this time, Calvin was no more than a lecturer in the Bible and theology.

The big moment apparently came when Berne, attempting to convert Lausanne via a public debate, invited Farel to represent the reformed position and Farel brought Calvin along. Caught in a bit of a pinch over how to handle the Catholic representative’s claim that the reformed ignore the church fathers, Calvin rose to answer. “Reeling off a remarkable chain of references to their writings, including their location–apparently totally from memory–Calvin virtually destroyed the credibility of his opponent.” (5) After winning Lausanne to the Reformation, Calvin was asked to write the Confession of Faith for the city. Thereupon he was appointed pastor of St. Peter’s, the cathedral church of Geneva.

After years of clerical domination, the city council was not about to give the church even its proper spiritual authority, much less civil power. “Unlike their catholic predecessors,” writes McGrath, “they were devoid of power and wealth within the city; indeed, they were not even citizens of Geneva, with access to decision-making bodies.” (6) Tension began to build between Calvin and the city council. Calvin wanted communion to be administered frequently (preferably, every time the Word is preached); he insisted on the authority for excommunication resting with the church, not with the state, the latter often using it as a threat against political enemies. In other words, Calvin wanted more of a separation between the religious and civil spheres. However, the city council, for political reasons, denied Calvin and Farel their reforms. When they refused to tolerate the interference of the city council in spiritual affairs, they were exiled to Strasbourg.

The Reluctant Returner

In Strasbourg (1538-41), Calvin felt as though he were in heaven. Martin Bucer became his mentor and Calvin assumed the pastorate of the French Reformed church there. During this time, Calvin published some of his most noted works and settled down enough to marry Idelette de Bure, the widow of an Anabaptist friend. With every success Calvin became more satisfied in Strasbourg, but once again Geneva was calling.

First, the city council asked Calvin to write a response to Cardinal Sadoleto’s appeal for the Genevans to return to the Roman fold. This Calvin did, and a convincing defense it is, and the reformer thought the project was harmless enough, since he could write it in the leisure of Strasbourg’s more supportive environment. Geneva issued its apology and a plea for Farel and Calvin to return, but neither appeared particularly moved by the invitation. Finally, in February, 1541, Farel persuaded Calvin to return, though he himself did not, and Calvin arrived September 13.

Dr. McGrath points out “how deeply the myth of ‘the great dictator of Geneva’ is embedded in popular religious and historical writings,” and points to the work of Balzac and Huxley as examples of writers who made assertions without any historical facts supporting them, but who nevertheless seem to have had more influence in the shaping of the modern view of Calvin than the facts of history. (7) The Genevan reformer was “denied access to the city’s decision-making machinery. He could not vote; he could not stand for office.” (8) In fact, he still had little power over his own church affairs!

Did Calvin Have Servetus Burned At The Stake?

There is one event which stands out in our minds concerning Calvin’s leadership in the Genevan church, however, which deserves closer consideration: On October 25, 1553, the city council issued the decree that Michael Servetus be burned at the stake for heresy.

Did Calvin “have Servetus burned at the stake,” as is the popular impression? The answer, clearly, is no! First, Calvin had corresponded with Servetus and there is some evidence to suggest that he had even tried to clandestinely meet with the anti-Trinitarian in order to try to convince him of his error. After escaping certain execution from Roman Catholic authorities in France and Vienna, Servetus arrived in Geneva and made himself known to Calvin in public. Servetus was arrested and, although Calvin was both a theologian and trained lawyer who had been employed by the city council to draft legislation concerning social welfare, city planning, sanitation, and the like, he was not the prosecuting attorney. Remember, he did not even have the rights of a common citizen!

Second, Calvin was at the height of his battles with the city council at this time. Had he, in fact, urged the execution of Servetus, that might have been just the thing to have saved the victim’s life! When Servetus was given the option of facing trial in Vienna or Geneva, Servetus chose Geneva. For some reason, he must have thought his chances of survival were better in Geneva. However, the council, led by the anti-Calvin faction at this time, was determined to demonstrate that Geneva could be trusted as a reformed city committed to upholding the creeds and Servetus was sentenced to death by burning. Calvin pleaded with the council to execute Servetus in a more humane manner than the traditional ritual burning for heretics. But, of course, the city council refused Calvin’s plea. Farel visited Calvin during the execution and was, reportedly, so disturbed that he left without even saying farewell.

During this same period, by the way, thirty-nine heretics were burned in Paris, the Inquisition was being enforced in Spain and Italy, and other parts of Europe. In spite of the fact that many sought refuge in Geneva who were less than orthodox, fleeing Catholic authorities, Servetus was the only heretic burned there during Calvin’s distinguished career.

In fact, it must be noted that Jews were invited by the reformed cities to find safety from the Inquisition. The Puritan Cromwell was later to make England a safe haven for dissenters, even for those with whom he dissented, and especially for Jews. The same is true of The Netherlands and Strasbourg. It is no small wonder that when we think of human rights and international relations, these reformed (or once-reformed) capitols–Geneva, Strasbourg (home of the Int’l Institute of Human Rights, the European Parliament, and other relief and human rights agencies), Amsterdam, and London, find their way to the top of the list.

Will The Real Calvin Please Stand

The fact is, Calvin was a caring pastor who visited patients dying of the deadly and contagious plague in the newly organized hospital he had established, even though he was warned of the dangers of contact. He “not only risked his life,” according to Dutch historian L. Penning, “but accomplished more for the patients by adopting sophisticated hygienic measures.” (9) He was the genius behind the establishment of the network of deacons who, according to Dr. Gillian Lewis, “took charge of the day-to-day care of the sick and impotent poor,” giving the position “the dignity of being a part of the four-fold ministry of the church.” (10) It was he who urged the council to secure low-interest loans in banking for the poor but entrepreneurial exiles who had been trained in a craft through the training and employment agency which was the functioning diaconate.

It was Calvin who urged universal, free education to all inhabitants of the city, as Luther and the other reformers had done, and “from 1541 he always rose and went to bed with this thought uppermost in his mind: ‘How can we give Geneva a University?.'” (11) And it was his students who spread the gospel as well as proto-democratic ideals throughout the western world.

For the reformers in general and for Calvin in particular, soli Deo gloria (to God only be glory) was the design of life and good works were caring for one’s neighbor, working for justice and right dealings, building churches, pubs, hospitals and universities for the honor of the Great King.

So here is our “tyrant of Geneva,” whose ministry was first opposed, then summoned with repeated pleas, then frustrated, and finally held in high honor by the people he is supposed to have abused. Penning writes that, toward the end of his life, when Calvin was seen in the streets, citizens and “famous strangers” would say, “‘Look, there goes our Master Calvin!'” On March 10, 1564 the council decreed a day of prayer for Calvin’s health and the reformer recovered for a time. On Easter, April 2, Calvin was carried to St. Peter’s in his chair and after he received communion from Beza, his successor, the congregation began weeping.

The council which had years earlier determined the length of sermons in Geneva and opposed so much of his pastoral ministry voted to give Calvin a substantial financial gift, but the reformer refused to accept any money, since he could no longer fulfill the functions. On Saturday, May 27, Calvin died, aged fifty-five years. “When late at night the news of Calvin’s death spread, there was much weeping in the town, as a nation weeps when it loses its benefactor,” writes Penning. “Cannon Street was crowded with people; it became a pilgrimage to the Reformer’s death-bed, and the Government had to take measures to prevent too great a pressure.” (12) The city, with its thousands of exiles, citizens, and foreign dignitaries, followed the procession. Calvin had insisted that he be placed in a simple pine box, buried in an unmarked grave. This surely was not the funeral of a despot.

Even the greatest heroes of the past have blemishes and have made decisions or statements which cause us, centuries later especially, to flinch and Calvin is no exception. But at a time when preachers, much less politicians and celebrities, appear to offer some less than heroic role models, the shy and reluctant man of Geneva seems to have weathered the disdain of those today, like those of his own day, who cannot understand what it is like to be possessed by a passion for God. Tom Wolfe, author of Bonfire of the Vanities, told TIME Magazine, “Ours is not an age likely to produce great heroes.” May today’s Bible-believing heirs of the Reformation prove him wrong.

For Further Reading

Ralph Hancock, Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (NY: Cornell University Press); J. McNeill, The History & Character of Calvinism (Oxford University Press); Ronald Wallace, Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation (Baker/Scottish Academic Press); Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Basil Blackwell).

  • Michael S. Horton

1 [ Back ] Dr. Gillian Lewis, "Calvin and Geneva," in International Calvinism (Oxford Univ. Press), p. 39.
2 [ Back ] Dr. Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. 86.
3 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 95.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 96.
5 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 97.
6 [ Back ] Ibid.
7 [ Back ] Ibid., pp. 105 ff.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 109.
9 [ Back ] L. Penning, Life and Times of Calvin, transl. by B.S. Berrington (London: Kegan, Trench, Trubner, 1912), p. 287.
10 [ Back ] Lewis, op. cit., p. 44.
11 [ Back ] Penning, op. cit., p. 288.
12 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 391.

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