So who was John Calvin? Rev. Theodore A. Gill, Jr. 11 November 2008 – Ecumenical Centre library lunchtime talk When some of us refer to ourselves as “Reformed” Protestants, or even “Presbyterian”, the adjective is a means of acknowledging that our stream of the Christian tradition flows from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth by way of Geneva. This city came to embrace the Reformation over a period of decades, for reasons that were as political and economic as they were religious, beginning early in the sixteenth century and culminating in a vote by the citizens, late in May 1536, to embrace the evangelical teaching of the Reformers and to dedicate the city to a life consistent with the gospel. Up to this point, John Calvin had not been a part of the story. William Farel deserved the title “Reformer of Geneva”, having begun his preaching here in 1532 when it was still a dangerous undertaking. Calvin arrived in July 1536, weeks after the vote for reform, but it was he who would organize the movement, the church and even the city’s constitution in a way that forever after has associated the name Geneva with the Reformed churches worldwide. So, who was John Calvin? La Vie Protestante, the magazine of the EPG or Protestant Church of Geneva, offers us one answer to the question. As the headline of this month’s editorial tells us, Calvin was Ni un Saint, Ni un Tueur – neither a saint nor a cold-blooded killer. It seems a rather negative assertion – attempting to explain what he was not, and quite defensively, rather than who he was. I prefer to commence in a different way… In his inaugural lecture as a professor at Cambridge University, the great 20th-century biblical commentator and ecumenist C.H. Dodd described the challenge awaiting any interpreter of the New Testament. This is what Dodd said: The ideal interpreter would be one who has entered into that strange, first-century world, has felt its whole strangeness, has sojourned in it until he has lived himself into it, thinking and feeling as one of those to whom the gospel first came and who will then return into our world and give to the truth he has discerned a body out of the stuff of our own thought. I advance the proposition that John Calvin was very much a creature of the sixteenth century – a product of the high middle ages as they intersected with renaissance, a humanistic scholar whose academic concentrations had been in the fields of classical literature and law. But the basis of all education in those days was theology, and it was to this discipline that Calvin returned in earnest after he had completed his studies at the Collège de Montaigu in the University of Paris and made his way to the city of Basel. The concomitant point I’m trying to make is that we are not creatures of the sixteenth century, not even the most Reformed among us, nor the most Lutheran or Anglican or Mennonite or Unitarian or Jesuitical. Our post-Enlightenment orientation and assumptions are so different from those of Parisians in the 1530s or Genevans of the 1550s that we do well to put a historical spin on the injunction, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” We lack the existential basis for judging 16th-century ancestors in the faith. To know John Calvin, much less to render judgment, we first would have to borrow a page from C.H. Dodd and enter into that alien era of Calvin, and Farel, and de Bèze, and Servetus, so as to live ourselves into its strangeness, and then return to our present. This is not likely to happen over one lunchtime, but let us try to go a few steps of the way. Calvin’s harshest critic As you may have deduced from Geneva’s plans for the 500th anniversary, John Calvin was born in 1509 (on the 10th of July, if your calendar is not already marked). He was a native of Noyon in Picardy, and his family was well connected with the local nobility. His father was registrar of Noyon’s ecclesiastical court and the cathedral’s notary. Calvin held several clerkly benefices before leaving to study in Bourges, Orleans and Paris. John Calvin was trained as a lawyer – this explains a great deal, by the way. He was never ordained to the Catholic priesthood; indeed, there is no record of his ordination to the Reformed ministry – though he is called a “minister” in various contemporary documents and acted as the convener of Geneva’s Company of Pastors. John Calvin was reticent to reveal personal information in his published writings – but we know from correspondence and public records that he was married for eight and a half years to the widow Idelette de Bure of Strasbourg, had a son with her who died in infancy, and that both his only child and his wife were dead by the end of the 1540s. His letters reveal that Calvin grieved deeply for relatives and friends, and was slow to be comforted even by the most gifted of pastors. In an age of plague, strife and early death, Calvin acted as a stepfather and guardian to a number of children who had lost their own parents. Calvin died in Geneva in May 1564, at the age of 54. He had spent 25 of the previous 28 years in and around this city, and was by the time of his death the author of both the constitution of the Reformed church in this place and the civil laws of Geneva. He was co-founder of the Academy of Geneva, later to become the University. He had overseen a new ordering of worship in Geneva’s church, a thorough-going revision of the liturgy, and worked closely with Louis Bourgeois as well as other musicians and writers in the creation of the Geneva Psalter. Calvin’s sermons and commentaries on every book of the Bible were widely circulated. He preached twice on Sundays, and every other week he preached daily at morning prayer services in St Pierre. He gave lectures on Bible and theology in the Auditoire. His Institutes of the Christian Religion – the systematic explanation of his theology, in four volumes – already had been recognized as the clearest exposition of Reformed thought and its consequences for church and society. But never mind all that… In late April 1564, his physicians told him that he was dying. That same day, Calvin submitted his resignation from church office; the next day, he assembled the Company of Pastors and delivered a farewell speech. This was how he summed up his ministry: I have shown many faults that you have had to endure, and all that I have done is of no value. The vicious person will hear this statement happily; but I still say that nothing I have done is really worth much and that I am a wretched and sinful creature. Though I can say that I have had a good motive and will to do the right, my defects and my faults have always given me offense, and that the roots of the fear of God have been in my heart. You can say that my affection has been proper and good. I beg you to forgive the evil in me. In his written testament, Calvin took no credit even for his “proper and good” affection: Alas! The desire and the zeal which I had, if one can call it that, have been so cold and so lax that I feel indebted in all things and all places, and, if it were not for God’s great and infinite kindness, all the affection that I have had would be only smoke. To see the good things that God has done for me makes me only more guilty, so my only recourse is to that One Who, being the Father of mercy, may be and show Himself to be the Father of one who is such a wretched sinner. While this seems to us an exercise of what Tom Best calls “Lowly Worm theology”, I believe that a trip to the 16th century would confirm Calvin’s sincerity in offering so self- deprecating a self-assessment. To the very end, John Calvin remained true to the insights he had developed from the writings of the Hebrew prophets, the apostle Paul, St Augustine and Martin Luther: all goodness comes from the sovereign Lord alone, and this is the only hope for men and women who – even at their best – are bred in the grip of sin (original sin, but sin for which each one must take individual responsibility). Not only did Calvin believe this about other people, which is easy enough, he saw the truth of it in himself. Calvin’s theology in (very, very) brief Calvin never recorded the circumstances of his “conversion” to the Reform – this is one of those areas of personal reticence in his writing. We do know that Paris in the years just before and after 1530 was a hotbed of reformation debate – with many different sides of the argument well represented. As Calvin was leaving the Collège de Montaigu, a Spanish war veteran was arriving there – Ignatius of Loyola, who would co-found the Jesuit order within the Church of Rome. Another Spanish student brought along a valet who dabbled in human anatomy – Michael Servetus (Michel Servet), later a pioneer in renaissance-era medicine and Unitarian thought. When Calvin’s friend Nicolas Cop was elected dean of the university, his inaugural lecture was a resounding call to the reform of the Church – possibly co-written, or ghost-written, by Calvin himself. John Calvin may have returned to Noyon at this point and resigned his family benefices; he may have been imprisoned there briefly, but there is argument among historians on these points. France was hotly contested ground in the theological struggles of that day. As Calvin settled briefly in Basel and worked on his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, he also drafted an introductory dedication of the work, addressed to “Francis, the King of the French” (François I). He explained that the purpose for his writing was to assure the king that a Reformed theology was consistent with the teachings of the Bible and the Church Fathers, that Reformed religion was consistent with civil order and posed no threat to the monarchy, but that rulers should beware of acting on false charges, for “the innocent await divine vindication”. The heart of the dedication to Francis was a “Plea for Persecuted Evangelicals” who themselves took comfort from reading the work. The first edition of the Institutes was constructed closely on the pattern of the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments – one further indication that this “new” teaching was consistent with Christian tradition built on the foundation of Holy Scripture. Like subsequent expansions of the Institutes, the original version begins with the observation that “the whole of sacred doctrine consists of two parts: the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves”. We know God through revelation, chiefly in the Bible; there, we also learn of our own sinfulness and utter dependence on the sovereignty and mercy of God. Calvin’s pronounced emphasis on the doctrine of original sin – adapted from Paul, Augustine and others – has contributed to his reputation as a gloomily obsessive proto- Puritan. (A defense of the Puritans will have to await some other lunchtime talk, alas.) But consider Calvin’s description of the good news that Christianity offers, in his definition of “faith” (III.ii.7 in the final, 1559 edition of the Institutes): Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. According to John Calvin, then: The good news is that, sinners though we are, God’s will is for our well-being. This sure knowledge, promised us in Christ, is a matter of both the mind and the heart – is made real both to mind and heart – as God’s own Spirit touches our whole being, imparting a “truth” beyond mere reason. Calvin was a lawyer, a linguist and a logician, and this had a major impact on the way he expressed himself. But he also emphasized the role of the heart in faith and in faithful action. His personal seal showed a heart held in an outstretched hand – his outstretched hand – a symbol demonstrating his desire to offer his heart in God’s service. The basic outline of Calvin’s teaching is similar to that of many other Reformers. The Triune God is sovereign over all. Human salvation is by grace through faith, not the result of any work of ours. Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of God. All that we need to know of God is found in Holy Scripture. The true church is to be found where the gospel is rightly preached and heard, and where the two dominical sacraments are rightly administered. In addition to this, he rejected traditional church hierarchy and identified instead four local church offices as defined in scripture: ministers of the Word, presbyters (undertaking administrative duties in cooperation with ministers in the church’s “consistory”), deacons (diaconal services) and “doctors of the church” (or educator/theologians). The membership of the church admittedly included both the “elect” and some of the “lost” – or, as he put it, “There are wolves in the fold, and sheep outside.” Ultimately, only God was in a position to judge – but the church should enforce moral standards within the community as best it could. Calvin the theologian may be most widely known for his argument in favour of “double predestination” – the doctrine that, before the Creation, God had already predestined everyone who would ever live either to eternal salvation or to eternal damnation. Calvin believed that he saw this idea consistently in the letters of Paul and elsewhere in the Bible, and found it more fully developed in Augustine and other Church Fathers. Calvin was frequently challenged on this point, and spent a great deal of time and energy in working out his understanding of predestination logically and legalistically – according to the standards of his training. Predestination is not a central tenet of his theology, but under the adversarial circumstances its treatment in his writings grew out of all proportion. Calvin’s defense of divine predestination is subsidiary to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith: it is Calvin’s way of insisting that salvation is purely a gift from God, and absolutely nothing a person does in life affects his or her place in eternity. It was all decided unimaginably long ago, so: People, get over yourselves! Here’s a Presbyterian joke about the doctrine of predestination. A candidate for the ministry in the Church of Scotland found himself being examined through questioning on the floor of his presbytery. The atmosphere grew more and more heated as conservatives and progressives sought to use the examination to score debating points for their brand of theology. “Young man,” one dour old Calvinist finally asked the candidate, “would you be willing to be damned to eternal hellfire, for the greater glory of God?” The candidate replied, “Sir, for God’s greater glory I would be willing for this whole presbytery to be damned!” (Calvin’s point, I think, was that what we “will” has no more effect than what we do: It is all about God’s will, not yours or mine, or even the presbytery’s.) Most Reformed Protestants today, I think, would say that Calvin took his argument concerning predestination farther than was strictly necessary – and claimed to know more about ultimate things than any mortal can. One aspect of Calvin’s theology that is stressed only occasionally is that he began his career writing in Latin and ended it writing in French, or “Old French”, as we say. The worship of the church of Geneva was set down and spoken in French, and the psalms were sung in French. Translations of the Bible and of the newly re-ordered liturgies were begun for every worshiping community in Geneva, native and immigrant. The “Geneva Bible” was translated into English here, for use in John Knox’s congregation. Like other Reformers, John Calvin spoke to the people of his culture – and other cultures in his city of refugees – in ways that had an impact on patterns of language, literature and thought. Calvin in Geneva In the summer of 1536, several weeks after the city had voted for reform, John Calvin stopped to spend a night or two in Geneva. Farel, the leader of the Protestant insurgency, asked him to stay – which Calvin, after prayer, attempted to do. But the city was in turmoil. Factions jockeyed for power in the absence of the former prince-bishop. Some in Geneva hoped for a lifting of legal strictures in matters of both law and morality. Others wanted to gather power for themselves. There was reluctance to adopt any formal constitution, even for the church. Indeed, the city authorities wanted to rule the church from the Hotel de Ville. The Reformers stood their ground, insisting on an independent church with the moral power to call sinners to repentance and threaten the wayward with excommunication. Within two years, Calvin was driven into exile along with Farel. From 1538 to 1541, Calvin lived in Strasbourg as pastor of the French-speaking church there. Working closely with Martin Bucer, the German-speaking “Reformer of Strasbourg”, he designed new forms of worship based largely on praying and singing the Psalms and on expository sermons drawing on the whole canon of scripture. This would become the model for liturgical innovations in Geneva and eventually in Reformed communities from Italy to Scotland – and from thence to many other lands. During his time in Strasbourg, Calvin traveled to overcome theological disagreements with Lutherans in Frankfurt, and he was sent as Strasbourg’s delegate to the Colloquy of Ratisbon (Regensburg) where he became fast friends with Philip Melanchthon. By 1541, it had become clear to the city leadership in Geneva that they could not hold their new church and state together without a fine theological and legal mind. They asked Calvin, newly married in Strasbourg, to return to Geneva, direct the life of the city’s church and advise the council on civic matters. Calvin insisted that he would return only if a written constitution – a constitution written by Calvin – were to be adopted for the church: this was to be comprised of a form of worship, a form of church government and a catechism with more than 340 questions and answers (to be memorized by apprentices of approximately 10 years of age!). After this church constitution had been adopted, Calvin was called upon to write a system of civil law for the government of Geneva. In his writing on law, morality, economics and society, John Calvin began to work out the relationship between Reformed beliefs and the public order. André Biéler and others have explored Calvin’s political insights at length. (The thesis of Max Weber regarding the influence of Calvinism on capitalism and democracy continues to be discussed.) The heart of Calvin’s interest in civil and international order is found in his observation that “social disorder is first and foremost disdain for the poor and oppression of the weak”. Such conditions were inconsistent with the Christian life – and citizens or rulers who encouraged social injustices were to be denounced. A number of citizens continued to think of themselves as Catholic, though they were outnumbered as Protestant refugees moved into the city. Other long-time inhabitants of Geneva bridled under the strict moral discipline enforced by church tribunals. Parties who found Calvin and his supporters too harsh came to be described by the Calvinian party as “Libertines”, although this dismissive name oversimplifies the political divisions of the time. There also were disputes over more abstract points of theology, such as predestination or the interpretation of the Song of Songs. A number of Calvin’s opponents left Geneva, some forced into exile. Others, condemned by the courts for criminal conduct, were imprisoned or executed on orders of the city government. The controversy that has left the most serious stain on John Calvin’s memory surrounds the execution of Michael Servetus, who had been a valet to one of Calvin’s fellow students in Paris. Servetus, now a physician and philosopher, became one of the most outspoken proponents of Unitarianism. For his heresy of denying the Trinity, Servetus had already been sentenced to death by a Catholic court in Vienne. Hearing that the condemned man was thinking of fleeing to Geneva, Calvin warned that he would surely be tried and executed in this city – and rightly so! But Servetus did make his way up the Rhone, was indeed arrested and tried in Geneva, and was sentenced to burn at the stake. A few prominent Genevans felt that mercy should be shown and Servetus exiled – especially since the Reformed were frequently pleading for mercy themselves in parts of Europe where they were considered heretics. But Calvin believed that Servetus was a threat to the faith of the innocent, and deserved to die for his defiance of Almighty God, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Calvin did, however, ask the state officials to put Servetus to death by beheading, not by fire, as beheading was quicker and less painful. The city authorities ignored all pleas for mercy, including Calvin’s – evidence that Geneva was not under Calvin’s thumb, as is sometimes said. The church, which Calvin did dominate intellectually and by virtue of office, brought William Farel back from his pastorate in Neuchatel to serve as Servetus’ private counselor and pastor during his final days, in an attempt to offer him spiritual comfort. Servetus was burned at the stake on the plain of Champel, near the site of our cantonal hospital, on a spot where the Reformed community of the 20th century would erect a monument of apology for this brutal act of gross intolerance. And this is where I find myself frustrated in the face of C.H. Dodd’s advice: is it possible to enter the strangeness of another age and fully understand its worldview? If not, there is evidence enough for us to agree with Calvin’s testament in which he described himself as “a wretched sinner”. Still, Calvin’s understanding of human will and behaviour reflected an appreciation for the Lutheran formulation, simul iustus et peccator – at the same time that a person is justified by God’s grace, that person remains a sinner. Being caught in the preconceptions of one’s age is one aspect of human failing – for us as well as for John Calvin. Calvin accomplished a great deal in Geneva. And he pointed toward further developments in the wider world: whole new schools of biblical commentary and application of gospel principles to common life; a suspicion of human nature that led to checks and balances in the exercise of governmental power, and to the separation of church from state in many nations; church orders based on principles of parity between ministers and other leaders; a tradition of disputation in theology that would inspire a broad range of thought: stern “Calvinists”, progressives like Arminius and Schleiermacher, neo-Orthodox theologians like Barth, Brunner and the Niebuhrs, feminist theologians in Europe and North America, a new generations of liberation thinkers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere – and historians eager to dig past the rough strata of “Calvinism” to the Calvinian bedrock. Toward the end of his book Calvin for Armchair Theologians, Christopher Elwood provides this partial conclusion: It might be the case, as some have suggested, that Calvin’s legacy is so complex, even confused, because of the complexity of Calvin himself. On the one hand, he was the humanist who criticized the rigid and lifeless dogma of his time, who counseled for flexibility and tolerance, and who argued for an openness to mystery. On the other hand, he was a man fearful of a chaotic age that lacked an organizing structure, a conservative who struggled vigourously to impose order on a disordered world. Calvin was, in a certain sense, a man at odds with himself. Perhaps it is this internal tension that we have to thank for the unruly brood who are Calvin’s surviving heirs. At the very same time that we are justified, we remain sinners. And so I take issue with La Vie Protestante and its headline. Neither a saint nor a killer? Au contraire. Calvin shares in the guilt of 16th-century religious killers and yet, at the same time, he shares in the communion of saints. By no means innocent of involvement in bringing about Michael Servetus’s death, he may yet be numbered among the elect – due entirely, as he taught, to the perfect benevolence of God.
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