John Calvin and Geneva

In the aftermath of the debacle of the placards, Calvin fled France and traveled to Strasbourg and then on to Basel in 1536 where he began to write “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, a systematic presentation of the Protestant message and Calvin’s most significant contribution to Protestantism. Calvin formulated and promoted the concept that a consistent, coherent, theological system could be derived from and defended by the bible and it was this system that he presented in “The Institutes”. Later in 1536, Calvin was passing through Geneva, a city that had recently undertaken religious reform under the guidance of Guillaume Farel, the same Farel that penned the thunderbolt of Protestant polemic that made up the placards. When Farel heard that Calvin was in town he hurried to meet him with a desire to persuade him to stay in Geneva. He wanted Calvin to help establish Protestantism in the City and champion the cause of social reform. Calvin was reluctant, he preferred to barricade himself in some dusty library in Strasbourg or Basel and continue his writing, but Farel, ever the firebrand, pronounced a curse on his scholarly pursuits and insisted that he stay in Geneva. Calvin heard in that rebuke the voice of God speaking to his soul and he chose to stay and help Farel with his work. Calvin was 27 years old when he began his work in Geneva and he labored there for 28 years, playing a key role in the spiritual, social and intellectual reform of the city.

Geneva, Switzerland

Calvin had a rare gift for system and organization and this helped him a great deal in the work he undertook in Geneva. In addition to preaching the truth from the pulpit Calvin set himself up as a social reformer, introducing what was known as sumptuary laws that forbade swearing, gambling, dancing, partying and excessive drinking. The good citizens of Geneva didn’t quite appreciate the policing of their private lives in this manner and many of them revolted against the laws, forming a movement of resistance and calling themselves the Libertines. What ensued was a game of political tick-tack-toe to determine who, the Calvinists or the Libertines, would gain power in the city council. The Libertines seemed to gain the upper hand and in 1538 Calvin was forced to leave Geneva and head back to Strasbourg where he spent time with the reformer Martin Bucer learning about church organization.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Geneva

One of the primary causes that led to this revolt was the fact that religion was disassociated from morality which meant that while people were happy to hear the preaching of the truth, they preferred that it did not significantly impact the way they conducted their daily lives. In Calvin’s mind and indeed in Farel’s as well, religion and morality were inextricably linked, and grace, though free to all, was the power of God that brought transformation of heart and life.  The entire dispute hinged on a correct understanding of this point.  The Libertines were not really opposed to the ideas promulgated by the reformation as much as they were opposed to the proposed application of those ideas in their daily lives. 

After being forced to leave Geneva, Calvin spent almost two years in Strasbourg and was later invited back to Geneva by the city council on the 20th of October 1540. He returned with a determination to carry on and finish the work he had begun. Calvin is credited with introducing the Geneva form of church service, with prayers, a sermon and hymn singing, that make up the core of most Protestant church services today. He also established the Academy of Geneva, which trained young missionaries to take the gospel to the Papal strongholds of Europe and it was here that many of the French Huguenots received their training before being deployed as workers to France. In addition to all this, he preached five times a week, wrote a commentary on almost every book of the Bible and wrote countless articles on various theological topics. His correspondence alone fills eleven volumes.

Geneva

Under Calvin, Geneva displayed marked social and spiritual transformation, becoming a model city of moral uprightness and Protestant ideology in Europe. However, Calvin’s methods and approaches to implementing these changes were not free from error and there were many things he could have done better.

One of his strongest ideologies was the unification of church and state and the efficient use of the arm of the state to enforce religious convictions. Interestingly this ideology was embraced by Zwingli in Switzerland, Elizabeth I in England and later, after the death of Luther, by the  Protestant German Princes as well. Perhaps this was a by-product of the deep influence of Catholicism throughout Europe at the time; after all the entire ideological framework of a religiopolitical state was pioneered and engineered by the Roman church, being tweaked and perfected under each successive Pope. Calvin and Zwingli were sons of the church while Elizabeth I and the German Princes found themselves on the business end of militant counter-reformation Jesuits who used political clout to incite religious warfare. Whatever may have been the cause this ideology was one of Calvin’s weak points and generated more harm than good.

But despite his weaknesses, God used Calvin as one of the leading champions of the Reformation. He crafted a more dynamic form of Protestantism than Luther and in doing so took the reformation one step further on its journey in restoring to the world the full noontide of truth, not only as an ideology but as a reality that could be seen in the transformed life of the believer.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Rise of Nations –  Professor Andrew C. Fix