A Model City

G.K Chesterton once wrote, “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”. Though Chesterton wrote these words centuries after Calvin, the work that Calvin, Farel, and others engaged in, in the city of Geneva, was a direct response to this statement. They took up the work of the Christian ideal as it is laid out in the gospel and attempted to try it and prove that it was amply sufficient to meet the needs of the human soul. Calvin set himself two goals when he agreed to stay in Geneva; to build a truly reformed church and to bring personal reformation to the people. Geneva was both a social experiment and a fertile breeding ground for the Reformation. It became a model city, showing dynamic moral uprightness under the ministry of Calvin and it also became the Rome of the Reformation, a hub for training and deploying countless Protestant missionaries across Europe.

Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva became a Protestant city on the 21st of May 1536 when the entire body of citizens and lawmakers convened together to renounce their allegiance to Rome and embrace the Reformed faith that had been championed in the city by Farel, Froment and most recently Clavin. But even prior to that the city was a haven of refuge to Protestants fleeing the fires of persecution in France, England, Germany and other places and it continued to be so for years to come.

It was to Geneva that Farel and others fled when the first wave of persecution hit France in the early 1500s, it was to Geneva that the Protestants fled en masse in the wake of the debacle with the Placards and it was from Geneva that the article that composed the placards was despatched. Calvin founded the University of Geneva in 1559 which became a missionary training center that deployed thousands of Huguenot missionaries to France via a series of secret underground tunnels. It was to Geneva that John Knox fled when he faced persecution at the hands of Mary Tudor in 1553.  It was to Geneva that thousands of French Huguenots fled in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre in 1572. The first wave of Jesuit counter-reformers that were deployed to England in 1580 passed through Geneva and, as an act of provocation tried to pick a fight with the reformer Theodore Beza, who refused to give them the time of day. It was also in Geneva that the first English translation of the bible to have numbered verses was published, later known as the Geneva Bible.

Even though Calvin is best known for the work he spearheaded in Geneva, his most significant contribution to the Reformation came in the form of his book “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”. The work was a demonstration of the fact that the bible could support a coherent, cohesive, systematic theological structure. More than any single doctrinal point this understanding was Calvin’s gift to Protestantism.

The motto of the Reformation in Geneva was “post tenebras lux” meaning “after darkness, light” and is a fitting tribute to its foundational pillar; the word of God. Psalms 119:130 describes it best; “the entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding to the simple”. After years of darkness under the iron rule of Papal Rome, Europe experienced the dawn of light with the entrance of the Word of God. This was the most potent tenant of the Reformation, the light giving and life giving power of the Bible. May we experience the illuminating power of that same Word in our hearts and minds today. 

Further Reading

  • 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