Monday, February 20, 2012

John Calvin - Geneva

"There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice."
The previous statement was penned by a theologian whom people falsely believe was responsible for generating a joyless Christianity.

Lawyer, intellectual, theologian, John Calvin from Noyon in Picardy was born in 1509. Calvin was a boy when Martin Luther took his stand. Christendom was divided by thological dispute while Calvin was growing up. He initially sought to become a priest but his father intervened and he was sent to college to study law.

He took seriously the hope of restoring church unity. Calvin was a devotee of the classics and humanistic scholarship. Before his twenty-third birthday, Calvin chose to challenge Erasmus in his first published work. Calvin wrote a commentary on the Stoic Seneca's work "De Clementia" (On Clemency) in which he disagreed with Erasmus's standard edition.

While studying in Paris, Calvin was quietly converted to Christianity. Around the year 1533, Calvin experienced a 'sudden conversion' and he responded "God subdued and brought my heart to docility." Calvin, a man of iron resolve and exemplary rectitude, experienced the consequences of political exile while in Strasbourg and Geneva. His writings impressed Guillaume Farel profoundly. Calvin preferred Strasbourg to Geneva but Geneva would be his home until he died in 1564. While on route to Strasbourg,
Calvin was persuaded to go to Geneva by Guillaume Farel. Calvin would eventually remain in Geneva until his death except for a period of three years when he was exiled from the city. Farel was a fiery forceful reformer who persuaded Calvin to head a systematic reformation of the manners and church life of Geneva which had become reformed.

Twenty-seven year old Calvin was vested with this task by Farel because he authored the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). His Institutes are a major systematic theology which clearly articulates the teachings of the Reformation. Calvin's Institutes stated Biblical convictions more clearly than any other work published by the Reformers. The first edition was strong and impressive whereas the final edition of 1559 was greatly expanded.

The city fathers of Geneva denied the preconditions which Calvin required to fulfill his commission. Calvin was resourceful, vigorous, clear, and uncompromising. Hence upon denial of the preconditions, Calvin left Geneva. In 1541, Calvin was in Strasbourg with his friend Bucer. He reluctantly returned to Geneva when he was granted the preconditions. It became apparent to the city fathers of Geneva that they needed a firm directing hand in the affairs of the church.

The preconditions which Calvin required were the freedom to catechize the population and exercise proper spiritual discipline. They preconditions reflected the best insights of Renaissance humanism intersecting New Testament Christianity. Calvin's preconditions wed practice and theory, knowledge and experience. Calvin believed that one can life alright when one is taught aright. If one has been taught aright; ones life should match the Gospel teachings. The systematic Christian education in Geneva was provided through the catechism. Through spiritual discipline, those who professed the truth would not live hypocritically.

The establishment of Reformation in Geneva had been a civic act. It was an open decision made by the majority of citizens of the city. One must examine the historical context of the time in relation to Calvin's program. Hence, John Calvin was pursuing the logic of the decision of the citizenry of the town. Hence, he wasn't overbearing. It was appropriate for the town council to block Calvin in 1538. As elected magistrates they chose to assist him in 1541. It is important to realize that at no time was Calvin more then the first Reformed pastor of Geneva. Although Calvin's position was influential; the members of the council contained powerful, intelligent, and strong willed men. Calvin was would mold their actions to the degree through which his words and deeds were impressed upon them as a voice which they should heed.

Calvin was a man of great practical genius in the manner in which he conducted his program. Calvin was one who could learn from others. The practices of Bucer in Strasbourg impressed Calvin. The arrangements which he established in Geneva were definitely influenced by Bucer's example. The people of the city of Geneva accepted the Reformation as an official legislative act. Calvin was justified in assuming that the values inculcated and protected in Geneva be radically biblical.

While in Geneva, Calvin would bear a staggering work load. He became the pastor of the St. Pierre church and preached in it daily. He produced commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. He wrote several devotional and doctrinal pamphlets and continued to faithfully produce a vast amount of correspondence. Calvin trained and sent out a vast number of missionaries.

Calvin battled various ailments and was plagued with severe migrane headaches. Idelette was a young widow with two children whom he married. He described her as "the faithful helper of my ministry" and "the best companion of my life." They did have a boy child but tragically Idelette died young as did his young child.

John Calvin honored the the functional distinction between his position as pastor and the office of magistrate. He sought to establish spiritual institutions honoring the ideal of the city becoming a unified whole. Hence, lay elders in the church provided the link between church leadership and civli leadership. The kind of men who were selected as church elders were the same type of men able to lead the town politically. This principle was true in business, profession, and politics.

An agency of communal moral discipline led by elders and pastors in which the elders outnumbered the pastors was instituted. The issues in which the agency was involved dealt with blasphemy, drunkenness, adultery, fornication, malicious gossip, and domestic discord.

Before Calvin arrived in Geneva, the people of Geneva had notoriously lax morals. They balked at several attempts to improve the morality of the city.

An agency of this type was not unique to the cities in Reformation Europe. "Consistory" was the title which the agency was called in Geneva. The title was carried over from the era prior to the Reformation. Theoretically, a bishop sought to direct moral conduct prior to the Reformation.

Sixteenth Century consistories were distinguished from agencies before the Reformation because they meant business. The Consistory of Geneva had the power of excommunication when elsewhere that power was controlled by civil government.

Calvin insisted that the members Consistory composed of the elders and their pastors make the decisions as to discipline citizens by excommunication rather than magistrates. This was not a seperation of church and state; it preserved the integrity of the church. It was the people of the city of Geneva who chose its civil government to be Reformed Christian. In that context, civil government should defer to a church agency - in this case the Consistory - rather than a civil agency to determine what is Christian! Otherwise, the name "Christian" would be dragged into disrepute. Hence, this is why Calvin sought to preserve the integrity of the Church.

A generation of the youth of Geneva was educated by the catechism which Calvin prepared in the 1540s. By the 1550s, his dominance was somewhat established. The former catechumens had reached an age of responibility in public life. The influence of his church order for the city of Geneva was felt in several areas as he hoped to purity Geneva.

The distinctive outlines of his program are discerned in presbyterian church government and also the Anglican church. Some of those members of the church survived the persecution of English protestants under Mary Queen of Scots by seeking refuge in Geneva in the 1550s.

Not everyone influenced by John Calvin followed him in every manner. We may admire the wisdom through which he brought state and church together. He accomplished this while preserving the integrity of the church. One may question the assumption which underlies the imposition of penalties for blasphemy and continuing to observe Catholic practices.

The Consistory did not punish but did remonstrate seeking the repentance of the wayward. Persons who merited sterner disciplinary measures were handed to the civil government. Persons with persistent offensive public behavior were placed under the jurisdiction of civil government who had the authority discipline them. This was the situation in the infamous but not typical execution by burning of Michael Servetus in the year 1553. Michael Servetus escaped the Catholic Inquisition and ill-advisedly came to Geneva. An assumption concerning the judgments of the Consistory may be discerned. Evidently, their judgments were parallel between the theocracy of Israel of the Old Testament and New Testament Geneva.

The parallel was not new and unique to Geneva while Calvin was pastor. The parallel was characteristic through much of the thinking conserning this subject during the medieval ages. In fact, it was the mirror image of similiar parallels pressed in current civic humanism. The mirror image was pressed between the classical Greek and Roman ideals and appropriate conduct of cities such as Florence and Venice.

It has been stated that there was a measure of the attractiveness to Geneva by former humanists. For Calvin sought to put in practice, through a Christian framework, what had never been accomplished by humanists of the Renaissance - a utopia.

The onus of specific punishment was upon the civil government of Geneva and neither the Consistory nor the church. The Consistory had the power of remonstance seeking the repentance of the wayward. Calvin created space between what the church holds to be advisable and the disciplinary action the state performs.

Hence, if the values of the society in Geneva were to deteriorate from the values of the Church, the failure of civil government to heed the advice of the Consistory would eventually being about changes in the church and state. Consequently, civil government would match the deteriorating values of society in Geneva. Those deteriorating values would become the new frame of reference.

Eventually, Councillors, elders, then pastors became less insistent upon the principles which were of fundamental importance to the Church. By the Eighteenth Century, the slow decay had reached maturity. The maturity of decay was preceded by an inevitable phase of hypocrisy. Old standards were selectively imposed on one's enemies and social inferiors.

Calvin, died in 1564, and his successor Theodore Beza died in 1605. Throughout their days, genuine zeal and honesty were victorious over hypocrisy and cynicism.

A Venetian ambassador of 1561 declared:

"Your Serenity will hardly believe the influence and the power which the principal minister of Geneva, by name Calvin, a Frenchman and a native of Picardy, possesses in this kingdom. He is a man of extraordinary authority who by his mode of life, his doctrines and his writings rises superior to all the rest."

A contemporary historian of Geneva declared that without the discipline of John Calvin:

"Geneva could not have managed her unique achievement as a sixteenth-century revolutionary commune that maintained her independence until the French Revolution. Without Calvin, Geneva would have been nothing more than an economically decarying Alpine town that revolted against the House of Savoy...With Calvin, geneva has earned her share of attention in world history." (E. William Monter, Calvin's Geneva [New York: Robert E. Krieger Pub. Co., 1967], pp. 236-7).

John Knox of Scotland attempted to create a 'national' Geneva in Scotland. Calvin and his Geneva influenced Europe ecclesiastically, politically, and socially.

Knox described Geneva as: "the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles."

Calvin insisted on two principles before he assumed the leadership of the church in Geneva. Those principles are sound doctrine and discipline. Calvin declared what sound doctrine and discipline meant to him. He firmly believed that truth should be known and truth should be lived throughout each day of one's life. The central aspect of sound doctrine in which they are to be understood is Love:

"...Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself." Luke 10:27.

Love is at the heart of Truth and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and discipline is to be exercised in Love as emphasized by the Apostle Paul. Good systematic theology depends upon sound biblical theology and sound biblical theology is judged by the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

In the Sixteenth Century, Sicilian peasants could look at Geneva and see a model for a just society. Calvin and the pastors of Geneva refused money from the Consistory for better clothes believing that the poverty of a minority in Geneva precluded them from accepting the gift. Geneva became a haven for women where they were protected from abusive husbands. There was care for the sick, infirm and poor. Work was provided for persons in financial need.

Calvin's insistence upon a quasi-republican form of church order stressed that no political or social distinctions could have any significant meaning at the Lord's Table. Hence, Geneva played a most important role in the development of representative democracy. Authority is important and must be there but participation must be present too. Through his Institutes, Calvin gave Protestantism of the Reformation amazing vigor. Luther wrote a great deal but never did he bring all the key doctrines together in a single book.

Calvin never willfully flouted his legitimate authority as pastor. His own personal stance was established upon his teaching. For example, Calvin refused money from the council for better clothing until the poorest Genevans should be clad as well.

It was Calvinism which became the most dynamic force throughout Protestantism after the year 1550. Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and Scandinavia. Calvinism spread through Hungary, France, Scotland, and the Netherlands. Queen Elizabeth of England was not an Orthodox Calvinist but the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth as one. After she rejected Rome, he identified her as one who embraced the doctrines of Geneva.

Europe was in cataclysmic strife throughout the late Sixteenth Century. During the first half of the century, there was international conflict betwen France, Spain, the Empire, and the Turks. Throughout the latter years of the century there was civil strife. The civil strife during the latter years of the Sixteenth Century is spoken of as the 'religious wars'.

Several modern historians agree that those years of civil strife were more than 'religious wars.' It is true that genuine religious differences provided a special dynamic and direction. The civil strife of the late Sixteenth Century was a vital stage in the contest between centralized government and elements within the state which resented the assualt upon provincial.rights of the citizen.

Calvinist Presbyterianism merged into the provincial antimonarchical conflict for a measure of self government by the people. Calvin's Institutes emphasized the sovereignty of God which led the reader to believe that no person - king, bishop, or anyone - can demand the Christian's ultimate loyalty. Calvin didn't teach that the citizen has a "right" to revolution but it is implied throughout his works.

The Huguenots of France were a powerful growing minority of Calvinists. The staunch opposition of French officials to the Huguenots fused religious resentment of the Calvinist Huguenots with provincial, nobel distrust of power of the Crown. From the early 1500s, after a succession of weak rulers a serious threat to the authority of the Crown of France mounted.

The Massacre of St. Bartholomew occurred on August 24, 1572. The Massacre is the best known bloody episode of religious civil oppression against the Calvinst Protestant Hugeunots.

Catherine de'Medici, the queen mother, took advantage of a wedding which occured in Paris. Her intrigue involved Henry of Navarre who was one of the leaders of the Hugeunots. He was in the line of succession for the throne of France. The queen mother conspired to slaughter the leading Calvinists who gathered in Paris to attend the wedding. The slaughter spread to outlying provinces in which seven thousand Huguenots were murdered. A disproportionate number of the Huguenots murdered were the more prominent Calvinists.

Consequently, the Protestant movement in France became more radical after the Massacre. Pamphleteers distributed advanced and refined treatises of representative government. Furthermore, pamphleteers wrote about the accountability of government which anticipated the rise of more comprehensive theories on the role of government developed by John Locke.

Unfortunately, by becoming so radical the Hugeunots sacrificed support of traditional social as well political elements who had given them a broad-based support and military strength.

The spiritual descendants of John Calvin are found in Scotland, Holland, Poland, and America. Christian History Institute's glimpses of people, events, life and faith from the Church Across the Ages - John Calvin Leads Geneva Reform states:

"His spiritual descendants make up the World Alliance of Reformed Churches based in Valvin's Geneva. This worldwide alliance consists of 178 denominations with over 50 million adherents in more than 80 countries."

Thanks to Jeremy C. Jackson author of No Other Foundation - The Church Through Twenty Centuries from which much of the information for this essay is gleaned.

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