Today we conclude our post on John Calvin, in observation of his death on May 27, in 1564.
John Calvin, the World Reconstructionist
By the Late Rev. James Mitchell Foster, D.D.
(Revised and Edited by his Daughter)
[Christianity Today 6.8 (January 1936): 173-178.]
[Reverend James Mitchell Foster, D.D., was pastor of the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church of Boston, Massachusetts, for 37 years exactly, from his ordination, a Sabbath afternoon, November 11, 1891, to the day of his death, a Sabbath afternoon, November 11, 1928. He was killed almost instantly by an automobile soon after he had left his church, so that it was said of him at his funeral service, “He stepped from the pulpit into Heaven.”]
The Providential Preparation of John Calvin for Geneva
It was at this stage that Calvin appeared on the scene. He had made a visit to Italy with a view of aiding the reformers in France from abroad. Visiting Ferrara, Florence and Naples, he seemed to have been disappointed in his hopes. He purposed returning to Basle to pursue his studies in seclusion. On the way he passed through Geneva, July, 1536, intending to tarry only for a night. But some one recognized him and informed Farel. The preacher visited Calvin at the inn and asked him to remain and help him. Calvin shrank from such an undertaking. Farel plead the interests of the true religion and that of the people. Calvin protested that he must be at his books. Then Farel became indignant and charged him with refusing to come up to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty and declared that he would be obnoxious to the judgments of God if he refused this call to duty. “I denounce you in the name of Almighty God and declare that if you pretend the love of study in such a case, you are seeking your own things and not the things of Christ unless you become our fellow laborer in this cause,” were the impetuous words of Farel.
Calvin was struck with terror by Farel’s formidable obtestation and felt as if the hand of Almighty God had been stretched out from heaven and laid upon him and he was powerless to resist. And so the place, the hour and the man are brought together by the foreknowledge and predestination of God through the instrumentality of human agency. Calvin had been prepared for the place.
John Calvin was born in Noyon, Picardy, 67 miles northeast of Paris, July 10, 1509. He was a French Roman Catholic. His grandfather was a cooper and his father was secretary to the bishop and provost of the country. His mother was a beautiful and cultured woman, the mother of six children—John being the second of four sons. She died while John was young and he was placed in a noble family where he shared with the sons the lessons of an able tutor, DeMommor. When he was twelve years old his father procured for him the revenue of the Chapel de la Gesire, and when he was eighteen the revenue of another ecclesiastical benefice, although he was never ordained a priest according to the rites of the Roman Church. These benefices afforded an ample income to meet the expense of education.
“In regard to these early benefices two things are noticeable as indicating the clear integrity and crystalline firmness of character. One is, that being educated thus with abundance of worldly resources at his command, placed in entire dependence at 13 years of age, he did not become soft and effeminate; that his energies did not evaporate in indolence and self-indulgence; that his moral fibre did not become flaccid; that his mental power maintained from first to last its fine, hard grain and temper. And the other notable thing is that when the definite course of his life was settled in his own mind, he resigned his benefices, though the resignation left him poor, and poor he remained to the end of his life.”*
[* Rev. S. E. Herrick, D.D.—lecture on John Calvin]
He went to the University of Paris and won the favor of the learned Spaniard Cordevuis, the instructor of Ignatius Loyola. He was so out of harmony with the frivolities of the students and so devoted to his studies that he was nicknamed the “Accusative Case.” He often took only one meal a day and studied more than half the night. High thinking and meagre living wasted his physical frame and made his nerves so sensitive and intolerant that he was reputed censorious. Ten years were devoted to languages and logic and philosophy, “a severe and unsparing discipline, which made him the prince of reasoners and the perfect master of Latin elegance and terseness that he was. Never was man clearer in the apprehension of his own thought or more precise in its expression. One of his chapters is like a web of chain-mail. He saw through things from their roots to the ramifications without effort, a very incarnation of logic.”†
[† Dr. Herrick]
His father intended him for the priesthood, but his studies of the Latin turned his attention to law. His father about this time had a quarrel with the church authorities at Noyon and readily agreed that his son go to Orleans University. John Calvin devoted himself to this new line of study with his same ardor and success and he showed every promise of standing at the head of the legal profession. In 1530, when twenty-one years of age, he wrote a letter upon the royal divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine, giving his opinion in favor of it on the ground that the marriage was illegal as being within the degrees prohibited by the Scriptures. The fact that such a young man was consulted along with other Continental scholars on such matters indicates the altitude he had already reached. When twenty-four the University conferred upon him the title of LL.D. without the ordinary fee, as a compliment to his legal acquirements.
Two events seem to have changed the course of his whole life, although he had had many misgivings and deep spiritual convictions of sin. In the year 1527 Nicholas Doullon, aged 36, a priest, prothonotary, and holding several benefices, was accused of uttering blasphemy against the Virgin Mary and of denying that the Host was the very Christ. In the absence of the King four days sufficed the clergy for his condemnation. He was led, stripped of his official robes, with a rope about his neck and a taper in his hand, to apologize to the Virgin before an immense concourse in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He remained firm in his faith and was burnt alive at the Gieve. The execution made a sensation and many disciples were made for the reformed faith. The scene affected Calvin deeply. He said: “The kingdom of Christ is strengthened and established more by the blood of martyrs than by force of arms.” This was the first providence. Up to this time he had been more concerned about classical scholarship than about religion.
The second was the death of his father—an event which determined him to give up the law as a profession. He went to the University of Bourges, where he met a relative, Olivetan, a scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, who was engaged in translating the Bible into French. Calvin joined him in this and was led to the study of Hebrew. He became a thorough reformer. In his “Introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms” he holds up the mirror and lets us have a glimpse into his soul at this time.
He was asked to expound the Scriptures to those who were seeking light. Modest and retiring he repaired to Paris, where he hoped to hide himself and study the Bible alone. But his attainments and personal character made him the natural guide and counselor of the inquirers in their thought and study. They crowded upon him in his retirement, so that, as he said, “My solitary place became like a public school.” What he calls his “sudden conversion” took place here.
Calvin’s friend, Nicolas Cop, was made rector of the University of Paris. Calvin urged him to improve the opportunity of declaring the reformed faith boldly in his inaugural address in Latin on All Saints Day. The oration was, in effect, a defense of the reformed opinions, especially of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and showed the tremendous influence of Calvin. It praised the Christian philosophy which taught the will of God.
The address observed an admirable proportion. It was academical and yet evangelical. The monks were amazed. The Sorbonne was filled with anger and alarm. The rector essayed to defend his address. He convoked the four faculties, November 19,1533, pointed out its scripturalness and complained that he had been denounced in the Parlement at the instance of the monks. Great confusion followed. The faculties of letters and medicine were for Cop’s proposition, while the law and divinity faculties were against it. Cop would not cast the deciding vote.
Cop was summoned to Parlement. He essayed to go in his academic robes but, on the way, advised that a band of soldiers had been stationed to arrest him, he fled the city. Then Calvin was sought. He let himself down by sheets tied together from his window and escaped. Dressed as a peasant, he traveled to Angouleme. Here he enjoyed the hospitality of the rector of the Cathedral who had imbibed reformation principles and here he had the use of the rector’s great library. This was just what Calvin wished for and for a whole year he studied here. He prepared the first draft of his “Christian Institutes” here. It was in the form of a catechism.
Then came the Year of the Placards—1534. It was a decisive year for Calvin. From this time forward his influence became supreme and all who had accepted the reformed doctrines in France turned to him for counsel and instruction. Francis I, who was at this time persecuting violently the Reformers of France, but who was desirous while crushing the new doctrines to keep on good terms with the reforming princes of Germany, gave out that his endeavors were directed against certain fanatics and subverters of social order, like the Anabaptists. And Calvin simply undertook to repel the mean aspersion. He had not thought of writing anything new or strange, anything original even. He simply undertook to tell what the true Christian faith is now, what it was in the beginning, what it always has been—gathering up the truths which Christians of all ages had held—Augustine, Bemigius, Anselm, Luther. He bound them together in the adamantine chain of his logic, showed their consistency and co-relation and then dedicated it to His Majesty, Francis I. “This, Tour Majesty, is what the reformers believe, whom you are persecuting and we leave it now to your Majesty and to all the world to say whether we are Anabaptists and communists and rioters or whether we are members of the true Church, catholic of all time, and if you seek to drive us from this, the true faith, ply your fagots.”
He went from here to Saint Onge, where he had a final interview with Queen Margaret of Navarre. Thence he went to Noyon, where he settled his father’s estate, and with a brother and sister went to Basle. Here he published the first edition of the “Christian Institutes,” 1535, in Latin. It seems he also made a French translation which appeared about the same time. It was revised and a new edition published in 1539. In 1559, with great pains, Calvin made a final revision of the work which is without parallel in the history of Christian doctrine, which is necessarily the basis of study in all the reformed theological seminaries, which to the end will regulate the thoughtful study of God’s Holy Word.
The book at first appeared anonymously, the author having, as he himself says, nothing in view beyond furnishing a statement of the faith of the persecuted Protestants. In this work, written at the age of 26, we find a complete outline of the Calvinistic theological system. Nor is there any reason to believe that he ever changed his views on any essential point from what they were at the period of its first publication. It exercised a prodigious influence upon the opinions and practices both of contemporaries and of posterity.
Calvin’s Great Work in Geneva
John Calvin was in his 28th year when he settled in Geneva and in this city the rest of his life, with the exception of a brief interval, was spent. His services at first were rendered gratuitously. He preached in the Church of St. Pierre and after about a year he was elected preacher by the magistrates with the consent of the people. The post to which he was called was not an easy one. Though the people of Geneva had cast off the obedience of Some, it was largely a political revolt against the Dukes of Savoy, and they were still (says Beza) “but very imperfectly enlightened in divine knowledge.” He was a prodigious worker. Besides preaching every day and sometimes two or three times, he published more commentaries than any of the reformers. His correspondence was immense. He often spent the whole night keeping it up. Add to this his duties as a member of the city executive council and the care of the municipal commonwealth and one wonders how the man was able to live even fifty-five, years.
So far as it was possible for him to get a controlling hand upon the affairs of the church and state in Geneva, he meant to govern both by principles laid down in the Bible as he, Calvin, understood those principles. But Geneva was not yet ready for his system. Calvin and Farel were banished by order of the Council in 1538.
He went to Berne, then to Zurich and thence to Basle. He became pastor in Strassbourg, purposing to remain there. Here he married a widow, Idellette de Bure, with whom he lived happily for 9 years. But Geneva fared badly, anarchy prevailed. Cardinal Sadolet wrote a letter to the German Senate, calculated to mislead. That stirred Calvin and he answered the Cardinal so effectively that he retired in confusion. This warmed the hearts of the Genevese towards him and in September, 1541, after a banishment of three and one-half years, he returned in triumph to Geneva. Now his work began in earnest.
Concerning Calvin’s plan of operation in Geneva, the French philosopher, M. Guizot, remarks:
“He desired (1) to establish and promote Christian faith in accordance with his own views; (2) to secure to the religious society which had been founded in virtue of that faith on the one hand religious independence of state control, and on the other authority and power in matters of religion over its members and faithful adherents; (3) to reform public and private morality both in civil and religious society in the name of the allied powers of the church, and state and by their mutual help. Such was the three-fold design which Calvin hoped to accomplish. No doubt, he had not set it very distinctly before him, nor had he fully realized all that it involved and all its difficulties, but he commenced the struggle with a stout heart and a resolute mind.”
D’Aubigny remarks: “The people of Geneva and their great doctor have each left their stamp on the Reformation, which issued from their walls: Calvin’s was truth, the people’s liberty.” Another more potent and supreme principle that Calvin diffused is the sovereignty of God. He enjoined the people to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but, he has added, “God must always retain the sovereign empire and all that may belong to man remains subordinate. Obedience towards princes accords with God’s service; but if princes usurp any portion of the authority of God, we must obey them only so far as may be done without offending God.”
In establishing the state in Geneva Calvin recognized Almighty God as the Source of all authority, to know whom is man’s supreme end; the Lord Jesus Christ as the divinely appointed ruler of nations; and the Bible whose writers were “sure and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit,” as the fountain of all law.
He maintained that civil government should restrain vice and encourage virtue, making doing wrong as difficult as possible and doing right as easy as possible. To obviate the evils, he drew up in union with Farel a statement of Christian doctrine consisting of 21 articles. This the citizens were summoned to profess and swear to as the confession of their faith. But the severity, both of ritual and of living, enjoined by Calvin and his endeavour to affect the complete freedom of the Church from State control was deeply resented.
Dancing and card playing were put under the ban and made penal offenses; all holidays were abolished except Sabbath. “These things are not wrong in themselves,” said Calvin, “but they have been so abused that it is the wisest way to abrogate them altogether.” There was to be no more feasting and revellings at weddings. All the lighter follies and amusements of society were to be abolished and all the darker vices of licentiousness and debauchery and drunkenness and profanity were summarily dealt with. Penalties were severe. Parental authority was defended with exceeding vigor. A girl was beheaded for striking her mother, a boy who threatened the same unfilial act was condemned to die. A young child was ordered whipped who sang some silly words to a Psalm time; and a man hearing an ass bray and said, “What a fine Psalm he chants, to be sure,” was banished. Parents were held responsible for the training of their children and all were compelled to cease work on the Sabbath Day.
He recodifled the Genevan laws and constitution. His system of church polity assumed that every member of the State was also under discipline of the Church; and he asserted that the right of exercising this discipline was vested exclusively in the body of preachers and elders.
His views on Church discipline naturally brought him into conflict with the civil authority and with the people. But his courage, his perseverance, and his earnestness at length prevailed and before he died his system of Church polity was firmly established, not only at Geneva, but in other parts of Switzerland, and was adopted substantially by the Reformers in France and in Scotland.
Calvin was consulted on every affair that came before the Council—on questions of law, police, economy, trade, and manufactures. To him the city owed her trade in cloths and velvets, from which so much wealth accrued to her “citizens; sanitary regulations were introduced by him which made Geneva the admiration of all visitors; and Calvin was the founder of Geneva’s University. He believed that a free city and a free government could not exist except by educating the people in morals and religion, and so he instituted a system of free public schools.
But the University was in a sense his crowning work there, for it added religious education to the evangelical preaching and the thorough discipline already established and so completed the reformer’s ideal of a Christian commonwealth. The men whom he trained at Geneva carried his principles, civil and religious, into almost every country of Europe.
For Calvin the Decalogue was both a civil code and a spiritual rule of life. The state was its keeper in the former sense; the church in the latter sense—each separate in its sphere of action. The state forbade idolatry, the church promoted the pure worship of God. The state forbade profanity and blasphemy, the church taught reverence for God’s holy name. The state forbade public Sabbath desecration, the church kept the day holy unto the Lord. The state required obedience to just and legal authority, the church required preserving the honor and performing the duty belonging to every one in their several places and relations as superiors, inferiors and equals. The state executed the criminal, the church taught that hating a brother without cause was murder. The state punished adultery and fornication, the church called for purity in thought, word and deed.
Professor George P. Fisher, in his analysis of John Calvin’s System in “The Reformation,” assigns three reasons for the triumph of Calvinism in Geneva.
1. It separated church and state.
2. Its church government was republican.
3. Its Scripturalness throughout in doctrine, order and administration.
Professor Fisher also makes clear two objections to the Geneva system.
1. The church discipline was too severe.
2. The penalties of the state were too drastic and out of proportion to the offenses.
But are we sure that lawless human nature can be held in check without such stringent laws as Calvin had? Are we sure that we shall not be compelled to adopt Calvin’s way yet to stamp out the lawless spirit of crime prevalent in our country? Remember he was dealing with a people demoralized by civil disturbances, an impetuous and impulsive people, impatient of restraint. The city had gone wild and needed a strong, severe and powerful hand to bring order out of confusion.
One act of extreme severity—the burning of Michael Servetus—-sullied the cause he had so greatly at heart. After the decision of the Council, Calvin did all in his power to have the decision changed, but the Council, backed by the Swiss authorities and some of the more famous reformers like Melancthon, would not yield and Calvin cannot be held guiltless of this untowardly extreme severity.
Calvin took nothing but his Latin Bible with him into the pulpit. He used no notes. He was of medium height, pale, sharp-featured, physically weak. He was a sensitive man, but so modest that he did not make it known. In his “Introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms,” he compares himself with David, who was pierced by the calumnies of his enemies, but more deeply wounded by the reproaches of his professed friends. And, he remarks, that in describing David’s heartaches in his annotations he is depicting his own. Though he lived for 30 years at the foot of the Jura Mountains and in the shadow of the Alps and beside the beautiful Lake Leman he never referred to these in his writings. The truth of the unseen kingdom was his all absorbing theme. “We look not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are not seen.” And so he did not carry his heart on his sleeve and bring his own feelings into the arena. He was simply the voice of God crying in the wilderness. His marvelous modesty made him hide himself that the truth of the kingdom might be clearly seen. “I preach not myself, but Christ the Lord.”
“His system has had and still has great value in the history of Christian thought. It appealed to and evoked a high order of intelligence and its insistence on personal individual salvation has borne worthy fruit. So, also, its insistence on the chief end of man, ‘to know and to do the will of God’ has made for strenuous morality. Its effects have been most clearly seen in Scotland, in Puritan England, and in the New England States, but its influence was and is felt among peoples that have little desire or claim to be called Calvinist.”* [*Encyclopedia Brittanica]
In a word, Calvin’s system is the affirmation of God’s sovereign government of the world and of the universe. Calvin had no dependence on standing armies or body guards or the rule of might—his dependence was wholly upon the sovereign Word of God. As a little leaven leaveneth the whole, one such Christian city would seal the redemption of the world. John Calvin produced that city in Geneva.
Is such a city possible in this day and age in our land? However small, a sincere group of Calvinists can keep alive Calvinism and save Presbyterianism from disasters and pitfalls which are besetting our church and our nation and the world.
[Note: This paper was read before the Presbyterian Ministers Association of Greater Boston (Massachusetts), October 16, 1922, by Rev. James M. Foster, D.D.]