During the 1520s, evangelical reforming movements achieved considerable success in the cities of Switzerland. Although the movement began in Zurich, by the late 1520s it had won over some of the leading cities of the area, including Basel and Berne. Yet these were all German-speaking cities. As the decade came to an end, interest began to develop in converting some of the French-speaking regions and cities to the west of Switzerland to the reforming cause—such as the Pays de Vaud and the cities of Neuchatel, Lausanne, and Geneva. Many of these were already linked to Swiss cities by political and commercial treaties. As those cities turned Protestant, they began to bring subtle pressure to bear on their trading partners to follow suit.9
Yet the evangelical emphasis on preaching in the vernacular posed a serious problem. Most of the leading reformers of the region spoke German. Where might French-speaking evangelicals be found? Some turned to Guillaume Farel, a Frenchman who had studied at Paris and been involved in reforming activities in the French diocese of Meaux.10 Oecolampadius had welcomed him to Basel in 1524—a decision he was to regret bitterly. Farel was an abrasive, aggressive, outspoken debater who managed to alienate rather than persuade his opponents. No less a person than Erasmus himself demanded that Farel be expelled from Basel on account of the embarrassment he was causing to the great city's reputation. Eventually, Farel managed to find some support at Berne, where he was able to establish a base for his reforming activities in the region.
His greatest triumph was in 1532, when his preaching in Geneva produced positive results, eventually culminating in a great public disputation in 1535.11 Having only won its freedom from the neighboring Duchy of Savoy that same year, Geneva was determined to mold its own future rather than be dominated by any of its neighbors. In August 1535, the city council voted that the Republic of Geneva would accept the principles of the Protestant Reformation and abolish the mass. Along with Pierre Viret, Farel found himself in charge of the direction of the religious reordering of the city.12 It was a task for which he was not suited. He needed help. But who was there to help him?
John Calvin was born in the French cathedral city of Noyon and had attended the University of Paris before going on to study civil law at Orléans.13 During his time at Paris, he had encountered at least some of the reforming ideas of Martin Luther, which were widely discussed in academic circles. When he returned to the city after graduating from Orléans, he became associated with reforming groups. Tantalizingly, we know very little about this period of Calvin's life; his personal papers were confiscated when the police raided his lodgings in 1533. The rector of the University of Paris, Nicholas Cop, had preached a reforming sermon that was seen as highly inflammatory by the university and city authorities (however moderate it looks to its modern readers). A copy of this sermon exists in Calvin's handwriting. Was he, many wondered, its real author?
Calvin fled before he could be arrested, eventually making his way to the Swiss city of Basel, now a bastion of Protestantism, where he sought refuge. The situation in France had deteriorated. The cause of reform had been severely injured by the "affair of the placards": anti-Catholic posters entitled "True Articles on the Horrible, Great, and Insufferable Abuses of the Papal Mass" were displayed in public places throughout Paris in October 1534. The author of the placards was unknown; many, however, believed that Guillaume Farel was involved.14 If so, it was a political misjudgment that was typical of Farel. Francis I, once sympathetic to the cause of French reformers, was alienated overnight and became an implacable opponent of the Reformation. The Anabaptist takeover of Münster also made Francis I regard anyone interested in reform of the church as potentially seditious.
Calvin was appalled at this development. Might something be done to restore the balance? Having time on his hands while in exile in Basle, he penned a little book that set out the basic elements of the Reformed view of the Christian faith that he personally espoused. In addition to setting out his views on the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, Calvin wrote a preface, addressed to Francis I, pleading for toleration of this moderate evangelical form of Christianity and distinguishing it from the excesses and violence of Anabaptism. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in May 1536, would eventually become one of the most influential publications of the sixteenth century—not on account of its gracious preface, but because of its lucid, systematic, and persuasive account of the basic elements of Reformed Christianity.15 It is generally agreed that Calvin drew on both of Luther's catechisms of 1529 and his treatises on The Freedom of the Christian and The Babylonian Captivity in writing this book.
Having returned to Noyon to settle some family affairs, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, breaking his journey along the way. In the summer of 1536, he paused at Geneva, intending to stay only a night before moving on. Farel recognized Calvin and demanded that he stay in the city and help consolidate the reforms he had introduced. Calvin met Farel's needs in three ways: he spoke and wrote fluent French; he had just published an excellent primer in Christian doctrine, which pointed to his ability as an educationalist; and he was a graduate in civil law, able to help Geneva draft its civil ordinances. Reluctantly, Calvin agreed to stay in Geneva, where he assumed the office of "reader" (lector) of Holy Scripture.16 He was never "ordained" in any sense of the term.
His rise to prominence began in September 1536. The city of Lausanne was debating whether to follow Geneva and accept the principles of the Reformation. Farel and Viret traveled to Lausanne, bringing Calvin with them, to take part in the public disputation that was now an invariable part of the decision-making process.17 They were pitted against the local clergy, who were not noted for their academic distinction. The debate was not going well for Farel and Viret, who found themselves severely challenged by some of the questions they were forced to address.
One of those questions went to the heart of the reforming program at Geneva and raised the specter of Anabaptism. Were not Viret and Farel allowing people to interpret the Bible as they pleased, without taking the views of early church writers seriously? It was a moment of tension; the debate was in the balance. The credibility of the reformation at Geneva would be permanently damaged if any association was made with the radical cause and the social instability it was widely believed to engender. Calvin rose to answer.
Apparently quoting early Christian writers from memory, Calvin insisted that he and his colleagues took them with the greatest of seriousness and saw them as authorities of significance. The audience was dazzled by the brilliance of Calvin's presentation: he quoted the third-
century writer Cyprian of Carthage to the letter ("in the second book of his letters, the third letter") and the fourth-century theologian and preacher John Chrysostom even more precisely ("the twenty-first homily, about halfway through"). By the time Calvin sat down, everyone was clear on two things: the Genevan Reformation was about the renewal and continuity of the church, and a new star had arisen in the Protestant firmament. Lausanne was won over to the Reformation, while Geneva was won over to Calvin.
Yet the relationship between Calvin and Geneva was far from relaxed. Farel was not the easiest of people to work with. More significantly, the city of Geneva, having just thrown off the political power of the Duchy of Savoy and the religious power of the papacy, was in no mood to submit itself to new strictures—especially compulsory attendance at somewhat lengthy sermons. Farel, never the most politically astute of operators, alienated so many people in Geneva that an anti-Farel faction was able to win control of the city early in 1538. In April, Farel and Calvin were expelled from the city. Calvin's correspondence suggests that he was devastated by this development. What should he do? Where could he go? In the end, he simply picked up where he had left off in the summer of 1536. He packed his bags and continued to Strasbourg, hoping to continue his work there.
Having arrived in Strasbourg two years later than he had intended, Calvin began to make up for lost time. In quick succession, he produced a series of major theological works. He produced a revised and expanded second edition of the Institutes (1539) and a French translation of the first edition (1541). As pastor to the French-speaking congregation in the city, Calvin was able to gain experience of the practical problems facing Reformed pastors. Through his friendship with Strasbourg's leading reformer, Martin Bucer, Calvin was able to develop his thinking on the relation between the city and the church, as well as the intellectual foundations of his reforming program. Calvin was clearly influenced significantly at points by the experienced reformer of Strasbourg, whom he playfully dubbed the "Bishop of Strasbourg." By 1541 he had gained considerable practical experience of church management and given much thought to the nature of a reformed church, especially in relation to issues of civil polity and discipline. The influence of Bucer is especially evident on these points. The reformed church and community that had existed only in Calvin's mind at Geneva in 1538 were now concrete realities. Abstract theory and pure speculation had given way to practical experience. Calvin was ready to begin all over again—but this time he was determined to get it right.
The invitation to return to Geneva finally came in the fall of 1541. In his absence, the religious and political situation had deteriorated. The city appealed to him to return and restore order and confidence. The Calvin who returned to Geneva was a wiser and more experienced young man, and far better equipped for the massive tasks awaiting him than he had been three years earlier.18 There were tensions and controversies, not least relating to the Servetus affair, in which Calvin played a relatively minor role in securing the conviction and execution of Michael Servetus, a noted Anabaptist. Yet even this event must be seen in context: in this age, human life was routinely taken in order to maintain public order. Although Calvin would still find himself quarreling with the city authorities for more than a decade, it was from a position of strength. Geneva needed him. Finally, opposition to his program of reform died out. For the last decade of his life, he had virtually a free hand in the religious affairs of the city.
To understand Calvin's immense strategic importance to the shaping of Protestantism, we must turn to consider the book for which he is best known—the Institutes of the Christian Religion—and the religious system it embodies.
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