corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 10 — Calvin enters Geneva — Its civil and ecclesiastical constitution

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30

Calvin at the Gates of Geneva — Farel Told — Meeting of Farel and Calvin — Is this the Author of the Institutes?—Adjuration — Calvin Remains in Geneva — Commences as Lecturer in the Cathedral — His Confession of Faith — Excommunication — What is it? — Morality the Corner-stone of the New State — Civil Constitution of the Republic — The Council-General — The Council of Two Hundred — The Council of Twenty-five — The Syndics — The Consistory or Church-Court — Distinction between the Civil and Ecclesiastical Powers — Calvin's Ideas on the Relations between Church and State — Guizot's Testimony — Calvin's Ideal in Advance of his Age.

ONE day, towards the end of August, 1536, a stranger, of slender figure and pale face, presented himself at the gates of Geneva. There was nothing to distinguish him from the crowds of exiles who were then arriving almost daily at the same gates, except it might be the greater brightness that burned in his eye. He had come to rest only for a night, and depart on the morrow. But as he traversed the streets on his way to his hotel, a former acquaintance — Du Tillet, say some; Caroli, say others — recognised him, and instantly hurried off to tell Farel that Calvin was in Geneva.

When, nearly a year ago, we parted with Calvin, he was on his way across the Alps to visit Renee, the daughter of Louis XII. of France, and wife of Hercules d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. "He entered Italy," as he himself said, "only to leave it," [1] though not till he had confirmed the illustrious princess, at whose court he sojourned, in her attachment to the Protestant faith, in which, despite the many and peculiar trials to which her constancy exposed her, she steadfastly continued to her life's end. His eldest brother dying, Calvin recrossed the mountains, on a hasty journey to his birthplace, most probably to arrange the family affairs, [2] and leave Noyon for ever. Where shall he next go?. The remembrance of the studious days he had passed at Basle returned to him with irresistibly attractive force, and now, accompanied by his brother Antoine, and his sister Maria, [3] he was on his way to his former retreat; but the direct road through Lorraine was blocked up by the armies of Charles V., and this compelled him to make a detour by Switzerland, which brought him to the gates of Geneva.

With startled but thankful surprise Farel received the news that the author of the Christian Institutes was in the city. God, he thought, had sent, at a critical moment, the man of all others whom he most wished to associate with himself in the work of reforming Geneva.

Farel had begun to feel the difficulty of the task he had in hand. To break this people from their habits of lawless indulgence, nurtured by the contests in which they had won their liberty, would indeed be no easy matter. They would spurn all attempts to coerce them, and yield only to the force of a stronger will, and the sway of a loftier genius. Besides, the highest organising skill was demanded in the man who should set up a moral tribunal in the midst of this licentious city, and found on this unpromising spot an empire which should pervade with its regenerating spirit nations afar off, and generations yet unborn. Believing that he had found in Calvin one who possessed all these great qualities, Farel was already on his way to visit him.

Farel now stands before the author of the Institutes. He beholds a man of small stature and sickly mien. Were these the shoulders on which he should lay a burden which would have tasked the strength of Atlas himself? We can well believe that Farel experienced some moments of painful misgivings. To reassure himself he had to recall to mind, doubtless, the profound wisdom, the calm strength, and the sublimity of principle displayed on every page of the Institutes. That was the real Calvin. Now Farel began to press his suit. He was here combating alone. He had to do daily battle against an atrocious tyranny outside the city, and against a licentious Libertinism within it. Come, he said to the young Reformer, and be my comrade in the campaign.

Calvin's reply was a refusal. His constructive and practical genius was then unknown even to himself. His sphere, he believed, was his library; his proper instrument of work, his pen; and to cast himself into a scene like that before him was, he believed, to extinguish himself. Panting to be at Basle or at Strasburg, where speaking from the sanctuary of a studious and laborious privacy, he could edify all the Churches, he earnestly besought Farel to stand aside and let him go on his way.

But Ferel would not stand aside. Putting on something of the authority of an ancient prophet, he commanded the young traveler to remain and labor in Geneva, and he imprecated upon his studies the curse of God, should he make them the pretext for declining the call now addressed to him. [4] It was the voice not of Farel, but of God, that now spoke to Calvin; so he felt; and instantly he obeyed. He loved, in after-life, to recall that, "fearful adjuration," which was, he would say, "as if God from on high had stretched out his hand to stop me." [5]

Calvin's journey was now at an end. He had reached the spot where his life's work was to be done. Here, in this grey city, clinging to its narrow rocky site, the calm lake at its feet, and the glories of the distant mountains in its sky, was he for twenty-eight years to toil and wage battle, and endure defeat, but to keep marching on through toil and defeat, to more glorious

victory in the end than warrior ever won with his sword, and then he would fall on sleep, and rest by the banks of that river whose "arrowy" stream he had crossed but a few minutes before, he gave his hand to Farel, and in doing so he gave himself to Geneva.

If the destiny of Calvin was from that moment changed; if from a student he became a legislator and leader; if from being a soldier in the ranks he became generalissimo of the armies of Protestantism, not less was the destiny of Geneva from that moment changed. Calvin had already written a book that constituted an epoch in Protestantism, but he was to write it a second time; though not with pen and ink. He would display before all Christendom the Institutes, not as a volume of doctrines, but as a system of realised facts — a State rescued from the charnel-house of corruption, and raised to the glorious heritage of liberty and virtue — glorious in art, in letters, and in riches, because resplendent with every Christian virtue. To write Protestantism upon their banners, to proclaim it in their edicts, to install it as a worship in their Churches, Calvin and all the Reformers held to be but a small affair; what they strove above all things to achieve was to plant it as an operative moral force in the hearts of men, and at the foundations of States.

Calvin was now at the age of twenty-seven. The magistrates of Geneva welcomed him, but with a cautious reserve, if we may judge from the first mention of his name in the registers of the city, about a fortnight after his arrival, as "that Frenchman!" He was appointed to give lectures on the Scriptures, and to preach. [6] Beza styles him "doctor or professor of sacred letters," but as yet no academy existed, and his prelections were delivered in the cathedral. As regards the latter function, that of preacher, it was some time before Calvin would assume it. When at length he appeared in the pulpit as pastor, he spoke with an eloquence so simple and clear, yet so majestic and luminous, that his audiences continued daily to grow. He had already done a winter's work, but had received scarcely any wages, for we read in the Council Registers, under date February 13th, 1537: "Six gold crowns are given to Cauvin or Calvin, seeing that he has hitherto scarcely received anything." [7]

It was not long till Calvin's rare genius for system and organisation began to display itself. Within three months from the commencement of his labors in Geneva, he had, in conjunction with Farel, compiled a brief but comprehensive creed, setting forth the leading doctrines of the Christian faith. To this he added a Catechism, [8] not that, in question and answer, for children, which we now possess, but one adapted to adults. The Genevans, with uplifted hands, had embraced Protestantism: Calvin would show them what that Protestantism was which they had professed, and what were the moral duties which it demanded of all its adherents. The Genevans had lifted up their hands: had they bowed their hearts? This was the main question with him. He had no trust in blind obedience. Knowledge must be the corner-stone of the new State, the foundations of which he was now laying.

We can give here only the briefest outline of this Confession of Faith. Placing the Word of God in the foreground, as the one infallible authority, and the one and sole rule, it proceeds, in twenty-one articles, to declare what Scripture teaches, touching God, and the plan of redemption which he has provided for man fallen and helpless. It proclaims Christ the one channel of all blessing; the Spirit, the one Author of all good works; faith, "the entrance to all these riches;" and then goes on to speak of the apparatus set up for offering redemption to men, the Sacraments and ministers. Then follow articles on the Church, "comprehending the whole body of true believers;" on excommunication, or the exclusion from the Church of all manifestly unholy and vicious persons, till they shall have repented; and, in fine, on magistracy, "an ordinance of God," and to be respected "in all ordinances that do not contravene the commandments of God." On the 10th of November, 1536, this Confession was received and approved of by the Council of Two Hundred. [9]

To the half-Protestantised citizens of Geneva the sting of this document was in the end of it — ex-communication. The other articles had simply to be professed, this one was heavier than them all, inasmuch as it had to be borne. What did this power import? Was the Protestant excommunication but the Papal anathema under another name? Far from it. It carried with it no cruel infliction. It operated in no preternatural or mystic manner, inflicting blight upon the soul. It did not even pronounce on the state of the man before God. It simply found that his life was manifestly unholy, and, therefore, that he was unfit for a holy society, and in token of his exclusion it withheld from him the Sacraments. No society can exist without laws or rules; but of what use are laws without an executive or tribunal to administer them? and without the right of inflicting penalties, a tribunal would be powerless; and a lighter penalty than "excommunication" or expulsion it would be impossible to conceive or devise. Without this power the Church in Geneva would have been a city without walls and bulwarks; it would have been dissolved the moment it was formed.

It is necessary at this stage to refer to the Constitution — civil and ecclesiastical — of Geneva, in order that the course of affairs may be clearly intelligible. The fundamental principle of the State was, that the people are the source of power. In accordance therewith came, first, a Convention of all the

citizens, termed the Council-General.

This was the supreme authority. To obviate the confusion and turbulence incident to so large an assembly, a Council of Two Hundred was chosen, termed the Great Council. [10] Next came the Little, or ordinary Council, consisting of twenty-five members, including the four Syndics of the city.

This last, the Council of Twenty-five, was the executive, and possessed moreover a large share of the judicial and legislative power. The constitutional machinery we have described in detail was popularly summed up thus — the PEOPLE, the COUNCIL, and SENATE of Geneva. The Council-General — that is, the People — was convoked only once a year, in November, to elect the four Syndics. Besides this annual assembly, it met on important emergencies, or when fundamental changes were to be determined upon, and then only. The actual government of the State was mainly in the hands of the Council of Twenty-five, which was by constitution largely oligarchical. Such was the republic when Calvin became a member of it.

With Protestantism there arrived a new power in Geneva — the religious, namely — and we complete our picture of the government of the little State when we describe the provision made for the exercise of the ecclesiastical authority. The court or tribunal which took cognisance of Church scandals was the Consistory. The Consistory was composed of the five ministers of the city and twelve laymen. [11] It met every Thursday, and the highest penalty it had power to inflict was excommunication, by which is meant expulsion from the Church. If this failed to reclaim the offender, the Consistory had the right to report the case to the Council, and require it to proceed therein according to the laws.

In judging of this arrangement time and circumstances are to be taken into account. The course of affairs at Geneva inevitably tended to graft the ecclesiastical upon the civil government, and to some extent to build up the two in one. It was Protestantism that had called Geneva into existence as a free State. Protestantism was its soul, the center and citadel of its liberties, and whatever tended to weaken or overthrow that principle tended equally to the ruin of the republic. Encompassed on all sides by powerful enemies, this one principle was the bond of their union and the shield of their freedom; and this went far to impart, in many cases, a two-fold character to the same action, and to justify the Church in regarding certain acts as sins, and visiting them with her censures, while the State viewed the same acts as crimes, and meted out to them its punishments.

Calvin took the Jewish theocracyas his model when he set to work to frame, or rather to complete, the General Republic. What we see on the banks of the Leman is a theocracy; Jehovah was its head, the Bible was its supreme code, and the government exercised a presiding and paternal guardianship over all interests and causes, civil and spiritual. Geneva, in this respect, was a reproduction of the Old Testament state of society. We of the nineteenth century regard this as a grave error. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Calvin grasped the essential distinction between things civil and things ecclesiastical, and the necessity of placing the two under distinct jurisdictions or powers. But his theocratic views produced a dinmess and confusion in his ideas on that head, and he was more successful in settling the just limits of the ecclesiastical authority, than he was in defining those of the civil jurisdiction. He would not allow a particle of civil power to the Consistory, but he was not equally careful to withhold ecclesiastical power from the Council. This error arose from his making the Old Testament a model on a point which, we believe, was temporary and local, not permanent and universal. Nevertheless, the Reformer of Geneva stood ahead in this great question of all his predecessors. We may quote here the words of a great statesman, and a countryman of Calvin's, who has done justice to the Reformer on this point. "A principle," says Guizot, "we should rather say a passion, held sway in Calvin's heart, and was his guiding star in the permanent organisation of the Church which he founded, as well as in his personal conduct during his life. That principle is the profound distinction between the civil and the religious community. Distinction, we say, and by no means separation. Calvin, on the contrary, desired alliance between the two communities and the two powers, but each to be independent in its own domain, combining their action, showing mutual respect, and lending mutual support ..... In this principle and this fundamental labor," continues the historian, "there are two new and bold reforms attempted in the very heart of the great Reformation of Europe, and over and above the work of its first promoters." in proof, Guizot goes on to instance England, where the "royal supremacy" was accepted; Switzerland, where the Council of State held the sovereign authority in matters of religion; and Germany, where the magistrate was the chief bishop; and continues: "In this great question as to the relations between Church and State, Calvin desired and did more, than his predecessors .... in spite of the resistance often showed him by the civil magistrates, in spite of the concessions he was sometimes obliged to make to them, he firruly maintained this principle, and he secured to the Reformed Church of Geneva, in purely religious questions and affairs, the right of self-government, according to the faith and the law as they stand written in the Holy Books." [12]

In this statement of facts, Guizot is undoubtedly correct. Only we think that he is mistaken in believing that it was the Church of Rome, and the "independence of its head," which taught the Reformer the "strength and dignity" conferred on the Church by having "an existence distinct from the civil community."

Calvin learned the idea from a Diviner source. Nor was he quite so successful in extricating the spiritual from the civil jurisdiction, either in idea or in reality, as Guizot appears to think. As regarded the idea, he was embarrassed by the Old Testament theocracy, which he took to be a Divine model for all times; and as regarded the actuality, the opposition which he encountered from the civil authority at Geneva made it impossible for hint to realize his idea so fully as he wished to do. But it is only justice to bear in mind that his ideal was far in advance of his age, as Guizot has said.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, March 18th, 2018
the Fifth Sunday of Lent
There are 14 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology