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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 16 — The new Geneva

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The Ministry — The Weekly Exercise — Visiting — Calvin — His Sermons — Studies — Correspondence — From the Centre Watches the Whole Field — Geneva the Dwelling of a Righteous People — Calvin's Aim to make it a Model City — Character of Calvin's Commentaries— Two Genevas — The Libertines — Geneva becomes the Thermopyke of Christendom.

WE have surveyed only the grand outlines. To Geneva for the reinvigoration of the Reformation, ,see the completeness and efficiency of the scheme let us glance a moment at the details. which Calvin elaborated and set a-working in First the ministry was cared for. To guard against the entrance of unworthy and incompetent persons into its ranks, candidates were subjected to repeated tests and examinations previous to ordination.

The ministry organised, arrangements were made to secure its efficiency and purity. The pastors were to meet once a week in conference for mutual correction and improvement; each in his turn was to expound a passage of Scripture in presence of the rest, who were to give their opinions on the doctrine delivered in their hearing. The young were to be kept under religious instruction till qualified by their knowledge and their age for coming to the Communion-table. Every Friday a sermon was to be preached in St. Peter's, which all the citizens were to attend. Once a year every family was to be visited by a minister and elder, and once every three years a Presbyterian visitation of all the parishes of the State was to take place. Care was also taken that the sick and the poor should be regularly visited, and the hospitals attended to. Never before, nor since perhaps, has a community had the good fortune to be placed under so complete and thorough a system of moral and spiritual training. Calvin must first reform Geneva, if through Geneva he would reform Europe.

It was a Herculean task which the Reformer had set himself. He could find no one to share it with him. Viret and Farel could not be spared from Lausanne and Neuchatel, and it was on his shoulders alone that the burden rested. The labors which from this time he underwent were enormous. In addition to his Sunday duties as pastor of the parish of St. Peter's, he preached every day of the alternate week. He delivered three theological lectures weekly. Every Thursday he presided in the Consistory. Every Friday he gave a public exposition in St. Peter's. He took his turn with the other ministers in the visitation of the sick, and other pastoral duties.

When the plague was in Geneva he offered himself for the service of the hospital, but the Council, deeming his life indispensable to the State, would not hear of his shutting himself up with the pestilence. Day by day he pursued ]his studies without intermission. He awoke at five o'clock; his books were brought him and, sitting up in bed, he dictated to an amanuensis. When the hour came to mount the pulpit, he was invariably ready; and when he returned home, he resumed, after a short rest, his literary labors. Nor was this all. From every part of Christendom to which the Reformation had penetrated — from Poland, Austria, Germany, and Denmark, and from the nearer lands of Switzerland, France, and England — came letters daily to him. There were Churches to be organised, theological questions to be solved, differences to be composed, and exigencies to be met. The Reformer must maturely weigh all these, and counsel the action to be taken in each. Without diminishing his rate of daily work, he found time for this immense correspondence.

Calvin had pitched his tent at the center of a great battle, and his eye ranged over the whole field. There was not a movement which he did not direct, or a champion for whose safety he did not care. If anywhere he saw a combatant on the point of being overborne, he hastened to his aid; and if he descried signs of faint-heartedness, he strove to stimulate afresh the courage of the desponding warrior, and induce him to resume the battle. The froward he moderated, the timid he emboldened, the unskilful he instructed, and the erring he called back. If it happened that some champion from the Roman or from the pantheistic camp stepped forth to defy the armies of Protestantism, Calvin was ever ready to measure swords with him. The controversy commonly was short but decisive, and the Reformed Church usually, for some time after, had rest from all similar attacks. To those on their way to the stake, Calvin never failed to send greeting and consolation, and the martyrs in their turn waved their adieus to him from their scaffolds. The words, "We who are about to die, salute thee!" which greeted the emperor in the Roman circus, were again heard, cried by hundreds of voices, but in circumstances which gave them an ineffably greater sublimity.

While he watched all that was passing at the remote boundary, he did not for one moment neglect the center. He knew that so vast a plan of operations must repose on a solid basis. Hence his incessant toil to reform the manners, enlarge the knowledge, and elevate the piety of Geneva. He would make it the dwelling of a righteous nation. All who might enter its gates should see, and those at a distance should hear, what that Christianity was which he was seeking to restore to the world, and what mighty and blessed transformations it was able to work on society. Its enemies branded it as heresy, and cursed it as the mother of all wickedness. Come, then, was in effect Calvin's reply; come and examine for yourselves this heresy at its head-quarters. Mark the dens of profligacy and crime rooted out, the habits of idleness and beggary suppressed, the noise of blasphemy and riot extinguished! And with what have they been replaced? Contemplate those nurseries of art,

those schools of letters, those workshops where industry plies its honest calling, those homes which are the abode of love, those men of learning rising up to adorn the State, and those patriots ready to defend it. Blessed heresy that yields such fruits! It was this — a great living proof of the Gospel's transforming power — that Calvin had in view to create in all his labors, whether in his study, or in his chair, or in the pulpit.

And in enlightening Geneva he enlightened Christendom; in instructing his contemporaries he taught, at the same time, the men of after-ages. Though. his pen produced much, it sent forth nothing that was not fully ripened. His writings, though composed in answer to the sudden challenge of some adversary, or to meet an emergency that had unexpectedly arisen, or to fulfill the call of daily duty, bear traces neither of haste nor of immaturity; on the contrary, they are solid, terse, ever to the point, and so fraught with great principles, set forth with lucidity and beauty, that even at this day, after the lapse of three centuries, during which the works of numberless authors have sunk into oblivion, they are still widely read, and are acting powerfully on the mind of Christendom. As an expositor of Scripture, Calvin is still without a rival. His Commentaries embrace the whole of the Old and New Testaments, with the exception of the Apocalypse; but though the track is thus vast which his mind and pen have traversed, what a flood of light has he contrived' to shed throughout it all! How penetrating, yet how simple; how finely exegetical, yet how thoroughly practical; how logical in thought, yet how little systematic in form are his interpretations of the Holy Oracles! Nor is the unction his Commentary breathes its least excellence. Its spirit is that of the Bible itself; its fragrance is of heaven, and the reader's soul is refreshed with the celestial air that he is inhaling.

We now behold Calvin at his post, and we hang with intense interest upon the issue of his experiment. The question is not merely shall he protestantise Geneva, but shall he extricate the Reformation from its dead-lock; restore it to its spiritual path; and, having developed it into new rigor and soundness in Geneva, plant it out in other countries. For five years all went smoothly, nothing occurred to obstruct the regular working of the spiritual and intellectual machinery he had set a-going in this little but wisely-selected territory. The fruits were appearing. "By the blessing of God on the labors of Calvin," says Ruchat, "the Church of Geneva put on a new face." [1] But the Libertinism of Geneva had been scorched, not killed.

In 1546, it again lifted up its head, and the struggle was renewed. There were, in fact, two Genevas: there was the religious and orderly Geneva, composed of the native disciples of the Gospel, the foreign refugees of Protestantism, and the youth of various nationalities here training under Calvin to bear the banner of the Reformation in the face of fire and sword through all parts of Europe; and there was the infidel and the disorderly Geneva, a small but ominous band, the pioneers in their beliefs and in their practices of those bodies which afterwards at various intervals filled Popish Christendom with their swarms, and made themselves a terror by the physical and moral horrors that marked their career.

"One day, in the large hall of the Cloisters, behind the cathedral, Calvin was giving his lecture on divinity. Around his chair hundreds were thronging, and amongst them numbers of future preachers and of future martyrs. Suddenly they hear outside laughter, cries, and a great clamore: This proceeds from fifteen or twenty Libertines, who, out of hatred to Calvin, are giving a specimen of their manners, and of what they call liberty. "Such is the picture of the two Genevas. One of the two must necessarily perish." [2]

Among the Libertines, however, there were two classes. There was the class of which we have just had a specimen, and there was a class of a much less malignant and dangerous kind. The latter was composed of the old families of Geneva. They loved to dance, to masquerade, to play.

Hating the moral restraints which the new Constitution imposed upon them, they raised the cry that the ancient charters had been subverted, and that liberty was in danger. The other party joined in this cry, but under it they meditated far deeper designs than their confederates. Their aim was to root out the belief of a God, and so pull down all the fences of order, and dissolve all the obligations of morality. Both united against Calvin. In Wittemberg, the battle of Protestantism had been against Romanism; in Geneva, it was against Romanism and pantheism combined. Two hosts were now in arms, and their victory would have been equally fatal to Rome and to Geneva. In fact, what we behold at this crisis is an uprising of old paganism. Its Protean vices, the austere and the gay, and its multiform creeds, the superstitious and the pantheistic, are marshalled in one mighty army to overwhelm the Gospel, and devastate the kingdoms of Europe. Geneva must be the Thermopylae of Christendom.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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