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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 20 — Calvin's victory over the Libertines

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Another Arena—Excommunication—Council Grasps the Ecclesiastical Power—Berthelier Excommunicated—Spiritual Sentence Annulled by the Senate—The Libertines make Common Cause with Servetus—New Indictment against Servetus—Calvin Fighting Two Battles at the Same Time—Communion Sunday—Consistory's Remonstrance with the Council—The Council Changes Nothing in its Decree—Sunday, 3rd September, 1553—A Momentous Issue to be Determined—The Comnmnion-table in St. Peter's—The Libertines Approach—Calvin Debars them—The Reformation Saved—Moral Grandeur of the Act— The Two Beacons—Worms a Triumph over Tyrannical Power—St. Peter's a Triumph over Godless Democracy.

LEAVING Servetus in prison, let us repair to another arena of combat. It is another, and yet the same, for the affair of Servetus has entered the sphere of Genevan politics, and awakened into fresh intensity the slumbering conflict between the two parties that divide the republic. Perrin was laboring to undermine, step by step, the power of Calvin. The pastors had been expelled front the Council-General—the assembly of the whole people. There followed a more direct attack upon the ecelesiatstical authority. It was proposed to transfer the power of excommunication from the Consistory to the Senate. This was to strike a fatal blow at the principle on which Calvin had based the Reformation of the State. Should this principle be overturned, his work in Geneva would be at an end; and he might leave it the next hour, so far as any good purpose was to be served by remaining in it. The Consistory stripped of all independent jurisdictive power, moral order would fall, and those halcyon days would return when men could go to the tavern at all hours of the day and night, drink as deep as they had a mind, and disport themselves in dances like those in which the pagans of old honored the god Bacchus.

About a year and a half before this, Philip Bertheliot had been debarred the Communion-table by the Consistory. Philip was the son of that Berthelier who, in 1521, had spilt his blood for the liberty of the Fatherland. As the father had ennobled the State by his virtues, the son thought he had a right to disgrace it with his vices. "He was," says Bayle, "a bad liver." He submitted quietly to the excommunication of the Consistory for a year and a half; but now, deeming the moment opportune, inasmuch as the tide was running against the Reformer and his policy, he appeared before the Council and demanded that it should annul the sentence of the Spiritual Court, and so restore him to communion with the Church. The Reformer hastened to the Council, and warned it of the fatal consequences of complying with Berthelier's request, he urged strongly that the edicts of the republic gave the Council no power concerning excommunication, and that to bind and loose ecclesiastically was to effect a revolution. The Reformer's remonstrance was disregarded. The Council released Berthelier from the spiritual sentence, and opened his way to the Communion-table. The axe was laid at the root of the ecclesiastical discipline, and the days of the Genevan Republic were, to all appearance, numbered.

From the council-chamber, where the fatal measure in which the Libertines saw the approaching downfall of the spiritual authority had been passed, Calvin hurried to the prison, where he and his colleagues were to be confronted with Servetus. This day (lst September, 1553) it was resolved by the Council that the oral debates between the prisoner and the pastors should be dropped, and that the discussion should henceforward be carried on in writing. This change was supported by Perrin and Berthelier, who were there, flushed with the victory of the morning. The proposal made in the interests of Servetus, [1] who was supposed to be more eloquent with his pen than with his voice, was adopted, and it brought with it a marked change in his demeanor, which Rilliet thus describes: "What demonstrates with the clearest evidence the hope which the prisoner placed in the power of his protectors, is the language which from that time he adopted, and the open, furious, mortal war which he waged against the Reformer, now become the object of his direct attacks. Servetus threw himself, with all the ardor of a man well-nigh sure of victory, into a path where, by his own confession, he wished to pursue his opponent, 'even till the cause be terminated by the death of him or me.'"

At the same meeting of Council, [2] Calvin was ordered to draw up anew articles of indictment from the works of Servetus, in the form of plain statements, without any reasoning for or against. The crisis which had arisen in the matter of the ecclesiastical discipline might well, one should think, have engrossed all the Reformer's thoughts, but he gave himself with his might to this new labor. He reproduced from the works of the prisoner thirty-eight propositions, and appending neither note nor comment, and giving simply references to the text, he handed them to the Council. This done, he turned his thoughts to the graver matter that weighed upon him. The resolution of the Council touching excommunication was simply a breaking into pieces of the lever with which he hoped to elevate the republic. The Reformer must fight two battles at the same time.

Time pressed. The day after the morrow was the first Sunday of September, when, according to a custom universal in the French Reformed churches, the Communion was to be celebrated [3] and, unless the edict were revoked, Berthelier would then present himself at the sacred table with the warrant of the Council in his hand. The Reformer, without a moment's delay, assembled all the pastors, alike of town and country, and putting himself at their head, proceeded to the Great Council. He showed, with characteristic energy, the brink to which the decision of the Little Council had brought the republic; that that decision was a manifest violation of both the laws of the State and the rules of Scripture; and that if persisted in it would

sweep away all that had been done during the past ten years for the reformation of manners, and render hopeless all efforts in the future. In short, it was a revolution. The whole people, he said, had with uplifted hands adopted the edict establishing the spiritual power in the spiritual court, and "he would die rather than tolerate, contrary to his conscience, an excomnmnicated man at the sacred table." [4] In this protest the pastors to a man joined, all declaing that rather than suffer the contemplated profanation they would "lay down their offices and leave their churches." [5] The Council answered that it "changed nothing in its decree." [6] In taking into its own hands the spritual authority, the Council, it might be unwittingly, assumed the right of trying and adjudging Servetus. It said to the Consistory, Stand aside; you are dissolved as a court having jurisdiction; we assume the function and responsibility of giving judgment on all persons and causes, civil and spiritual.

To Perrin and the Libertines victory was following on victory. The coming day, they hoped, would crown this series of successes. Whichever way Calvin might turn he would, they were sure, encounter defeat. If he should obey the edict of the Council, he would be disgraced before the people; if he should disobey it, he would rebel against the magistrate: either way his power was at an end. They had not yet taken the true measure of the Reformer; or rather, they had not yet learned how much better is a little wisdom than great cunning. By the simple strategy of going right forward, the Reformer broke all the toils the Libertines had woven round him, and swept away alike the victories they had already won and those which they made themselves sure of winning in the future.

Sunday morning, the 3rd of September, dawned. No more eventful day had for centuries risen over Geneva, or indeed over Christendom. This day it was to be seen whether Protestantism, which had retreated within its last stronghold, would recruit: its powers and reorganize its forces, and from hence go forth to reconquer Christendom, or whether it would relinquish the battle as beyond its strength. Twice already the great Protestant movement, after giving promise of emancipating the world, had failed. First the Albigensian revival, next the Bohemian uprising, overborne by violence, had disappointed the hopes they had inspired. Was this third movement, which had come nearer the goal than either of the two preceding ones, after all to fall short of it, and leave the world still under the dominion of the darkness? The moment was the most critical that had occurred since Luther's appearance at the Diet of Worms. In Germany, the Reformed phalanx was demoralized, thanks to the sword and yet more to the Interim of Charles. France, under Henry II., was blazing with martyr-piles. With Mary, in England, had come a fiercer tempest of persecution than that country had ever before known. Where now, alas! we hear Calvin pathetically exclaim, where now are Cranmer, and Ridley, and John a Lasco, and the hundreds of others in England which the Reformation numbered aforetime amongst its children? Some of them, leaving their bodies to the flames, had mounted on high, and were now living with God. Others, crossing seas and mountains, had found a home in foreign lands. On every side, up to the limits of the Genevan territory, the Reformation was pursued by the tyrant and the inquisitor. And even here, if the sword was still restrained, new and hideous foes had risen to assail the Gospel. The abyss of Atheistic Pantheism had suddenly opened, and a monstrous birth had come up out of it, which sought to strangle the infant Reformation, where the Hydra sought to strangle the infant Hercules—in its cradle. Such were the portents that deformed the time.

The customary hour of public worship was now come. The great bell Clemence had tolled out its summons. The throng of worshippers on their way to the cathedral had rolled past, and now the streets, which had resounded with their tread, were empty and silent. Over city, plain, and lake there brooded a deep stillness. It was around the pulpit of St. Peter's, and the man with pale face, commanding eye, and kingly brow who occupied it, that the heart of Geneva palpitated. The church was filled with an uneasy crowd. On the benches of the Consistory sat, unmoved, the pastors and elders, resolved to bear the greatest violence rather than not do their duty. A confused noise was heard within the temple. The congregation opened with difficulty, and a numerous band of men, of all ranks, their hands upon their sword-hilts, forced their way in presence of the holy table. The elite of the Libertines had decided to communicate. Berthelier did not appear as yet. He reserved himself till the last moment. [7]

Calvin, calm as ever, rose to begin the service. He could not but see the group of Libertines in the vast congregation before him, but he seemed as if he saw them not. He preached on the state of mind with which the Lord's Supper ought to be received. At the close, raising his voice, he said. [8] "As for me, so long as God shall leave me here, since he hath given me fortitude, and I have received it from him, I will employ it, whatever betide; and I will guide myself by my Master's rule, which is to me clear and well known. As we are now about to receive the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ, if any one who has been debarred by the Consistory shall approach this table, though it should cost my life, I will show myself such as I ought to be." [9]

When the liturgies were concluded, Calvin came down from the pulpit and took his stand before the table. Lifting up the white napkin he

displayed the symbols of Christ's body and blood, the food destined for believing souls. Having blessed the bread and wine, he was about to distribute them to the congregation. At that moment there was seen a movement among the Libertines as if they would seize the bread and the cup. The Reformer, covering the sacred symbols with his hands, exclaimed in a voice that rang through the edifice, "These hands you may crush; these arms you may lop off; my life you may take; my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane, and dishonor the table of my God." [10] These words broke like a thunder-peal over the Libertines. As if an invisible power had flung back the ungodly host, they slunk away abashed, the congregation opening a passage for their retreat. [11] A deep calm succeeded; and "the sacred ordinance," says Beza, "was celebrated with a profound silence, and under a solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity himself had been visible among them." [12]

Than the transaction we have just narrated, we know nothing more truly sublime in the whole history of the Reformation, that epoch of heroic men and of grand events. The only thing we can compare with it is Luther's appearance at the Diet of Worms. If we abstract the dramatic accompaniments of the latter scene—the gorgeous hall; the majesty of the emperor; the blaze of princely and knightly rank gathered round him; the glitter of stars and decorations; the men-at-arms; the lackeys and other attendants—and look only at the principle at stake, and the wide and lasting good achieved by the prompt vindication of that principle, the act of Calvin in the Cathedral of St. Peter's, in 1553, stands side by side, its equal in spiritual sublimity and heroism, with the act of Luther in the Hall of Worms, in 1521. "I cannot," said Luther. "I will not," said Calvin. The one repelled the tyrant, the other flung back the mob; the one stemmed the haughtiness of power, the other bridled the raging fury of ungodliness; in both the danger was equal, in both the faith and fortitude were equal, and each saved the Reformation at a great crisis.

These two acts, Luther's at Worms and Calvin's in St. Peter's, were in fact two beacon-lights kindled by providence for the instruction of Europe. They were hung out at the opening of a new epoch, to enable Christendom to pilot itself past two tremendous dangers that lay right in its course. The one of these dangers was only beginning to be visible. The conflict waged in St. Peter's on Sunday, the 3rd of September, 1553, showed how that danger was to be avoided. A Protestant Church, scripturally constituted, and faithfully governed, was the only possible breakwater against that lawless pantheism which was even then lifting up its head and threatening society with ruin. Such was the lesson taught by the heroic act in St. Peter's. Calvin was the first man against whom the foul and furious tide of communism dashed itself; it broke against the pulpit of St. Peter's before it precipitated itself upon the throne of France.

It has since with swelling and triumphant crest overwhelmed parliaments and dynasties, laid prostrate thrones and devastated kingdoms; but in contemplating these dismal tragedies it becomes us to call to mind that the Reformer of Geneva confronted this communism 300 years ago, that he confronted it single-handed, and conquered it. Had the principles of Protestantism been rooted and grounded in every parish of France, yielding the same spiritual fruits as they did at Geneva, how different would have been the history of a people to whom nature has given a genius so manifold that it would have shone equally in the beauty of their arts and in the grace and brilliancy of their literature; in the valor of their arms, and the equity of their jurisprudence; in the purity of their homes, and in the freedom and stability of their public institutions. But continuing under the malign power of a corrupted and a corrupting faith, this race, so richly endowed, has had its great qualities transformed into headlong passions which have entailed upon country and throne three centuries of calamities and woes.


Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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