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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 24 — Calvin's manifold labors

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Dedication of his Commentaries and Works—Care of the Churches— Poland, etc.—England and Elizabeth—Scotland—John Knox—Similarity between Calvin and Knox—The Secret of their Power—Immense Labors of Calvin—Calvin and Innocent III. Compared and Contrasted.

THE heart of Calvin must have been unspeakably saddened and weighed down, as day after day refugees arrived in Geneva, telling him that another and another of England's Reformers and scholars had perished at the stake, and that another and yet another of the rites of Rome had been re-introduced into that kingdom where the light of Reformation had begun to shine so clearly. But alike in the foul day as in the fair, the Reformer must go on with his work. He stood at the helm, and if the storm thickened, it was only the more necessary that he should turn his eye to every quarter of the horizon, and counsel, warn, and encourage, as the circumstances of each of the Protestant countries required. "He bore," says Beza, "all these Churches upon his shoulders." Which of them was it that his voice did not reach? We find him in 1545 renewing his intercourse with the distant Austrian provinces. He dedicated his Catechism to the Protestant communities there, with the view of establishing a union in doctrine between them and the Church of Geneva. His watchful eye did not overlook Poland. In 1549 he dedicated to the monarch of that country, Sigismund Augustus, his Commentary on the Hebrews. He exhorted him to give himself to the service of Christ, which places us "in the rank of angels," and to follow the footsteps of his father Sigismund, who, while persecution raged in many other countries, kept his hands unstained with blood. Denmark and Sweden also shared Calvin's solicitude. In the year 1552 he dedicated the first half of his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles to the excellent Christian I.; and the second half he dedicated in 1554 to the son of that monarch, Frederick.

Amid the crowned heads whom he thus acknowledges, the friends of his youth and the refugees of the Gospel were not forgotten. The first part of his Commentary on the Epistle to the Corinthians was dedicated, in 1546, to the Sieur de Bourgoyne; and, ten years later, another part to an illustrious Neapolitan, the Marquis Caraccioli, a refugee in Geneva. These dedications are finely conceived. The writer is forgetful neither of their rank nor of his own greatness. The Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians was dedicated to Melchior Wolmar, and he accompanied it with an allusion, at once graceful and grateful, to the days he had spent with him in his youth at Bourges. The Commentaries on the Epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians were dedicated to the young Duke Christopher of Wurtemberg, to encourage him to persevere in the Reformed path, reminding him, as he had said to the youthful Edward of England, that "it was a great matter to be a Christian king, but a yet greater to be a Christian." The Commentary on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians was dedicated, in 1551, to the aged Mathurin Cordier, his early revered teacher, now principal of the Gymnasium at Lausanne. This was his public acknowledgment of what he owed to the man who had first opened to him the gate of knowledge, and guided him in the path with so much skill and pains. What a deeply affectionate and truthful nature do we discover in all this! [1]

Letters and evangelists was Calvin daily sending to the Church of France. The "Shepherd of Christendom," he was specially the apostle of the French Church. Born in that land, but driven out of it, he was here on its border, in his Alp-environed city, to direct and watch over its Reformation. The Protestants of that great country would have been far happier had they lent a profounder ear to his counsels. Their scaffolds would have had more victims, it may be, but the slain of their battlefields would have been fewer. His messengers also crossed the Alps, with letters to Renee, Duchess of Ferrara. Encompassed by the spies of Rome, watched by a bigoted husband, with few near her to succor her efforts, or share her longings for the emancipation of her fair Italy, the words of Calvin must have been to the grief-stricken queen as "cold waters" to one athirst. The Pyrenees no more than the Alps could confine his sympathies. He corresponded with the Queen of Navarre, Margaret of VaIois, and with her illustrious daughter, Jeanne d'Albret. We do not wonder that the eye of the Reformer should rest with special delight on the little kingdom governed by these wise and virtuous princesses, for there the Protestant vine, so sorely buffeted by tempests in many other lands, flourished in peace, and yielded abundance of happy fruits in the order, the industry, and the morality of the region. And now, again, his attention was attracted to England. Mary was dead, and Elizabeth was on the throne. To the foot of that throne came the Reformer, to instruct, with a now fully-matured wisdom and prescience, the great English sovereign and her ministers, how that faith, planted in their country by Wicliffe, might be revived, and that goodly Church order set up by Cranmer, but overthrown by the furious tempests that had since swept over the kingdom, might be restored and completed.

It is on a country more to the north, then distinct from England, now happily one with it, that the eye of the great chief of Protestantism rests with the greatest delight of all. He had, perhaps, a presentiment that it was that country, rather than France, in which his grand idea was to be realised. A son of that land had already found his way to Geneva. The keen eye of Calvin quickly discerned what sort of man the stranger was. The leonine lineaments of his soul, the robust powers of his intellect stood

out to his view; he was the likest to himself of all the men around him, and the two cleaved to each other, and became knit together in the bonds of a holy friendship. Henceforward it was to be Calvin and Knox. Alone, unapproached, towering above even the loftiest of the men around him, stood the Reformer of Geneva; nevertheless the same two qualities that constitute the basis of the character of Calvin constitute also that of Knox. The first is absolute faith in God, the second is absolute submission to his Word. In these two men, these twin principles existed to a degree of strength and intensity which we find in no other of the Reformers, Luther excepted. These two master-principles were the root that nourished all their virtues—their wisdom, their fearless courage, their inflexible adherence to truth, and that unconquered and unconquerable energy with which they pursued their great task till it was fully achieved.

A strong, capacious, and versatile intellect did both these men possess. This helped them in their work; it was like a sharp sword in the hand of a mighty man. But we must never forget that the influence by which Knox regenerated Scotland, and Calvin regenerated Christendom, was not an intellectual force, but a moral, a Divine power. Their submission to the Scriptures gave them access to the deep fountains of that celestial force, and enabled them to bring it into play in all its freshness, fullness, and purity. To propel this quickening energy through a dead world was the work of Calvin. It was his work from day to day. Sitting in his closet, he sent abroad the arrows of light all over Christendom. It was by the clearness, the tranquility, and the beauty of his Commentaries that he acted upon the intellect and conscience of the world. Thus he maintained the battle. With these shafts he smote his foes, and overturned the kingdom of darkness.

When we think of his letters, written on affairs of the greatest weight, addressed to the first men of position and intellect in Europe—some of them in the graceful and concise Latin of a Cicero or a Seneca, others of them in French that formed the precursor and model of the age of Montaigne—so numerous are they, that it might have been supposed he wrote letters and did nothing besides. When we turn to his Commentaries, so voluminous, so solid, and so impregnated with the spirituality, and fire, and fragrance of the Divine Word; —again it would seem as if we had before us the labors of a life-time. "The Commentaries of Calvin," says Bungener, "mark a revolution in the study of the Bible, and on that account occupy a distinguished place, not only in the history of theology, but in that of the human mind. [2] These immortal productions are above all else that he wrote or did. Calvin—the Calvin that lived and acted on the world of the sixteenth century—lives and acts on that of the nineteenth through these Commentaries.

When, again, we think of him in the pulpit, where he appeared, we may say, every day; when we think of him in the Consistory, where he was present every week; in the academy, whither he often went to address the youth; in the council-chamber, to which he was frequently summoned to give advice on affairs of the State; when we think of his combats with the Libertines, whose faction he overthrew; of his hospitalities and attentions to the refugees of all nations; of the foreign Churches which devolved upon him the task of their organization; of the hours spent in meditation and prayer—and all accomplished in a feeble and sickly body—we find once more that we have enough of work to fill a life-time, although it had stood alone; and we stand amazed when we reflect that it was all done in a life which, when closed, did not number fifty-five years complete. [3]

Modern Church history presents us with two examples of the very loftiest style of governing. Both soar immensely above the ordinary and vulgar methods of rule. The one presents itself at the meridian of the Papacy, the other is seen in the morning of Protestantism. The two stand over against each other, a beacon and lesson to mankind. We refer to Innocent III. of Rome, and John Calvin of Geneva.

Innocent professed to govern the world by methods purely spiritual, and on sanctions altogether Divine. A man of comprehensive genius, and untiring in his application to business, he wrote letters, promulgated edicts, convoked Councils, perfected the doctrine of his Church by enacting transubstantiation, and completed its govermnent by the establishment of the Inquisition. In virtue of this machinery, more especially by the terrible sentence of interdict, he made himself the master of all the thrones of Europe; his will was obeyed to the remotest extremities of Christendom.

John Calvin held with Innocent that the will of God, as made known in the Scriptures, ought to be the supreme law on earth. But the results that attended this principle as enthroned at Rome were just the opposite of those that flowed from it as established at Geneva, and worked by Calvin. Innocent cast down thrones; Calvin imparted stability and dignity to them. Innocent's rule sunk the nations into serfdom, Calvin's raised them to liberty. Innocent scattered the seeds of barbarism; Calvin sowed those of virtue and intelligence. Why this markedly different result from what professed to be the same government, in its foundation, in its maxims, and in its aims? It all lies in this: Innocent shut the Word of God to the nations, by arrogating to himself the office of its sole infallible interpreter; Calvin threw open the sacred volume, by asserting the right of all to read and interpret it for themselves. He showed them, too, the road by which they would arrive at a knowledge of its true meaning, and thus while Innocent closed, Calvin

opened the sluices of Divine influence on the world. Or, to express the difference more briefly, Calvin governed by God; Innocent governed as God.

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Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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