This episode of CS is titled “The School of Christ” and is part 2 in our look at the Reformer, John Calvin.
We left off last time with John Calvin back in Geneva after being banished for a few years following a run in with the City Council. They realized how much they needed him to design the reforms they felt they had to make so they asked him to return and accommodated themselves to being the agents by which his plans could be implemented along civil lines.
Social welfare in Geneva was charged to the church’s deacons. They were the hospital management board, social security executives, and alms-house supervisors. The deacons were so effective at administering these welfare programs, Geneva had no beggars.
When the Scotsman John Knox visited Geneva in 1554, he wrote a friend that the city was à “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.”
While Calvin designed & engineered the policies enacted by the city government, he kept himself to his role as a minister in the church. He preached twice every Sunday, then again every other day, every other week during the weekdays. He lectured on the Old Testament as professor thrice weekly. Besides his role as a teacher, Calvin was a busy pastor, offering guidance in church matters & assisted the deacons in the administration of their task by offering sage counsel.
While some later nay-sayers cast Calvin as a kind of dictator in Geneva, that is certainly NOT what he was. He was appointed & paid by the city council as an advisor. He could have been dismissed by them at any time, as he in fact was in 1538 for a year & a half. Don’t forget that he was a Frenchman, living in Switzerland. He didn’t even become a citizen till his last years.
Calvin’s authority was more due to his moral & spiritual weight than anything else. His influence was the result of other’s acceptance of an authority gained form God’s Call. It stemmed from his conviction he was simply the agent of God’s Word & will. While there’ve been many throughout history who got drunk on power-potion and became abusive, Calvin was humbled that such influence had been given to him and labored to wield it in a manner that brought glory to none but God and would work genuine & long-lasting good among others.
So it’s at this point we must speak to a tragic moment in Geneva’s history & Calvin’s part in it.
Michael Servetus arrived in Geneva in 1553 after having fled from Catholic authorities out to arrest him as a heretic. Servetus denied the Trinity, a postion considered blasphemous throughout Europe in the 16th C. Servetus probably thought the Reformation center of Geneva would be more tolerant of his ideas. After all, the Catholics hated the Genevans too. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? Well, not in this case. Geneva was no more inclined to allow heresy than the Catholics. The brilliant but erratic Spanish physician was arrested but refused to recant. Everyone knew a heretic’s fate; to be burned at the stake. Calvin wanted a less severe punishment for Servetus, but this was a moment when certain elements on the Geneva city council were at odds with him. If Calvin had pushed his point and demanded a lightening of Servetus’ punishment, Calvin’s opponents would have had ammo to use against him. So Calvin failed to push for a lesser sentence. Servetus was burned at the stake, as were so many at this time in Europe.
Let’s pause here and take the time to dig down a little on this execution of Michael Servetus. As I said, a common fate for those found guilty of heresy. This seems ludicrous to us today – that someone could be executed as an act of official state policy simply because they dared to announce a belief in something others didn’t agree with. After all, freedom of speech is a treasured value of modern democratic societies. Radicals are allowed to say all kinds of things, and as long as they take no harmful action or plot to carry out violence, they can shout all day long. So it’s difficult for us to understand a society that would kill someone simply because they dared to hold an idea others found offensive.
Well, heretics were put to death, not because what they said was offensive – but because what they said was considered DANGEROUS. Let me explain it this way. What happened to Julius & Ethel Rosenberg when they were found guilty of selling nuclear secrets to the Soviets? They were executed. But why, all they did was talk, all they did was pass some pieces of paper and film to other people? How is that a problem? Well, those words, paper and film contained information that allowed the Communists to build an atomic bomb a lot quicker than they could have on their own. And this was at a time of the Red Scare, when millions of Americans believed the Communists were just waiting to attack the Free World and take over with their evil brand of atheistic socialism. What the Rosenbergs did made most Americans feel profoundly less safe. They imperiled the lives of millions – or so the thought went. When they were executed, not many wept tears of regret at how narrow-minded & intolerant the Federal govt was being.
Now: It was be too late for what the Rosenbergs had done. The secrets were out and in the hands of the Soviets. So why execute them? Simple: A message needed to be sent to any other would-be traitors & spies: This is what happens when if you spy on the US.
Take that mentality to the execution of heretics in Europe during the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. Michael Servetus didn’t sell States secrets to enemies. But what he did so was deemed just as dangerous. He espoused beliefs that if picked up by others could, and most likely would, lead to a break-down of society and all kinds of social problems. And all because: Ideas have consequences. It was this realization that moved civil governments to hearken to the advice of religious authorities, apprehend heretics, try them, then sentence them to torture & execution. It told the populace at large, “Mess with what we believe and you’ll pay.”
Now, I’m obviously not advocating death for heretics.
But, and this is important as students of history, it’s crucial we be cautious about our tendency to have a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived stupidities of the past. Turns out in most cases, once we understand ALL the complexities that bear on a people’s practice, the what & why of their behavior becomes a lot more clear. We may not agree with them, but we can at least understand how they could have arrived at their position.
Knowing what we do about John Calvin, he likely wanted a less severe punishment for Servetus because he hoped to convince him to turn from his err regarding the Trinity to a more orthodox and Biblical view. Persuasion is better than persecution. But the Geneva council was determined to make an example of Servetus. They didn’t want to become a refuge for heretics.
Proof of Calvin’s humility & devotion to the Reformation cause was that he drove himself beyond his body’s limits. When he was no longer able to walk the couple hundred yards to church, they carried him in a chair. When the doctor forbade him going out into the cold air, his students crowded into his bedroom. When friends urged him to rest, he asked, “Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”
I don’t want to give the impression, one easily gleaned from some of the biographies of Calvin and his tenure at Geneva, that everyone loved him. He had plenty of opponents & his popularity was a roller coaster. Some tried to drown out his voice by loud coughing while he preached. Others fired guns outside the church. Dogs were set on him. There were anonymous threats against his life.
All this took a toll on the aging Calvin, whose patience gradually wore away. He became unsympathetic & curt. It’s said Martin Luther also became cantankerous in his later years. It had to be difficult getting old during this time. Hey, it’s hard enough now! In Calvin’s later years he showed little attempt to understanding the views of others with whom he disagreed, even less kindness, and definitely less humor, which was always in short supply.
While he finally wore out in 1564, his influence didn’t. If anything, it’s grown massively. Calvin’s ideas have been both blamed for & credited with the rise of capitalism, individualism, and western democracy. He was a major influence on people like George Whitefield and Karl Barth, as well as entire movements, such as Puritanism & today’s neo-Reformed Resurgence.
Calvin’s central belief & the core of his theological work was the absolute sovereignty of God. Calvin said that God was the “Governor of all things.” He contended that, from the remotest eternity, God in His wisdom has decreed what He would do, and by His own power, executes what He’s decreed.
This sovereignty is much more than a general guidance. Calvin held that the Bible teaches God’s particular direction in individual lives. Not a sparrow falls to the ground unknown to the Father. He gives babies to some and withholds them from others. This, Calvin said, wasn’t just a relentless fatalism in nature, but the personal decrees of Almighty God, who moves men to walk in His ways.
If Luther’s core text was “the just shall live by faith,” Calvin’s was, “Thy will be done.” He saw the doctrine of predestination as a source of religious devotion. More than a problem of the mind, Calvin considered divine election to eternal life the deepest source of confidence, humility, and moral power.
While Calvin did not profess to know in an absolute sense who God’s elect were, he taught that 3 tests constituted a measure by which to judge who might be elect:
1) Participation in the sacraments of Baptism & Communion
2) An upright moral life –&–
3) A public profession of the faith.
Calvin maintained that genuine faith resulted in a lifestyle of strenuous effort to introduce the Kingdom of God on Earth. Though the Christian was no longer judged by the law of God, he/she finds the law to be a pattern for moral character. People aren’t justified by works, but no one who’s justified is without works. The desire to be holy is a mark of saving faith & evidence of being elect. This determined pursuit of moral righteousness was one of the main features of Calvinism & provides a core theme for the Puritans.
Calvinism’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty also led to a special view of civil authority. Luther considered the State supreme & the German princes determined where and how the Gospel would be preached. Calvin said no man—whether king or bishop, had claim to absolute power. He encouraged representative assemblies and affirmed their right to resist tyranny. This resistance to the arbitrary power by monarchs was a key factor in the development of modern constitutional governments.
While the church, Calvin said, wasn’t subject to secular government except where church life intersected the secular sphere, the church was obligated to guide secular authorities in spiritual matters. Calvin’s followers went throughout Europe as a kind of informal spiritual conspiracy to overthrow false religion and oppressive governments.
Geneva became a beachhead established by God. It seemed a foretaste of better things to come and zealous converts left there to carry the vision far & wide across Europe.
Calvinism remained a minority in France but, thanks to some converts among the nobility, the movement gained an importance out of proportion to its numbers. Known as Huguenots, French Calvinists appeared about ready to seize control of the country. So thousands of them were massacred on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. They remained a significant minority but never again a serious challenge to the Catholic throne. We’ll come back to this sad chapter in a later episode.
In the Netherlands, Calvinists united to oust the oppressive Spanish from their land.
In Scotland, Calvinists created something unique in 16th C Europe: a land of 1 religion ruled by a monarch of another. That ruler was Mary, Queen of Scots, an 18-year-old who lived abroad. She married into the French royal family, and the Scots as well as many Englishmen feared she’d deliver Scotland to the French. One man, however, preached everywhere the notion that the people of Scotland could challenge the rule of their queen. That man was John Knox who we’ll look at next time.