First (Non-)Citizen of Geneva
The result of Calvin’s leadership from the pulpit was thoroughgoing reform, which has echoed with both positive and negative results into our own generation. Another reformer three hundred years earlier had seen the same need for the church to change, but St. Francis had been a lover, not a lawyer. Francis of Assisi felt so incapable of setting up a system of rules and regulations for the order that bears his name that he had turned the task over to others. He had focused his attention and his praise on Jesus Christ to the point that he wanted to be just like him. Calvin, it would appear, saw himself less like Jesus and more like Jesus’ legal counsel.
Is that fair? Probably not completely. John Calvin was one of the great saints of history. Many Christians in the four hundred years since have been blessed, strengthened and encouraged because of his honest, urgent teaching. But the God whom Calvin presents us with is far less approachable than the Jesus of the scriptures. Calvin’s theology is thoroughly biblical, but it adds to the meat of the Word the seasoning of the law, and boils it all in a broth of human reason. You could say that he was a child of his age in this. In university in Paris he had read Erasmus, the humanistic scholar who had in some ways loosed the dogs of the Reformation. Calvin’s dependence upon reason required that all aspects of the scripture be harmonized into one logical system – and that required some interpretive decisions. Some of these had already been made for him by Augustine. Calvin wrote a logical explanation of God that kept growing in length, but not changing in thought, until the end of his life. It is all very logical. The question is–is this an accurate depiction of the interactions between God, Christ Jesus, the Church and the individual Christian? Are there aspects of our faith that rest upon faith alone, not faith amplified by reason? Are there mysteries in God that are beyond our understanding (and systematizing) – mysteries into which even angels long to look?
Calvin held no public office. He wasn’t even a citizen of Geneva until the council made him one late in his life. Still, in effect he governed the city. There was constant opposition, and he had to fight battle after battle, but he mostly won those battles. The city was changed. Although he was never a healthy man, he preached or taught every day – and he wrote. His counsel was sought by other Reformation leaders, so he kept up a steady stream of correspondence with points all over Europe. He became a friend of Luther’s right-hand man, Melancthon— but Calvin and Luther could never see eye-to-eye on the nature of Christ’s presence in Communion, which prevented the formal union of their churches. Their temperaments were very different—as was the way they applied scripture. For Luther, church traditions that weren’t forbidden by scripture could be continued. For Calvin, if a practice wasn’t prescribed in the Bible you didn’t do it. On the question of the relation of faith to reason, Luther came down heavily on the side of faith. Calvin came down on the side of reason. Since this partition between the dominance of faith or reason has been one of the great dividing lines of the history of the Church, it’s no surprise that it made a difference between them.
Calvin did his job. He worked tirelessly as one of the pastors of the city, doing all the things pastors still do and provided a model for pastors everywhere. He visited the sick in his turn, until the Black Plague came to Geneva and the city fathers prevented him. He worked even though he was often ill, and suffered from a chronic head-ache. His son died as a baby. His wife died – probably with tuberculosis. She was on her deathbed when he had to run out for an appointment at 6 PM, but he managed to make it back in time for her actual death around 7:30. Was this a personal tragedy? Certainly. As he put it, he had been deprived of his best companion. But he apparently didn’t dwell on it. You may have heard about “the Protestant work ethic.” This is its source. There was work to be done.
And enemies of God’s will to contend against! Since Calvin saw the state as a tool to help the people maintain excellence in Christian living, he saw no problem in using the laws of the city to punish those who failed to live up to his standards. If you want to know where the puritan heritage of a portion of America’s founding parents came from, look no further than Calvin’s Geneva. Many of the old families of the city were unhappy with the puritan strictures “the preachers” enforced through the city council. They felt invaded by outsiders, and struggled to get their old life back. This party, “the Libertines,” conspired against Calvin in various ways. The best known was through their support of that Spaniard named Servetus, who had stood Calvin up in Paris so long before.
Calvin vs. Servetus
Servetus didn’t believe in the Trinity, and he published a book saying so. It was immediately banned by the Roman Catholic Church and Servetus was branded a heretic. While Calvin went on to Geneva and declared himself publicly for a renewed church, Servetus disappeared. He hid in the French city of Lyon, taking an assumed name and treating people as a physician. He was a stalwart member of the local Catholic congregation, despite the fact that he didn’t believe any of it. He did, however, begin to write letters to Calvin, debating him at many points.
Calvin responded in a sequence of many exchanges. Even though he found Servetus’ beliefs heretical, he didn’t turn him in to the Catholic authorities. Still, when Servetus was discovered and arrested it was indirectly through this contact between them. Servetus escaped from prison. The Catholics tried him in absentia for heresy and found him guilty; then burned him in effigy. Servetus escaped from France—and passed through Geneva. Exactly why he did isn’t known, but Calvin recognized him—and had him arrested.
The trial would certainly be featured on the Court Channel today. Servetus, supported by the Libertines, charged Calvin with making God ultimately responsible for sin—which is, of course, one of the major blocks on Calvinism today. That is, if an all-sovereign God permits people to sin and then damns them to hell for it, isn’t God then responsible for it and not the sinner? Servetus proclaimed that Geneva should strip Calvin of his possessions and give them to him, then have them switch roles—Calvin in jail and Servetus in the pulpit. It appears that Servetus foolishly thought he was going to win…
The city fathers petitioned other Reformation cities for opinions on what to do with Servetus, and the responses were in effect unanimous: Burn him as a heretic. The City Council sentenced Servetus to burn at the stake—and Calvin protested. Not against his death sentence—he just thought it would be more humane to kill him with a sword.
Of course, that was the spirit of the time: People were being killed on all sides for their faith. Even so—I can’t see Saint Francis doing this, and he lived in a time that was, if anything, more barbaric. I can’t see Paul doing this. Being burned for his faith, yes. But even in that Paul gave a caveat: “Though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, I am nothing.” I can’t see Paul burning anyone else for his beliefs—nor even (humanely) running him through with a sword. Somewhere in the absolute certainties of throwing “It’s God’s will!” around, agape love tends to get scorched. What’s left? Literal legalism, with an eye out for those who speak and write heretically, patiently marking them for later burning.
Servetus burned. Farel went to watch. Calvin didn’t. Perhaps he was too tender-hearted to be able to stand it? Or perhaps, burning heretics had become so commonplace that “if you’ve seen one burn you’ve seen them all.” After all, by 1546 – seven years before Servetus was burned – 58 people had been executed in Geneva for failing to live up to Calvin’s understanding of God’s standards. And in the days to come many, many, many others would perish across Europe – all in Jesus’ name.