When Calvin arrived in Geneva the Reformation had just penetrated her walls. Farel was a gifted speaker who could move a crowd, however, his tone was harsh and his personality abrasive. This combination caused him to bounce around from city to city. He would start strong and establish a movement against the Roman Catholic Church, but his personality made it hard for him to have a long tenure in any one place.
Calvin and his calm, academic demeanor seemed to be the perfect complement to this fiery man. Geneva was run by a council who was split on whether or not to go further towards reforming the church. They begrudgingly accepted Calvin as the man to lead the Reformation in Geneva. Calvin would soon earn how difficult it would be to run a church under civil oversight.
A Very Short Honeymoon Period
Shortly after beginning the work in Geneva, Calvin and Farel drafted a confessional document that outlined how the church would function in Geneva. It detailed church discipline, doctrine, and practices. Not long after this was drafted, a theologian named Pierre Caroli, another French Reformer and refugee, accused the two men of having heretical views of the Trinity.
Calvin’s response was quick and harsh. He wrote to leading reformers in Berne, essentially the patron city-state over Geneva, speaking against the character of Caroli. It was nothing short of character assassination. He implied the man was immoral and divisive and called for the church in Berne to act swiftly and without consulting the government there. This would cause a lot of problems for Calvin as his own relationship to the Berne influenced Genevan council began to crumble.
The Right Thing the Wrong Way
A meeting was called in Berne for Calvin and Farel to defend themselves as orthodox Trinitarians. While vindicated, Calvin shot himself in the foot regarding his relationships with Bucer and other Reformers. He wrote a letter to Bucer rebuking him for allowing the Bernese council to play such an integral role in the hearing, showing that Calvin had no understanding of the tense relationship the church had with civil magistrates. Bucer responded to Calvin and rebuked the young man for his arrogance and harsh tone with both Caroli and the Bernese church. Calvin would later write that he was humbled and ashamed of how he spoke to the revered Bucer.
Things didn’t fare much better for Calvin’s reputation back in Geneva. The Genevan council, which was heavily dependent on the Bernese government, saw Calvin’s eagerness to bypass state authority as dangerous, and Calvin began to lose influence in the Genevan government.
In 1538 a council less friendly to the two Reformers was elected. They pushed for more control over the church and removed the ability to excommunicate from the hands of the clergy and to adopt the Bernese church constitution. On top of this, they also refused to give the duo the right to withhold communion from those who were under church discipline or who were living openly sinful lives. Calvin and Farel didn’t adopt the Bernese church constitution and argued against it fervently. This gave both men, especially Calvin, the reputation of being troublemakers among other Reformed leaders. Calvin began preaching against the council and was banned from engaging in any political discussion.
On Easter 1538, they refused to administer the Lord’s Table to anyone in the city and denounced accepting any Bernese ecclesiastical rights. At this point, reconciliation was impossible, and the council exiled both Calvin and Farel from the city. Calvin’s ego was crushed, but he was more relieved to be free of the burden than anything else. He wrote to his friend du Tillet that, “there is nothing I dread more than returning to the charge from which I have been set free.” Calvin left the city that caused him much pain and set out to finally live the life of a scholar he always desired… Sort of…