Often the things that are most painful cause the most growth. Calvin was unceremoniously kicked out of Geneva in 1538, and honestly, he deserved it. He had been harsh and unwilling to work with others. Calvin wasn’t a good pastor when he was booted out of Geneva. But this humbling time in exile would be one of the best things that happened to Calvin. And resulted in one of the most enduring and impactful legacies in the history of Christianity.
SCHOLAR IN EXILE
When Calvin left Geneva, he set about fixing his reputation with other Reformed leaders. They all knew what had transpired, and how Calvin had been difficult to work with and quick to lash out at those who opposed him (as clearly seen in how he handled the Caroli incident discussed in the previous post). Thus, he got a reputation as a rabble-rouser and had a hard time finding a place that would take him in.
Oddly enough, Calvin attempted to settle in Berne. His success there was out of the question for two reasons: First his ally, Megander, had left the city and Calvin didn’t have any institutional support. And second, when they stopped there after leaving Geneva Calvin blamed everything on the Genevan council and stated they always intended to use the Bernese rights in worship. The Bernese saw through this and feared that the controversy surrounding Calvin could even lead to Rome gaining a foothold in Geneva again. Farel and Calvin took leave of the city and bounced between various towns for a time.
MARTIN BUCER: A MUCH-NEEDED MENTOR
The seasoned Reformer, Martin Bucer, sent many letters to Calvin asking him to come to Strasbourg without Farel. He told Calvin that the two were bad influences on each other and could accomplish more for the kingdom if they ministered in different areas. Calvin eventually relented and planted himself in Strasbourg, still desiring the life of a scholar. However, due to the persecution of Protestants in France, Strasbourg had a large French refugee population and Bucer placed Calvin in charge of the French-speaking church in the city. No matter how far Calvin tried to retreat into a solitary lifestyle the Lord pushed him further into the care of souls.
There are two major components to how the time in Strasbourg affected the life of John Calvin. First, he was under the care of a seasoned Reformer and pastor in Martin Bucer. Here he had time to contemplate what went wrong in Geneva and work on ways to better himself as a leader of souls. Second, he wrote a masterful commentary on Romans and updated his Institutes. His theological skills were only sharpened during his exile from Geneva and his influence in the Reformation movement grew.
Being under the care of Martin Bucer was one of the best things to happen in Calvin’s life. He had long studied under Humanist scholars and academic geniuses, but he studied something more important with Bucer, he learned how to love the people of God. He was well known because of his writings and controversies, but it took being severely humbled before he was willing to truly learn. Bruce Gordon put it well in stating that Calvin was “bowed, but not beaten” (1)
Bucer had been working on furthering the Reformation in Strasbourg for over a decade by the time Calvin arrived, and his faithful pastoral leadership was seen in the city. Bucer involved Calvin in council meetings and they talked daily in their adjoining garden. This mentorship improved Calvin’s ability as a leader and its effect can be seen in how Calvin ministered in the second half of his life.
Bucer not only mentored Calvin theologically, but he also counseled him personally. Bucer eventually convinced Calvin to take on a wife. After a few failed attempts of matchmaking, Calvin married Idelette de Bure, an Anabaptist widow in 1540. Calvin genuinely loved his wife, and though there are scant writings about her he spoke of her fondly. She cared for Calvin and enabled him to engage in his work to a greater degree. Calvin learned much at the feet of Bucer and even considered the relationship to be a warm one between father and son.
The second important aspect of his time in Strasbourg, his continued writing, shows his theological advancement. This is most clearly seen in his masterful commentary on Romans and the updated version of his Institutes (1539). The two works were written in a way that one can follow the commentary of Romans and see a common thread with the Institutes (Calvin’s updated institutes followed the same loci as Romans). When he completed these works his position as a top-tier Reformed theologian was cemented, word reached Geneva about Calvin’s accomplishments, and the council warmed to Calvin as a teacher.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LETTERS IN CHURCH HISTORY
This warming came at the perfect time. Sadoleto, a Roman Catholic Cardinal, wrote to the people of Geneva urging them to return to communion with Rome. The letter bashed many of the Reformed leaders as impious men. The council, nervous about how the letter could affect their city, asked Calvin to pen a response to the Cardinal. Calvin wrote a brilliant response and thoroughly refuted the main points of Sadoleto’s letter. His knowledge of church history, especially the Patristics, showed that they were not inventing a new religion, but rather they were reclaiming what had been lost through ecclesiastical corruption. Calvin was riding high in Strasbourg. He had relationships he never had before. He was leading a successful refugee church. He was writing phenomenal theological works. Just when he was putting the trauma of Geneva behind him, he received an unthinkable invitation.
1 – Gordon, Bruce. Calvin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. pg, 86.