A Brief Introduction to the Life of Calvin (Part 5)

I apologize for the time between parts 4 and 5. Last semester I took 7 courses so I can, Lord willing, finish seminary this Summer. The last time we visited Calvin in this series, he had responded to the letter from Cardinal Sadaleto at the request of Geneva. This final part of the series shows the impact of Calvin’s return for both the church in Geneva and the Reformed tradition as a whole. As a reminder, this is a series of short introductions to key points in Calvin’s life. To do a detailed overview of this period would require a few books (and if I were to recommend one biography on Calvin go with Bruce Gordon!)

Calvin’s Return and Remaining Years in Geneva

Geneva had not fared well in Calvin’s absence. They had expelled many of the preachers who supported Calvin, and there was constant infighting and even calls to return to Rome. Throughout Calvin’s exile, Farel and Pierre Viret urged the Genevan council to recall Calvin and they spoke to Calvin regularly, asking him to consider returning. Calvin’s response was less than enthusiastic, “…it would be far preferable to perish for eternity than be tormented in that place. If you wish me well, my dear Viret, do not mention the subject!” (1). While Calvin didn’t entirely ignore Geneva, as seen in his agreeing to write Sadoleto, he had no desire to return. However, when other Reformed leaders urged Strasbourg, and Bucer, to send Calvin back he relented and set course to Geneva in 1541. This act of humility no doubt is a sign of Bucer’s influence on Calvin and of the goods things to come.

Calvin immediately began building the church in Geneva and borrowed much of what he saw in Bucer’s Strasbourg churches. He was also given the power to perform the church disciplines he wrote up before his exile. He wrote up catechisms, church documents, and theological treatises to strengthen the Genevan church and his position as its leader. The claim that Calvin was the dictator of Geneva is inaccurate, he had no power on the council and helped guide the church via the popular Company of Pastors. This group would meet every Friday to discuss the doctrine of the church and set standards for how it would be run in the city. They also oversaw the consistory which oversaw the laity and dispensed any church discipline deemed necessary. Neither they nor Calvin headed civil affairs as judges. This leadership style was not Calvin’s by nature, but again, he learned it from his dear mentor Bucer. And while it took time for him to clean up the clergy and remove Roman Catholic teachers, he succeeded in finally bringing a unified understanding of the Reformation in Geneva by the time of his death.

Even with all of the responsibilities of running the church in Geneva Calvin found time to write and engage in scholarly work. His Institutes would be revised multiple times and finished in 1559. He wrote a commentary on almost every book of the Bible, and he preached at least 4 times a week, once on Sunday and 3 times during the week. This busy schedule would take a major toll on Calvin’s health, as would a variety of controversies, perhaps most discouraging of all arguments regarding the Lord’s Supper (which will be covered in my next series on Calvin and the Eucharist)  and difficult situations during his tenure. He would lose his beloved wife in 1549, as well as at least one infant child. But one of the most famous, and painful, controversies in Calvin’s life was brought about by Servetus, the man who would burn for his heresy.

Calvin had corresponded with Michael Servetus for some time before his second time in Geneva. He was even at one point to meet with Servetus in person back when he was in Basle in the mid-1530s. A meeting Servetus would miss. Servetus would cause trouble in the 1530s and ’40s, teaching a heretical doctrine of the Trinity. While a brilliant man, he didn’t boast an excess of common sense and printed some of his more damning works with his real name instead of his normal pseudonym Villanovanus. This resulted in charges of heresy and capture by the Roman Catholics in France in 1553. He would escape and wrote to Calvin that he would be coming to Geneva. Calvin warned him not to enter the city and that he would be arrested if he did. Servetus ignored the warning and after he arrived sat in on a worship service. Calvin pointed him out to the guards and he was arrested. 

Calvin approved of his arrest and believed the fitting punishment was execution. He wrote to Farel about this affair, saying “ I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated” (2). The city council agreed with Calvin that death was merited, however, they ignored his pleas for the death to be quick and merciful. Instead, Servetus would be burned at the stake on October 27, 1553. His final words were recorded as “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.” He held his heretical views about Christ to the end. 

Calvin would be attacked by his enemies, chiefly Sebastian Castellio, and much of their writings contribute to the modern views of Calvin as a deranged, power-hungry dictator. But Calvin endured these attacks and continued to lead the church in Geneva. He founded the Genevan Academy in 1559 and trained scores of missionaries who go into multiple nations including France, the New World, and Scotland. John Knox was one of these men.

John Calvin would continue to work hard for the Kingdom of God, and it showed in his poor health. He steadily declined and began to miss meetings and preached less frequently. Theodore Beze, his longtime second-hand man, began to take over many of his responsibilities. Calvin died on May 27, 1564. He was only 54 years old. In such a short time he went from being a Roman Catholic humanist scholar to the leading theologian of the Reformation and ultimately one of the greatest minds in church history. His contributions to the church are numerous, but the Institutes is certainly his magnum opus. He accomplished so many things that the hardest part of writing about his life is choosing what to leave out. Calvin died, but his work continued on in Geneva and the legacy of the Reformation is in no small part due to his works. 

Notes:

1 – Calvin to Viret, 19 May 1540.
2 – Calvin to Farel, August 20, 1553.

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