The Magazine

Great Reformer

Is freedom of conscience indebted to John Calvin?

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Only three years into the job, however, he was ordered to leave Geneva. Calvin and Farel had insisted on the church's right to excommunicate. This was a measure rarely used, but one they felt the civil magistrate had no right to exercise. For almost three years Calvin lived in Strasbourg, where he lectured at the Strasbourg Academie, published a highly regarded commentary on the Book of Romans, and married Idelette de Bure.

Calvin had not wanted to marry except for the sake of convenience, expressing himself in comically detached tones to friends urging him to marry: "I am none of those insane lovers who embrace even vices once they have been overcome by a fine figure," he protested. "The only beauty that attracts me is this: if she is modest, accommodating, not haughty, frugal, patient, and there is hope that she will be concerned about my health."

As it turned out, Idelette's health was poorer than Calvin's, and he spent much of the next nine years caring for her. Her death was a dreadful blow. "Truly," he reflected, "mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, who, if any severe hardship had occurred, would have been my willing partner, not only in exile and poverty but even in death. .  .  . From her I never felt even the slightest hindrance."

With Calvin in Strasbourg, the Genevese church was left without a figure of sufficient moral and intellectual authority--a fact which, difficult as it is to imagine today, had severe political consequences. Geneva had joined the Reformed cause only a decade before, and questions of social and cultural norms, bound up as those were with religious practice, were still in flux. Adding to the confusion was the fact that French Protestant refugees were continually streaming into the city--reluctant immigrants whose religious views and cultural practices did not always cohere with those of native Swiss.

In 1540 the city invited Calvin to return. He did not want to go back; "I would prefer a hundred other deaths to that cross," he complained, "on which I should have to die a thousand times a day." Authorities in Berne, fearful that Geneva was slipping back into disorder, lobbied hard to get Calvin released from Strasbourg, and eventually he agreed. A mounted escort was sent from Geneva to fetch him.

Over the next 24 years Calvin would publish commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, dozens of polemical tracts, and three further editions, both in Latin and French, of his increasingly influential Institutes. His learning and verbal fluency were legendary: He had little time to prepare his daily lectures and sermons, so overwhelmed was he with ecclesiastical affairs, and delivered them with only copies of the Hebrew and Greek texts in front of him. He relied heavily on his memory and a dazzling ability to construct arguments on his feet. Eventually an amanuensis was hired to take down his words verbatim; many of his biblical commentaries originated as more or less impromptu lectures.

In Geneva Calvin pursued two goals with relentless energy. The first was to achieve the church's independence from the civil authority, and in that he was largely successful. A long series of conflicts between ministers and magistrates reached its climax in 1553 over the issue of whether the consistory had the right to ban members from communion on its own authority. The council refused to cede that authority, and when the consistory banned a rascal called Philibert Berthelier from communion (he had been arrested for assault, and was known as an adulterer), the council promptly reinstated him.

On a Sunday in September of that year, Calvin made it clear from the pulpit that he was prepared physically to block Berthelier from the table. He was so certain that he would be forced to leave Geneva again that he went on to preach a farewell sermon. The offender, however, never showed up. Three years later the council altered its former interpretation of the law and granted the church sole authority over its own ritual--a crucial moment in the West's long journey toward freedom of religion.

Calvin's other major aim met with far less success. From almost the moment he arrived in Geneva for the second time, as Bruce Gordon shows here, Calvin sought to bring some appearance of theological unity to Protestantism. There were, of course, several significant points of difference between Reformed and Lutheran Protestants, but the most important was the nature and meaning of the Lord's Supper. Although Gordon makes no attempt to explain the reasons why this subject was so contentious--an odd omission given the distance modern readers will feel from such debates--his biography does a splendid job of presenting Calvin the international statesman.

In simplest terms, Calvin wanted to ease the plight of French evangelicals. With the Edict of Fontainbleau (1540) Protestantism had been defined as seditious, and the French state had been given the task of rooting it out. Many hundreds, possibly as many as 3,000 Protestants, were executed. The only means available to Calvin of palliating this dreadful state of affairs lay in bringing together Reformed and Lutheran states under a single Protestant confession. The French court's rationale for persecuting evangelicals would become untenable, Calvin believed, if Protestant conviction were perceived in Paris to be the dogma of central Europe.

The task he set himself was nearly impossible. The aged Luther and his more vitriolic followers could not refrain from attacking the Swiss over points of doctrine; and for their part the Swiss (chiefly Heinrich Bullinger, minister in Zurich) hotly rejected Calvin's proposal of forming an alliance between the Swiss Confederation and Francis I, the French king, against the bellicose Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

This, too, would have given the Swiss Reformed some influence with Francis and, later, Henry II. But Calvin could not command the support of Bullinger who believed, not without reason, that the followers of Christ could not ally themselves with instruments of the Devil.

Bruce Gordon is an authority on the Swiss reformation, and his portrayal of Calvin in the broader context of European politics is, so far as I am aware, unsurpassed. He has total command of the scholarship on Calvin in French, German, and English, and his treatment is both winsomely sympathetic and justly critical.

The excellent book is especially helpful on the notorious trial and execution of Michael Servetus. The common view is that Calvin wanted nothing more than to see the Spanish heretic burned. As Gordon shows, however, the councils of Basel, Zurich, and Berne were all urging Geneva to execute Servetus, so eager were they to prove their detestation of anti-Trinitarian heresy to the rest of Europe. Calvin, in fact, while feeling Servetus deserved the capital sentence, hoped also that the punishment would be mitigated.

"Calvin," concludes Gordon, "did not want Servetus to die." Unfortunately for the accused, the Genevese council would at that time do almost anything if Calvin opposed it: "Were I to allege that it is clear at mid-day," he grumbled, "they would immediately begin to doubt it." The council wanted Servetus burned, and on October 27, 1553, that is what happened--leaving Calvin to defend the decision, which unfortunately he tried to do.

For all its strengths, however, one finishes Gordon's account wondering whether Calvin really matters very much. He was a fascinating man who led a moderately adventurous life. But did his work change the contours of European society in any significant way? Gordon just isn't interested in that kind of question. That is his right, of course, and in general a reviewer ought to refrain from criticizing a book for failing to be something its author didn't intend it to be. But surely a biography timed to appear on the 500th anniversary of a man as profoundly influential and widely misunderstood as John Calvin ought to make some attempt to explain the man's significance beyond the confines of the century in which he lived.

Gordon's reticence on this score is especially puzzling inasmuch as this volume places great emphasis on the political dimension of Calvin's life and work. Despite the mistaken notion of Calvin as the "dictator of Geneva," and so on, the French reformer made a crucial contribution to the development of political freedom in Western Europe--chiefly, though not exclusively, by his doctrines of political resistance.

Throughout his life, Calvin labored to bring relief to the suffering saints in France. He established a hospital for French refugees; he penned polemical works in defense of the French evangelicals; and he orchestrated a plan to send Reformed ministers clandestinely into France in order to make converts and bring some legitimacy to the Protestant cause there.
What he could not do was condone open rebellion. Calvin was foremost an interpreter of the Bible, and the Bible--most explicitly in the 13th chapter of Romans--teaches obedience to civil authority. The Christian's duty, he believed, was to submit patiently, even if that meant exile or martyrdom.

Over the course of the 1550s, the situation in France deteriorated, and Calvin was forced to rethink his views. The decisive moment came in 1560 with the ill-fated Conspiracy of Amboise. The plan had been to abduct the young king, Francis II, and assassinate his regents. Having thwarted the conspiracy, the regency's court responded with vengeance on a monumental scale: More than a thousand men were executed, many of their mutilated corpses displayed around the town of Amboise.

Calvin had known about the plot, and had opposed it. But the scale of the slaughter seems to have compelled him to formulate a fuller, and ultimately more humane, expression of the Bible's teaching on political resistance. When the fourth and final edition of his Institutes appeared in 1559, Calvin articulated what became known as the theory of interposition: the doctrine that "lesser magistrates"--officials possessing some middle level of authority, such as elected representatives in parliamentary democracies--have the right, indeed the duty, to resist when rulers take up violence against their godly subjects.

If there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (as in ancient times the ephors were set against the Spartan kings, or the tribunes of the people against the Roman consuls, or the demarchs against the senate of the Athenians; and perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious treachery, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance.

Even before this, however, Calvin had gestured in the direction of the private-law theory of resistance: the proposition that civil authorities who wantonly abuse their power cease to hold that power legitimately and can therefore be lawfully deposed. As early as 1552 he had observed that "if a king, or ruler, or magistrate, do become so lofty that he diminishes the honor and authority of God, he goes beyond the limits of his office. .  .  . For he who goes beyond the bounds of his office .  .  . must be despoiled of his honor," a view he repeats briefly in the 1559 Institutes.

By the time he published his lectures on the Book of Daniel in 1561--a work dedicated to the persecuted Protestants in France--Calvin had embraced the idea that lawless tyrants forfeit their right to obedience. "For earthly princes," writes Calvin, "lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, utterly to defy them than to obey them."

Both of these arguments--the doctrine of interposition and the private-law theory of resistance--exercised a powerful influence over Calvinist political movements over the next three centuries. Calvin did not invent these concepts; versions of them had appeared in Luther's Warning to His Dear German People (1531) and, before that, in the writings of the conciliar movement of the 14th century. But it was Calvin who, by the authority his works exercised over the tradition that came to bear his name, infused these ideas into the marrow of European politics.

Calvin's views on political resistance were adapted, expanded, radicalized, and in some cases, secularized by his theological heirs--often in ways he could not have foreseen and, given the limits of his own circumstances, would not have countenanced. In one form or another, the arguments he asserted on political resistance animated the Dutch Calvinists' rebellion against Spanish rule in the 1560s and again in the 1580s, Huguenot resistance to Catherine de Medici in the 1570s, John Knox's intransigence in the face of English ecclesiastical hegemony in the 1550s and '60s, the Puritan struggle against the Stuart monarchy in the 1630s and '40s, and the Scottish Covenanters' refusal to accept Episcopacy from the 1630s all the way to 1688.

And of course, Calvin's arguments played a major role in the American colonists' revolt against (in the words of the Declaration) "a Tyrant . .  . unfit to be the ruler of a free people"--a contest George III himself termed "the Presbyterian Rebellion."

Happiness and ease were not the dominant tones in Calvin's experience. "Men are undoubtedly more in danger from prosperity than from adversity," he had written, with the conviction of experience, "for when matters go smoothly, they flatter themselves, and are intoxicated by their success."

Apart from the three tranquil years he had spent in Strasbourg, his was a life of duty in adversity. All his children had died in infancy, and he was a widower at the age of 40. He had never wanted to lead the reform movement, or indeed any movement. He had been defeated in his quest for Protestant unity, and victory in Geneva had come only at the price of physical dilapidation. By the time he died at age 54, he had been tormented by ill health for years--gallstones, kidney stones, stomach cramps, arthritis, intestinal parasites, migraine headaches, and tuberculosis.

For those who lack sympathy with or interest in his theology, Calvin has, admittedly, little appeal. He did not have the epic personality of Luther or the learned munificence of Erasmus. What he did have was a ferociously powerful mind and unbending devotion to the task of interpreting that vast, fathomless book, the Bible.
Such a life deserves more than derision.

Barton Swaim is the author, most recently, of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.