Discovery and Reformation
John Calvin


Geneva

   The spirit of Zwinglianism reached its fullest development in the theology, political theories, and ecclesiastic thought of John Calvin (1509-1564). Perhaps even more so than Martin Luther, Calvin created the patterns and thought that would dominate Western culture throughout the modern period. American culture, in particular, is thoroughly Calvinist in some form or another; at the heart of the way Americans think and act, you'll find this fierce and imposing reformer.

   Calvin was originally a lawyer, but like Zwingli, he was saturated with the ideas of Northern Renaissance humanism. He was dedicated to reform of the church and he got his chance to build a reformed church when the citizens of Geneva revolted against their rulers in the 1520's.

   Geneva had been under the rule of the House of Savoy, but the Genevans successfully overthrew the Savoys and the local bishop-prince of Geneva in the waning years of the 1520's. The Genevans, however, unlike the citizens of Zurich, Bern, Basel, and other cities that became Protestant in the 1520's, were not German-speakers but primarily French-speakers. As such, they did not have close cultural ties with the reformed churches in Germany and Switzerland. The Protestant canton of Bern, however, was determined to see Protestantism spread throughout Switzerland. In 1533, Bern sent Protestant reformers to convert Geneva into a Protestant city; after considerable conflict, Geneva officially became Protestant in 1535.

   Calvin, by now a successful lawyer, was invited to Geneva to build the new Reformed church. Calvin's efforts radically changed the face of Protestantism, for he directly addressed issues that early Reformers didn't know how or didn't want to answer.

   His most important work involved the organization of church governance and the social organizatio of the church and the city. He was, in fact, the first major political thinker to model social organization entirely on biblical principles. At first his reforms did not go over well. He addressed the issue of church governance by creating leaders within the new church; he himself developed a catechism designed to impose doctrine on all the members of the church. He, and Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), also imposed a strict moral code on the citizens of Geneva; this moral code was derived from a literal reading of Christian scriptures. Naturally, the people of Geneva believed that they had thrown away one church only to see it replaced by an identical twin; in particular, they saw Calvin's reforms as imposing a new form of papacy on the people only with different names and different people.

   So the Genevans tossed him out. In early 1538, Calvin and the Protestant reformers were exiled from Geneva. Calvin, for his part, moved to Strasbourg and began writing commentaries on the Bible and finished his massive account of Protestant doctrine, The Institutes of the Christian Church. Calvin's commentaries are almost endless, but within these commentaries he developed all the central principles of Calvinism in minutely readings of the Old and New Testaments. The purpose of commentaries in Western literary tradition was to explain both the literary technique and the difficult passages in literary and historical works. Calvin wrote commentaries to ostensibly explain scriptural writings, but in reality he, like theologians before him, used the commentaries to argue for his own theology as he believed was present in scriptural writings. They are less an explanation of the Bible than a piece by piece construction of his theological, social, and political philosophy.

   In 1540, however, a new crop of city officials in Geneva invited Calvin back. As soon as he arrived he set about revolutionizing Genevan society. His most important innovation was the incorporation of the church into city government; he immediately helped to restructure municipal government so that clergy would be involved in municipal decisions, particularly in disciplining the populace. He imposed a hierarchy on the Genevan church and began a series of statute reforms to impose a strict and uncompromising moral code on the city.

   By the mid-1550's, Geneva was thoroughly Calvinist in thought and structure. It became the most important Protestant center of Europe in the sixteenth century, for Protestants driven out of their native countries of France, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands all came to Geneva to take refuge. By the middle of the sixteenth century, between one-third and one-half of the city was made up of these foreign Protestants. In Geneva, these foreign reformers adopted the more radical Calvinist doctrines; most of them had arrived as moderate Reformers and left as thorough-going Calvinists. It is probably for this reason that Calvin's brand of reform eventually became the dominant branch of Protestantism from the seventeenth century onwards.


Calvin's Thought

   Since Calvin literally transformed the philosophical, political, religious, and social landscape of Europe, what was the substance of his radical reform?

   The core of Calvinism is the Zwinglian insistence on the literal reading of Christian scriptures. Anything not contained explicitly and literally in these scriptures was to be rejected; on the other hand, anything that was contained explicitly and literally in these scriptures was to be followed unwaveringly. It is the latter point that Calvin developed beyond Zwingli's model; not only should all religious belief be founded on the literal reading of Scriptures, but church organization, political organization, and society itself should be founded on this literal reading.

   Following the history of the earliest church recounted in the New Testament book, The Acts of the Apostles , Calvin divided church organization into four levels:
  • Pastors: These were five men who exercised authority over religious matters in Geneva;
  • Teachers: This was a larger group whose job it was to teach doctrine to the population.
  • Elders: The Elders were twelve men (after the twelve Apostles) who were chosen by the municipal council; their job was to oversee everything, and I mean everything, that everybody did in the city.
  • Deacons: Modeled after the Seven in Acts 6-8, the deacons were appointed to care for the sick, the elderly, the widowed and the poor.
   The most important theological position that Calvin took was his formulation of the doctrine of predestination. The early church had struggled with this issue. Since God knew the future, did that mean that salvation was predestined? That is, do human beings have any choice in the matter, or did God make the salvation decision for each of us at the beginning of time? The early church, and the moderate Protestant churches, had decided that God had not predestined salvation for individuals. Salvation was in part the product of human choice. Calvin, on the other hand, built his reformed church on the concept that salvation was not a choice, but was rather pre-decided by God from the beginning of time. This mean that individuals were "elected" for salvation by God; this "elect" would form the population of the Calvinist church.


Reformation Glossary
Voluntary Associations
   This view of human salvation is called either the "doctrine of the elect" or "the doctrine of living saints" (in Catholic theology, a "saint" is a human being that the church is certain has gained salvation; in Calvinist theology, a "saint" or "living saint" is a living, breathing human being who is guaranteed to gain salvation no matter what they do here on earth, although the elect obviously don't engage in flagrant sin—not all good people were among the elect, but people with bad behavior were certainly not among the elect). It was incumbent on churches filled with living saints to only admit other living saints; this organizational principle was called voluntary associations. Voluntary associations are predicated on the idea that a community or association chooses its own members and those members, of their own free will, choose to be a member of that community or association. In time, the concept of voluntary associations would become the basis of civil society and later political society in Europe and the European tradition.

Richard Hooker



Next
Protestant England


Discovery and Reformation
World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-12-97