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calvin bio

First and second stay in Geneva

In Basel, Calvin lived under the pseudonym “Lucianus,” an anagram of Calvinus. He worked further on his Protestant catechism for the French Reformed, and in August 1535 finished his work. It was available in print March 1536. Besides the writing of his catechism, which he called “Institutio christianae religionis” (Institutes of the Christian Religion), he further studied the bible, works of Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon and even Martin Bucer. It was here at the latest that he learnt Hebrew and read the Scholastics. He must have accomplished an immense work quota.

In April 1536, just after his Institutes had appeared, Calvin went to Paris and met up with his brothers and sisters. Then he intended to go further to Strasbourg, where he wanted to meet Bucer and others. However, Calvin could not take the direct route, for war was again prevailing between King Franz I of France and the Emperor Karl. And so he travelled across Lyon and Geneva. This had consequences.

For in Geneva there were famous scenes between Wilhelm Farel and John Calvin. Calvin reports on this himself: “The shortest route to Strasbourg, where I wanted to return at that time, was obstructed because of the war. Therefore, I intended to travel through here quickly, without stopping longer than a night in the town. The Papacy had been abolished in this town a short time ago by the upright man of whom I have already spoken [Farel], and by Master Pierre Viret. However, things did not stand as they should, and there were malicious and dangerous divisions and groups among the inhabitants. Then someone discovered me… [du Tillet] and told the others. As a result, Farel (since he was seized by a wonderful zeal to foster the gospel) immediately made every effort to stop me from leaving. And after he had heard that I wanted to be free for my own studies, and when he saw that he could not achieve anything through pleading, he went so far as to curse me – that God would damn my peace and my studies if I drew back in such an emergency and failed to help and assist. These words frightened me and shook me up so deeply that I gave up the journey I had undertaken. However, because of my fear and shyness, I did not want to be obliged to take up a particular office.”

The Reformation had been introduced in Geneva in 1535 and Farel had already achieved a lot. However, since the Reformation was introduced in Geneva on the part of the town council in order to emphasise the independence of the town Geneva in relation to the bishops, the Reformation in Geneva lacked a deep-rootedness in respect of content. The Roman-Catholic party was still influential, and Farel felt that it was too much for him alone. And so it was convenient for Calvin to remain in Geneva, and not as pastor or preacher but rather as “teacher of Holy Scripture in the Geneva Church.” But he was very soon called upon to preach and to help in the building up of the church as well.

In 1537 Calvin made the suggestion to the town council of a new organisation of the church. In this a basic characteristic of Calvin’s theology becomes clear: always at stake for him is the form of the church and how it lives. It is true that he intends no exclusive community of the elect – this was the concept of the Anabaptists. Rather, Calvin understands the church as a community of those who belong to it by choice. Therefore he and Farel drew up a confession of faith (Confession de foi), which was supposed to be signed by all Genevans “in order to establish who agrees with the Gospel and who wants rather to belong to the kingdom of the pope than to the kingdom of Christ.”

In addition to this he introduced some further changes. Psalms were sung in the church services – still today a distinguishing feature of Reformed communities worldwide.

A catechistic instruction was devised and a catechism written, much shorter than the Institutes and clearly dependent upon Luther’s Small Catechism.

But the town council had difficulty with Calvin’s suggestions of reform. The proposals were only agreed with after much hesitation. The situation escalated when they were presented to the inhabitants of Geneva, who were happy to sign the confession of belief. But many did not want this, and so through this failed experiment the tension between the Catholics and the Protestants grew. It was indeed a mistake on Calvin’s part to want to succeed in this respect. The opposition to Calvin grew. Elections were held in Geneva in 1538 and the parties of opposition, which were by in large Roman-Catholic, took the victory. Besides the general unrest among the people, the Anabaptists were preoccupied with additional problems. And there were major, and in some cases dogmatic, accusations raised against Farel and Calvin, for example, that Calvin was an Arian and denied the divine nature of Christ.

This insinuation misses the mark in terms of the content of Calvin’s theology; he is in no way a theologian in sympathy with Arianism. However, Calvin rejected the accusations. Therefore the matter was brought to Bern, where Calvin’s position aroused suspicion. Although this had no consequences, Calvin’s position in Geneva was nevertheless weakened through these insinuations. The opposition won the majority in the elections of 1538 and the new council forbade Calvin and Farel to preach on Easter Sunday. Calvin and Farel disregarded this command and so were relieved of their office and had to leave the town within three days.

It seems that the Geneva episode had no lasting significance, since Calvin was only in Geneva for two years.

Calvin intended to return to Basel and to take up his studies again there. Farel was called to Neuchatel in July. Friends criticised Calvin for his obstinacy and he also realised that he had behaved wrongly and too stubbornly, and drew the conclusion that he was not cut out for public effectiveness, but should instead lead a quiet scholarly existence.

So he refused for a long while the plea of the Strasbourgers to come to them and take charge of the French refugee-community there as pastor. But he finally came because Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito requested it so insistently. Strasbourg was one of the most significant centres of German Protestantism in 1538. Although they had followed the Wittenberg Reformation in 1536, Bucer and Capito retained independence, also theologically. Bucer is to be regarded quite simply as the most important leader of the negotiations of the Protestant party.

Calvin thus became pastor of the French refugee-community and constructed it on the model of the Strasbourgers, taking over their order of service and reworking it only slightly. Besides this, however, he held a professorial chair in exegesis at the newly founded high school, where he interpreted John’s Gospel and then several Pauline epistles. His commentaries were also printed.

Above all, he worked on a new edition of his Institutes, which appeared in 1539. If previously this had been more like a detailed Catechism, which moreover still oriented itself on Luther’s theology, it was now a substantial textbook of dogmatics in its own right.

The time in Strasbourg was entirely taken up. Each week he held four sermons, his lectures, he worked on his books and even undertook several trips to participate in talks on religion, e.g. in Frankfurt Main in 1539. It was there that Calvin made the acquaintance of Melanchthon, and a friendship between them arose. Luther’s closest co-worker thus became a friend of Calvin. Calvin had great respect for Luther throughout his life, and Luther also expressed positive views about Calvin. At the same time, however, Calvin had trouble with the pigheadedness of Luther in the last years of his life.

Calvin found that the Lutheran communities laid too little emphasis on church life and complied still too much with the Roman-Catholic liturgies and forms of mass. He also found the dependence on the regional rulers extremely problematic.

The situation in Strasbourg seemed favourable for Calvin, and it looked like Calvin would remain there for a long time. In 1539, he received citizenship in the small Republic, in accordance with his own wishes. His financial situation also improved after his initial obligation to buy a proportion of his own books.

Those in his circle had it in mind to marry him off. The thought did not appear to have come to him of his own accord. Two attempts failed. Finally Calvin agreed to marry Idelette de Bure. She was the widow of an Anabaptist, who himself had converted. In 1540 Farel came from Neuchatel in order to marry them.

Meanwhile in Geneva several unpleasant things had happened. After the departure of Farel and Calvin much in the church life had become disorderly. Friends of Calvin in Geneva attempted not to acknowledge the disciples of Calvin and Farel, which caused Calvin to intervene. He demanded the acknowledgement of new pastors. This achieved pacification, but only in an unstable manner. Bern attempted to gain control over Geneva. Then the disciples from the town were hunted down. A conflict was feared, and possibly even an armed one. The Reformed party brought some of their opponents to see that order would only be reestablished if Calvin were to be called back as soon as possible. On 20th October 1540 a legation set out from Geneva to Strasbourg in order to persuade Calvin to return to Geneva. Calvin hesitated – and refused. Even Farel placed himself in the service of the Genevans and sought to persuade Calvin, but without success. Bucer wanted to keep Calvin in Strasbourg. The whole attempt lasted in all for more than half a year, and finally Calvin agreed to return for a few weeks. On 13th September 1541 Calvin arrived once more in Geneva, but contrary to his plans, stayed there not only for a few months but for the rest of his life.