Saints and Heroes Since the Middle Ages - George Hodges


John Calvin


When Luther nailed the theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, John Calvin was only eight years old.

In the town of Noyon, where he lived, in France, the greatest person was the bishop, and Calvin's father was the bishop's secretary. It was his father's intention that the lad should be a priest. When he was twelve years old, he was appointed chaplain in the cathedral. At the age of eighteen, he was made the curate of a neighboring parish, and this curacy was changed for a better when he was twenty. In his new parish, he preached several sermons, but his chief duty was to draw his salary. He had not been ordained, and these pleasant appointments were according to those curious arrangements of the time by which church positions were given to laymen, and even to children, for the sake of the money. Somebody else, at a much smaller salary, did the work.

This was one of the evils of which Luther was complaining. But Luther's attacks had made little impression on the Church in France. The great rebellion which he was leading was not yet taken very seriously in that country. To be a priest seemed still a safe, comfortable, and most excellent occupation. The boy was fond of books, a good scholar, able to write and speak well, and the best debater in his class. His father's influence with the bishop would be sure to get him a fine position. Some day he might be a great bishop himself.

But something happened. Calvin's father fell out of the favor of the cathedral clergy, and Calvin, in the course of his studies, began to find that the Church in France was quite different from the Church which was described in the New Testament. It was decided that instead of being a minister, he should be a lawyer. He was sent to the University of Paris. He studied law. He was still the best scholar, and occasionally, when one of the professors was absent, he was asked to lecture in Greek. He began to be interested in the new ideas which were being taught by Erasmus.

At that time, Greek was the newest thing in the world of learning. For hundreds of years, the Greeks had been forgotten. Now their statues and their books were re-discovered; and with the statues came a new vision of the glory of art, and with the books came a new way of thinking and a new way of looking at the world. It was remembered that the New Testament was written in Greek, and when Erasmus published an edition of it in its original language, men began to study it with a new interest. So narrow had been the range of knowledge that Thomas Aquinas had written a book in which he intended to include it all! Then the discoveries of Columbus had made it necessary to re-write all the old geographies, and the discoveries of Copernicus had made if necessary to re-write all the old astronomies. And Luther had begun the Reformation of the Church. It was a wonderful time, and Calvin, in Paris, found himself in the midst of it. He began to change his mind about being a lawyer. He began to interest himself in religion.

Then a friend of Calvin's, Nicholas Cop, was elected rector of the University of Paris, and in his inaugural address he declared himself frankly in favor of the new learning. He showed his agreement with the principles of the Reformation. The address made a great stir in Paris. All the conservatives arose against it. The new rector had to make his escape as best he could to save his life. Calvin also was threatened with arrest. His rooms were searched, and his books and papers seized. It was plain that a choice must be made between the old way and the new, and Calvin made it. He resigned his place as chaplain of the cathedral of Noyon, and as rector of the parish of Pont l'Évêque. He was imprisoned for a time at Noyon in consequence of an uproar in the Church, caused probably, by outcries against him in the congregation, by those who suspected him of sympathy with the reforming movement. After this, there was no more uncertainly. John Calvin had committed himself to the cause of the Reformation. Calvin was now twenty-five years old. He meant to be a teacher. All his interest was in study. Already he had great learning, which he now increased by reading Hebrew, but the most remarkable quality of his mind was a singular sense of order. He was not contented with his ideas until he had got them in a shape as logical and accurate as a problem in algebra. He found himself among men who had perceived new and wonderful truths in theology, and were discussing them with great enthusiasm, and following them out in many directions, but who had not succeeded in bringing them into a system. The old theology was a complete system. It had taken truth, and studied it, and worked it out into conclusions which explained everything. It was absolutely definite. It had put all things in heaven and earth into what were considered their proper places. It was like a splendidly drilled army, and the enthusiastic reformers, in attacking it, were in the position of a mob of untrained men, without discipline, attacking a regiment of regular soldiers. The mob may be right and the regiment may be wrong, but the regiment will surely win the day.

Calvin saw that the new ideas must be brought into an order as logical as the old. He took them as a drill-master takes a lot of raw recruits and makes them stand erect, and keep step, and obey the word of command. He had the genius to do it. He contributed to the Reformation the strength of a definite theology.

Calvin's chief work, the "Institutes of the Christian Religion," belongs among the supreme books. It is one of those writings which have profoundly influenced the minds and lives of men. Luther's German Bible and Cranmer's English Prayer-book brought the forces of religious thought and conduct into the midst of the people. They provided the materials of discussion and devotion. Loyola and Calvin took the spiritual forces and did with them what the man of science does when he takes steam and electricity and puts them into machines. The Spiritual Exercises applied machinery to Christian conduct. The Institutes did the same for Christian belief.

Calvin's system, however difficult to accept, is quite easy to understand.

1. God, he said, is the ruler of the world. All power is His, all wisdom and all goodness. The highest duty of every human being is to obey His will.

2. The will of God is made known to us by the Word of God, the Bible. This is God's book, and is to be reverenced, and taken without question, and obeyed.

3. But man cannot obey God without help. For the whole human race is bad. It began good with Adam, but when he sinned, human nature became evil. Of ourselves, we can neither do, nor speak, nor think aright. We are like branches growing in a decaying tree.

4. Out of this hopeless state, Christ came to save us. This He did by offering Himself a sacrifice upon the Cross to turn away the wrath of God.

5. We lay hold of this salvation by faith. This is a union of our heart with Christ, like the grafting of a branch into a good tree. One of the consequences of faith is repentance, and another is a righteous life.

6. But some have faith and are saved, and others have not faith and are lost, according to the will of God. From all eternity, without regard to our goodness or our badness, simply of His own pleasure, He appointed some of us to salvation and others to perdition. "When it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because He pleased. But if you proceed further to ask why He pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found." We were predestined to eternal life or death before the world was made.

When he had finished the writing of the Institutes, Calvin went back to France to settle up his affairs, intending to spend the rest of his life in quiet study in Basel. On his return he spent a day in Geneva. That fair city, on the lake, in sight of the perpetual snows of Mont Blanc, was in the midst of a contention between the old faith and the new. The leader of the Protestants was William Farel, an earnest man, energetic and determined, with a voice which could be heard above the noise of an angry crowd. He came to Calvin and urged him to stay in Geneva. Calvin refused; he must return, he said, to his books at Basel. But Farel insisted; he declared in his great voice that God had other work for Calvin than the quiet tasks of reading and writing. At last, Calvin consented. He said afterwards that "God had stretched His hand from on high" to stop him. He went to Basel, gathered his books together, and settled in Geneva.

The city was governed by the bishop, the duke, and the Sundics. The four sundics were elected annually by the citizens. They chose a company of twenty-five called the Little Council, and the Little Council chose a larger company called the Two Hundred. The three powers-the bishop, the duke, and the citizens-were always fighting among themselves, until the duke and the bishop combined against the citizens, and the citizens rose up in might and expelled them both. This political strife against the bishop was Farel's opportunity, and he preached the doctrines of the Reformation so vigorously that the Protestants grew strong enough to seize the cathedral, drive out the Catholics, break the images, and substitute the preaching of sermons for the saying of masses. In May 1536, the General Assembly of the citizens was called together by the sound of bells and trumpets, and they voted they were in agreement with the Reformation. Calvin came in August.

Immediately, his influence began to appear, first over Farel, then over the whole city. He applied his clear mind, and strong will, and sense of order, to public affairs. He brought the people under discipline.

Men were appointed to inspect the conduct of the people. The city was divided into districts, each with its inspector. Every citizen who was found in fault was to be reported to one of the ministers, and if he refused to change his ways he was to be rejected from the company of Christians. It was the old excommunication in a new form.

The citizens were summoned in groups of ten, to declare their faith, whether they were Protestants or Catholics. If they were Catholics, the sooner they left the city the better.

Also in the schools, the children were to be taught a catechism, which Calvin had prepared.

Against these rigors a considerable body of citizens protested. They disliked the severity which would abolish, not only dancing and card-playing, but the keeping of Christmas and Easter. They hated the inspection, which not only called them to account for misdemeanors, but prescribed what sort of clothes they might and might not wear. They objected to the interference of the preachers with politics. They refused to be brought under rules, like school children. And the result was that the Two Hundred, after long and stormy discussion, banished Farel and Calvin from Geneva.

Calvin went to Strassburg, and resumed his studies. He occupied himself with reading and writing, he taught theology, and preached four times a week. He took much interest in arranging the services of the Church. Luther and Cranmer had made few changes in the old forms of worship. They had each translated the prayers from Latin into the language of the people, and had shortened and simplified them. Luther had introduced the singing of hymns. Calvin, like Luther, desired to have the people sing, but instead of hymns he introduced the psalms in meter. That is, Calvin's hymns were like our Old Hundredth Psalm. To Calvin, however, the most important part of the service was the sermon, and the prayers he left for the most part to the discretion of the minister. He paid no heed to the ancient order of service. Thus he established the manner of worship which became common in all the reformed churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, matters were going from bad to worse. In 1541, Calvin was formally requested to return. He came back the undisputed leader of the Genevan Church. It is characteristic of him that on the first Sunday after his return he took up the course of sermons which had been interrupted by his banishment, and preached as if nothing had happened. He had been preaching on the Epistle to the Romans, and on he went week after week, book by book, and sentence by sentence, through the New Testament and into the Old, during the remaining thirteen years of his life.

Calvin's great purpose was now to make Geneva a City of God.

The first step was to set the Church in order, and this he did on the basis of the New Testament. All the elaborate organizations which had grown through the long centuries of Christian history, he set aside. Finding no bishop in the Bible, he would have none in Geneva. The church officers were pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons, and the elders and deacons were to be laymen. The Church had been governed by the clergy. It had been believed that grace was given them from heaven, and that this grace they gave in turn to the people, through the sacraments. Calvin brought the people themselves into the administration of the Church. The ministers were elected by their fellow-ministers, but they could not enter upon their office until they had the approval of the congregation. These pastors and teachers were called presbyters, and this system by which the presbyters were ordained by other presbyters, was called Presbyterian. Thus Calvin, who had changed the old order of worship, by substituting extempore prayer for the prayer-book, changed also the old order of the ministry, by substituting ordination by presbyters for ordination by bishops. He made a complete break with the Ancient Church. He founded, in Geneva, a new Christian society whose only connection with the old was that it held its services in the old churches.

Having thus arranged the Church, the next step was to deal with the lives of the people. This matter the ministers took in hand, and delivered the more serious or obstinate offenders to the magistrate to be punished. All that Calvin had undertaken before was now repeated, and much more. Everybody's private life was under watch and ward. Every house in Geneva was regularly visited, and the inhabitants were questioned as to their knowledge of the Bible and the catechism, as to their absences from church, and as to any criticism which they might have made in their conversation on the minister. All the family quarrels were examined. All the disobedient children were called to account. If anybody made a noise during a sermon, or laughed in church, or said that the pope was a good man, or that Calvin was a bad man, he was punished. A member of the Little Council, one of the influential men of the city, ventured one time to speak his mind about Calvin, presumably at his own dinner-table. The words were reported, and the rash critic was sentenced to be marched around the streets, dressed in his shirt, bearing a torch in his hand, and to beg the pardon of God and of the government on his knees. A boy who threatened to strike his mother was publicly whipped and banished from the city. A woman who sang an idle song to a psalm tune was beaten with rods. The ministers refused to baptize children with the names of saints, and a small riot arose in the congregation when a child, whose parents wished him to be called "Martin" was named "Abraham" against their will.

Such severities, naturally, angered the people, and in spite of all inspections and punishments, a party of opposition grew in strength. They hindered Calvin; they took the other side in the many controversies in which he was engaged; they named their dogs after him, they put him in peril, not only of his power, but of his life. Then came an enemy named Servetus.

Servetus was a heretic. By profession a physician, and a very skilful one, he was interested also in theology. The Reformation had made it easy to attack all the old beliefs, and of this situation Servetus availed himself. And this he did, not only with much freedom of thought, but with much freedom of expression. It was the fashion of the time for debaters to call one another names, but Servetus carried it to an extreme. Thus he made an assault on the theology of Calvin. He objected to Calvin's ideas both of God and of man. He denied the doctrine of predestination, held that man is able to please God, and rejected the common belief in the Trinity.

In the midst of these discussions, Servetus came in disguise to Geneva, was recognized and arrested in church as he listened to Calvin's preaching, and was put on trial. It was then the general opinion that heresy was an offense to be punished with death; for while a murderer destroyed only the body, a heretic was a poisoner of his life. But the case was much more than a single trial for heresy; for all the enemies of Calvin rallied to the defense of the heretic. It was plain that the result of the trial would be the maintaining of the ending of Calvin's power in Geneva.

The man was finally condemned, and sentenced to be burned alive. He sent for Calvin and begged his pardon for any offense which he had committed against him, and asked for an easier death; but this the court would not permit. Thus he died, crying with his last breath, "Jesus, thou Son pf the eternal God, have pity on me!"

Calvin continued to be the master of Geneva till the day of his death. He made the city, not only well-behaved, but prosperous. He fostered its trade in silks and velvets; he cleaned its streets. Above all he founded the University of Geneva, a great school of sound learning, whose scholars were afterwards influential all over Europe. The city became a model of what a Christian community should be. Its doctrine, its worship, and its discipline affected all Protestantism, outside of Germany where the ideas of Luther reigned. The Puritans brought the example of Calvin out of England into New England.

In 1903, three hundred and fifty years after the burning of Servetus, a memorial stone was erected on the place of his martyrdom. The first name on the list of subscribers was that of the Consistory of the Genevan Church. This was not a criticism on the act of Calvin, but rather on the age in which he lived. In many respects wiser than his time, he, nevertheless, shared in its errors, even as he breathed its air. That was unavoidable. What to him seemed right, and was the best he knew, to us seems wrong; because the world goes on growing, and grows better.

The theology of Calvin has been in great part outgrown also. Where he thought of God mainly as the Sovereign of the world, we think of Him rather as the Father of all men. Where he thought of the Bible as a divine book, dictated by God, we think of it as a human book, written by men who increased century by century in the knowledge of God. Where he thought of man as wholly bad, and saved only by the sacrifice of Christ, and even then saved only in part, according to the pleasure of God, without reference to the good or evil of their lives, we think of man as progressing, more and more, towards goodness, by the help of Christ, into an eternal life where everybody shall reap what he has sown.

We see, however, that Calvin's true teaching the God is to be obeyed rather than man, and that in His presence all men, great and small, are valued without regard to wealth or position, made men independent and taught them that the supreme authority of the conscience. It was the foundation of democracy.

And we see also that Calvin's exaltation of the Bible made men study it. There they were to learn the will of God for themselves. There they were to determine what was right and wrong, no matter what was said by Church or state. They must be educated, then, in order to be able to read that book; hence, public schools everywhere, and colleges. Thus for our free and universal education, as well as for our free government, of and by and for the people, we are in debt to Calvin.

As Calvin lay in his last sickness, he summoned the ministers of Geneva to meet him in his room about his bed, and addressed them as St. Paul addressed the elders of Ephesus. He recounted his labors and his pains, and the hard battles he had fought and won. "What a life it has been," he said, "for a poor scholar, shy and timid as I am." He asked their pardon for his faults, "in particular for his quickness, vehemence, and readiness to by angry." He exhorted them to continue the good work, and taking each one by the hand, he commended them severally to the blessing of God. "We parted from him," says one of them, "with our eyes bathed in tears, and our hearts full of unspeakable grief." Thus he died, fifty-five years old.