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Jean Calvin: The Awful Sovereignty of God
by Rene Wadlow
2009-07-23 09:07:22
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When I have been tempted to subtlety, I have thrust the temptation aside, and I have always striven for simplicity. I have written nothing from hatred against any man, and I have put before me the glory of God.
Calvin’s farewell address to the Pastors of Geneva (28 April, 1564)

Jean Calvin is the French writer who has had the most international impact. There is no other French writer whose numerous followers take his name as a self-definition — Calvinist — as others call themselves Marxist. As William Monter wrote “Calvin was not so much a personality as a mind. Basically, he lived for his work: teaching, preaching and writing. His work was essentially moral and intellectual, and his authority within Geneva was essentially moral and intellectual. In most cases, Calvin’s influence was based upon the fact that he knew more about something than anybody else, expressed himself about it more readily, and seldom changed his mind.” (1)

There are few thinkers for whom people were willing to die — and to kill. I write from the terrace of my house built in 1606, and I look over the valley of the Cevennes in south-central France. The house was built in a period of relative quiet during the period of the 1598 Edit de Nantes after the early battles and persecution of the Protestants in the 1570s and before the final Protestant uprising of 1702. Yet my house has a small secret room that one enters from a small hole in the fireplace, a room where one could hide or hide someone on the run from the King’s soldiers who were trying to re-establish the Catholic Church in the area after the Edit de Nantes had been revoked by Louis XIV. In the valley below, there is a cave, called the cave of the Protestants (or the Huguenots as they were often called) where people would gather at night to pray and listen to talks. The situation for Protestants only changed on the eve of the French Revolution with the Edit of Grace (or Tolerance) of 1787.

Yet Calvin is so associated with Geneva that some take him for a Swiss (though Geneva was not part of Switzerland when he was there, Geneva having joined the Swiss Confederation only in 1815.) However, Calvin was born and educated in France at a time of intellectual debate and ferment when the Protestant ideas of Martin Luther and the humanist ideas of Erasmus were spreading. He was born in Noyon in Picardy, some 30 miles from Amiens on 10 July 1509. His father was a lawyer and a respected local figure whose example led Jean Calvin to study law — and receive a doctorate in law in 1532.

However, secondary-school education was in the hands of Catholic priests and the best students were selected for the priesthood. Thus at 14 Calvin was sent to study in Paris and lived at the home of an uncle. The secondary school was headed by the conservative — not to say reactionary — Nicolas Beda who was also co-Rector of the Faculty of Theology. The school attracted intellectual students from all over. Francois Rabelais of Gargantua fame was a student at the same time and later Rabelais and Calvin attacked each other — Rabelais painting Geneva as hell in his Pantagruel. Another student at the school but shortly after Calvin had left was Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order and a reformer of a different type.

After secondary school, Calvin studied law in Paris and especially Orleans which had some of the best law teachers of the day. Calvin’s legal training was always evident in his religious writings. He was out to make a point and would present his arguments in a logical, legal way. People who disagreed were “opponents”, and Calvin had a sharp tongue and pen. In his Geneva days in an exchange with Valentino Gentile, Calvin called Gentile ‘an insolent buffon’ and ‘a twisting serpent’. Gentile, a Calabrian living in Geneva, had said that ‘Trinity’ ‘Essence’ and ‘Hypostasis’ were words not to be found in Scripture and were inventions of theologians. He had accused Calvin of teaching that the Deity consisted in a quarternity rather than a Trinity. Gentile was sentenced to be beheaded in Geneva but was able to flee the city. Later he was arrested outside Geneva and sent to Bern where he was beheaded in 1556. People did not take theological debates lightly in those days. (2);

When Calvin finished his legal studies in 1532, theological debates in France and the struggles for power around the King were so strong that Calvin feared arrest. Some of his older friends already had gotten into trouble. Calvin often lived under an assumed name, but this made both the practice of law or publishing his writings impossible.

Switzerland had become an area of Protestant thought, the ideas of Luther were strong in Basel; in Zurich, the Anabaptist ideas of Ulrich Zwingli were in power. Anabaptism laid emphasis not upon the Bible as the authoritative rule of life but upon the “inner light” of conscience. Geneva had already broken free from the rule of the Bishop of Geneva — the Bishops being in practice the agents of the Dukes of Savoy. As William Monter writes “When Calvin arrived in September, 1536, Geneva was a new-born city state that had just shaken off the yoke of tyranny. She was freed from Episcopal control, but as yet provided with no political substitute; she was liberated from Papistry, but as yet provided with no religious substitute. Geneva was virtually a tabula rasa, freshly emerged from the culmination of a dual revolution.” (3)

The closest equivalent to Geneva in 1536 would be Iran after the fall of the Shah with the efforts to create an Islamic Republic. Some put the emphasis on ‘Islamic’ and others on ‘Republic’. Geneva had no oil revenues and only 10,000 people. Jean Calvin had played no role in overthrowing the Bishop, but he was faced with thinking how to create a government that would reflect the absolute sovereignty of God, with its corollary, the utter worthlessness of man. What was to be the relationship between the Church as a guide in faith and conduct and the civil authorities who were democratically elected by the citizens? (4) Not all inhabitants were citizens, so that democratic office holders were often from a small elite. The

Idea of citizenship was coupled with that of responsibility, and Calvin was granted citizenship of Geneva only after 18 years. Before he had great influence but could not vote.

Calvin’s influence came through his control of culture. Religious culture was the only culture that counted in Geneva at the time. Calvin created the Academy, which became the University of Geneva. He designed a catechism which had to be studied by young and old with 55 chapters to be studied on a one-a-week basis. Excommunication was a permanent threat as was the refusal of communion to those not considered worthy. As Monter notes “Calvin’s Geneva was indeed a theocracy. This does not imply that she was governed by her clergy; it means rather that Geneva was in theory governed by God through a balance of spiritual and secular powers, through clergy and magistrates acting in harmony. (5)

The years 1554 to his death in 1564 were Calvin’s Zenith. Geneva attracted and absorbed Protestant refugees from France and Italy. By 1557, there were more foreigners in Geneva (over 5000) than there were citizens. Although foreigners could not vote, they played an active role in the life of the city. Geneva became a center of publishing, and books by Calvin and the other Geneva-based reformers flowed to all parts of Europe. When there were periods of relative calm, ministers would be sent from Geneva to towns in France or northern Italy, sometimes in disguise.

Carew Hunt ends his useful biography of Calvin by writing “ He was the messenger of that Jehovah Who had appeared to Moses upon Mount Horeb and Who, in their wanderings, had gone before the Children of Israel in a pillar of fire. To order the people in the ways of that awful and terrifying Deity had been his life’s work, and from this task no thought of safety or of personal convenience had ever made him falter…We are left in the presence of a man who followed what he believed to be the truth, and consecrated his life to its attainment, and for this he will be had in honour as long as courage and singleness of purpose are held as virtues among men.” (6)

Jehovah in its Arabic translation is Allah, and there is perhaps no better way of understanding Iran today than in re-reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christina Religion.



(1) E. William Montor Calvin’s Geneva (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1967, p.99)

(2) R.N. Carew Hunt Calvin (London: The Centenary Press, 1935, p.251)

(3) Montor p.29

(4) See Harro Hopfl(Ed.) Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

(5) Montor p. 144

(6) Hunt p. 316

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens

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Emanuel Paparella2009-07-23 12:03:15
Indeed, theocracies are awful polities and are perhaps the worst form of government not very enthusiastic aabout democratic procedures. On the other hand, the concepts of human rights is not to be found in ancient Greece and Rome, try as one may, since they tolerated slavery despite their advanced concepts of freedom and democracy. Those rights belonged only to the citizens and were granted by the State and could also be withdrawn by the State. Jefferson did not invent one fine day out of the blue sky the concept of inalienable rights, neither did he borrow it from Graeco-Roman civilization; he inherited it from a judeo-christian tradition which postulated the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God, and that despite the hypocrisy of both Jefferson and Washington who owned slaves, and despite the misguided notion of the French Revolution which postulated brotherhood without fatherhood and ends up withe the reign of terror and Napoleon.

Jack2009-07-23 21:43:22

This is extremely well put in your article my friend, sayiing "Calvin’s influence was based upon the fact that he knew more about something than anybody else, expressed himself about it more readily, and seldom changed his mind.”

That is someone who knows the unvarnished history for sure. There was no equal to Calvin.

I have sat in twice as part of a church's Pulpit Committee. There was no consensus to be found. We and they too, could not decide if someone was too young..or too old, and so on.

I stopped the conversation. I said that I have heard of a really great preacher. He's has a health problem. And he's been in and out of jail. In fact, they said he started a riot at Mar's Hill! But, anyway, I still wish we could get him.

The Committee said, "well, no. That's not a good fit".

I said, "too bad, because if the Apostle Paul was still around, he'd be great fit, don't you think?"

Nice article, good research, excellent flow. Thanks.

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