Comp. § 83 and § 86. Calvin discusses the ministerial office in the third chapter of the fourth book of his Institutes.
Having considered Calvin’s general principles on Church government, we proceed to their introduction and application in the little Republic of Geneva.
We have seen that in his first interview with the Syndics and Council after his return, Sept. 13, 1541, he insisted on the introduction of an ecclesiastical constitution and discipline in accordance with the Word of God and the primitive Church. The Council complied with his wishes, and intrusted the work to the five pastors (Calvin, Viret, Jacques Bernard, Henry de la Mare, and Aymé Champereau) and six councillors (decided Guillermins), to whom was added Jean Balard as advisory member. The document was prepared under his directing influence, submitted to the Councils, slightly altered, and solemnly ratified by a general assembly of citizens (the Conseil général), Jan. 2, 1542, as the fundamental church law of the Republic of Geneva. Its essential features have passed into the constitution and discipline of most of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches of Europe and America.
The official text of the “Ordinances” is preserved in the Registers of the Venerable Company, and opens with the following introduction: —
“In the name of God Almighty, we, the Syndics, Small and Great Councils with our people assembled at the sound of the trumpet and the great clock, according to our ancient customs, have considered that the matter above all others worthy of recommendation is to preserve the doctrine of the holy gospel of our Lord in its purity, to protect the Christian Church, to instruct faithfully the youth, and to provide a hospital for the proper support of the poor, — all of which cannot be done without a definite order and rule of life, from which every estate may learn the duty of its office. For this reason we have deemed it wise to reduce the spiritual government, such as our Lord has shown us and instituted by his Word, to a good form to be introduced and observed among us. Therefore we have ordered and established to follow and to guard in our city and territory the following ecclesiastical polity, taken from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The document is inspired by a high view of the dignity and responsibility of the ministry of the gospel, such as we find in the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians and Ephesians. “It may be confidently asserted,” says a Catholic historian, “that in no religious society of Christian Europe the clergy was assigned a position so dignified, prominent, and influential as in the Church which Calvin built up in Geneva.”
In his Institutes Calvin distinguishes three extraordinary officers of the Church, — Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists, — and four ordinary officers — Pastors (Bishops), Teachers, Ancients (Lay-elders), and Deacons.
Extraordinary officers were raised up by the Lord at the beginning of his kingdom, and are raised up on special occasions when required “by the necessity of the times.” The Reformers must be regarded as a secondary class of Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists. Calvin himself intimates the parallel when he says: “I do not deny that ever since that period [of the Apostles] God has sometimes raised up Apostles or Evangelists in their stead, as he has done in our own time. For there was a necessity for such persons to recover the Church from the defection of Antichrist. Nevertheless, I call this an extraordinary office, because it has no place in well-constituted Churches.”
The extraordinary offices cannot be regulated by law. The Ordinances, therefore, give directions only for the ordinary offices of the Church.
1. The Pastors, or ministers of the gospel, as Calvin likes to call them, have “to preach the Word of God, to instruct, to admonish, to exhort and reprove in public and private, to administer the sacraments, and, jointly with the elders, to exercise discipline.”
No one can be a pastor who is not called, examined, ordained, or installed. In the examination, the candidate must give satisfactory evidence of his knowledge of the Scriptures, his soundness in doctrine, purity of motives, and integrity of character. If he proves worthy of the office, he receives a testimony to that effect from the Council to be presented to the congregation. If he fails in the examination, he must wait for another call and submit to another examination. The best mode of installation is by prayer and laying on of hands, according to the practice of the Apostles and the early Church; but it should be done without superstition.
All the ministers are to hold weekly conferences for mutual instruction, edification, correction, and encouragement in their official duties. No one should absent himself without a good excuse. This duty devolves also on the pastors of the country districts. If doctrinal controversies arise, the ministers settle them by discussion; and if they cannot agree, the matter is referred to the magistracy.
Discipline is to be strictly exercised over the ministers, and a number of sins and vices are specified which cannot be tolerated among them, such as heresy, schism, rebellion against ecclesiastical order, blasphemy, impurity, falsehood, perjury, usury, avarice, dancing, negligence in the study of the Scriptures.
The Ordinances prescribe for Sunday a service in the morning, catechism — that is, instruction of little children — at noon, a second sermon in the afternoon at three o’clock. Three sermons are to be preached during the week — Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. For these services are required, in the city, five regular ministers and three assistant ministers.
In the Institutes, Calvin describes the office of Pastors to be the same as that of the Apostles, except in the extent of their field and authority. They are all ambassadors of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1Co_4:1). What Paul says of himself applies to them all: “Woe is to me, if I preach not the gospel” (1Co_9:16).
2. The office of the Teachers is to instruct the believers in sound doctrine, in order that the purity of the gospel be not corrupted by ignorance or false opinions.
Calvin derived the distinction between Teachers and Pastors from Eph_4:11, and states the difference to consist in this, “that Teachers have no official concern with discipline, nor the administration of the sacraments, nor admonitions and exhortations, but only with the interpretation of the Scripture; whereas the pastoral office includes all these duties.” He also says that the Teachers sustain the same resemblance to the ancient Prophets as the Pastors to the Apostles. He himself had the prophetic gift of luminous and convincing teaching in a rare degree. Theological Professors occupy the highest rank among Teachers.
3. The Ancients or Lay-Elders watch over the good conduct of the people. They must be God-fearing and wise men, without and above suspicion. Twelve were to be selected — two from the Little Council, four from the Council of the Sixty, and six from the Council of the Two Hundred. Each was to be assigned a special district of the city.
This is a very important office in the Presbyterian Churches. In the Institutes, Calvin. quotes in support of it the gifts of government. “From the beginning,” he says, “every Church has had its senate or council, composed of pious, grave, and holy men, who were invested with that jurisdiction in the correction of vices …. This office of government is necessary in every age.” He makes a distinction between two classes of Elders, — Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders, — on the basis of 1Ti_5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching.” The exegetical foundation for such a distinction is weak, but the ruling Lay-Eldership has proved a very useful institution and great help to the teaching ministry.
4. The Deacons have the care of the poor and the sick, and of the hospitals. They must prevent mendicancy which is contrary to good order. (Act_6:1-3; Phi_1:1; 1Ti_3:8 sqq.; 1Ti_5:9, 1Ti_5:10) Two classes of Deacons are distinguished, those who administer alms, and those who devote themselves to the poor and sick.
5. Baptism is to be performed in the Church, and only by ministers and their assistants. The names of the children and their parents must be entered in the Church registers.
6. The Lord’s Supper is to be administered every month in one of the Churches, and at Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. The elements must be distributed reverently by the ministers and deacons. None is to be admitted before having been instructed in the catechism and made a profession of his faith.
The remainder of the Ordinances contains regulations about marriage, burial, the visitation of the sick, and prisons.
The Ministers and Ancients are to meet once a week on Thursday, to discuss together the state of the Church and to exercise discipline. The object of discipline is to bring the sinner back to the Lord.
The Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541 were revised and enlarged by Calvin, and adopted by the Little and Large Councils, Nov. 13, 1561. This edition contains also the oaths of allegiance of the Ministers, Pastors, Doctors, Elders, Deacons, and the members of the Consistory, and fuller directions concerning the administration of the sacraments, marriage, the visitation of the sick and prisoners, the election of members of the Consistory, and excommunication.
A new revision of the Ordinances was made and adopted by the General Council, June 3, 1576.
105. The Venerable Company and the Consistory
The Church of Geneva consisted of all baptized and professing Christians subject to discipline. It had, at the time of Calvin, a uniform creed; Romanists and sectarians being excluded. It was represented and governed by the Venerable Company and the Consistory.
1. The Venerable Company was a purely clerical body, consisting of all the pastors of the city and district of Geneva. It had no political power. It was intrusted with the general supervision of all strictly ecclesiastical affairs, especially the education, qualification, ordination, and installation of the ministers of the gospel. But the consent of the civil government and the congregation was necessary for the final induction to the ministry. Thus the pastors and the people were to co-operate.
2. The Consistory or Presbytery was a mixed body of clergymen and laymen, and larger and more influential than the Venerable Company. It represented the union of Church and State. It embraced, at the time of Calvin, five city Pastors and twelve Seniors or Lay-Elders, two of whom were selected from the Council of Sixty and ten from the Council of Two Hundred. The laymen, therefore, had the majority; but the clerical element was comparatively fixed, while the Elders were elected annually under the influence of the clergy. A Syndic was the constitutional head. Calvin never presided in form, but ruled the proceedings in fact by his superior intelligence and weighty judgment.
The Consistory went into operation immediately after the adoption of the Ordinances, and met every Thursday. The reports begin from the tenth meeting, which was held on Thursday, Feb. 16, 1542.
The duty of the Consistory was the maintenance and exercise of discipline. Every house was to be visited annually by a Minister and Elder. To facilitate the working of this system the city was divided into three parishes — St. Peter’s, the Magdalen, and St. Gervais. Calvin officiated in St. Peter’s.
The Consistorial Court was the controlling power in the Church of Geneva. It has often been misrepresented as a sort of tribunal of Inquisition or Star Chamber. But it could only use the spiritual sword, and had nothing to do with civil and temporal punishments, which belonged exclusively to the Council. The names of Gruet, Bolsec, and Servetus do not even appear in its records. Calvin wrote to the ministers of Zürich, Nov. 26, 1553: “The Consistory has no civil jurisdiction, but only the right to reprove according to the Word of God, and its severest punishment is excommunication.” He wisely provided for the preponderance of the lay-element.
At first the Council, following the example of Basel and Bern, denied to the Consistory the right of excommunication. The persons excluded from the Lord’s Table usually appealed to the Council, which often interceded in their behalf or directed them to make an apology to the Consistory. There was also a difference of opinion as regards the consequences of excommunication. The Consistory demanded that persons cut off from the Church for grievous offenses and scandalous lives should be banished from the State for a year, or until they repent; but the Council did not agree. Calvin could not always carry out his views, and acted on the principle to tolerate what he could not abolish. It was only after his final victory over the Libertines in 1555 that the Council conceded to the Consistory the undisputed power of excommunication.
From these facts we may judge with what right Calvin has so often been called “the Pope of Geneva,” mostly by way of reproach. As far as the designation is true, it is an involuntary tribute to his genius and character. For he had no material support, and he never used his influence for gain or personal ends. The Genevese knew him well and obeyed him freely.
106. Calvin’s Theory of Discipline
Discipline is so important an element in Calvin’s Church polity, that it must be more fully considered. Discipline was the cause of his expulsion from Geneva, the basis of his flourishing French congregation at Strassburg, the chief reason for his recall, the condition of his acceptance, the struggle and triumph of his life, and the secret of his moral influence to this day. His rigorous discipline, based on his rigorous creed, educated the heroic French, Dutch, English, Scotch, and American Puritans (using this word in a wider sense for strict Calvinists). It fortified them for their trials and persecutions, and made them promoters of civil and religious liberty.
The severity of the system has passed away, even in Geneva, Scotland, and New England, but the result remains in the power of self-government, the capacity for organization, the order and practical efficiency which characterizes the Reformed Churches in Europe and America.
Calvin’s great aim was to realize the purity and holiness of the Church as far as human weakness will permit. He kept constantly in view the ideal of “a Church without spot or wrinkle or blemish,” which Paul describes in the Epistle to the Eph_5:27. He wanted every Christian to be consistent with his profession, to show his faith by good works, and to strive to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. He was the only one among the Reformers who attempted and who measurably carried out this sublime idea in a whole community.
Luther thought the preaching of the gospel would bring about all the necessary changes, but he had to complain bitterly, at the end of his life, of the dissolute manners of the students and citizens at Wittenberg, and seriously thought of leaving the city in disgust.
Calvin knew well enough that the ideal could only be imperfectly realized in this world, but that it was none the less our duty to strive after perfection. He often quotes Augustin against the Donatists who dreamed of an imaginary purity of the Church, like the Anabaptists who, he observes, “acknowledge no congregation to belong to Christ, unless it be in all respects conspicuous for angelic perfection, and who, under pretext of zeal, destroy all edification.” He consents to Augustin’s remark that “schemes of separation are pernicious and sacrilegious, because they proceed from pride and impiety, and disturb the good who are weak, more than they correct the wicked who are bold.” In commenting on the parable of the net which gathered of every kind (Mat_13:47), he says: “The Church while on earth is mixed with good and bad and will never be free of all impurity …. Although God, who is a God of order, commands us to exercise discipline, he allows for a time to hypocrites a place among believers until he shall set up his kingdom in its perfection on the last day. As far as we are concerned, we must strive to correct vices and to purge the Church of impurity, although she will not be free from all stain and blemish till Christ shall separate the goats from the sheep.”
Calvin discusses the subject of discipline in the twelfth chapter of the fourth book of his Institutes. His views are sound and scriptural. “No society,” he says at the outset, “no house can be preserved in proper condition without discipline. The Church ought to be the most orderly society of all. As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the Church, so discipline forms the nerves and ligaments which connect the members and keep each in its proper place. It serves as a bridle to curb and restrain the refractory who resist the doctrine of Christ; or as a spur to stimulate the inactive; and sometimes as a father’s rod to chastise, in mercy and with the gentleness of the spirit of Christ, those who have grievously fallen away. It is the only remedy against a dreadful desolation in the Church.”
One of the greatest objections which he had against the Roman Church of his day was the utter want of discipline in constant violation of the canons. He asserts, without fear of contradiction, that “there was scarcely one of the (Roman) bishops, and not one in a hundred of the parochial clergy, who, if sentence were to be passed upon his conduct according to the ancient canons, would not be excommunicated, or, to say the very least, deposed from his office.”
He distinguished between the discipline of the people and the discipline of the clergy.
1. The discipline of members has three degrees: private admonition; a second admonition in the presence of witnesses or before the Church; and, in case of persistent disobedience, exclusion from the Lord’s Table. This is in accordance with the rule of Christ (Mat_18:15-17). The object of discipline is threefold: to protect the body of the Church against contamination and profanation; to guard the individual members against the corrupting influence of constant association with the wicked; and to bring the offender to repentance that he may be saved and restored to the fellowship of the faithful. Excommunication and subsequent restoration were exercised by Paul in the case of the Corinthian offender, and by the Church in her purer days. Even the Emperor Theodosius was excluded from communion by Bishop Ambrose of Milan on account of the massacre perpetrated in Thessalonica at his order.
Excommunication should be exercised only against flagitious crimes which disgrace the Christian profession; such as adultery, fornication, theft, robbery, sedition, perjury, contempt of God and his authority. Nor should it be exercised by the bishop or pastor alone, but by the body of elders, and, as is pointed out by Paul, “with the knowledge and approbation of the congregation; in such a manner, however, that the multitude of the people may not direct the proceeding, but may watch over it as witnesses and guardians, that nothing be done by a few persons from any improper motive.” Moreover, “the severity of the Church must be tempered by a spirit of gentleness. For there is constant need of the greatest caution, according to the injunction of Paul concerning a person who may have been censured, ‘lest by any means such a one should be swallowed up with his overmuch sorrow’ (2Co_2:7); for thus a remedy would become a poison.”
When the sinner gives reasonable evidence of repentance he is to be restored. Calvin objects to “the excessive austerity of the ancients,” who refused to readmit the lapsed. He approves of the course of Cyprian, who says: “Our patience and kindness and tenderness is ready for all who come; I wish all to return into the Church; I wish all our fellow-soldiers to be assembled in the camp of Christ, and all our brethren to be received into the house of God our Father. I forgive everything; I conceal much. With ready and sincere affection I embrace those who return with penitence.” Calvin adds: “Such as are expelled from the Church, it is not for us to expunge from the number of the elect, or to despair of them as already lost. It is proper to consider them as strangers to the Church, and consequently to Christ, but this only as long as they remain in a state of exclusion. And even then let us hope better things of them for the future, and not cease to pray to God on their behalf. Let us not condemn to eternal death the offender, nor prescribe laws to the mercy of God who can change the worst of men into the best.” He makes a distinction between excommunication and anathema; the former censures and punishes with a view to reformation and restoration; the latter precludes all pardon, and devotes a person to eternal perdition. Anathema ought never to be resorted to, or at least very rarely. Church members ought to exert all means in their power to promote the reformation of an excommunicated person, and admonish him not as an enemy, but as a brother (2Co_2:8). “Unless this tenderness be observed by the individual members as well as by the Church collectively, our discipline will be in danger of speedily degenerating into cruelty.”
2. As regards the discipline of the clergy, Calvin objects to the exemption of ministers from civil jurisdiction, and wants them to be subject to the same punishments as laymen. They are more guilty, as they ought to set a good example. He quotes with approval the ancient canons, so shamefully neglected in the Roman Church of his day, against hunting, gambling, feasting, usury, commerce, and secular amusements. He recommends annual visitations and synods for the correction and examination of delinquent clergymen.
But he rejects the prohibition of clerical marriage as an “act of impious tyranny contrary to the Word of God and to every principle of justice. With what impunity fornication rages among them [the papal clergy] it is unnecessary to remark; emboldened by their polluted celibacy, they have become hardened to every crime …. Paul places marriage among the virtues of a bishop; these men teach that it is a vice not to be tolerated in the clergy …. Christ has been pleased to put such honor upon marriage as to make it an image of his sacred union with the Church. What could be said more in commendation of the dignity of marriage? With what face can that be called impure and polluted, which exhibits a similitude of the spiritual grace of Christ?… Marriage is honorable in all; but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge (Heb_13:4). The Apostles themselves have proved by their own example that marriage is not unbecoming the sanctity of any office, however excellent: for Paul testifies that they not only retained their wives, but took them about with them (1Co_9:5).”
107. The Exercise of Discipline in Geneva
Calvin succeeded after a fierce struggle in infusing the Church of Geneva with his views on discipline. The Consistory and the Council rivalled with each other, under his inspiration, in puritanic zeal for the correction of immorality; but their zeal sometimes transgressed the dictates of wisdom and moderation. The union of Church and State rests on the false assumption that all citizens are members of the Church and subject to discipline.
Dancing, gambling, drunkenness, the frequentation of taverns, profanity, luxury, excesses at public entertainments, extravagance and immodesty in dress, licentious or irreligious songs were forbidden, and punished by censure or fine or imprisonment. Even the number of dishes at meals was regulated. Drunkards were fined three sols for each offence. Habitual gamblers were exposed in the pillory with cords around their neck. Reading of bad books and immoral novels was also prohibited, and the popular “Amadis de Gaul” was ordered to be destroyed (1559). A morality play on “the Acts of the Apostles,” after it had been performed several times, and been attended even by the Council, was forbidden. Parents were warned against naming their children after Roman Catholic saints who nourished certain superstitions; instead of them the names of Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Zechariah, Jeremiah, Nehemiah became common. (This preference for Old Testament names was carried even further by the Puritans of England and New England.) The death penalty against heresy, idolatry, and blasphemy, and the barbarous custom of the torture were retained. Adultery, after a second offence, was likewise punished by death.
These were prohibitive and protective laws intended to prevent and punish irreligion and immorality.
But the Council introduced also coercive laws, which are contrary to the nature of religion, and apt to breed hypocrisy or infidelity. Attendance on public worship was commanded on penalty of three sols. When a refugee from Lyons once gratefully exclaimed, “How glorious is the liberty we enjoy here,” a woman bitterly replied: “Free indeed we formerly were to attend mass, but now we are compelled to hear a sermon.” Watchmen were appointed to see that people went to church. The members of the Consistory visited every house once a year to examine into the faith and morals of the family. Every unseemly word and act on the street was reported, and the offenders were cited before the Consistory to be either censured and warned, or to be handed over to the Council for severer punishment. No respect was paid to person, rank, or sex. The strictest impartiality was maintained, and members of the oldest and most distinguished families, ladies as well as gentlemen, were treated with the same severity as poor and obscure people.
Let us give a summary of the most striking cases of discipline. Several women, among them the wife of Ami Perrin, the captain-general, were imprisoned for dancing (which was usually connected with excesses). Bonivard, the hero of political liberty, and a friend of Calvin, was cited before the Consistory because he had played at dice with Clement Marot, the poet, for a quart of wine. A man was banished from the city for three months because, on hearing an ass bray, he said jestingly: “He prays a beautiful psalm.” A young man was punished because he gave his bride a book on housekeeping with the remark: “This is the best Psalter.” A lady of Ferrara was expelled from the city for expressing sympathy with the Libertines, and abusing Calvin and the Consistory. Three men who had laughed during the sermon were imprisoned for three days. Another had to do public penance for neglecting to commune on Whitsunday. Three children were punished because they remained outside of the church during the sermon to eat cakes. A man who swore by the “body and blood of Christ” was fined and condemned to stand for an hour in the pillory on the public square. A child was whipped for calling his mother a thief and a she-devil (diabless). A girl was beheaded for striking her parents, to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment.
A banker was executed for repeated adultery, but he died penitent and praised God for the triumph of justice. A person named Chapuis was imprisoned for four days because he persisted in calling his child Claude (a Roman Catholic saint) instead of Abraham, as the minister wished, and saying that he would sooner keep his son unbaptized for fifteen years. Bolsec, Gentilis, and Castellio were expelled from the Republic for heretical opinions. Men and women were burnt for witchcraft. Gruet was beheaded for sedition and atheism. Servetus was burnt for heresy and blasphemy. The last is the most flagrant case which, more than all others combined, has exposed the name of Calvin to abuse and execration; but it should be remembered that he wished to substitute the milder punishment of the sword for the stake, and in this point at least he was in advance of the public opinion and usual practice of his age.
The official acts of the Council from 1541 to 1559 exhibit a dark chapter of censures, fines, imprisonments, and executions. During the ravages of the pestilence in 1545 more than twenty men and women were burnt alive for witchcraft, and a wicked conspiracy to spread the horrible disease. From 1542 to 1546 fifty-eight judgments of death and seventy-six decrees of banishments were passed. During the years 1558 and 1559 the cases of various punishments for all sorts of offences amounted to four hundred and fourteen — a very large proportion for a population of 20,000.
The enemies of Calvin — Bolsec, Audin, Galiffe (father and son) — make the most of these facts, and, ignoring all the good he has done, condemn the great Reformer as a heartless and cruel tyrant.
It is impossible to deny that this kind of legislation savors more of the austerity of old heathen Rome and the Levitical code than of the gospel of Christ, and that the actual exercise of discipline was often petty, pedantic, and unnecessarily severe. Calvin was, as he himself confessed, not free from impatience, passion, and anger, which were increased by his physical infirmities; but he was influenced by an honest zeal for the purity of the Church, and not by personal malice. When he was threatened by Perrin and the Favre family with a second expulsion, he wrote to Perrin: “Such threats make no impression upon me. I did not return to Geneva to obtain leisure and profit, nor will it be to my sorrow if I should have to leave it again. It was the welfare and safety of the Church and State that induced me to return.” He must be judged by the standard of his own, and not of our, age. The most cruel of those laws — against witchcraft, heresy, and blasphemy — were inherited from the Catholic Middle Ages, and continued in force in all countries of Europe, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, down to the end of the seventeenth century. Tolerance is a modern virtue. We shall return to this subject again in the chapter on Servetus.
108. Calvin’s Struggle with the Patriots and Libertines
Contre la secte phantastique et furieuse des Libertins qui se nomment Spirituelz. Geneva, 1545; 2d ed. 1547. Reprinted in Opera, vol. VII. 145-252. Latin version by Nic. des Gallars, 1546. Farel also wrote a French book against the Libertines, Geneva, 1550.
The works of J. A. Galiffe and J. B. G. Galiffe on the Genevese families and the criminal processes of Perrin, Ameaux, Berthelier, etc., quoted above, p. 224. Hostile to Calvin. Audin, chs. XXXV., XXXVI., and XLIII. Likewise hostile.
F. Trechsel: Libertiner, in the first ed. of Herzog’s Encykl., VIII. 375-380 (omitted in the second ed.), and his Antitrinitarier, I. 177 sqq. — Henry II. 402 sqq. — Hundeshagen in the “Studien und Kritiken,” 1845, pp. 866 sqq. — Dyer, 177, 198, 368, 390 sqq. — Staehelin, I. 382 sqq.; 457 sqq. On the side of Calvin.
Charles Schmidt: Les Libertins spirituels, Bâle, 1876 (pp. xiv. and 251). From a manuscript autograph of one J. F., an adept of the sect, written between 1547 and 1550. An extract in La France Protest. III. 590 sq.
It required a ten years’ conflict till Calvin succeeded in carrying out his system of discipline. The opposition began to manifest itself in 1545, during the raging of the pestilence; it culminated at the trial of Servetus in 1553, and it finally broke down in 1555.
Calvin compares himself in this controversy with David fighting against the Philistines. “If I should describe,” he says in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms (1557), “the course of my struggles by which the Lord has exercised me from this period, it would make a long story, but a brief reference may suffice. It affords me no slight consolation that David preceded me in these conflicts. For as the Philistines and other foreign foes vexed this holy king by continual wars, and as the wickedness and treachery of the faithless of his own house grieved him still more, so was I on all sides assailed, and had scarcely a moment’s rest from outward or inward struggles. But when Satan had made so many efforts to destroy our Church, it came at length to this, that I, unwarlike and timid as I am, found myself compelled to oppose my own body to the murderous assault, and so to ward it off. Five years long had we to struggle without ceasing for the upholding of discipline; for these evil-doers were endowed with too great a degree of power to be easily overcome; and a portion of the people, perverted by their means, wished only for an unbridled freedom. To such worthless men, despisers of the holy law, the ruin of the Church was a matter of utter indifference, could they but obtain the liberty to do whatever they desired. Many were induced by necessity and hunger, some by ambition or by a shameful desire of gain, to attempt a general overthrow, and to risk their own ruin as well as ours, rather than be subject to the laws. Scarcely a single thing, I believe, was left unattempted by them during this long period which we might not suppose to have been prepared in the workshop of Satan. Their wretched designs could only be attended with a shameful disappointment. A melancholy drama was thus presented to me; for much as they deserved all possible punishment, I should have been rejoiced to see them passing their lives in peace and respectability: which might have been the case, had they not wholly rejected every kind of prudent admonition.”
At one time he almost despaired of success. He wrote to Farel, Dec. 14, 1547: “Affairs are in such a state of confusion that I despair of being able longer to retain the Church, at least by my own endeavors. May the Lord hear your incessant prayers in our behalf.” And to Viret he wrote, on Dec. 17, 1547: “Wickedness has now reached such a pitch here that I hardly hope that the Church can be upheld much longer, at least by means of my ministry. Believe me, my power is broken, unless God stretch forth his hand.”
The adversaries of Calvin were, with a few exceptions, the same who had driven him away in 1538. They never cordially consented to his recall. They yielded for a time to the pressure of public opinion and political necessity; but when he carried out the scheme of discipline much more rigorously than they had expected, they showed their old hostility, and took advantage of every censurable act of the Consistory or Council. They hated him worse than the pope. They abhorred the very word “discipline.” They resorted to personal indignities and every device of intimidation; they nicknamed him “Cain,” and gave his name to the dogs of the street; they insulted him on his way to the lecture-room; they fired one night fifty shots before his bed-chamber; they threatened him in the pulpit; they approached the communion table to wrest the sacred elements from his hands, but he refused to profane the sacrament and overawed them. On another occasion he walked into the midst of an excited crowd and offered his breast to their daggers. As late as October 15, 1554, he wrote to an old friend: “Dogs bark at me on all sides. Everywhere I am saluted with the name of ‘heretic,’ and all the calumnies that can possibly be invented are heaped upon me; in a word, the enemies among my own flock attack me with greater bitterness than my declared enemies among the papists.”
And yet in the midst of these troubles be continued to discharge all his duties, and found time to write some of his most important works.
It seems incredible that a man of feeble constitution and physical timidity should have been able to triumph over such determined and ferocious opposition. The explanation is in the justice of his cause, and the moral purity and “majesty of his character, which so strongly impressed the Genevese.
We must distinguish two parties among Calvin’s enemies — the Patriots, who opposed him on political grounds, and the Libertines, who hated his religion. It would be unjust to charge all the Patriots with the irreligious sentiments of the Libertines. But they made common cause for the overthrow of Calvin and his detested system of discipline. They had many followers among the discontented and dissolute rabble which abounds in every large city, and is always ready for a revolution, having nothing to lose and everything to gain.
1. The Patriots or Children of Geneva (Enfants de Genève), as they called themselves, belonged to some of the oldest and most influential families of Geneva, — Favre (or Fabri), Perrin, Vandel, Berthelier, Ameaux. They or their fathers had taken an active part in the achievement of political independence, and even in the introduction of the Reformation, as a means of protecting that independence. But they did not care for the positive doctrines of the Reformation. They wanted liberty without law. They resisted every encroachment on their personal freedom and love of amusements. They hated the evangelical discipline more than the yoke of Savoy.
They also disliked Calvin as a foreigner, who was not even naturalized before 1559. In the pride and prejudice of nativism, they denounced the refugees, who had sacrificed home and fortune to religion, as a set of adventurers, soldiers of fortune, bankrupts, and spies of the Reformer. “These dogs of Frenchmen,” they said, “are the cause that we are slaves, and must bow before Calvin and confess our sins. Let the preachers and their gang go to the — — .” They deprived the refugees of the right to carry arms, and opposed their admission to the rights of citizenship, as there was danger that they might outnumber and outvote the native citizens. Calvin secured, in 1559, through a majority of the Council, at one time, the admission of three hundred of these refugees, mostly Frenchmen.
The Patriots disliked also the protectorate of Bern, although Bern never favored the strict theology and discipline of Calvin.
2. The Libertines or Spirituels, as they called themselves, were far worse than the Patriots. They formed the opposite extreme to the severe discipline of Calvin. He declares that they were the most pernicious of all the sects that appeared since the time of the ancient Gnostics and Manichaeans, and that they answer the prophetic description in the Second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude. He traces their immediate origin to Coppin of Yssel and Quintin of Hennegau, in the Netherlands, and to an ex-priest, Pocquet or Pocques, who spent some time in Geneva, and wanted to get a certificate from Calvin; but Calvin saw through the man and refused it. They revived the antinomian doctrines of the mediaeval sect of the “Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit,” a branch of the Beghards, who had their headquarters at Cologne and the Lower Rhine, and emancipated themselves not only from the Church, but also from the laws of morality.
The Libertines described by Calvin were antinomian pantheists. They confounded the boundaries of truth and error, of right and wrong. Under the pretext of the freedom of the spirit, they advocated the unbridled license of the flesh. Their spiritualism ended in carnal materialism. They taught that there is but one spirit, the Spirit of God, who lives in all creatures, which are nothing without him. “What I or you do,” said Quintin, “is done by God, and what God does, we do; for he is in us.” Sin is a mere negation or privation, yea, an idle illusion which disappears as soon as it is known and disregarded. Salvation consists in the deliverance from the phantom of sin. There is no Satan, and no angels, good or bad. They denied the truth of the gospel history. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ have only a symbolical meaning to show us that sin does not exist for us.
The Libertines taught the community of goods and of women, and elevated spiritual marriage above legal marriage, which is merely carnal and not binding. The wife of Ameaux justified her wild licentiousness by the doctrine of the communion of saints, and by the first commandment of God given to man: “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” (Gen_1:28).
The Libertines rejected the Scriptures as a dead letter, or they resorted to wild allegorical interpretations to suit their fancies. They gave to each of the Apostles a ridiculous nickname. Some carried their system to downright atheism and blasphemous anti-Christianity.
They used a peculiar jargon, like the Gypsies, and distorted common words into a mysterious meaning. They were experts in the art of simulation and justified pious fraud by the parables of Christ. They accommodated themselves to Catholics or Protestants according to circumstances, and concealed their real opinions from the uninitiated.
The sect made progress among the higher classes of France, where they converted about four thousand persons. Quintin and Pocquet insinuated themselves into the favor of Queen Marguerite of Navarre, who protected and supported them at her little court at Nérac, yet without adopting their opinions and practices. She took offence at Calvin’s severe attack upon them. He justified his course in a reply of April 28, 1545, which is a fine specimen of courtesy, frankness, and manly dignity. Calvin assured the queen, whose protection he had himself enjoyed while a fugitive from persecution, that he intended no reflection on her honor, or disrespect to her royal majesty, and that he wrote simply in obedience to his duty as a minister. “Even a dog barks if he sees any one assault his master. How could I be silent if God’s truth is assailed? … As for your saying that you would not like to have such a servant as myself, I confess that I am not qualified to render you any great service, nor have you need of it …. Nevertheless, the disposition is not wanting, and your disdain shall not prevent my being at heart your humble servant. For the rest, those who know me are well aware that I have never studied to enter into the courts of princes, for I was never tempted to court worldly honors. For I have good reason to be contented with the service of that good Master, who has accepted me and retained me in the honorable office which I hold, however contemptible in the eyes of the world. I should, indeed, be ungrateful beyond measure if I did not prefer this condition to all the riches and honors of the world.”
Beza says: “It was owing to Calvin that this horrid sect, in which all the most monstrous heresies of ancient times were renewed, was kept within the confines of Holland and the adjacent provinces.”
During the trial of Servetus the political and religious Libertines combined in an organized effort for the overthrow of Calvin at Geneva, but were finally defeated by a failure of an attempted rebellion in May, 1555.