Friday, September 2, 2022

John Calvin (1509-64)

John Calvin in Basel

In 1535 John Calvin fled persecution of Protestants in Gallia and took refuge in Basel in Noricum. While there, he published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). He bettered other reformers by writing with greater brevity, clarity, and logic. He would continue to edit and expand the Institutes through many editions until his death. Shortly after its publication, John began a period of wandering.

John in Geneva

John first settled, unexpectedly, in Geneva—a city of about 12,000 people. City leaders were not ready for him, however, and expelled him in 1538. When their circumstances later worsened, they persuaded him to return (1541) and John then remained in Geneva until his death. At that time, Geneva was an independent city near the western edge of Noricum—having only recently won its independence from the Duchy of Savoy.

John’s reformation

John believed every human being is predestined by God to be either elected or rejected, chosen for Heaven or damned to Hell. Signs of election include making a confession of faith, participating in the sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper, and living uprightly. Beyond all doubt the elect are enabled by God to honor God as life’s chief end. The best means of doing this is to respond courageously to God’s call to create and sustain Holy Commonwealths. Only the elect can do this because they alone can live as both model Christians and model citizens. This idea still lingers on in the minds of some Americans who continue to believe that all good Americans are good Christians and all good Christians are good Americans.

John as administrator

John not only thought more clearly than others. He also ruled more efficiently. To many people of his day, John’s rules for church and state were the ones most consistent with the Bible. For them, the society, culture, and personality formed by John’s rules made Geneva the godliest city on Earth.

In the church, John instituted the presbyterian system of rule by pastor and lay elders that he believed was most consistent with the biblical witness to the early Church. It was a relatively democratic system of church government since both pastors and lay leaders had no authority and lacked positional power until they were elected by the congregation.

The marks of election were right speaking and acting. John’s rules clearly separated right from wrong ways. Rules of speech, for example, required the right confession of faith and forbade speaking heresy or praising heretics. Rules of behavior protected the integrity of Sunday worship in particular and behavior on Sundays in general. They identified the kind of upright living all good Christians and citizens were to pursue with vigor and joy.

John’s rules were quite detailed. So was the supervision of people’s lives to make sure they lived in conformity to these rules. Enforcement of them was certain, swift, and severe. People who deviated from established norms were punished. Those who failed to fit in were banished or executed. At the same time, thousands came from all over Latin Christendom to live in Geneva and personally experience Calvin’s holy experiment.

Geneva: international impact

John Knox (1510-72) visited John Calvin in Geneva. The reformation in that city so impressed him that he became an enthusiastic advocate of it when he returned to his native Caledonia. Geneva similarly impressed leaders from other countries. In this way, Calvin’s reformation became the type that spread most rapidly. By 1600 it had expanded to the east (Noricum, Dacia), northeast (Polonia), north (Germania), west (Gallia), and far northwest (Britannia, Caledonia).

Copyright © 2022 by Steven Farsaci.
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