An outline of the life of John Calvin #2 Geneva and further exile
In Geneva was a Christian man named Guillaume Farel (anglicised, William Farel). He heard of the brilliant young scholar’s arrival in the city and sought him out. The fiery Farel was a powerful advocate for the gospel cause, and he set out to persuade Calvin to give his gifts and energies to that cause in Geneva. Calvin, by no means weak-willed himself, insisted that his heart was set on private study. Merle d’Aubigné, the great historian of the Reformation, records Calvin’s view of the altercation:
Finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.
The Elijah-like Farel had gained his end: Calvin felt that God himself had reached out and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. By September 1536, all necessary business addressed, Calvin took up residence in Geneva as a “Reader in Holy Scripture.” He received no pay until the following February, and was generally referred to in official papers as ille Gallus – “that Frenchman.” It was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
Nevertheless, Calvin quickly rose to prominence. One delightful story that illustrates his ability relates to a famous disputation that occurred in Lausanne. A debate was convened between the champions of the Protestant and Roman causes to help the citizens determine in which direction the city would move. The debate focused on ten theses proposed by Peter Viret, a Protestant. For the first three days (they did nothing by halves!) Calvin said nothing, but sat in silence, much to Farel’s frustration. On the fourth day, a Roman Catholic priest gave a lengthy speech on the third thesis concerning the bodily presence of Christ at the Mass, in which he sought to array the Church Fathers against the Reformers. Calvin, unprepared and without notes, suddenly rose to his feet. He swept – from memory – through various of the Fathers’ writings, quoting and summarising in support of the Protestant position, and then – with this great weight of evidence built up – thrust a charge of gross audacity at the Roman Catholic delegates for daring to accuse the Protestants of contrariness to the ancient doctors of divinity. There was absolute silence. Then a Franciscan friar stood, and on the spot denounced his own errors, renounced his monastic vows, and pronounced himself determined to follow Christ and his pure doctrine. Lausanne voted for Protestantism, and even the priest who had made the initial speech to which Calvin responded soon turned – in company with many others – to Protestantism.
I will not attempt to explain the complex political structures of Geneva during Calvin’s time, except to say that there was the powerful Little Council of twenty five men, a larger Council of the Two Hundred, and between them a somewhat pointless group called the Council of the Sixty. It was the Little Council who essentially wielded the sword of government in Geneva. Calvin’s relationship with these bodies was generally ambivalent, and often openly hostile.
Calvin and Farel sought to bring the whole city into conformity to Scripture; their commitment brought them into conflict with the civil authorities both politically and personally. Among other things, Calvin and his fellow-workers attempted to fence the Lord’s table by withholding the elements from those living in open sin. This was not acceptable to the Councils, and in April 1538 – without a hearing – the Reformers were simply banished from the city at short notice.
Calvin made his way to Strasbourg, in Germany, where he found a friend and mentor in Martin Bucer. He spent three years in that city, preaching, pastoring, writing, teaching, and learning. He also found “a good thing” – in 1540, at the age of 31, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow in his congregation. Though their married life was in many respects a great joy, it was tempered with profound griefs: Idelette miscarried once, lost a daughter at birth, and delivered a son who died after only two weeks. Idelette herself died on 29 March, 1549, at the age of 40, and Calvin never remarried. Letters written to friends after her death give the lie to those who accuse Calvin of inhumanity. To Farel:
I am trying as much as possible not to be completely overwhelmed by grief. . . . Besides, my friends surround me and do not fail to bring some comfort to my soul’s sadness. . . . I consume my grief in such a way that I have not interrupted my work. . . . May the Lord Jesus strengthen your spirit and mine in this great sadness, which would have broken me had he not extended his hand from on high; he whose service includes the relief of the broken, the strengthening of the weak, the renewal of those who are tired.
Though the death of my wife has been a very cruel thing for me, I try as much as possible to moderate my grief. And my friends fulfil their duty in a fine way. But I confess that for them and for me, the results are less than might be hoped for. However, the few results that I obtain help very little. Actually, you know the tenderness or rather the softness of my soul. . . . Of course, the reason for my sorrow is not an ordinary one. I am deprived of my excellent life companion, who, if misfortune had come, would have been my willing companion not only in exile and sorrow, but even in death.
As yet, in Strasbourg, many of these sorrows lay ahead. But he was not in Strasbourg for long. By 1540, the Genevan situation was awful: there seems to have been a widespread collapse of public morals and civil order. In desperation, the authorities turned to the man whom they had banished. Calvin faced the prospect of a return with great distress, writing to Farel that he would rather endure “a hundred deaths than that cross.” Farel’s response, it seems, was on a par with his first successful attempt to tie Calvin to Geneva, and the reluctant Reformer re-entered the city on 13 September, 1541, never again to relocate. When Calvin climbed back into the pulpit at the cathedral of St Pierre, he resumed his ministry at the precise point at which he had paused three years before, taking up the next verse of his systematic exposition of Scripture.