Calvin shocked me by rejecting key elements of my Evangelical tradition. Born-again spirituality, private interpretation of Scripture, a broad-minded approach to denominations – Calvin opposed them all. I discovered that his concerns were vastly different, more institutional, even more Catholic. Although he rejected the authority of Rome, there were things about the Catholic faith he never thought about leaving. He took for granted that the Church should have an interpretive authority, a sacramental liturgy and a single, unified faith.
These discoveries faced me with important questions. Why should Calvin treat these “Catholic things” with such seriousness? Was he right in thinking them so important? And if so, was he justified in leaving the Catholic Church? What did these discoveries teach me about Protestantism? How could my Church claim Calvin as a founder, and yet stray so far from his views? Was the whole Protestant way of doing theology doomed to confusion and inconsistency?
Understanding the Calvinist Reformation
Calvin was a second-generation Reformer, twenty-six years younger than Martin Luther (1483-1546). This meant that by the time he encountered the Reformation, it had already split into factions. In Calvin’s native France, there was no royal support for Protestantism and no unified leadership. Lawyers, humanists, intellectuals, artisans and craftsman read Luther’s writings, as well as the Scriptures, and adapted whatever they liked.
This variety struck Calvin as a recipe for disaster. He was a lawyer by training, and always hated any kind of social disorder. In 1549, he wrote a short work (Advertissement contre l’astrologie) in which he complained about this Protestant diversity:
Every state [of life] has its own Gospel, which they forge for themselves according to their appetites, so that there is as great a diversity between the Gospel of the court, and the Gospel of the justices and lawyers, and the Gospel of merchants, as there is between coins of different denominations.
I began to grasp the difference between Calvin and his descendants when I discovered his hatred of this theological diversity. Calvin was drawn to Luther’s theology, but he complained about the “crass multitude” and the “vulgar plebs” who turned Luther’s doctrine into an excuse for disorder. He wrote his first major work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), in part to address this problem.
Calvin got an opportunity to put his plans into action when he moved to Geneva, Switzerland. He first joined the Reformation in Geneva in 1537, when the city had only recently embraced Protestantism. Calvin, who had already begun to write and publish on theology, was unsatisfied with their work. Geneva had abolished the Mass, kicked out the Catholic clergy, and professed loyalty to the Bible, but Calvin wanted to go further. His first request to the city council was to impose a common confession of faith (written by Calvin) and to force all citizens to affirm it.
Calvin’s most important contribution to Geneva was the establishment of the Consistory – a sort of ecclesiastical court- to judge the moral and theological purity of his parishioners. He also persuaded the council to enforce a set of “Ecclesiastical Ordinances” that defined the authority of the Church, stated the religious obligations of the laity, and imposed an official liturgy. Church attendance was mandatory. Contradicting the ministers was outlawed as blasphemy. Calvin’s Institutes would eventually be declared official doctrine.
Calvin’s lifelong goal was to gain the right to excommunicate “unworthy” Church members. The city council finally granted this power in 1555 when French immigration and local scandal tipped the electorate in his favor. Calvin wielded it frequently. According to historian William Monter, one in fifteen citizens was summoned before the Consistory between 1559 and 1569, and up to one in twenty five was actually excommunicated.1 Calvin used this power to enforce his single vision of Christianity and to punish dissent.
A Calvinist Discovers John Calvin
I studied Calvin for years before the real significance of what I was learning began to sink in. But I finally realized that Calvin, with his passion for order and authority, was fundamentally at odds with the individualist spirit of my Evangelical tradition. Nothing brought this home to me with more clarity than his fight with the former Carmelite monk, Jerome Bolsec.
In 1551, Bolsec, a physician and convert to Protestantism, entered Geneva and attended a lecture on theology. The topic was Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the teaching that God predetermines the eternal fate of every soul. Bolsec, who believed firmly in “Scripture alone” and “faith alone,” did not like what he heard. He thought it made God into a tyrant. When he stood up to challenge Calvin’s views, he was arrested and imprisoned.
What makes Bolsec’s case interesting is that it quickly evolved into a referendum on Church authority and the interpretation of Scripture. Bolsec, just like most Evangelicals today, argued that he was a Christian, that he had the Holy Spirit and that, therefore, he had as much right as Calvin to interpret the Bible. He promised to recant if Calvin would only prove his doctrine from the Scriptures. But Calvin would have none of it. He ridiculed Bolsec as a trouble maker (Bolsec generated a fair amount of public sympathy), rejected his appeal to Scripture, and called on the council to be harsh. He wrote privately to a friend that he wished Bolsec were “rotting in a ditch.”2
What most Evangelicals today don’t realize is that Calvin never endorsed private or lay interpretation of the Bible. While he rejected Rome’s claim to authority, he made striking claims for his own authority. He taught that the “Reformed” pastors were successors to the prophets and apostles, entrusted with the task of authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. He insisted that laypeople should suspend judgment on difficult matters and “hold unity with the Church.”3
Calvin took very seriously the obligation of the laity to submit and obey. “Contradicting the ministers” was one of the most common reasons to be called before the Consistory and penalties could be severe. One image in particular sticks in my mind. April, 1546. Pierre Ameaux, a citizen of Geneva, was forced to crawl to the door of the Bishop’s residence, with his head uncovered and a torch in his hand. He begged the forgiveness of God, of the ministers and of the city council. His crime? He contradicted the preaching of Calvin. The council, at Calvin’s urging, had decreed Ameaux’s public humiliation as punishment.
Ameaux was not alone. Throughout the 1540s and 1550s, Geneva’s city council repeatedly outlawed speaking against the ministers or their theology. Furthermore, when Calvin gained the right to excommunicate, he did not hesitate to use it against this “blasphemy.” Evangelicals today, unaccustomed to the use of excommunication, may underestimate the severity of the penalty, but Calvin understood it in the most severe terms. He repeatedly taught that the excommunicated were “estranged from the Church, and thus, from Christ.”4