Calvin and Geneva

As part of my mad dash through Europe – or parts of it – let me focus briefly on the Swiss city of Geneva. It is of course a famous city of the Reformation period, and today noted as an international diplomatic city, with the UN, the Red Cross, and other global groups based there.

The reason I wish to speak to it here is because I was just there, again. While having a quick bite to eat there last night was quite enjoyable, the highlight of the evening was a return visit to a famous sight – at least for theology and church history fans.

CalvinOne hundred years ago (1909-17) the Reformation Wall was erected in Geneva. And thirty-two years ago I saw it while on my honeymoon. And just last night I was able to see it again – along with my wife and some other friends. At the centre of this large display are 15-foot statues of four key Reformers: Theodore Beza (1519-1605), John Calvin (1509-1564), William Farel (1489-1565), and John Knox (c.1513-1572). A number of other figures flank the main group of four, including Oliver Cromwell and Roger Williams.

But let me speak just a bit more about Geneva, and its most famous figure, John Calvin. Calvin was born in France, and trained as a lawyer, but he had a “sudden conversion” in 1533. His interest in the Bible and theology led to a break with Catholicism, and he was forced to flee to Basel, Switzerland in 1536, the same year when the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion was published.

Farel, a reformer in Geneva, pressed Calvin to come and help in the Genevan reform. So Calvin very reluctantly came. But the city council was resistant to the implementation of their ideas, so both men were expelled in 1538. Three years later they were invited to return.

Calvin’s main work was pastoral and theological, but his influence in the city was of course significant. But because of his social activities, Geneva became a changed city, and it attracted Protestant exiles from all around Europe. The Scottish reformer John Knox, described Geneva as “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles.”

In terms of theology, Calvin is of course known for his emphasis on God’s sovereignty and on such biblical doctrines as predestination and election. But his theology entailed far more than just those key themes. And he was not the cold, grey figure he is often made out to be.

This is the man who could write, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no colour in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” And he had a high view of the arts as well. While he opposed much art in church worship, in general he fully supported art and music. As he once wrote: “All the arts come from God and are to be respected as divine inventions.”


It is perhaps foolish to even raise this here, but since the many critics of Calvin will forever raise the issue of Servetus, let me speak to it ever so briefly here. Michael Servetus was of course the Spanish physician and Protestant theologian who strongly rejected such basic biblical doctrines as the Trinity, and was eventually executed in Geneva as a result.

Plenty of ink has already been spilled on this episode, but perhaps I can just offer one small defence, as expressed by noted theologian, James Packer. In an essay entitled “John Calvin and Reformed Europe,” he writes this in defence of the sad episode:

The anti-Trinitarian campaigner Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553, and this is often seen as a blot on Calvin’s reputation. But weigh these facts:
The belief that denial of the Trinity and/or Incarnation should be viewed as a capital crime in a Christian state was part of Calvin’s and Geneva’s medieval inheritance; Calvin did not invent it.
Anti-Trinitarian heretics were burned in other places beside Geneva in Calvin’s time, and indeed later–two in England, for instance, as late as 1612.
The Roman Inquisition had already set a price on Servetus’ head.
The decision to burn Servetus as a heretic was taken not only by Calvin personally but by Geneva’s Little Council of twenty-five, acting on unanimous advice from the pastors of several neighboring Reformed churches whom they had consulted.
Calvin, whose role in Servetus’ trial had been that of expert witness managing the prosecution, wanted Servetus not to die but to recant, and spent hours with him during and after the trial seeking to change his views.
When Servetus was sentenced to be burned alive, Calvin asked for beheading as a less painful alternative, but his request was denied.
The chief Reformers outside Geneva, including Bucer and the gentle Melanchthon, fully approved the execution.
The burning should thus be seen as the fault of a culture and an age rather than of one particular child of that culture and age. Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode. As regards the rights and wrongs of what was done, the root question concerns the propriety of political paternalism in Christianity (that is, whether the Christian state, as distinct from the Christian church, should outlaw heresy or tolerate it), and it was Calvin’s insistence that God alone is Lord of the conscience that was to begin displacing the medieval by the modern mind-set on this question soon after Servetus’ death.

I did not mean for this piece to get diverted into this particular controversy, but since it was sure to be raised, well, I had to at least speak to it briefly. Not only was Calvin a product of his age, but like every Christian leader, he was not without fault.

But the legacy of Calvin lives on, and he has contributed much to the church at large, not only back then in Geneva but throughout so much of the world today. Countless individuals have been influenced by him. The work of Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper is just one example of many:

But let me leave you with just a few short quotes from Calvin in conclusion:

“There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.”

“Let us not cease to do the utmost, that we may incessantly go forward in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair of the smallness of our accomplishments.”

“We should ask God to increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown.”

“The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.”

“All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits, committed to our trust on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors.”

“There is no work, however vile or sordid, that does not glisten before God.”

“Seeing that a Pilot steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.”

“A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.”

“The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both.”

[1302 words]

18 Replies to “Calvin and Geneva”

  1. Bill…thank you so much for this. Your timing is impeccable! It’s my husband’s birthday today…he loves reading Calvin, but has often been troubled by Calvin’s implication in Servetus’s death. I plan to forward this to him. It was a great defense for a great man of God. I was also encouraged by his quotes. And I am a great fan of Abraham Kuyper, so you really have done well in my estimation. You must “mad dash” more often! Godspeed! Bonnie

  2. I’m afraid that the words and theology of Calvin , in my opinion, in recent times, have lead to a great undermining of the Gospel.
    I seem unable to find a church that does not use their ‘Calvinist’ beliefs regarding predestination and ‘once saved always saved’, as a reason to be apathetic and completely lazy in their faith.
    Unlike Calvinists, I do not subscribe to the ‘once saved always saved’ theology, or his ideas about predestination,( which, if taken to their logical conclusion is that God has no regard for us as individuals but rather we are all players in a random game of roulette, and we are simply lucky if we happen to be the ‘chosen’ and unlucky if not, and there is nothing we can do to change from being in one camp to the other) and I cant see how anyone who reads Scripture possibly can.

    Sadly, whenever I hear anything from Calvin these days I cringe and wonder how the churches will again use it to sit on their laurels.

  3. I loved Geneva when I saw it for the first time in December. I was only there for one full day and spent most of it at Reformation Wall and at St Peters Cathedral where Calvin preached. Unfortunately the tower was closed that day, so I couldn’t climb to the top. Dusted off some Calvin on my bookshelves when I arrived home.

  4. Thanks Annette. Of course Calvinists will argue that you misunderstand and misrepresent both the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and the doctrine of predestination. Moreover, churches of all theological stripes can and do contain lazy and apathetic Christians. However, this is not the place for a major theological debate! But thanks for sharing.

  5. Annette, it may be worth reading Calvin rather than just looking at the folly of those who would profess to be Calvinist but in reality be hyper-Calvinist.
    As to your accusation about ‘once saved always saved’ it really isn’t necessary to create a straw man to shoot down. Nothing in Calvin’s theology pertained to the luckiness of man.
    As to Calvin’s writings, outside of Scripture I can think of no author more impacting on my faith than he, both directly and indirectly. His sheer humility and desire to glorify God permeate all his writings.
    I am deeply heartened by the Reformed Revival that is occurring in Christianity. Rather than laziness I see a hunger for expositional preaching, for sound doctrine and for continuous evangelising.

  6. Hi Bill,

    Although I wasn’t there, it is perhaps misleading to say that Calvin “…wanted Servetus not to die but to recant”.

    Here is what Calvin wrote to Farel about Servetus (as quoted in Walker W, “John Calvin”, 1969 p. 333):

    “He [Servetus] would like to come here if it is agreeable to me. But I do not wish to pledge my word for his safety. For, if he comes, I will never let him depart alive, if I have any authority.”

    Nick Davies

  7. I would add that Calvin’s contribution to Christian theology, piety and practice is nothing short of remarkable. In addition to his written output he preached relentlessly (pastors please take note) many times a week; while suffering many ongoing physical infirmities at the same time.
    Five years ago the Reformed churches celebrated the 500th sesquicentenary of Calvin’s birth (the Calvinpalooza!) and some excellent Calvin biographies and studies were published at that time. One of these which I recommend is; ‘John Calvin Pilgrim And Pastor’ by W. Robert Godfrey.

  8. Thanks Nick. As I say, it is not my intention here to enter into a big theological debate about Calvinism. Nor is it my intention here to enter into a big debate about Servetus. What Packer said above is quite helpful. Let me supplement it with what James Ploughman said, and leave it at that:

    • Calvin was not the judge in Servetus’ heresy trial, but simply a theological witness to Servetus’ writings and claims. Calvin’s authority within the trial was minimal. His poor health actually prohibited him from having much involvement even as a witness.
    • Calvin had little or no authority (probably none) in the actual sentence of death of Servetus by the city of Geneva. The sentence of Servetus was in 1553. Calvin was not even allowed to become a citizen of Geneva until 1559 – five years before his death. The actual person responsible for much the accusations and sentencing was Nicholas de la Fontaine.
    • Many do not mention the fact that Calvin spent many nights in prison with Servetus reasoning with him about the Scripture and pleading with him to repent.
    • Everyone wanted Servetus dead. The reason he was in Geneva was because he was on the run, and since he knew the Genevians were not sympathetic to Calvin, he thought he would find sanctuary there. Catholics and Protestants alike across Europe were eager to burn Servetus as a heretic. When Geneva had Servetus in custody, nobody in Europe was pleading for his innocence. Even if Calvin pleaded to release or not sentence Servetus to death, he would have been an anomaly. There simply were no categories of doing anything different with Servetus at that time than what was done. You cannot take Servetus, Geneva, Europe, or Calvin out of their times.
    • While Calvin agreed with the sentence of death after Servetus refused to repent, he disagreed with the sentence of being burned as a heretic. He pleaded that he should be be-headed quickly. Yet, again, Calvin’s authority was minimal.

  9. Surely Annette had a point. Calvin-style predestination is hardly compatible with belief in a just and merciful God, as per the Christian gospel.
    Calvin wrote that “All things being at God’s disposal, and the decision of salvation or death belonging to him, he orders all things by his counsel and decree in such a manner that some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death that his name may be glorified in their destruction.”
    Didn’t he?
    Perhaps Annette’s remarks about “laziness” and being “lucky” are arguably over-statements.
    But her main point about predestination should not be brushed aside.

  10. I agree that John Calvin was a major part of the very needful Protestant Reformation and he wrote some very true and beautiful things as you quote, and of which I am thankful for, but he also was not without fault as you state.

    Fault which we must learn from and shun in order to not fall into such a trap ourselves.

    I do not agree that he was innocent in the death of Servetus, there are quotes from Calvin which speak otherwise and point strongly to the very real possibility of murderous rage within the heart of the man, although only God can say whether this is so. I think this is worth noting here for a bit of balance.

    I agree with Annette W, he helped to bring a reformation but created another monster in the process.

    His views of Soteriology, although influenced in this regard himself, however the many hyper, moderate, or relaxed Saints given to the Tulip theory spin it, is clear in its dogma as to what it is suggesting the Scriptures teach. It is a leaven however that extends to much more doctrine causing all sorts of issues within the Body of Christ.

    I don’t agree with Calvin’s Soteriology doctrines however I do have brethren whom I acknowledge and love in the Lord who do hold to such, thank God we can debate in the Christian spirit without feeling or attempting to put each other to death.

    I thank God for Calvin for many things, but at the same time sigh with the mess I in part am left to clean up.

    I think it is important to remember the man for the good he did, but also remember him for the bad he left, and make sure its all taken to the light of Scripture in order to clear up rights and wrongs. I know that’s how I want to be remembered if at all.

    Otherwise it would be a great privilege to visit and see the things you are seeing Bill, enjoy!

  11. Thanks guys. As I have said many times here, it was not my intention to start WWIII over Calvinism. But my pleas are not always heeded I guess! But one quick word if I may: those who dislike the doctrines of election and predestination of course do not have Calvin to argue with, but the living God who throughout Scripture has promoted these important doctrines.

  12. Oh now you’ve gone and done it Bill.
    FYI, I agree with your above comment entirely.

  13. Not my intention to start WWIII Bill, as said previously, your article seemed to very much praise and defend Calvin but bring in no balance on him, seeing it was a type of biography on the man, I thought I would balance it up a touch, and yes, give the man some praise as well.

    I haven’t seen you claim belief in the doctrines of Calvin in his TULIP theory before which is interesting, its good at least to know where you stand now.

    Hope I didn’t offend, blessings

  14. Ok thankyou Bill, one last word if I may be indulged, in regards to your comment above:

    “those who dislike the doctrines of election and predestination of course do not have Calvin to argue with, but the living God who throughout Scripture has promoted these important doctrines.”

    Can you point me to any previously written articles you may have posted explaining your views on the topics of ‘election’ and ‘predestination’ or post some up in the future, id like to take a look at your exegesis of scripture, just so I don’t have to ‘answer to God’ in case im missing anything.

    cheers again!

  15. Thanks Dorian. If and when I devote entire articles to this, then we can have a big debate. In the meantime, the best thing I can suggest is that you get a concordance and look up all the biblical references to election, predestination and the like. That should keep you busy for quite some time!

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