It can be challenging for us to think about life in the medieval church. We live in 21st-century America. We’re pretty far removed from the European church five hundred years ago. In Luther and Calvin’s day, freedom of religion was a foreign concept. There was hardly any distinction between church and state. In France, where Calvin was born, citizens were legally obligated to be Catholic. It’s been said that France had two rules. First, you must be Catholic. Second, you must never leave France.
Since we are so far removed from that time and place, it would be helpful to discuss the historical context of the medieval church. What was the culture regarding church and state, and why?
Heresy in the Medieval church
As we’ve seen in the stories of Martin Luther and William Tyndale, the church had a zero-tolerance policy regarding what it deemed to be heresy, and the state typically enforced the church’s policy. As freedom-loving, 21st-century Americans, we may find this unsettling, especially since Protestants suffered most of the persecution. But we need to understand their motivations better because the Catholic Church was not the only persecutor.
This goes back to something I’ve said before. History isn’t always black or white. The good guys were not always good guys. Sometimes they had glaring blind spots. This was true for Luther, and as we’ll discover today, it was true for John Calvin.
In the medieval church, heresy wasn’t something to be taken lightly. Read Jude’s epistle in the New Testament. The Lord’s brother tells us to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). He then proceeds to warn us about ungodly heretics who creep into the church, spread their false doctrines, and earn for themselves condemnation (Jude 4). With these kinds of warnings in Scripture, you can understand why the Catholic Church would take the measures it did to stop heresy as quickly as possible.
The apostle Paul talks about sin spreading through the church in 1 Corinthians 5. He says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven” (1Co 5:6, 7). Similarly, the medieval church viewed heresy as a virus. It would spiritually kill more and more people as it continued to spread through the population, so the church believed it must do everything possible to stop it. We personally lived through a pandemic, so we know a little something about this. How many times did we hear “stop the spread”? The measures may seem extreme, but it’s worth it to prevent more deaths, or spiritual deaths as the case may be.
The medieval church may have taken the wrong measures to stop heresy from spreading, and it may have distorted the definitions of truth and heresy, but in the minds of church leaders, they were contending for the faith.
There’s another element of the times we need to consider, and that is the power struggle that existed during the Reformation. Again, there wasn’t a clear separation of church and state. The predominant religion essentially became the state which is how church authorities could punish and execute heretics. Obviously, the Catholic Church believed it was the true church, so the heretical Protestant movement was not only a spiritual threat, but it also threatened the very existence of the true church. If the Reformation gained too much traction, Protestants would gain political and even military power, and the Catholic Church could be on the losing end of persecution.
Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” but his promise hasn’t prevented people throughout history from fearing the church could be destroyed by its enemies (Mt 16:18). Again, it wasn’t merely a culture war or a battle for society’s soul. It wasn’t a situation where people thought, You go your way, and I’ll go mine. We’ll agree to disagree. No, it was an often violent political struggle because everyone knew the losers would be conquered and potentially annihilated.
In short, a religious group was guaranteed religious freedom only if they wielded the powers of government. That was the reality of the Western world before, during, and even after the Reformation, which helps us to understand not only the Catholics’ persecution of Protestants but also the Protestants’ persecution of others.
Once again, the good guys were not always good guys. Once the Reformation started, the question every Reformer had to answer was, how much reformation is enough? On which hills should we die? Beyond the authority of Scripture, the gospel, and justification by faith, should we extend the dividing lines to other issues? What about the Lord’s Supper? What about baptism?
Since there are so many Protestant denominations today, you will not be surprised to learn that the Reformers didn’t agree on how to answer these questions. The Lutherans took one path. The followers of Zwingli, another prominent Reformer, disagreed with the Lutherans on certain issues and took a slightly different path. Then, the Anabaptists come into the picture. Before long, tensions arose among several church factions, and they were all competing for prominence. This was certainly true in Switzerland where Calvin would come to serve the church as pastor.
Switzerland and Geneva
Switzerland was unique because it didn’t have a unified, central government. Instead, it was a confederation of thirteen self-governed regions without a unifying language or overarching legal code. Each region was independent. It was like the United States without a federal government. And while the Confederation had a loose relationship with the Holy Roman Empire, each region also maintained its sovereignty.
Starting in 1525, the Swiss Confederation began rejecting Roman Catholic authority. Zürich was the first region to turn Protestant. After Zürich, the dominos began to fall one after another as other regions officially joined the Reformation.
The city of Geneva, where Calvin would serve as pastor, was especially unique because it, too, was independent, though it was only a city. It was not a member of the Swiss Confederation and would not become one until 1815. I believe it maintained its autonomy through alliances it made with some of the other members of the Confederation. Like the various regions in Switzerland and other places in the world, it faced the religious power struggle I described.
The Reformation arrived in Geneva approximately two months before John Calvin, but we’ll return to Geneva in a moment. For now, let me briefly tell you about young John Calvin.
John Calvin’s early life
Calvin was born in France in 1509 about sixty miles from Paris. His father was an attorney who wanted his son to become an attorney as well. Originally, it seems Calvin’s father pushed him toward a career in the church, but that quickly changed when his father was excommunicated by the church. We don’t really know the details except that it had nothing to do with the Reformation. Some have speculated that he misappropriated church funds, but we don’t know. Regardless, Calvin’s father then put him on a path to study law.
At fourteen, Calvin began his general studies at the University of Paris. He graduated in 1528, the same year his father was excommunicated. That’s when Calvin began pursuing a law degree, but even that plan was interrupted. When his father died in 1531, he decided he would rather become a literary scholar. Perhaps you are noticing some parallels between Calvin’s story and Luther’s. Both of their fathers pushed them to study law, but both of them really wanted to do something else. Luther wanted to become a monk. Calvin wanted to be a scholar.
Within the next two years, Calvin published his first book. It was a literary critique of Seneca’s work On Mercy. In case you don’t know the name Seneca, he was a philosopher who tried really hard to teach morality to Emperor Nero. And in case you don’t remember the name Nero, he severely persecuted Christians during the first century and likely approved, if not ordered the executions of Peter and Paul.
Calvin’s first book is worth mentioning because it is a fantastic display of his intelligence and vast knowledge. He cites an incredible number of ancient writings which was no small feat. It’s not as though he had access to Google or even Amazon. He also shows remarkable insight into philosophy, language, and ethics. Though the book was far from a commercial success, it was an impressive feat nonetheless.
Calvin’s conversion to Christ
At some point between 1533 and 1535, Calvin is—I’ll use his word—suddenly converted to Christ. He never writes a detailed description of his conversion, so we can’t be sure of the circumstances. He later dedicates his commentary on 2 Corinthians to one of his former professors who happened to be a secret Lutheran. Perhaps he was instrumental in leading Calvin to Christ. Calvin also develops a friendship with another French Reformer. We know they were together in France during this time, but we don’t know whether he helped push Calvin in the right direction. Regardless, in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin indicates his conversion was unexpected.
You may remember that Calvin didn’t like to talk about himself. He wrote a lot. He wrote fifty volumes of Bible commentary. He wrote who knows how many sermons. He wrote several volumes of personal and pastoral letters. But he didn’t talk about himself that much. For from God and through him and to him are all things. To God be glory forever, not John Calvin (Ro 11:36). Even so, Calvin’s preface to the Psalms is as close as we come to reading an autobiography from him.
Here’s what he says:
What happened first was that by a sudden conversion, God tamed and made teachable a mind too stubborn for its years. For I was obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy and nothing less could draw me out of so deep a quagmire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire.
You would probably enjoy reading Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms. Evidently, the sufferings of David really resonated with him. Maybe he somehow felt a kinship with David, so he opens up about himself a bit more in that commentary than he does in his other writings. Like Luther, the Psalms held a special place in his heart. Interestingly enough, Calvin never preached from the Old Testament on Sunday. He always preached from the New Testament on Sunday, but he made a special exception for Psalms. Occasionally, he would preach from the Psalms on Sunday afternoons.
Calvin’s path to Geneva
It didn’t take long for Calvin to realize that France was not a friendly place for Protestants, so he packed his bags and headed toward Strasbourg, Switzerland in 1536. He knew that Strasbourg was firmly in the Protestant camp by this time, so it would be the perfect place for a young, aspiring theologian to lead a quiet life in study, meditation, and writing. Once again, we find parallels in Calvin’s story to those of other church figures. You may remember that Augustine sought the quiet life, but as he said, “I was grabbed. I was made a priest.” The quiet life was not to be for Augustine or Calvin.
Last time, I mentioned that Calvin was a theologian who wanted nothing more than to become a pastor, but he didn’t begin that way. He began as a theologian. He wanted to study Scripture and write about it. Before arriving in Strasbourg, he stayed with a friend for a while, and that is where he wrote his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It only had six chapters, but it quickly gained him notoriety. He soon had a reputation as a gifted theologian. And young Calvin assumed he could best serve the cause of Christ by writing books. Strasbourg would be the perfect place for a Protestant theologian to get some work done.
In Acts 16, we read about Paul trying to make his way to Asia Minor, but the Holy Spirit stops him (Ac 16:6). Then, he attempts to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow it (Ac 16:7). Finally, Paul learns that God wants him to preach the gospel into Macedonia (Ac 16:10). Calvin had a similar experience.
As Calvin was making his way to Strasbourg, a small war between Germany and France forced him to take a detour through Geneva. He assumed he would stay for one night and continue his journey the following morning. Instead, Guillaume Farel, the pastor in Geneva, heard that the author of the Institutes was in town. Farel was the man responsible for reforming Geneva, but he recognized his own limits. He could preach. He was able to persuade people effectively. But what Geneva really needed was a systematic thinker like Calvin to organize things.
Farel found Calvin and said, “You need to stay.”
Calvin replied, “No thanks. I’m just passing through. I’m a theologian and a writer. I’m not a pastor. I’m not an organizer. I’m not the man for the job. You’ll have to find someone else.”
With that, Farel responded, “If you don’t stay, God will certainly curse you. You will have no peace. Your life in Strasbourg as a writer will be miserable.”
And with that, Calvin said, “You’ve convinced me. I’ll stay.” These are not exact quotes, by the way.
In short, Calvin felt as though God were speaking through Farel at that moment, and he couldn’t bring himself to walk away. More than a few pastors have shared that experience. They feel God leading them one way, yet God finds uses various means to get their attention and redirect their paths.
The politics in Geneva
Calvin did not have an easy time in Geneva. Remember that the city had undergone significant changes not long before. The Reformation had taken hold only two months prior, meaning the Geneva government had undergone big changes. In other words, the changes were more than cultural or even religious. Even so, the religious and cultural dimensions were certainly factors. Not every citizen wanted to become Protestant, but as I mentioned before, they didn’t have much of a choice. Geneva was now a Protestant town whether some people liked it or not.
The challenge for Calvin was that a government council made the rules. The council dictated Geneva’s religion in many respects, yet he and Farel were supposed to be its church leaders. What is a pastor to do in a situation like that? He’s supposed to shepherd a divided flock, lead the people in biblical truth, and find a way to bring the civil authorities along with you, though you don’t have any authority over them.
Calvin did the best he could, but he ran into some trouble. Specifically, as I discussed last time, he was a strong proponent of church discipline. While everyone knew how important it was to eradicate heretics, the medieval church largely turned a blind eye to unrepentant sin. That was not the kind of leaven the church did much to purge from its membership.
Calvin believed the church had the authority under God to excommunicate people as an act of discipline. This, he said, was for the sinner’s own good. More importantly, it was necessary for the glory of Christ. And the city council may have gone along with him on this issue, but Calvin believed even rich and powerful people should be excommunicated if necessary.
Think about this. Even if someone wasn’t a sincere believer, the social ramifications of church discipline were significant. One would be cut off from the Lord’s body and the Lord’s Supper. He would be an utter outcast. He may as well brand himself with a scarlet letter. That prospect was especially troubling for a council member. A council member was essentially an authority figure over the church, yet he could be excommunicated by the church. Suffice it to say, the council in Geneva wasn’t thrilled by Calvin’s insistence on discipline.
Matters came to a head on Easter Sunday of 1538. Previously, the council officially denied Calvin’s request to discipline church members. In response, Calvin refused to administer the Lord’s Supper to the entire church. In a sense, he excommunicated the entire church at once. Younger Calvin was not known for patience. The council then removed him from his pastorate and banished him from the city.
Calvin goes to Strasbourg
As it happened, Calvin didn’t mind at all. He never felt that he belonged in Geneva. He didn’t want to be there in the first place, so he was happy to move on to Strasbourg where he wanted to be from the beginning.
In Strasbourg, Calvin returned to writing. He went to work revising his Institutes. He also wrote his first Bible commentary on the book of Romans. It seems that he finally had time to study, develop, and mature his theology.
One notable area was his study of the Holy Spirit. When most people think of Calvinism, they don’t think about the Spirit’s work in salvation. They think about God’s election and his Son’s definite atonement. The thing is, lots of people had believed and taught the Calvinist view of election and atonement before Calvin. Not all of them hit the nail as squarely as him, but they knew the U and L of TULIP to some degree or another. Calvin contributed to the church’s understanding of the I—irresistible grace. He elevated the work of the Spirit in salvation.
Strasbourg is also the place where Calvin got married. His friends encouraged him to find a wife because he was a workaholic, and they thought a wife might be good for his health. He did marry, but he would never be known as the most romantic guy in the world. In one letter, describes what he was looking for in a wife. He says:
I am none of those insane lovers who when once smitten with the fine figure of a woman, embrace also her faults. This is the only beauty which allures me, if she is modest, decent, plain, thrifty, patient, and able to look after my health.
Calvin may not have been romantic, but I get the impression he sincerely loved his wife. She was a widow who already had two children of her own when they married. They tried to have more children together, but sadly, none of them survived beyond infancy. In fact, his wife died shortly after the birth of their last child in 1549. Calvin later writes to a friend, “I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life.”
Sadeoleto versus Calvin
Meanwhile back in Geneva, a Catholic cardinal named Sadeoleto saw an opportunity to take back the city in Calvin’s absence. He writes a powerful and eloquent appeal to the city council, pleading with them to return to the Catholic Church, but the council has no interest in un-reforming. City leaders didn’t like Calvin not because he was Protestant, but because they couldn’t control him.
Even so, the council quickly realizes they don’t have anyone qualified to write a response. They want to put forth a compelling case regarding their decision to remain Protestant, but they can’t think of anyone as capable as John Calvin, so they write to ask whether he’s willing to do it. And here we begin to see that Calvin is not merely a theologian. He’s also a pastor. He later describes his “paternal affection” for Geneva. He says, “God, when he gave [Geneva] to me in charge … bound me to be faithful forever.”
Calvin agrees to write a response, and it may have been one of the best defenses of the Reformation ever written. As you would expect from Calvin, it was thoroughly systematic. Step by step, point by point, he eloquently answers and refutes Sadoleto. Here’s a sample:
We [Protestants] abound indeed in numerous faults; too often do we sin and fall. Still … modesty will not permit me to boast how far we exceed you [Catholics] in every respect. … Rome, that famous abode of sanctity … has so overflowed with all kinds of iniquity, that scarcely anything so abominable has been seen before.
In case it isn’t clear from that brief passage, Calvin did not pull his punches, but his letter was still remarkably dignified. It was certainly powerful.
You will not be surprised to learn that Geneva asked Calvin to return. While a large part of his heart was still with the people in Geneva, he did not want to return. He wrote to his former co-pastor, Farel, and said, “I would rather submit to death a hundred times than to go to that cross [speaking of Geneva]. … Who will not excuse me if I am unwilling to plunge again into the whirlpool I know to be so dangerous?”
Farel, however, knew how to get Calvin back. He once again threatened a divine curse, and Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 under the condition he is permitted to structure the church “such as is prescribed in the Word of God and was in use in the early Church.”
Calvin the pastor
Perhaps one of my favorite details of Calvin’s life regards his first sermon back in Geneva. Calvin was a systematic, expository preacher. He preferred to start at the beginning of a book of the Bible and preach all the way through it two or three verses at a time. I can’t remember now which book of the Bible he was preaching from, but in his first sermon back in Geneva, he picked up right where he left off three years before.
Another interesting detail about Calvin is that he was never ordained as a pastor. When he was first employed by the church in Geneva, he filled the role of a teacher, not a pastor. Yet, he eventually became known to everyone as a pastor. Perhaps city leaders appointed him to be a pastor. We don’t know. Even so, the historical record is clear. He became the senior pastor of Geneva.
I want to get back to the matters of politics and persecution, but I could spend another hour just talking about Calvin as a pastor. He had a lot of battles throughout his ministry in Geneva. His conflict with city leaders never ceased. But he never neglected his pastoral responsibilities. Another preacher wrote of him:
I do not believe there can be found his like. I don’t believe there is any man in our time who has more to listen to, respond to, write, or do. … [He] never ceased working day and night in service to the Lord.
For example, Calvin always visited the sick. He once said:
We ought to weep with those who weep. That is to say, if we are Christians, we ought to have such compassion and sorrow for our neighbors that we should willingly take part in their tears, and thus comfort them.
The pastoral side of Calvin is often missing in his biographies. I remember stumbling upon an article years ago titled, “The Humanity of John Calvin.” I remember thinking, Was there any doubt? Did someone actually believe he wasn’t human? Maybe not, but we may forget about his humanity because he wrote and preached like a machine, churning out rich theological material at a surprising rate. His volumes of books aside, he preached five times a week. It’s easy enough to forget that he was human. More to the point, he was a faithful pastor in all the ways a pastor should be.
Even so, Calvin wasn’t perfect. He had his blind spots. His opponents today go as far as accusing him of being a tyrant over Geneva which wasn’t true. In response, we shouldn’t overcorrect and pretend he was a flawless being. I believe we can recognize his shortcomings and still appreciate his virtues and contributions to the church.
Servetus the heretic
Opponents of Calvin will often mention his treatment of Michael Servetus of France. Servetus gained notoriety for denying a series of fundamental Christian doctrines including the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and original sin. By pretty much everyone’s definition of heresy, he was a heretic. He also denied infant baptism, which qualified him as a heretic to only some people.
For reasons unknown to me, Servetus seems to have been mildly obsessed with Calvin. He began writing to Calvin in 1545. In 1553, he published a book titled Restitution of Christianity. The title was meant to mock Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Before I go any further, remember the historical context. Everything I said in the beginning about the church’s view of heresy and the relationship between church and state comes into play here.
As I’ve said, Calvin wholeheartedly believed in church discipline. Failing to attend church, dancing, laughing during a sermon, gambling, retaining Catholic practices, and even public disrespect of Calvin as an elder of the church were all subject to discipline. Calvin also believed in harsher punishments for more serious offenses such as heresy, blasphemy, and the second act of adultery. These offenses could get you the death penalty and possibly torture.
As Calvin and Servetus corresponded back and forth, Calvin tried to dissuade him from his heretical views, but Servetus wouldn’t listen. Calvin even attempted to set up a meeting with him to discuss the issues, but Servetus didn’t show up. Finally, Calvin thought it was best to contact Catholic authorities in France. Servetus was arrested, convicted of heresy, and sentenced to death by fire, but he escaped.
Strangely, Servetus flees to Geneva. Calvin had made himself clear that Servetus’s heresy would not be tolerated in Geneva. Calvin told a friend, “I will never let [Servetus] depart alive if I have any authority.” I don’t know why he went to Geneva, but he did, and some French refugees in the city recognized him.
Servetus stands trial in Geneva just as he had in France, only this time, he’s tried by Protestants rather than Catholics. To be clear, Calvin did not serve as judge, jury, and executioner as some have suggested. He certainly believed Servetus was guilty of sins worthy of death, but he did not have the desire or the authority to personally execute Servetus. Instead, Calvin served as the prosecution’s expert witness because he knew all of the heresies involved and had communicated with Servetus.
Servetus was condemned and sentenced to death. Even then, Calvin tried to persuade him to recant, but he refused. Calvin even pleaded with city authorities, asking them to give Servetus a more humane death than burning him at the stake, but they also refused.
Calvin in context
While executing heretics may seem relatively harsh by today’s standards, some people are guilty of judging Calvin unfairly. He was not a tyrant in Geneva. If we judge him by the standards of his day, he was actually quite compassionate. He did not want to see Servetus or anyone else executed. He wanted to see them converted. Though he didn’t show, Calvin risked his life to meet with Servetus in hopes of converting him.
I’ll summarize this issue with two points. First, Calvin may have had a blind spot regarding the treatment of heretics, but almost everyone in his day had the same blind spot. Does that excuse him? No, but it certainly means we should be slow to judge him for it. After all, we all have blind spots.
Second, Calvin was not an all-powerful dictator over Geneva. He didn’t personally execute anyone. He had a lot of influence in Geneva, but he himself was subject to the governing authorities. As he learned earlier in his life, the city council could remove him from his pastorate at any moment.
In short, Calvin wasn’t perfect, but he had far more bright spots than blind spots.
Dare all things by the word of God
For the remainder of his life, Calvin continued to teach, preach, write, and counsel people worldwide. He continued to navigate the politics in Geneva. He assisted thousands of refugees who flooded into the city. And despite all of his physical afflictions which increased with age, he never stopped working for the glory of God.
On his deathbed, his protege, Theodore Beza, begged Calvin to rest. He was dictating yet another Bible commentary. But Calvin said he couldn’t stop. He feared that the Lord would come for him and find him sitting idle.
Despite his reputation as a theologian, Calvin was first and foremost a pastor. It seems only fitting that I close with a word from Calvin to pastors everywhere. In his sixty-first sermon on Deuteronomy, he said:
Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God. … Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.