Calvinism in Switzerland

THE SWISS Reformation began in Zurich under Ulrich Zwingli (1484-153 1). Zwingli was a radical reformer, unable to come to terms with Luther. After Zwingli’s death, the leadership of the Swiss Reformation passed to John Calvin (1509-64), a Frenchman who developed his own form of Protestantism and made Geneva a very influential religious centre. His ideas inspired men in several countries, including the Presbyterians in Scotland and the Puritans in England.

Here is an extract from ‘a history of the Reformation in Switzerland’ written by Henry Bullinger, Zwingli’s son-in-law and successor as the Protestant leader in Zurich: ‘At one time during these years, when all the deacons of the Confederation were assembled together, there were found not over three who were well read in the Bible. The others acknowledged that none of them had read even the New Testament, whereby we may understand how it was with the other clergy, with whom the case was still worse. For among the clergy there was almost no studying, but their exercise was in gaming, in feeding and in the practice of all luxuries. The more earnest were accused of hypocrisy. Those who studied somewhat devoted them­selves to scholastic theology and canon law. The greater part preach­ed out of sermon books, learning by heart sermons written by monks and printed, repeating them to the people without judge­ment … (56).

Another extract from Bullinger’s history states: ‘In the churches the mass had become a market and a place for bargaining; in fact, all sacraments and all things which one holds holy became venal and corrupt. The singing in parishes and monasteries was for the most part superstitious, and the monasteries had fallen into all sorts of scandals and idolatries, where no one of them observed so much as the first of its own rules, let alone God’s Word. Every day new altars, endowments, and endless numbers of idolatrous pilgrimages were established, to the great pleasure of the clergy, who threw into their bottomless sacks all that the common man as well as the noble possessed. Whereupon there was great complaint on all sides (57).

Zwingli and Luther met for a general discussion at Marburg Castle, but, as Melanchthon reported, they failed to agree: ‘At the end of the debate the Swiss asked that Luther would take them for brethren. This Dr Martin would not at all agree to. He even addressed them very seriously, saying that he was exceedingly surprised that they should regard him as a brother if they seriously believed their own doctrine true. But that was an indication that they themselves did not think there was much involved in the matter (58).

The disagreement, as Luther explained, was about whether Christ was truly present in the Communion service: ‘They professed with many words that they wished to agree with us so far as to say that the body of Christ is truly present in the Supper, but spiritually, with the sole view that we deign to call them brethren, and so feign harmony. This Zwingli begged with tears in his eyes before the Landgrave and all of them, saying, “There are no people on earth with whom I would rather be in harmony than with the Wittenburgers”. They strove with the utmost eagerness and vigour to seem in harmony with us, and could never endure the expression I used, “You have a different spirit from ours”. They burst into flame every time they heard it (59).

John Calvin was to become a great figure in the Reformation. He studied first theology and then law at French universities. He wrote in his Commentary on the Psalms: ‘Ever since I was a child, my father had intended me for theology; but … as he considered that the study of the law commonly enriched those who followed it, this expectation made him incontinently change his mind. That is why I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy and put to the study of the law, to which I strove to devote myself faithfully in obedience to my father. God, however, in his hidden providence, at last made me turn in another direction (60).

Calvin described his conversion to Protestantism, which took place in 1533: ‘The more closely I considered myself, the more my conscience was pricked with sharp goadings ; so much that no other relief or comfort remained to me except to deceive myself by forgetting. But since nothing better offered itself, I went on still in the way I had begun: then, however, there arose quite another form of teaching, not to turn away from the profession of Christianity but to reduce it to its own source, and to restore it, as it were, cleansed from all filthiness to its own purity. But I, offended by this novelty, could hardly listen to it willingly; and must confess that at first I valiantly and bravely resisted. For since men are naturally obstinate and opinionated to maintain the institutions they have once received, it irked me much to confess that I had been fed upon error and ignorance all my life. One thing especially there was that prevented me from believing in those people, and that was reverence for the Church. But after I had listened for some time with open ears and suffered myself to be taught, I saw very well that such a fear, that the majesty of the Church might be diminished, was vain and superfluous (61).

A letter, written in 1570 by the minister of the French congregation in London, speaks highly of Calvin: ‘When I look back upon his frankness and integrity, his affectionate benevolence towards me and the familiar intimacy which I enjoyed for sixteen years, I cannot but grieve for my separation from such a friend, or, I would say, such a father. What labours, watchings and anxieties did he endure! With what wisdom and perspicacity did he foresee all dangers and how skilfully did he go out to meet them! No words of mine can declare the fidelity and prudence with which he gave counsel, the kindness with which he received all who came to him, the cleverness and promptitude with which he replied to those who asked for his opinion on the most important questions, and the ability with which he disentangled the difficulties and problems which were laid before him. Nor can I express the gentleness with which he would console the afflicted and raise the fallen and distressed, or his courage in adversity and moderation in prosperity (62).

Here is an extract from Calvin’s great book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, talking about his doctrine of ‘predestination’, the idea that God has planned everything for each individual: ‘In conformity to the clear teaching of scripture we assert by an eternal and immutable counsel God hath once for all determined both whom He would admit to salvation and whom He would con­demn to destruction. We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on His gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom He devotes to condem­nation the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible and in­comprehensible judgement (63).

Calvin based his doctrine of predestination on man’s complete sinfulness, which made it impossible for him to earn his salvation: ‘Therefore original sin is seen to be an hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul . . . where­fore those who have defined original sin as the lack of the original righteousness with which we should have been endowed, no doubt include, by implication, the whole fact of the matter, but they have not fully expressed the positive energy of this sin. For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive (64).

A letter written from Calvin to his friend, John Fare!, early in 1553, portrays his feelings about letters written to him by Michael Servetus. Servetus, a Spaniard, denied the divinity of Christ and later that year went to Geneva, where he was burned at the stake for heresy: ‘Servetus recently wrote to me and has joined to his corres­pondence a long volume full of his mad ideas, adding with theatrical pomposity that I would see in that book some astounding and until then unheard of things. If I like, he will come here. But I do not want to bind myself. Because if he came, and my authority still counted for something, I would never let him leave alive (65).

Servetus himself, however, believed that obstinate heretics should be put to death, as he explained in this letter to Calvin: ‘It is God’s truth that the severity of the death penalty was relaxed with the coming of Jesus Christ, if and when there is hope of amendment It is true that St Peter punished with death Ananias and Saphira, of whom he had no hope of conversion, to show more clearly his de­testation of their crime, and to make them examples for all others, or because the Holy Spirit, whom they had scorned, made plain by that measure that they were incorrigible and obdurate in their wrong. This crime simply deserves death both before God and man. As to other crimes about which the Spirit has not laid down anything particular, where the evil has not taken root, and where one cannot point to deliberate obstinacy or an altogether monstrous wickedness, we should rather hope for correction by other punishments than death. Among such punishments banishment is praiseworthy as it is approved by Jesus Christ as excommunication is approved by the Church (66).

In 1554 Melanchthon wrote to Calvin: ‘I have read the writing in which you have refuted the detestable blasphemies of Servetus, and I return thanks to the Son of God who was the arbiter of your combat. To you also, the Church owes, and will in the future owe, gratitude. I am in entire agreement with your judgment. I affirm also that your Magistracy has acted justly in putting this blasphemer to death after a regular trial (67).

Calvin stated in his Institutes that the government he preferred was an aristocracy, by which he meant control of the State by godly people: ‘I, for my part, am far from denying that the form which greatly surpasses the others is aristocracy, either pure or modified by popular government . . . This has already been proved by experience and confirmed also by the authority of the Lord himself, when he established an aristocracy bordering on popular government among the Israelites, keeping them under that as the best form until he exhibited an image of the Messiah in David (68).

Calvin insisted that subjects had no right to disobey their rulers: ‘We must subject ourselves and be obedient to whatever superiors are ruling in the place where we are living (69).

In his Institutes, Calvin expressed his idea of the duty of the State in religious matters: ‘The State exists in order that idolatry, blasphemy of the Name of God and against His truth and other scandals to religion, be not publicly set forth and broadcast among the people; that public peace be not troubled, that each be secured in what is his own, that men’s intercourse may be without fraud and violence, in fine that among Christians there may be some public and visible form of religion and that humanity be settled among men (70).

Calvin describes the ideal Church in his Institutes: ‘Above all where we see the word of God to be purely preached and listened to, the Sacraments administered according to the institution by Christ, there without any shadow of doubt is the Church … The Church universal is the whole body of people who accept the truth of God and the doctrine of His word, however diverse be their nationalities . . . Under this universal Church, the Churches which are distributed throughout every town and village are thus reckoned, each of them, to have the title and authority of Church (71).

In 1541 Calvin laid down that there were four ministries in his Church. These were: those who cared for the congregation, those who taught, those who organised, and those who gave out the alms: ‘There are four orders of offices that our Lord instituted for the government of his Church: first the pastors, then the teachers, after them the elders, and fourthly the deacons (72).

A passage in the Institutes foretold how Calvin and his followers would rule Geneva: ‘Administration is to know that by the word of God boldly they dare anything and compel all glory, boldness and virtue in this world to obey and to yield to the divine majesty; that by this word they are given commandment over the whole world to build up the house of Christ and to demolish the rule of Satan; to feed the sheep and to kill the wolves: to guide by instruction and exhortation the tractable: to constrain and correct the rebellious and self-willed: to bind and unbind: to thunder and lighten: but always in the word of God (73).

In 1541 the General Council of the people of Geneva adopted Calvin’s idea of the organisation of the Church, by laying down in the preamble to the Ordinances: ‘It has seemed good to us that the spiritual government, such as our Lord demonstrates and institutes it by his word, should be set down in good form, to take place and be observed among us. And thus have we ordered and established, to obey and to maintain in our town and territory the Ecclesiastical policy, which follows, as we see it is taken, from the Gospel of Jesus Christ (74).

Geneva under Calvin impressed John Bale, an Irish bishop: in Geneva ‘Geneva seemeth to me to be the wonderful miracle of the whole world: so many from all countries come hither, as it were in a sanctuary, not to gather riches, but to live in poverty … Is it not wonderful that Spaniards, Italians, Scots, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, disagreeing in manners, speech, and apparel, sheeps and wolves, bulls and bears, being coupled with the only yoke of Christ, should live so lovingly and friendly, and that monks, laymen and nuns disagreeing both in life and sect, should dwell together, like a spiritual and Christian congregation (75).

John Knox, the Scottish reformer, was another fervent admirer of Calvin’s Geneva: ‘Geneva, where I neither fear man nor am ashamed to say that this is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places, I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place (76).