After Darkness, Light: John Calvin’s Ministerial Call to Geneva

During the balmy summer days of July, 1536 the twenty-seven year old John Calvin (1509-1564) was on his way from France into exile in Strasbourg, Germany. As he quickly sped along the stone-paved main highway with his younger brother Anthony and his half-sister Marie perhaps he asked himself, “Why are we fleeing?” Calvin lived during the tumultuous days of the Reformation when any man who rejected the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church was hunted-down, imprisoned, and often-times martyred. The cruel death in Paris of Calvin’s personal friend Stephen de La Forge in late 1534 made a significant impact upon his resolve to continue defending the evangelical cause. Thus, it was out of necessity that he flee from his native country to the safe-haven of Germany where he could write his books and carryout his biblical studies. On this hasty and clandestine journey Calvin was forced to detour from his initial route and travel a circuitous southern road through Geneva, Switzerland. At this time the armies of King Francis the 1st (1494-1547) were on extensive military maneuvers and every Protestant reformer (especially those of Calvin’s notoriety) would want to avoid the French troops at all costs. Calvin was rapidly becoming known as the author of a newly published treatise, Institutes of the Christian Religion (printed in Basle, March 1536). This potent book of only six short chapters was the clearest exposition yet of the basic doctrines of the Reformation. It was immediately identified as subversive literature by Roman Catholic scholars, yet the first edition sold out so quickly that another printing was eagerly sought by sympathetic readers. One modern theologian has thoughtfully stated,

Even from the point of view of mere literature, it holds a position so supreme in its class that every one who would fain know the world’s best books, must make himself familiar with it. What Thucydides is among the Greeks, or Gibbon among eighteenth-century English historians, what Plato is among philosophers, or the Iliad among epics, or Shakespeare among dramatists, that Calvin’s Institutes is among theological treatises. (Benjamin B. Warfield, Works, Vol. 5, 374)

Calvin’s unplanned trek through Geneva figured to be one of the most significant turning-points of his life for it was here that he providentially met the zealous French missionary-evangelist Guillaume Farel (1489-1565). A few months prior to Calvin’s arrival in Geneva both Farel and Pierre Viret (1511-1571) participated in a formal debate with the leaders of Roman Catholic Church. As a result, on March 21, 1536 the city fathers voted decisively to reject the Roman Catholic faith and to recover the gospel as it was directly taught from the pages of the Bible. Following that signal victory Farel was strongly motivated to build a team of earnest and learned pastors to teach and preach biblical truth. He was especially eager to encourage someone of Calvin’s superior gifts to remain in Geneva to help with the reform effort then currently underway in the city. It was Calvin’s plan to remain only one night in Geneva, and so while eating dinner that evening at a local inn Calvin innocently remarked to Farel that he felt his place in life was to pursue a “quiet life of scholarship” in Strasbourg. Immediately, Farel stood up (some have suggested that he actually jumped on the table sending all of the dishes clattering to the floor in a loud series of crashes!), and with fiery eyes flashing and red-beard wagging he angrily denounced Calvin with an accusing finger shouting,

You are following your own wishes, and I declare, in the name of God Almighty, that if you do not assist us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for seeking your own interest rather than his. (Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin, 29)

Calvin was horrified by this impassioned denunciation and he timidly recoiled from the threat of divine judgment. Nevertheless, after reflecting on all that Farel had said, he determined to remain in Geneva and from that point on his ministry became inextricably tied to the city. He wrote later in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, “I felt…as if God had from heaven laid His mighty hand upon me to arrest me from my course…I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.” Thus, on September 5, 1536 when the Genevan City Council providentially appointed Calvin to be their “Professor of Sacred Literature” they probably had no idea that they were beginning a pastoral relationship with Calvin that would make a significant impact upon the whole Protestant world. Not all in Geneva were enthused about Calvin’s arrival, since he was a religious refugee from France, and they snidely referred to him in the minutes of the Genevan City Council as “ille Gallus” (or, “that Frenchman”). Yet, the sovereign Lord did indeed have a place of on-going ministry for Calvin, although it proved to be turbulent place filled with many troublesome people.

Calvin’s personal call to minister in Geneva was put to a serious test during the spring of 1538. The three pastors of Geneva, Calvin, Farel, and the blind and elderly Elie Courault (d. 1538), believed that the city was in so much turmoil over the efforts of reform that taking the Lord’s Supper would “profane so holy a mystery”. As Easter Sunday approached on April 21, 1538 the tension became so thick that Calvin reported more than sixty musket blasts shot off in front of his home late one night. Since the ministers stubbornly refused to offer the Lord’s Supper the Little Council voted to ban Calvin, Farel, and Courault from their pulpits. Despite this prohibition the ministers preached and did not serve the Lord’s Supper as they had been ordered to do. The next day the Little Council voted to oust the rebellious preachers. They gave them only three days to get their affairs in order and to leave the city. Theodore Beza recalls this chaotic time with Calvin’s own words,

This decision being intimated to Calvin, “Certainly”, says he, “…had I been the servant of men I had obtained a poor reward, but it is well that I have served Him who never fails to perform to his servants whatever he has promised.” (Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin, 33)

Therefore, on April 25, 1538 the three unwanted ministers departed the city leaving behind all of the angry denunciations, jeers, and threats. After making unsuccessful appeals in Berne and Zurich, Calvin was uncertain of where to go next. He was eventually recruited by the seasoned reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551) to come to Strasbourg and serve as pastor to a congregation of French refugees. While there Calvin married a lovely French widow, Idelette de Bure, and further deepened his ties to Strasbourg by representing the city at the Colloquy of Hagenau (June, 1540), Worms (November, 1540), and Ratisbon (April, 1541). These three ecumenical conferences exposed Calvin to the wider world of Reformation theology and brought about a life-long friendship with the irenic German reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560). While living in Strasbourg he also regularly taught at an academy led by Johannes Sturm (1507-1589), and penned his first Bible commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1539). Overall, these were pleasurable and productive years, punctuated with only a few sorrows. It came as quite a surprise, then, when in the midst of this happy period an official summons came from the City Council of Geneva asking him to return. This unexpected request brought up all the deep personal wounds of his banishment and required that Calvin seriously reflect upon his ministerial call to serve the Lord in Geneva. He confided in an agonizing letter to Farel on October 27, 1540 his personal fears about returning to that disorderly city,

I have no doubt whatever that you have taken good care to apologize for me to those brethren who advised that I should return to Geneva, that I have not replied to them. For you are well aware how on that account I was thrown for two days into such perplexity and trouble of mind that I was scarcely half myself … Whenever I call to mind the state of wretchedness in which my life was spent when there, how can it be otherwise but that my very soul must shudder when any proposal is made for my return? … But, at the same time, while I call to mind by what torture my conscience was racked at that time, and with how much anxiety it was continually boiling over, pardon me if I dread that place as having about it somewhat of a fatality in my case … But now that by the favor of God I am delivered, should I be unwilling to plunge myself once more into the gulf and whirlpool which I have already found to be so dangerous and destructive, who would not excuse me? (Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet eds., Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts & Letters, Vol. 4, 210-212)

Such frank correspondence continued back and forth between Calvin and his close confidants, Farel and Viret, for several months before it finally culminated in the decision that he would return to Geneva. There is little doubt, however, that an open letter written by Calvin from Strasbourg (September 1, 1539) and sent on Geneva’s behalf to Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547) demonstrated the sterling value of Calvin’s ministry and scholarship. In it Calvin forcefully argued for the cause of the Reformation and rejected Sadoleto’s faulty reasoning as to why the city of Geneva should return to the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin began his reply in this way,

You lately addressed a Letter to the Senate and People of Geneva, in which you sounded their inclination as to whether, after having once shaken off the yoke of the Roman Pontiff, they would submit to have it again imposed upon them. In that letter, as it was not expedient to wound the feelings of those whose favor you required to gain your cause, you acted the part of a good pleader; for you endeavored to soothe them by abundance of flattery, in order that you might gain them to your views. (John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto, 49-50)

What was Calvin’s motive to enter into this theological disputation and contest of wills? After all, he had been forcibly removed from Geneva by the people’s rejection of his plan of reformation. The following autobiographical comment from his letter to Sadoleto reveals that Calvin still felt a very strong call by God to minister to the people of Geneva. His personal resolve was evident despite their rejection and his on-going ministry in Strasbourg. He notes with some passion,

But when I see that my ministry, which I feel assured is supported and sanctioned by a call from God, is wounded through my side, it would be perfidy, not patience, where I here to be silent and connive…For though I am for the present relieved of the charge of the Church of Geneva, that circumstance ought not to prevent me from embracing it with paternal affection—God, when He gave me the charge, having bound me to be faithful to it forever. Now, then, when I see the worst snares laid for that Church whose safety it has pleased the Lord to make my highest care, and grievous peril impending if not obviated, who will advise me to await the issue silent and unconcerned? How heartless, I ask, would it be to wink in idleness, and, as it were, vacillating at the destruction of one whose life you are bound vigilantly to guard and preserve? (John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto, 50-51)

Calvin went on further to challenge Sadoleto’s claim that justification by faith was an unbalanced doctrine that left no place in the Christian life for good works. He showed Sadoleto’s view to be an error in the following quotation,

You, in the first place, touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. Is this a knotty and useless question? Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown. That doctrine, then, though of the highest moment, we maintain that you have nefariously effaced from the memory of men. Our books are filled with convincing proofs of this fact, and the gross ignorance of this doctrine, which even still continues in all your churches, declares that our complaint is by no means ill founded. But you very maliciously stir up prejudice against us, alleging that, by attributing every thing to faith, we leave no room for works. (John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto, 66)

Having received this stinging reply from Calvin nothing more was ever heard from the pen of Cardinal Sadoleto regarding the “very dear brethren” of Geneva. All efforts at persuasion simply stopped. An opposite effect though, and certainly one that was completely unintended, came about when the leaders of Geneva began to wonder if they had made great mistake in 1538 by forcibly removing Calvin from his office as Pastor and “Professor of Sacred Literature”. They earnestly began to make every effort to get him back at all costs; and these exertions finally paid off. Calvin returned to Geneva on September 13, 1541. He picked-up his preaching exactly where he had left off two and half years prior. It appears that both Farel and Bucer played key roles in bringing about this favorable decision. Beza later remarks of Bucer’s efforts, “He never would have obtained Calvin’s consent, had he not given warning of Divine judgment, and appealed to the example of Jonah”. Surely, Farel would have approved of such tactics since he had used them before in 1536 with such very good results.

Over the next twenty-three years of Calvin’s ministry (1541-1564) the gospel steadily prevailed and Geneva became widely known as the foremost city of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin’s continual ministry of preaching, teaching, catechizing, writing, counseling, and discipling brought about so many changes for good that the general population in time came to greatly appreciate him. Following the crucial elections of 1555, when Calvin’s plans for reformation triumphed, his value grew as an esteemed teacher, pastor, and theologian. On December 25, 1559 the Council members gratefully extended to him full citizenship in thanks for all that he had given to the city. More than ever before the motto of Geneva, Post Tenebrus Lux or “After Darkness, Light”, reflected the profound deliverance from darkness that the entire city felt as a result of the gospel’s progress in their lives. Think of it, in God’s providence the simple act of one man taking a different road proved to be such a great benefit to so many. Moreover, by God’s grace that same man endured and overcame the numerous difficulties that arose in Geneva and positively influenced the culture for good. He was faithful to his ministerial call. As a result, the Lord abundantly blessed the entire city through one man’s indefatigable labor and personal sacrifice. Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory!

For Additional Reading:

Beza, Theodore. Life of John Calvin. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1564, reprint 1844.
Beveridge, Henry and Bonnet, Jules eds. Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts & Letters. 7 Vols. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society 1844-1858. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, reprint 1983.
Calvin, JohnInstitutes of the Christian Religion. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1559, reprint 1960.
Calvin, JohnCommentary on the Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1557, reprint 1998.
D’Aubigne, MerleHistory of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin. Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, reprint 1863.
de Greef, WulfertThe Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993.
De Koster, LesterLight for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty. Eerdmans, 2004.
George, TimothyTheology of the Reformers. Nashville: The Broadman Press, 1988.
Hunter, A. MitchellThe Teaching of Calvin. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1920, reprint 1999.
Olin, John C. edA Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966.
Parker, T. H. LJohn Calvin: A Biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.
McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.
Stickelberger, Emanuel. Calvin: A Life. London: James Clarke & Company, 1959.
Van Halsema, Thea B. This Was John Calvin. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959.
Van Til, Henry RThe Calvinistic Concept of Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1959, reprint 2001.
Wallace, Ronald S. Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990.
Warfield, Benjamin BCalvin and Calvinism. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1932, reprint 2003.
Walker, WillistonJohn Calvin: Organizer of Reformed Protestantism. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Wendel, FrancoisCalvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, reprint 1997.
Zachman, Randall C. John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006.

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