From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(a) In Switzerland.

John Calvin, from whom the heresy takes its name, was born at Noyon in Picardy in 1509. In accordance with the wishes of his father he studied philosophy and theology at the University of Paris, where he was supported mainly from the fruits of the ecclesiastical benefices to which he had been appointed to enable him to pursue his studies. Later on he began to waver about his career in life, and without abandoning entirely his hopes of becoming an ecclesiastic he turned his attention to law in the Universities of Orleans and Bourges. In French intellectual circles of this period a certain spirit of unrest and a contempt for old views and old methods might be detected. The Renaissance ideas, so widespread on the other side of the Alps, had made their way into France, where they found favour with some of the university professors, and created a feeling of distrust and suspicion in the minds of those to whom Scholasticism was the highest ideal. Margaret of Navarre, sister of the king, showed herself the generous patron and defender of the new movement, and secured for it the sympathy and to some extent the support of Francis I. A few of the friends of the Renaissance in France were not slow to adopt the religious ideas of Luther, though not all who were suspected of heresy by the extreme champions of Scholasticism had any intention of joining in a movement directed against the defined doctrines or constitution of the Catholic Church.

As a student at Bourges, Calvin was brought into close relations with Melchior Wolmar, a German Humanist, who was strongly Lutheran in his tendencies, and through whom he became enamoured of Luther’s teaching on Justification. On his return to Paris he was soon remarkable as a strong partisan of the advanced section of the university, and by his ability and determination he did much to win over the Renaissance party to the religious teaching that had become so widespread in Germany. As a result of an address delivered by Nicholas Cop, rector of the university, and of several acts of violence perpetrated in the capital by the friends of heresy Francis I. was roused to take action. Calvin, fearing death or imprisonment, made his escape from Paris to Basle (1534). Here he published his first and greatest theological treatise, Christianae Religionis Institutio, which he dedicated to the King of France (1536). The work was divided into four sections, namely, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, Grace, and the External Means for Salvation. Both in its style and in its arguments drawn from the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was far superior, at least for educated readers, to the best that had been produced by Luther and even to the Loci Communes of Melanchthon.

He arrived at Basle at a time when a crisis had arisen in the political and religious development of Geneva. For a long period the House of Savoy was seeking for an opportunity to annex the territory of Vaud extending along the Lake of Geneva, and the episcopal cities of Geneva and Lausanne. Berne, too, had aspirations of a similar kind. The authorities of Berne, having adopted the Zwinglian doctrine, thought that in it they had a means at their hand to detach Geneva and Lausanne from any sympathy with Savoy and to secure these territories for themselves. They despatched preachers to Geneva, where there were already two political factions, one advocating a closer alliance with Savoy, another clamouring for a union with Berne. The supporters of Berne rallied round William Farel and the Zwinglian ministers, while the friends of Savoy undertook to champion the old religion. The whole struggle was at bottom political rather than religious, but the triumph of the republican adherents of Berne meant victory for the reforming party in Geneva. The Duke of Savoy issued a declaration of war against the rebels to whom the Canton of Berne had pledged support (1534). As a result the forces of Savoy were driven out of Geneva and the Vaud, a close union was formed between Geneva and Berne, and every effort was made to spread the new religion in the city and among the Vaudois. A Zwinglian university was established at Lausanne, which exercised a great influence in propagating the new doctrine, and which had the honour of counting among its students Theodore Beza1 the most gifted and learned assistant of Calvin.

But though the Vaudois had been won over, Geneva was by no means secured for the reformers. Farel and his followers, finding themselves involved in serious difficulties, appealed to Calvin to help them in completing the work they had begun. In 1536 Calvin accepted this invitation, and took up his residence at Geneva. Gifted with great powers as an organiser and administrator he soon restored order in the city, and won over the people to his doctrines. Himself a man of very strict notions, in whose eyes all even the most harmless amusements appeared sinful or dangerous, he was determined that his followers must accept his views. Under his rule Geneva, formerly so gay, became like a city of death, where all citizens went about as if in mourning. Such an unnatural condition of affairs could not be permanent. The people soon grew tired of their dictator and of his methods; the authorities of Berne were roused to hostility by his refusal to accept their doctrinal programme or their model religious organisation; the Synod of Lausanne declared against him for a similar reason, and in 1538 he and his principal supporters were driven from the city. Cardinal Sadoleto took occasion to address a stirring appeal to Geneva to return to the old faith, but his appeal fell upon deaf ears.

Calvin retired at first to Strassburg, and later he took charge of a parish in France. During the interval he devoted himself to a closer study of the disputed religious questions, and wrote much in favour of the Reformation. It was at this time (1540) that he married the widow of one of the Anabaptist leaders. Meanwhile Geneva was torn by disputes between two factions, the Libertines as they were called, who were opposed to Calvin, and the Guillermins, who clamoured for his return. The latter body gained ground rapidly, and a decree was issued recalling Calvin to Geneva (October 1540). Knowing well that his presence was necessary to restore peace to the city he refused to return unless the conditions imposed by him should be accepted. In the end he went back to Geneva practically as its religious and political dictator (1541).

The form of government introduced was theocratic. Calvin was recognised as the spiritual and temporal ruler of the city. He was assisted in the work of government by the Consistory, which was composed of six clerics and twelve laymen. The latter was the worst form of inquisition court, taking cognisance of the smallest infractions of the rules laid down for the conduct of the citizens, and punishing them by the severest form of punishment. Any want of respect for the Consistory or opposition to its authority was treated as a rebellion against God. Calvin formulated a very severe code of rules for the guidance of the people not merely in their duties as citizens and as members of his religious organisation, but also in their social intercourse with one another. Even the privacy of family life was not sacred in his eyes. All kinds of amusements, theatres, dances, cards, &c., were banned as ungodly, as were also extravagance of dress and anything savouring of frivolity. Nobody was allowed to sell wine or beer except a limited number of merchants licensed to do so by the Consistory.

Nor were these mere empty regulations designed only to keep religion before the eyes of the people without any intention of enforcing them. The preachers were invested with extraordinary powers, and were commissioned to make house to house visitations, to inquire about violations of the rules. In their reports to the Congregation and to the Consistory they noted even the most minute transgressions. Not content with this Calvin had his spies in all parts of the city, who reported to him what people were saying about his methods and his government. The punishment meted out by the courts were of a very severe and brutal kind. No torture that could be inflicted was deemed too much for any one bold enough to criticise the Consistory or the dictator.

It was natural that such methods should be highly distasteful to those of the citizens of Geneva who were not religious fanatics. A strong party tried to resist him. They accused him of being much more tyrannical than the Pope, but Calvin denounced such opponents as libertines, heretics, and atheists. He handed them over to the devil at least in so far as his ecclesiastical censures were effective,2 threatened the severest spiritual punishment against their aiders and abettors, and when all such means of reproof failed he had recourse to the secular arm.

Sebastian Castellio, a well-known preacher and Scriptural scholar, was punished because he could not agree with Calvin’s teaching on predestination, as was also the physician Bolsec; Ameaux one of the members of the Council was put to death because he denounced the tyranny of Calvin and of the Consistory; Gentilis was condemned to execution for differing with Calvin’s teaching on the Trinity, and was compelled to make a most abject public retraction before he could obtain a reprieve. Several of the citizens were punished with long imprisonment for dancing even on the occasion of a wedding, as happened in the case of Le Fevre, whose son-in-law was obliged to flee to France because he resented warmly such methods of promoting religion. In Geneva and in the adjoining territory all Catholic practices were put down by violence, and the peasants were allowed no choice in their religious views. Possibly, however, the most glaring example of Calvin’s tyranny and high-handed methods was his treatment of Michael Servetus, a Spaniard who had written against the Trinity. He was on a journey through the territory of Geneva and was doing nothing to spread his doctrines nor acting in any way likely to bring him under the ire of Calvin. The latter having heard of his presence there had him arrested, tried, and condemned to death. To justify such harshness he published a pamphlet in which he advocated death as the only proper remedy for heresy. Theodore Beza wrote strongly in support of this opinion of his master’s, as did also Melanchthon who, though differing from Calvin on so many points, hastened to forward his warmest congratulations on the execution of Servetus.3

Calvin’s acts of cruelty were not the result of violent outbursts of temper. By nature cold and immovable, he did not allow himself to be hurried to extremes either by anger or by passion. How he succeeded in maintaining his position for so many years in Geneva is intelligible only to those who understand the strength of the religious fanaticism that he was able to arouse amongst his followers, the terror which his spiritual and temporal punishments inspired among his opponents, his own wonderful capacity for organisation and administration, the activity of his ministers and spies, and the almost perfect system of repression that he adopted in his two-fold character of religious and political dictator.

To strengthen his position and to provide for the continuance of his system he established an academy at Geneva (1558) principally for the study of theology and philosophy. It was attended by crowds of scholars from Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland. By means of the academy, Calvinism was spread throughout Switzerland notwithstanding the opposition of the Zwinglian preachers, and Calvin’s system of ecclesiastical organisation became the model aimed at by his disciples in most countries of Europe, notably France, the Netherlands, and Scotland. The Zurich school, at the head of which stood Bullinger, did not yield ground to the new teaching without a severe struggle, and Calvin found himself obliged to come to terms with them in the Consensus Tigurninus (1549). In his desire to secure the religious unity of Switzerland he had no difficulty in abandoning or minimising his own doctrine in the hope of overcoming or winning over his opponents. After a life of tireless energy his health began to fail in 1561, and three years later he passed away (1564).

Calvin was a man of morose and gloomy temperament, severe even to harshness with his followers, and utterly devoid of human sympathy. Not so however his disciple and assistant Theodore Beza. The latter was born in Burgundy in 1519, and after completing his classical studies at Orleans he drifted to Paris, where he plunged into all the pleasures and dissipations of the capital, and where at first he was remarkable more for his love songs than for his theology. He devoted himself to the study of law, and in 1539 he took his licentiate at Paris. Having become attached to the opinions of the Swiss Reformers he left Paris and settled at Geneva, where he fell completely under the influence of Calvin, but not even Calvin’s temperament and system could change his naturally gay and sympathetic disposition. For this reason he became a general favourite, and did much to win the good-will of those who felt themselves rebelled by the harshness of the dictator. Beza was, besides, a man of very superior ability, and had been especially well equipped in Hebrew and in the classics. He was master of a striking style whether he wrote in French or in Latin, eloquent beyond most of his contemporaries, and in every way capable of making a good impression not merely on the ordinary citizen but on the more educated classes. His writings in defence of Calvin’s system and his translations of the Scriptures gave him a great reputation throughout Europe, and gained for him a commanding position in Geneva, where he died in 1605.

Calvin’s system was modelled to a great extent on the doctrines of Luther and Zwingli, but it was coloured largely by his own harsh and morose disposition. For the distinguishing feature of his system, namely, absolute predestination, he was dependent largely upon the works of Wycliffe. Like Luther, he began with the assumption that the condition of man before the Fall was entirely natural, and that consequently by the Fall he was deprived of something that was essential to his nature and without which human nature was completely corrupted. Man was no longer free, and every act of his was sinful. His want of freedom was the result of the play of external forces directed and arranged by God, rather than of any internal necessity by which he was forced to sin. God is, according to Calvin, the author of sin, in the sense that he created a certain number of men to work evil through them in order that He might have an opportunity of displaying the divine attribute of mercy. Hence the motive of God in bringing about evil is different from the motive of the sinner, and therefore though the sinner is blameworthy God is nowise responsible for his crime.

Adam sinned because it was decreed by God that he should fall in order that the divine mercy should be manifested to the world. For the same reason God did not intend that all should be equally good or that all should be saved. He created some men that they might sin and that their punishment might afford an example of God’s justice, while He made others that they might be saved to show His overwhelming mercy. The former are condemned to hell by an irreversible decree, the others, the elect, are predestined absolutely to glory. The elect are assured of justification through the merits of Christ, and once justified they are always justified, for justification cannot be lost. Faith such as that advocated by Luther was the means of acquiring justification, but, mindful of his other doctrine that even the best of men’s works are sinful, Calvin took care to explain that justifying faith was only the instrument by which a man laid hold of the merits of Christ. It was like a vessel which, though containing some priceless treasure, was in itself worthless.

As might be expected, Calvin refused to admit that the sacraments were endowed with any objective power of conferring Grace. In the case of their reception by the elect, however, he held that they were the means of strengthening the faith by which justification is acquired, but for those predestined to damnation they were mere signs without any spiritual effect. In regard to the Eucharist, while he rejected the Catholic view of Transubtantiation, he maintained against the Lutherans that Impanation or Companation was equally absurd. Nor did he agree with Zwingli that the Eucharist is a mere sign of Christ’s love for men. According to him Christ is really present, in the sense that though the bread and wine remain unchanged, the predestined receive with the Eucharistic elements a heavenly food that proceeds from the body of Christ in Heaven.

Like Luther he contended that the true Church of Christ is invisible, consisting in his view only of the predestined, but, realising the necessity for authority and organisation, he was driven to hold that the invisible Church manifested itself through a visible religious society. Unlike Luther, however, he was unwilling to subordinate the Church to the civil power, believing as he did that it was a society complete in itself and entirely independent of temporal sovereigns. Each Calvinistic community should be to a great extent a self-governing republic, all of them bound together into one body by the religious synods, to which the individual communities should elect representatives. The churches were to be ruled by pastors, elders, and deacons. Candidates for the sacred ministry were to receive the confirmation of their vocation by a call from some Calvinistic church body, and were to be ordained by the imposition of the hands of the presbyters or elders. For Calvin as for Luther the Holy Scriptures were the sole rule of faith to be adopted by both the preachers and the synods. The special illumination of the Holy Ghost was sufficient to guard individuals from being deceived either in determining what books are inspired, or what is the precise meaning which God wished to convey in any particular book or passage.4

Chapter III Section (a) Footnotes

1 Baird, Theodore Beza, Counsellor of the French Reform, 1900.

2 Galli, Die Lutheran, und Calvinist, Kirchenstrafen im Reformationszeitalter, 1878.

3 Rouquette, L’Inquisition protestante. Les victimes de Calvin, 1906. Galiffe, Quelques pages d’histoire exacte sur les proces intentes a Geneve, 1862. Paulus, Luther und Gewissensfreiheit, 1905. Id., Melanchthon und Gewissensfreiheit (Katholik, i., 546 sqq.).

4 Schwane, Dogmengeschichte der neuerenzeit. Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, 1862.

Chapter III Section (a) Bibliography

Calvini Joannis, Opera quae supersunt in the Corp. Reformatorum, vols. xxix.-lxxxvii. Doumergue, Jean Calvin, les hommes et les choses de son temps, 1900-5. Kampschulte, Johann Calvin, seine Kirche und sein staat in Genf, 1899. Fleury, Histoire de l’Eglise de Geneve, 3 vols., 1880. Mignet, Etablissement de la reforme religieuse et constition du calvinisme a Geneve, 1877. Choisy, La theocratie a Geneve au temps de Calvin, 1897. Cambridge Mod. History, ii., chap. xi. (Bibliography, 769-83). For complete bibliography, see Diction. Theologique (art. Calvin).

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Lane Core Jr. (lane@elcore.net)
Created November 14, 2000; revised November 19, 2000.