Geneva: A Blueprint for Reform
Calvin had intended to pass through Geneva and move on to Strasbourg. Indeed, when he was forced out of Geneva because of a quarrel with the magistrates over who controlled and governed the Church, Strasbourg was the obvious place to continue his ministry. Strasbourg, through the ministry of Martin Bucer, was already well established as a Reformation city. It was German speaking, unlike Calvin, but he went there in 1538, teaching at the Strasbourg Academy and taking responsibility for the French refugee community in the city. This self defined congregation brought Calvin a great deal of joy in ministry. Here he was not viewed with suspicion as a ‘foreigner’ and he enjoyed a great deal of freedom of movement in directing the affairs of the Church. He also enjoyed a great deal of personal happiness, taking citizenship and marrying Idelette de Bure, the widow of a former Anabaptist.
Calvin’s time in Strasbourg was also important for his theological development. Brilliant theologian though he was, Calvin was never above learning from other models and from other men of God. When Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and began to restructure the Church there on a Biblical pattern, he did so using Martin Bucer’s fourfold ministry model of pastors, teachers, elders and deacons. Calvin also was heavily indebted to Bucer in his definition of what makes a church a church, the so-called ‘marks’ of the Church. Like Bucer, Calvin focused on leadership, preaching and teaching and the administration of the sacraments. The only real difference between the two men in this area is that Bucer added discipline as an additional mark. Discipline for Calvin was very important but he saw it as essential for the health of a church rather than for its existence per se.
Despite his greater affection for Strasbourg over Geneva, when Geneva called Calvin responded. He knew that Geneva was where God had called him so he had little hesitation in returning there when asked to do so in 1541. During his 25 years of ministry, Calvin was able to exert huge influence in the city of Geneva, not because he exercised some oppressive dictatorship as his critics have suggested – he never occupied any position other than that of a pastor and he didn’t even become a citizen until 1559 – but because of his extraordinary leadership gifting. To begin with, Calvin did not have great freedom of movement. In his Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), he sought to establish a biblical model or blueprint for the reform of the Genevan Church. He created, using the Bucer model, four distinct leadership roles in the church. The pre-eminent office was that of the pastors. Their task was to preach the Word, shepherd the flock, administer the sacraments and bring discipline. The doctors or teachers had the responsibility to expound and interpret the Scriptures. The other two leadership ministries – which were both lay ministries – were those of the elders and the deacons. The elders had the task of assisting the pastors with discipline in the church and the deacons were responsible for the care of the sick and the relief of poverty. These were relatively uncontentious issues. Calvin encountered much more opposition over the power of the Consistory. The Consistory was the body of pastors and elders that met every Thursday morning to deal with matters of church discipline. Calvin, as we have seen, believed that discipline was essential for the well being and health of the church. For Calvin, discipline protects and promotes the honour of Christ, it prevents corruption in the church and it brings the sinner to repentance. For 14 years, Calvin struggled to ensure that discipline lay in the hands of the leadership of the church. Up until 1555, the Genevan magistrates did all they could to keep real spiritual authority out of the hands of Calvin and his fellow pastors. They ensured that the elders of the church were always magistrates sitting on the Consistory in their capacity as magistrates. They also ensured that the elders outnumbered the pastors by 12 to 9. The right of the power of the Consistory to bring the ultimate disciplinary measure – to excommunicate – was also hotly disputed until 1555.
Calvin was disliked, first and foremost in Geneva, not because he exercised “dictatorial” powers (which he certainly did not), nor because he was trying to influence Genevan culture. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that Geneva as a city was wanting to improve public morals long before Calvin came to the city in 1536. Calvin was disliked as a foreigner. The ‘libertine’ faction which dominated political life in Geneva up to 1555 was a group of three powerful Genevan families who chose to exploit popular hostility to Calvin as a French immigrant. Calvin had dogs set upon him, he had gunshots fired outside his house and a variety of other ‘scare tactics’ were used by his enemies, all with the aim of driving this “poor timid scholar,” as Calvin describes himself, out of the city. In 1555, however, there was something of a political coup in the city and Calvin’s enemies were forced into exile as Calvin himself had been some 14 years earlier.
In the remaining 9 years of his life, therefore, Calvin was able to build his ‘model’ church freed from the sniping opposition which had dogged him for so long. Hence, supporters such as the Scottish reformer John Knox were able to claim that Geneva had become “the most perfect school of Christ on earth since the days of the apostles.” Geneva was increasingly “a city set on a hill”. In 1556 Calvin began to raise money to create his “Genevan Academy”, based on the model he had seen years earlier whilst in exile in Strasbourg. When the Academy was opened in 1559 it had been built with gifts that included the equivalent of 5p from the wife of a local baker and an enormous 312 florins donated by the wealthy Genevan printer Robert Estienne. Pastors trained there in Calvin’s lifetime went to London, Antwerp, Turin, Piedmont, Brazil and, of course, all over France. Meanwhile, Geneva became an increasingly important printing centre, both for the local populace and, in particular, for the French export market. Between 1551 and 1564 500 titles were published in Geneva, 160 of which had been penned by Calvin. Financed by wealthy businessmen and smuggled into France by merchants, these books varied enormously in scope from the heavyweight (eg the Institutes), to those designed for a more popular market such as calendars complete with Biblical texts and Church history facts as opposed to the usual Saints’ Days. Worship was also an important aspect of church life in Geneva and one which was, in turn, modelled to the world. By 1562 19 editions of the Psalter had been published in Geneva (27,400 copies in total – huge by 16th century standards) making it an international best seller.
This post forms part 4 of the series Why I am a little bit Reformed.