Calvin as a Reformer in Geneva

John Calvin was such an unusual genius that his contributions to the progress of the Christian faith and the Christian church are of extraordinary value even after four centuries. For that reason what he did in Geneva is highly stimulating to contemporary thinking.

Geneva as a place of labor was fur from his thought when, one night in 1536, he stopped over there on his way to Basel from Paris. It was then a city of about 13,000 inhabitants, located at the western end of Lac Leman in Switzerland. Having recently gained its independence from the duchy of Savoy, it had been gradually won for the Reformation point of view by an older reformer, William Farel. Farel had strongly influenced local legislation and the laws against blasphemy, dicing, and card games were strict. Calvin was told by Farel that his assistance in Geneva was imperative, that he would be going against God not to accept the invitation.

The first edition of Calvin’s Institutes had already been published, but Calvin was not yet a famous man. Twenty-seven years of age, he was put on the Genevan payroll anonymously as “that Frenchman.” There was a definite and innate modesty about him, but he had firm convictions and wanted the people of Geneva really to understand the Christian faith. So he set about getting down in written form two things: the methods by which the people might be trained and the content of the faith to which they were now committed.

Systematic instruction of children and systematic discipline of adults under the direction of the civil government were a part of his formula. He put the content of the instruction into a little book which was a sort of resume of the Institutes. An edition of it in English was published in 1949 under the title Instruction in Faith.


Calvin was on the right track in insisting that the content of the faith be presented clearly in writing. He was not yet as clearly convinced of the fact that the faith cannot be imposed by measures taken by the civil authorities. Inspectors of the state were appointed to watch over morals and report to the ministers. Every citizen was expected to make a public confession of his faith. Calvin was surprised that there was not more warmth and ardor in Christian devotion under this system. He seems not to have recognized that when the state was exceeding its divinely appointed function by attempting to enforce spiritual discipline it was to be expected that there would be opposition rather than Christian joy. A warm Christian faith is ignited in the heart by the Holy Spirit, working sovereignly without civil compulsion.

At t his period Calvin’s temper, which he later controlled very effectively, was liable to sudden outbursts of anger. Yet Calvin was on the right track. The Genevan church was not as subservient to the state as were many others in Switzerland and elsewhere. Calvin had already pointed out that the Bible was the sole authority for Christian living, and he wished everything to conform to its standards.

Less than two years after Calvin began his work ill Geneva he, with Farel, was ordered out of the city by the magistrates and forced to leave. What had happened? Of course, there is always opposition to truth, hut in this case it became very violent. I think it must be said that the imposition of standards conformable to the Bible upon a people may be undertaken for the state only with the free consent of the sovereign whom the citizens acknowledge. In Geneva the sovereign was the citizens themselves. At the elections prior to Calvin’s banishment the majority had shown themselves hostile to Calvin. Is there any explanation? Unregenerate men will not willingly obey biblical discipline, and there ‘appear to have been many in that category in Geneva. There was also, however, an encouraging element in the explanation. Part of the opposition arose from Calvin’s refusal to allow the civil authority to determine what the elements of public worship in Geneva should be. Here he is making progress toward the desired end of a free church in a free state. These two institutions are both of divine origin. They can work together harmoniously only when each one confines itself to the functions entrusted to it and does not interfere with or attempt to dominate the other.




For three years after his exile Calvin lived in Strasbourg. It was a most important period in his life. Perhaps he learned more here about the way in which a church may be reformed than he had learned in all his previous life. There were a number of able Protestant leaders and statesmen in the city. Several experiments in church government, in public worship, in education were under way. He taught boys, he became pastor of a church of French-speaking refugees, he lectured, and he observed and thought. He was in close touch with Lutheran ideas and with Lutheran leaders like Melanchthon. His writing began to have a broader range and sweep, to be more closely oriented to the immediate problems of the day.

In the meantime, Genevan affairs fell into great confusion for the lack of leaders of ability, and it became apparent to the Genevan councillors that the best way to bring back unity and order was to restore Calvin to his post. It was a decision that the councillors took more speedily than Calvin was able to make his decision to accept the invitation to return. He admired the Strasbourg administration. He genuinely disliked the responsibility for leading the turbulent Genevan situation. But he concluded that it was his duty before God to return to Geneva.


In September 1541 he did so. Immediately he began to put into application the convictions which had matured in Strasbourg. On the very day of his arrival a committee was appointed to draw up the basic scheme of government for the Genevan church. In addition to the fonn of government, a new liturgy was prepared. Calvin also set to work at once on an entirely different catechism from the book he had used earlier. He advised a committee from the civil government about a revision of the city laws. Obviously Calvin believed that a sound church needed a sound foundation, a clearly enunciated set of principles, to make its development healthy. This is in direct conflict with the idea of b’usting to the inspiration of the moment.

The governmental system of the church is interesting. The ordained officers were two, the minister and the teacher. The latter cared particularly for doctrinal instruction. Neither was chosen by direct vote of the people.

There were two unordained church officers, the elder and the deacon. They were elected by the civil government and paid by the civil authorities.

Various councils and courts were made up of these officers for different functions. The Congregation was a meeting of the ministers held once a week for a discussion of Scripture, which was open to the public. The Consistory also met once a week. It was made up of the ministers and the elders, and was concerned primarily with disciplinary questions. The presiding officer was an elder. Since the elders were drawn from the various civil councils they were only indirectly elected by the people.

The broad outlines of Calvin’s scheme here form an excellent pattern for the church. But it was a pattern that left much still to be improved. The elders were not ordained. Their position was not in accord with the Scriptural teaching concerning the parity of the teaching and ruling elder. They represented the civil government primarily. They had little to do with the maintenance or safeguarding of doctrine except when there was a conflict between the ministers. The minister was not elected by the people, though he received popular approval after selection by his fellow ministers and the members of the civil Little Council. The deacon was also selected by the civil authorities rather than directly by the people.

Disciplinary decisions of the Consistory were enforced by the civil authorities. This confusion of spiritual and civil functions was one of the most dangerous legacies of the medieval period which had not yet been overcome. There was also a provision that irreconcilable doctrinal division between the ministers be appealed first to the elders and then to the Little Council, a civil body.


The services for worship in Calvin’s Geneva were more frequent by far than is customary today. In most of the churches there were three sermons on Sunday and three during the week. Before Calvin’s death the weekday sermons were increased to one a day. Calvin’s own habit in preaching was to preach on the Old Testament during the week and from the New Testament, and occasionally the Psalms, on Sunday. His ideal was to celebrate the Supper weekly, but the civil magistrate would not permit it more often than quarterly. Marriages were performed just before the worship service.

The service of public worship was carefully ordered. Its elements were: the Invocation, a General Confession, Psalm, Prayer, Psalm, Scripture, Sermon, Prayer with the Lord’s Prayer, Creed or Psalm, the Benediction. Uninspired hymns appear to have replaced the psalm occasionally. The psalms were metrical versions, sung rather than recited. As in the medieval service they were not accompanied by any instrument. Calvin was particularly anxious to encourage as general a congregational participation as possible in the service.

The new catechism which he wrote upon his return from Strasbourg was quite different from the earlier one. It was to be a doctrinal standard for the ministers. But more importantly, it was to serve as the instruction book for the children between the ages of ten and fifteen. It was in question and answer form with 373 questions, arranged in four sections referring to the Creed, the Law, Prayer and the Sacraments.

Calvin encouraged what he considered to be biblical standards for the civil laws of the city. There was a long tradition in the Swiss cities of legislation concerning personal conduct, dress and social life. Geneva was among these cities. Under Calvin this legislation was amplified. Church attendance was made compulsory, and decorum during the service was enforced. Among the prohibited activities were card-playing, dancing, fortune telling and the use of charms. Wedding banquets, jewelry, fabrics for clothing were regulated. In order to discourage the naming of children for saints of the Roman Church, a list of permissible names for children was published. While regulation of this general nature was an accepted feature of the medieval town, the differences from the older customs and the increased shictness of enforcement awakened a great deal of opposition.


The difficulty at the bottom of the opposition to Calvin in these matters grows from two roots. The first is the requirement that all citizens of Geneva subscribe a confession of faith. This is to turn over to the state the work of the Holy Spirit. Only a regenerate man can faithfully subscribe a Scriptural confession. There is no reason to suppose from the Scriptures or experience that every child born in a city will be an elect child. Those who are not regenerated are, by a subscription requirement of this nature, forced. either into dishonesty or emigration. The former is always morally wrong, the latter may often be, since it may break family ties, destroy property rights and produce emotional disturbances in an unwarranted fashion.

The second root of disturbance is the imposition of extra-scriptural moral standards upon the people by law. Even in a city which is composed entirely of regenerate people, civil legislation may not impose requirements which go beyond the function of the state as set forth in Scripture. The state can maintain the conditions for Christian living. It may not, and can not, force its citizens to be Christians. Further, no ecclesiastical body may properly impose standards and then have them enforced by civil authority. The Genevan Consistory was made up of church officers and must be considered an ecclesiastical body but its disciplinary decisions were enforced by the civil authority.


During the later years of Calvin’s life he was able to give more time to the matter of education than in his earlier life. The top rung of the Genevan educational ladder as Calvin organized it was known as the Schola Publica. It was designed particularly to prepare men for the ministry of the Word of God. Yet, unlike much theological training today, a large amount of time was spent in the study of the Greek classics. The Old Testament in Hebrew received much attentioll. Instruction in mathematics and natural science was not neglected. In other words, the Schola Publica combined a course in humane letters With a theological course. It set out to do what has now become the work of a good American arts college and a good theolOgical seminary. The result of the setting up of this school was a notable increase in the influence of Calvin and of Geneva. Foreign students were attracted in such numbers that they exceeded the Genevan students. In the early years there were numbered among its students Caspar Olevianus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism; Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford; Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde, who became one of the chief aides to William of Orange and others who made their mark for the Reformation.

Much of Calvin’s time in Geneva was taken up with the preparation of his commentaries on books of the Bible, with the writing of tracts against the abuses encouraged by the Roman Church, and with an international correspondence which ranged all over Europe.

When Calvin died be had mightily advanced the Reformed cause by the progress which he had promoted. In this article especial attention has been

given to his clarification of biblical doctrine through the writing of catechisms, to his attempt to secure for the church officers of a Scriptural type, and to his setting forth of a pattern for public worship which reflected Scriptural elements. In education his emphasis was upon mate· rials for thought, not upon technical skills. In all of these areas the last word had not been said, but genuine advance was in progress. Calvin himself recognized that Geneva was not perfect. In particular, he wanted better freedom for the church from the civil authorities especially in two areas. He wished the church to have greater liberty in selecting its own officers. ,He wanted the church to determine for itself the frequency and manner of its conduct of worship, in particular its celebration of the sacraments. He had not yet adequately applied the truth that moral obligations must be founded solely upon the Scriptures. The sphere of the state’s operations needed further clarification, for he was not yet free of the idea that the state may enForce sanctions on behalf of the church.

Yet a man who was naturally timid and modest, a man who shrank from public conflict, had accomplished more within one lifetime to clarify and codify the operations of the church and the teaching which it was bound to proclaim than anyone else for centuries on either side of him.