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Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 15-03-2015


Written by John Hubbird

By 1533, with the Reformation about sixteen years old, the European map had taken on definitive shapes from Luther’s and Zwingli’s efforts and territorial expansions. Yet, the fate of the reformation was hardly secure since, on the whole, liberal Catholic reformers were not joining the Protestant Reformation ranks (Erasmus being a notable example).

When, in 1534, Francis I of France expressed Papal support with brutal repression of the French Protestant Huguenots, the resultant terror campaign probably drove one obscure, twenty-­four year old French theologian and reformer — a recent convert from Catholicism to Protestantism. John Calvin to the relative safety of Basel, Switzerland. Calvin then moved, in 1536, to Geneva, Switzerland, where he gained notoriety as one of the major figures shaping the Reformation and Western Protestant consciousness and tradition. Here it was to be Calvin’s utter brilliance and determination preventing the Protestant church from coming under secular state authority. Geneva, hav­ing just emerged from a dual revolution1, made for a tabula rasa where Calvin attempted a unique historical experiment in Protestant Christian theocracy.

This article seeks to examine Calvin’s work in Geneva in Protestant theocracy design and implementation by considering Calvin the man, Geneva the city, and Calvin in Geneva, by discussing Geneva’s theocratic and democratic dimensions and concluding with a brief analysis of the apparent impact on civil liberty with particular attention to the topics of political liberty, judicial equity, and religious freedom.


Jean Cauvin, more popularly known as John Calvin, lived from July 10, 1509 to May 27, 1564. He was raised within the French aristocracy which permanently affected his political, theological outlooks and thoughts with significant aristocratic pater­nalism. His personal ‘air of dignity’ is said to have persist­ed throughout his life such that when, in later life, a French refugee addressed him as “Brother Calvin,” he was promptly informed that the proper form of address was “Monsieur Calvin.”2 Calvin also held a typically period aristocratic suspicion of crowds which he considered to be “naturally seditious and devoid of reason and discernment.”3

Calvin was subjected to rigorous scholasticism and was well-trained in both the philosophical schools of Nominalism and Terminism while at Montague and the University of Paris. In 1526, Calvin’s father, Gerard, abruptly uprooted him from Paris, sending him to the University of Orleans to study civil law which was not a “secu­lar” field but rather an essential French legal component for the ideal “Christian” state.4Calvin’s intel­lectual development was Humanistic and he was impressed by Erasmus and Bude.5

In the following year, Calvin moved to the University of Bourges. There, in addition to law and Latin, he studied Greek which is significant it was still being linked with heresy at that time.6He remained at Bourges for eighteen months before returning to Paris and then to Noyon upon hearing his father was seri­ously ill there. Calvin remained at Noyon until his father’s death in May of 1531. Gerard Cauvin had refused cooper­ation with the Noyon’s Bishop in a petty professional matter in 1526 and died under the aegis of Catholic excommunication.7

Between 1531 and 1535, Calvin traveled around France, making his final break with Catholicism in 1533. During this per­iod, he went to Orleans, Bourges, Paris, Claix, Poitiers, and Noyon.8 When visiting his close friend, Nicholas Cop, the University of Paris rector, Cop gave his Inaugural address strongly endorsing and expounding upon the evangelical teachings of the Humanists and Reformers. The repressive reaction broke loose in a furor in which some fifty people were eventually apprehended by the authorities but both Cop and Calvin narrowly escaped.9 A decisive factor in Calvin’s leaving France may have been the in­famous “Affair of thePlacards.”10

Finally, in 1535, Calvin settled in Basel, a secure Swiss-Reformation stronghold just east of France. There, he enjoyed the company of many like-minded reformers, such as Erasmus (now old and house-bound), Pierre Robert, Nicho­las Cop, and Heinrich Bullinger.ll While at Basel, Calvin was chiefly occupied by two writing projects. One was assisting Pierre Robert with a new French translation of the Bible and the other was Calvin’s seminal work: The Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in1536.12   Later in that same year he ventured into the city-state of Geneva, intending only to spend one night there.


       The 1530’s tiny citadel republic Geneva was a walled-in, fortress-like city with no suburbs and a population of about 10,000 inhabitants. The city had no nobility but was run by the middle-class and wealthy merchants. Located in the extreme western tip of Switzerland, Geneva was, at the time, situated between remnants of the Carolingian Empire known as France, the Duchy of Savoy, and the Swiss cantons.13

Geneva’s economic resources, while sparse, were adequate apart from chronic housing shortages. It possessed no college or university, manufactured virtually no­thing and had no craft guilds. Its principle income came from four annual fairs which attracted from all over western Europe and beyond until 1462 when France’s King Louis XI established privileged fairs at Lyons whose dates coincided exactly with the Geneva’s. Though the Lyons fairs succeeded in capturing most of the international trade from Geneva, the re­gional aspect of Geneva’s fairs persisted and they continued well into the seventeenth century.14

Even before the beginning of the fifteenth century, Genevans had begun a political odyssey toward self-government. On May 23, 1383, with the blessings of Bishop Fabri, they had ratified a constitution “in perpetuity” that called for the popular election of four “syndics,” or magis­trates, and an advisory council thus setting the precedent for later Geneva citizenry claims defending their right to self-government.15

During the early fifteenth century, the neighboring House of Savoy was perennially attempting to annex Geneva into its territory. Duke Amadeus VIII (of Savoy), being ecclesiastically ambitious, managed to get himself elected (anti) Pope Felix V by the Council of Basel during the Great Western Schism (a.k.a. the Papal Schism, 1378-1419) in 1439.  While he obtained little recognition as Pope during his ten year ‘reign’, the occasion enabled him to secure claim to the Bishopric of Geneva. This led to a disgraceful, if not disastrous, train of incompe­tent and untrustworthy Genevan bishops which undermined the Catholic authority until its ultimate destruction in 1536.16Savoy also constantly maneuvered to appoint pro-Savoy Counts in Geneva. This constant struggle eventually led Geneva’s civic leaders to negotiate alliances with other Swiss city-states to secure military, financial and moral support against the unwanted Savoy influence.17 This three-fold Swiss alliance proved largely successful in wresting control of Geneva from the Savoyards. However, this eroded by 1533 to a simple alliance with Berne, due to Fribourge’s Papist ties and sympathies.18

This alliance was also particularly helpful in 1535, when Geneva was threat­ened by Savoyard military takeover. Both Berne and France came to Geneva’s rescue and the attack was avert­ed. Berne, however, occupied the city and demanded sovereign­ty over Geneva for her trouble, to which her magistrates replied:

We have endured wars against both the Duke of Savoy and the Bishop for seventeen to twenty years, not because we intended to make this city subject to any power, but because we wished that a poor city which had warred and suffered so much should have her liberty. 19

Berne subsequently appealed to Geneva’s Council of Two Hundred for amore “reasonable” response, to which the Two Hundred declared that they “supposed that our ally had come not to put us in subjection but to deliver us from captivity and to give us our liberty.”20 The Bernese army subsequently withdrew. Meanwhile, on May 25, 1536, the Geneva General Citizens Assembly further solidified their Reformation and revolution with a unanimous vote to “life henceforth ac­cording to the Law of the Gospel and the Word of God, and to abolish all Papal abuses.”21

Internally, there were two factions vying for control in Geneva; the first being known as Eidguenots, a Swiss faction of mostly local merchants and the Mammelukes, a mostly catholic Savoy-controlled faction. These two factions were increasingly deadlocked until the Eidguenots took the above-­mentioned initiative to form an unambiguous alliance with Berne and Fribourge.

From 1526 to 1529 the final vestiges of Episcopal and ducal control were decisively abolished. In 1526, the Eidguenot alliance not only kept Savoy at bay, but provided sufficient leverage internally to abolish any ducal claims to power by creating the Council of Two Hundred and consolidating citizen con­trol over areas previously managed by the Duke. In 1527, the Bishop de la Baume was intimidated into fleeing by night, whereupon the Eidguenots promptly assumed more Episcopal prerogatives — culminating in 1529 with the creation of a new civil office displacing the traditional Prince-Bishopric.22 Up until 1535, however, there remained a significant – though shrinking — priestly and monastic Catholic presence in Geneva.

Up to this time Geneva’s revolution was, in both origin and development, primarily economic and political rather than religious. The avant-garde were simply not religious idealists but middle and upper class merchants increasingly disenchanted with the overarching medieval networks exercising stringent economic and political controls over them. It is worth noting that only an egligible de­gree of overt Protestantism in Geneva existed prior to William Farel’s arrival in 1532.23

Farel, from1523-1527, instigated several abortive attempts to settle and preach the Reformed Word — first at Meaux, then at Monteliard, next at Strasbourg, and then at Aigle (a territory of Berne). In one place after another, a warm reception was eventually followed by expulsion either by Human­ists or by a reactionary Catholic establishment. By 1528 in the growing tide of the Reformation, he be­came an established figure through his help in winning over Berne to the Reformed persuasion.24 Later, in 1532, Farel, sensing fertile reformation ground, visited Geneva. Unfortunately at that moment, the old Genevan re­ligious element proved particularly defensive, abusive and anxious to heed a recent Papal warning to look­out for “Lutheran heretics.” Upon discovering Farel preaching reformation, the Episcopal Council ordered him to leave the city immediately on pain of death. Collins describes the incredible scene that ensued:

When Farel and his colleagues protested the sentence and hesitated to leave the Council chamber in the face of a crowd of armed and threatening priests, they were turned out by the canons with fisticuffs and kicks. Farel was saved from a sword thrust by Canon Werley, whose arm was caught at the strategic moment, and from a gun­shot by an arquebus that misfired. Harbored over­night by several sundics, Farel and his friends were put into a small lake boat early the next morning and landed safely between Morges and Lausanne.25

Returning to Berne, Farel revised his tactics and sent a clandestine Reformer, Anthony Froment, back to Geneva to preach under the guise of starting a school of the French language. 26 Farel’s effort helped to pave the way to 1535, when all of the remaining Catholic clergy were ordered to either attend Protestant sermons or to leave the city. Soon after, the Catholic church was destroyed and its extensive properties seized by the Protestant magistrates.27

By then, Geneva had been experimenting with its in­creasingly democratic political structure for over 150 years. In 1536, the civil decision-making centered around the so –called Small Council, a body of 25 men, the 4 heads of which were referred to as Syndics. This Small Council dealt with foreign relations, war and peace and judicial decisions; pro­nounced and executed death sentences; ran the public mint; and was generally recognized as the civil and executive authority. Under the Small Council was the Council of Two Hundred, which met monthly to vote on important legislation, to grant pardon to criminals and to elect members of the Small Council each February. Finally, there was a General Assembly or “medieval commune” comprised of all male citi­zens which met twice yearly for electing the presiding judge of the civil court, fix the price of wine and elect the four syndics each January.28


When Calvin ventured into Geneva to meet Farel in July of 1536, he found a new born city-state, “freed from Episcopal control, but as yet provided with no political substitute; she was liberated from Papistry, but as yet provided with no religious substitute. Geneva was, therefore, a tabula rasa, freshly emerged from the culmination of a dual revolution.”29

Calvin intended only a single night stay while on his way to Strasbourg. Farel, hearing Calvin was in town through a mutual friend, paid him a visit. He urged Calvin to stay in Geneva to assisthim in shap­ing a Reformed Christian social and religious order there. Calvin declined, saying that he needed to pursue his studies in Basel. To this Farel is said to have replied:

I speak in the name of Almighty God: You make an ex­cuse of your studies. But if you refuse to give yourself with us to this work of the Lord, God will curse you, for you are seeking yourself rather than Christ.30

Calvin, apparently impressed by Farel’s zeal and believing his message to be authentic, consented to assist Farel once his own affairs were settled in Basel.

Upon Calvin’s return several months later, Farel recom­mended him to the Small Council (hereafter referred to as “the Council”) to receive a stipend. At first the Coun­cil apparently was not greatly impressed with Calvin and delayed for four or five months prior to appointing him as the Professor of Sacred Letters in the Church of Geneva. Calvin busied himself lecturing and assisting Farel with his fre­quent public “disputations” with the old religious order.31

Their first important project was drafting a comprehensive reorganization of the Church of Geneva -­- known as The Articles — and a public confession of the Reformed faith to provoke Catholics and heretics out of Geneva’s shadows. The Articles were promptly ratified with a few minor changes by the Council; but the Farel/Calvin-inspired religious loyalty oath was met with a mixture of indifference and outright resistance both by Council members and the citizens at large — resulting in the 1538 elections sweeping in four syndics all opposed to Farel and company. From there the political situation became polarized with Farel and sympathizers frequently being accused of spying for French interests and plotting the de­mise of Genevan liberties.32 For their part, Geneva’s pastors under Farel, began preaching against the new magistrates. The magistrates responded with stern warnings for the pastors not to meddle in political affairs. Shortly thereafter, relations totally collapsed.  Both Calvin and Farel were exiled after Calvin referred to the Council as “a coun­cil of the devil,”33 in one of his sermons.

Calvin wished to resettle in Basel, vowing “never again to enter on any ecclesiastical charge whatever, unless the Lord would call me to it by a clear and manifest call.”34 He was invited to move to Strasbourg by Bucer but declined whereupon Bucer accused him of “rejecting God’s call like another Jonah,” and that Calvin’s studies were again in danger of being cursed by God. Apparently, Calvin could not resist such admonitions, for — as with Farel — he took this as a divine summons and moved to Strasbourg to become the Minister of the French Church there, lecturing in Theology.35 While in Strasbourg, Calvin married Idelette de Bure, the widow of a one-time Anabaptist with two children.36

Beginning in 1539, seemingly bizarre events set the political stage for Calvin’s recall to Geneva’s service. Three Genevan emissaries –Lullin and de Chapeaurouge, both anti- Reformation syndics, and Monathan, a member of the Two Hundred — negotiated a highly unfavorable treaty with Berne. When details of this outrageous agreement became widely known in Geneva, the reaction was so violent that the emissaries were sentenced to death (which they escaped by fleeing) with the other Council syndics who sent them also suspected of treason. The Council’s leader, Jean Philippe, was executed. Another syndic tried to escape be letting himself down from a high win­dow and he fell to his death. Thus, with all the syndics either dead or in exile, Geneva control fell into the hands of indigenous pro-Reformers who promptly sought to persuade Calvin to return.37 Calvin, upon receiving word of this development, described his response in his own words, “tears flowed faster than words. Twice they [the messengers] so interrupted what I was saying that I had to withdraw for a time.”38 The decision was an agonizing one for Calvin. While contem­plating the idea, he wrote these words to his friend Farel:

Whenever I call to mind the wretchedness of my life there [in Geneva], how can it not be but that my very soul must shudder at any proposal for my return?…When I remember by what torture my conscience was racked at that time, and with how much anxiety it was continually boiling over, forgive me if I dread the place as having about it some­thing of a fatality in my case.39

Calvin’s final decision to accept Geneva’s offer was the pro­duct of careful and long negotiations regarding the terms of his return. He understandably wished to be sure that there was enough real support for his return to render him reasonably effective in shaping policy. Upon arriving in Genevain September of 1541, Calvin warned that “the church could not hold together unless a settled gov­ernment were agreed on, such, as is prescribed to us in the Word of God and as was in use in the early church.”

The Genevan Council and ministers thus set to work drafting the “ordi­nances for the ordering of the Christian religion.” The pro­duct of this effort was the Ordonnances Ecclésiastiques passed into law in November. These laws codified the specific tasks and functions of the “well ordered church,” prescribing four orders: pastors, doctors (teachers), elders, and deacons. Pas­tors were elected by the Company of Pastors and confirmed by the civil Council granting them a pastoral certificate. The five pastors met weekly to study Scripture and quarterly for “mutual criticism of faults.” Each pastor shepherded a boundary-specific par­ish.40 The twelve elders managed discipline and they, together with the five pastors, formed the Consistory Court. The Consistory met weekly to administer the discipline deemed necessary for the purity of the church.41 The doctors were to teach sound doctrine, especially to the youth, while the deacons cared for the poor and needy.42Calvin’s early failure to secure a less ambiguous arrangement with the Council on this point, “lay at the root of some four­teen years of future struggle with the Council, which often threatened to create a rupture between the Reformer and the Government.”43

Calvin’s initial adversaries were commonly referred to as “Libertines”, self-described zeal­ous lovers of Geneva’s “ancient liberties” and democratic tra­ditions who perceived a self-appointed Consistory with power to excommunicate as an unwarranted intrusion. A key issue plaguing Calvin’s relations with the Libertines was the influx of large numbers of French Protestant refugees fleeing into Geneva. The Libertine mentality tended to be somewhat suspicious of France in general (as having designs on Geneva), and of Calvin in particular (given his French heritage) as being secretly in league with a French plot. Calvin’s warm and hospitable attitude toward these immigrants fed these fears and simply seemed to confirm the worst Libertine suspicions.44The Consistory’s extraordinary authority cornerstone was its power to excommunicate which frequently carried most unpleasant consequences and was based upon an intense mistrust arising from the fact that all elected magistrates were native-born sons of men who had purchased their class standing in keeping withthe Eidguenot revolution of 1526. By contrast, almost all ministers were immigrants from France.45

The Consistory’s excommunication authority was severely tested in 1554, when Berthelier (a prominent Libertine) launched a crusade to remove that right from them. He might have suc­ceeded with better timing but the elections in February brought in three out of four syndics who were Calvin loyalists. When Berthelier continued his campaign, he was eventually imprisoned for his indiscretion.46 Two further events contributing to Libertine resistance demise were the February 1555 elections placing Calvinists in all four syndic seats and the new syndics prompt legal movement(pre­viously passed and used by Libertines to oust Calvinists) to purge most Libertines from the Council ranks.47 By May 1555, tensions mounted into several nocturnal melees, primarily aimed at French residents and allegedly instigated by Libertines. One of these woke unsuspecting citi­zens at 4:00 a.m. with vicious rumors that French inhabitants were “armed to massacre the poor infants of the city” Inquiries were held and a number of prominent Libertines, including Berthelier, condemned for conspiring to overthrow the government. Some were banished under threat of death while others were tortured and beheaded.48

With the balance of power shifted and firmly Calvinistic, the Consistory solidified their disciplinary regime with unambiguous excommunication rights and thereafter simply held inquiries, passed summary judgments and hand over the “guilty” for sentencing and pun­ishment.49


In 1553, just prior to the Berthelier affair, an incident sorely tested the wisdom of the Holy Commonwealth in the trial and execution of Servetus. Michael Servetus (1511-1553) was an Spanish-born medical genius, law student, Bible scholar, philosopher and author whose Trinitarian and baptismal views ran counter to Calvin’s orthodoxy. His writings were widely known during his own lifetime and he had been condemned, mostly in abstentia, as heretical by both Reformers and Catholics all over Europe. He had corresponded many times with Calvin from around the mid-1530’s. Calvin, having lost patience with Servetus, claimed his letters had an edge of hostility and bombast about them in a letter to Farel,

If Servetus comes to Geneva, I will never let him depart alive if I have any authority. 50

In 1553, having just narrowly escaped being burned at the stake at the hands of a tribunal in Vienna, Servetus stopped in Geneva at Calvin’s church during a sermon, whereupon he was arrested at Calvin’s demand through his secretary, Nicholas de la Fon­taine, under the Genevan system whereby an accuser had to go to prison as well as the accused until he could furnish proofs.51 The charges against him were for propagating heretical views in both verbally and in writing. Calvin made an unusual appeal to Roman Law and Justinian for justification of civil authority to punish heresy as a criminal offense against the Empire. There is a curious inconsistency here which we will discuss in the last section.

The Libertine syndics then in power were using the affair to harass Calvin while at the same time trying not to appear to be siding altogether with a heretic. The trial threatened to become an interminable stalemate. As a way out of the impasse, the Council wrote to Vienna and to other Swiss authorities to ask their advice. Within three months, all of the replies were read to the Council: “one and all, Zurich, Basel, Herne, Schaffhausen, condemned Ser­vetus’ opinions as heretical, blasphemous, a pestilence.”52 The next day he was sentenced to burn at the stake, where upon Calvin and others – as an apparent token of Christian mercy — requested that he be beheaded instead. This was denied, and Ser­vetus was burned to death. His dying words were, “Oh Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity onme.”53

Once beyond the Servetus affair in 1553 and the routing of the Libertines in 1554, Geneva set­tled into undisputed Calvinist hands by 1555, and the Consistory redoubled their efforts to do four things: stamp out all the traces of Catholicism; enforce stringent church attendance; tighten the “sumptuary laws” of dress, manners, and petty morality; and crusade against sexual immorality. These acts led to a grow­ing number of convictions with each passing year.54 Monter de­scribes this period as follows:

By 1558, none of the magistrates who had sat on the Small Council in 1536 was left in Geneva, and a third of them had children who were now exiled. They were being replaced, slowly but surely, by magistrates who believed in collective, orderly rule under Divine In­spiration. A tenacious and devout type of Calvinist governor, who increasingly oligarchic rule continued to mark the Republic of Geneva for the rest of its long existence, had taken control.55

In 1556, Calvin’s visit to the college at Strasbourg re-inspired him to found a university in Geneva. In January 1558, the Council agreed to proceed with plans for the school, but things went slowly. Not until March did the Council get around to inspecting the proposed site and at the year’s end the foundational digging had only just begun. There were many delays, but by 1563 the structure was completed56 thanks to a timely wholesale walkout College of Lausanne faculty (ironically, over the issue of excommunication with the Bernese govern­ment) and Geneva’s new college was able to receive many of these orphaned instructors into immediate employment. With an instant staff nucleus of seasoned educators and intellectuals, the college was remarkably successful, with an attendance of 1500 in 156457 which was the same year Calvin died, at age 54, from complication arising from a burst pulmonary blood vessel.


Abraham Kuyper suggests Calvin considered monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, “possible and practicable forms of government; provided it be unchangeably maintained, that no one on earth can claim authority over his fellow man unless it be laid upon him by the Grace of God.58 In other words, the nature of a political structure is large­ly irrelevant so long as those in power are “ordained of God” for the task. Calvin did not much med­dle, at least on record, with Geneva’s quasi-democratic political structures and traditions which he inherited. This might be further substantiated by the legendary influence Calvin wielded with­out altering basic political structures.

However, another explanation could be that it was precisely the malleability of Genevan political structures that allowed a French-born aristocratic foreigner to so dramatically shape its destiny. Indeed, he had to flee his own home country — a monarchy under Francis I — due to its repressive posture toward the Reformation. At any rate, it is interesting that Calvin ended up in a small Swiss city-state with such uniquely proto-democratic ideas and struc­tures, in order to set up his experiment in Protestant theo­cracy.

But was Calvin’s Geneva a theocracy, a democracy or merely yet another in the series of historical European oligarchies hiding behind one man’s reformist religious zeal? Mon­ter suggests it was a theocracy because it was understood to be governed by God through a balance of clergy-men and magistrates acting in concert.59 Calvin’s primary achievement was systematically indoctrinating an entire generation of Genevans in his personal perspectives on theology and system of ecclesiastical discipline, the distinctive and fear­some feature of Genevan theocracy.60 At the same time, the Council, the Two Hundred and the General Assembly “did ful­fill a democratic political function rarely found in 16thcentury Europe,61 and they nominally continued to do so during Calvin’s time there.

Calvin’s first thesis is that “sin alone has necessitated the institution of government,” and his second is that “all authority of governments on earth originates from the sovereign­ty of God alone.”62 Kuyper elaborates:

Calvinism has, therefore, by its deep conception of sin, laid bare the true root of state-life, and has taught us two things: first, that we have gratefully to receive, from the hand of God, the institution of the state with its magistrates, as a means of pre­servation, now indeed indispensable. And on the other hand also that, by virtue of our natural impul­ses (to sin and greed and despotism) we must ever watch against the danger which lurks for our personal liber­ty, in the power of the state.63

If God were not sovereign, He would not be God and Christians — if they are to be biblical — cannot get around Romans 13, I Samuel 8, and other such passages. A more essential presupposition is squarely faced by one of Calvin’s biographers, T.H.L. Parker who notes:

The presupposition of Calvin’s argument is that the re­ligion of the state was the Christian religion, and that the Christian religion was the adherence to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. If the Evangelicals could be shown to stand outside the [historic and Apostolic] Christian religion, they were justly to be repressed. All hinges-on this point. Calvin’s con­tention was in no way that Evangelicals should ‘be tolerated.’ Nor did he assert that there could be more than one Church in a State. His claim was nothing less than that” the Evangelicals were therefore the One Holy, Catholic,’ Apostolic Church.64

The critical point is Calvin’s claim to be the One True Church to the exclusion of all others and is underscored by the profound irony that Calvin, himself a fugi­tive Reformer, appealed to Holy Roman Law in justifying an exe­cution of another “heretic,” Servetus. Moreover, Calvin himself was also a “heretic” according to the Keepers of the very legal standards to which he appealed to incriminate him. If this most basic, unspoken premise of Calvin’s is accepted without question, then all else follows along quite naturally — including the use of torture and coercive force through civil government to insure that “idol­atry, sacrilege in the name of God, blasphemies against His truth, and other public offenses against [the One True] re­ligion may not emerge.”65

But what if civil government could somehow not become the tool of any one sacral orthodoxy, but the champion of all faiths, through a deliberate disestablishment of all as attempted by the framers of the United States Constitution envisioned for America two hundred years later? “Establishment” is a necessary, but not wholly sufficient, condition of a theo­cracy. State churches were “established” in this sense all over Europe during this period, but most were just the relatively rigid control of secular civil authorities with little or no interest in Christianity or even morality.

Calvin’s peculiar brand of Reformed theology “established” Genevan religion in a tight-knit monopo­ly on the only public medium, preaching with forced attendance, while wielding the Consistory’s considerable, almost unchallengeable political influence in concert. Even more importantly, Calvin devised and enforced a comprehensive rigorous system of discipline for daily life, obscuring the distinction between church and state authority. It is this thrust precisely that transcends mere establishment and is so strikingly approaches the theocratic.

Calvin had a deep and abiding personal vision of the church as a caring and loving community of believers, which is touchingly evident in these words he spoke to the con­gregation before taking communion:

We shall benefit very much from the sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, reject­ed, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do … we cannot love Christ without loving Him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by evil, without being touched with compassion for him.66

Ironically, it seems likely that it was this very moving and tender vision — this vision of what the church could be if only it would — that compelled Calvin to demand such rigor and discipline of himself and others; yet, such pursuits through the medium of the civil-magistrate pinpoints thorny dilemmas within theocracy.


Monter claims Calvin’s “basic achievement, upon which his numerous biographers agree, was to instill Christian discipline upon a refractory and even revolutionary population having just uprooted her spiritual leader Prince­ Bishopric.67 The driving force behind this was Calvin and the theocratic machi­nery was the Consistory of Elders and Pastors. The Consistory’s role can be considered as that of official state conscience. It admonished its perceived wrong-doers who, if repentant, would be simply dismissed. If unrepentant, they would be forbidden communion and required to report to the Council. Thus the civil arm became the church’s sword-bearing disciplinarian. “Offenses” against the Holy Commonwealth included such hein­ous transgressions as non-attendance at church, “contempt of church order,” dancing, wearing the wrong kind of clothes, or incorrect eating habits.68 Of course, there were the more serious matters too, such as sorcery, witchcraft, heresy, adult­ery, drunkenness, theft, etc. The practical consequences of being excommunicated by the Consistory could he far-reaching and severe, including such measures as torture, seizure of properties, banishment, public whipping, piercing of tongues, brandings, and even death. 69

True, these penalties were technically carried out by the Council, but it was a direct and predictable conse­quence of Consistory actions. On the other hand, the Pas­tors influence upon the Council was far from absolute and not without inconsistencies: it took them four years to convince the Council to finally dismiss a scandalously irre­verent and immoral pastor named de Ecclesia; but they easily convinced the Council to legally ban a long list of names they deemed inappropriate for use from being bestowed upon newly born babies.70 Such contrasts strongly suggest that politics, rather than biblical ethics, were the primary guiding force.

In their zeal to see their religion promoted by civil means, the Consistory engineered an uninterrupted train of bizarre intrigues mostly revolving around petty moral offen­ses. Even more disturbing was the frequent abuse of what today would be considered elementary civil liberties. A few all-too-typical cases may be instructive:

*Jean Guidon charged in 1553 with creating a ruckus in his own home, being found out by spies on neighboring rooftops peering in his window.

* Jacques Gruet in 1547 charged with attaching an offensive and obscene note to the pulpit at St. Pierre’s Church. The Consistory tortured him into a confession and beheaded him for blas­phemy and rebellion.

*Small Council member Pierre Ameaux in 1545 charged with slandering Calvin at a private gathering. Originally the Council decided that Ameaux should pay a fine and confess his sin. But Calvin was unsatisfied, who wanted a harsher penalty imposed and the Con­sistory backed Calvin, forcing a split in the Coun­cil over the matter. Finally, Calvin was satisfied when Ameaux had spent two months in prison, lost his office, been paraded through town kneeling to confess his libel and paid for the trial expense.71

It is also reported that one child was beheaded for striking his parents.72 During the seventeen years for which there are reliable records (1542-1564), there were 139 recorded executions in Geneva. By comparison, there were only 572 exe­cutions in Zurich during the entire 16th century or 8.6 per year in Geneva compared to only 5.7 in Zurich.73 Clearly, the Consistory’s “establishment” as the official civil oracle of God in the hands of Calvin seems to have inexorably cast it into a grizzly coercive role as the public arbiter and de facto enforcer of religious orthodoxy and petty moral preferences.

On the other hand, there is some evidence of restraint being used by the Consistory to temper what would otherwise have probably been even harsher measures. Remember that excommunication was the prerogative of many European civil tribunals. (suchas in Berne, Basel, and Zurich) but these are largely the outgrowth of Papist-born authority structures arising a thousand years earlier. It is only if one starts with this view of history as a presupposition that it seems plausible for such matters being handled with “Christian” charity and decorum.74

However, this view of the Consistory as a “restraint” to prevent even worse evils that were rampant elsewhere in sixteenth century Europe does not square with the above-men­tioned statistics on the relative number of executions per year in Geneva as opposed to Zurich. It does seem Calvin could have taken his deep love for the purity and unity of the church body to some more humane, indeed Christ-like conclusions. Many sixteenth century non-violent Anabaptists, as the proto-reformers arising before them, did; and almost all of those were slain — martyred by their “magisterial”75 and Catholic Papist religious authorities.

In terms of political liberty, we have shown already that Geneva had a rich history of democratic and electoral experience. It has been pointed out, for example, that in Nazi Germany it was chiefly the Calvinists that resisted Hitler, not the Anabaptists or Lutherans.76 But this may be giving far, far too much credit to Calvin, the man rather than to the ethics that arose after Calvin; perhaps more in spite of him rather than because of him. It seems unlikely that Calvin can be credited with anything approaching a healthy sense of participatory Christian statesmanship. There is certainly no indication that the individual’s freedom of mobility or vocational voices was not largely respected, within the bounds of the economy. However, freedoms of speech and from arbitrary abuses of state authority were not valued.

Judicial equity seems to have been Geneva’s strong suit. Instances abound to show that their sense of justice regard­ing equal treatment under the law regardless of rank or office. For example, in 1546, Amblard Corn, the sitting the syndics president was censured for dancing. He endured his penance gracefully and even developed a deep friendship with Calvin afterwards.77 Also, in 1557, Calvin’s own sister ­in-law was caught in the act of adultery and suffered the common penalty — excommunication and banishment.78 There seems to have a somewhat worse track record in the areas of “due process” and of humane sentencing proportionate to the crime.

Clearly, reli­gious liberty was not one of the features of the Genevan poli­tical or religious landscape, as people were routinely punished for deviat­ing from the norms Calvin “established.” It appears that the “disestablishment” of all religion from the Genevan state and a corresponding concept of religious liberty was not con­sidered as a practical or even desirable option, due to the milieu and to Calvin’s “magisterial” orientation. Indeed it seems plausible that such an option would have been inconceivable to Calvin.


Calvin’s presupposition that his church was the One True Church, driven by his own passionate vision, led him to employ inhumane means to achieve his desired ends. Was this inhumanity an inescapable conclusion to Calvin’s view of the church, or just an instance of cultural hang-over from an earlier in­quisitional milieu?  Or is it, perhaps, the nature for absolute power to corrupt even the most well-meaning of souls?

It might be instructive to briefly compare Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Calvinist ecclesiology with their respective postures in regard to the state. If there are predictable and logical relationships here, then it would suggest that Calvin’s view of the church did influence his choice of civic means. The two marks of the “true church” for Luther were the preaching of the Word, and the two sacraments of Baptism and Communion which appears to render Lutheranism relatively culture-bound and impotentin the hands of civil authority. The Anabaptists added a third prerequi­site of Godly discipline within the redeemed commu­nity. This in turn led them to separate from the state into non-violent, neo-monastic enclaves. Calvin, like the Anabaptists, chose to incorporate rigorous discipline to insure the purity of the church but failed to adopt the same posture toward civil government as the Ana­baptists. Why?

Let us ask this crucial question another way: from whence comes Calvinism’s magisterial commitment to a sacral view of the state? Certainly, we might possibly excuse John Calvin in the sixteenth century for his medieval mind-set and for not knowing how his experiment would turn out — assuming his intentions were, in fact, as stated. We have the benefit of hindsight. Would Calvin wish for anyone to slavishly repeat his mistakes out of an obligation to tradition and dogma? It is impossible to know yet it seems appropriate here to call for a re-examination of Calvinism’s magisterial orientation, in light of both his­tory and Scripture. Some see our own national origin rooted as a Puritan experiment which saw its sovereignty as implanted by God in the people requiring a continual reliance on God to survive.80 Calvin once said that God Himself would choose to “take from a people this most desirable condition [democracy] if the Nation proves unfit.” Scripture has not left us ignorant of God’s standards for fitness:

Administer justice every morning; deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of his. oppressor, that my wrath may not go forth like fire (Jeremiah 21:12).

Let not a rich man boast of his riches, but let him boast of this, that he understands and knows. Me, that I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for I delight in these things declares the Lord (Jeremiah 9:24).81

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  1. Monter, E. William, Calvin’s Geneva, John Wiley & Sons 1967, p.29.
  2. Collins, Ross. W. Calvin & The Liberties of Geneva, Clarke, Irwin & Co. 1968. p.7.
  3. p.35.
  4. T.H.L. John Calvin: A Biography. The Westminster Press. Philadelphia. 1975, pp.11-15.
  5. Collins, p.34.
  6. Parker, pp. 19-21.
  7. , p.24.
  8. , pp. 30-33.
  9. Collins, pp. 40-41.
  10. This incident involved the posting of needlessly polemical handbills (in Paris, Orleans, Blois and Amboise) entitled “The True Articles on the Horrible Abuses of the Papal Mass.”
  11. Parker, p.32.
  12. [editor’s note: in English, this work is traditionally known as The Institutes of the Christian Religion, frequently shortened to Calvin’s Institutes. However, this inaccurate translation from the original Latin title, Institutio Christianae Religionis, would, in a literal translation, read: An Instruction of Christian Piety.]
  13. , p.34.
  14. Monter, p.30.
  15. Collins, pp. 62-63.
  16. , p.62.
  17. , pp.68-72.
  18. Parker, p.55.
  19. Monter, p.55.
  20. , p.56.
  21. , pp.43-45.
  22. Monter, p.49.
  23. Collins, pp. 77-82.
  24. , pp.81-84.
  25. , pp. 84-85.
  26. Monter, p.54.
  27. Monter, p.145.
  28. , p.29.
  29. R.J. Politics Of Guilt and Pity. Thoburn Press, Fairfax, VA. 1970. p.269.
  30. Collins, p.96.
  31. Monter, p.66.
  32. Parker, p.66.
  33. , p.67.
  34. , p.71
  35. Collins, p.134.
  36. Parker, p.79.
  37. , p.80.
  38. , p.82.
  39. , p.83.
  40. , p.84.
  41. Collins, pp. 184-185.
  42. pp.186-187. The Libertine fears proved groundless since many immigrants were skilled artisans and valued intellectuals who benefited the Geneva economy and respected her autonomy. In fact, by the 1550’s, so many immigrants wished to return to France that alarmed Genevans sought to prevent their exodus.
  43. Monter, p.146.
  44. Collins, pp.185-186.
  45. , p. 189.
  46. , pp. 188-194.
  47. , p.194.
  48. Parker, p.118. [Editor’s not:e: this suggests evidence for premeditated murder, as it shows Calvin’s intent to kill Servetus even before he arrived in Geneva.]
  49. , p.121.
  50. , p. 122.
  51. Collins, p.180.
  52. , pp. 195-197.
  53. Monter, pp. 88-89
  54. Parker, p.127.
  55. Collins, p.197
  56. Kuyper,A. Calvinism: Six Stone-Lectures. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1931, p.133.
  57. Monter, p.144.
  58. [Editor’s note: the original manuscript contains a reference to footnote #60 but does not actually have a footnote for that number.]
  59. , p.145.
  60. Kuyper, p.131.
  61. , p. 129.
  62. Parker, p.35.
  63. , p.123.
  64. Graham W. Fred. The Constructive Revolutionary. John Knox Press, 1971, pp. 163-164.
  65. Monter, p. 235.
  66. Parker, p.83.
  67. Graham, p.169.
  68. , pp. 162-163.
  69. , pp.165-167.
  70. Oboler, Eli, The Fear of the Word: Censorship & Sex, Scarecrow Press, 1974, pp. 60-62.
  71. Hopfl, Harro, The Christian Polity of John Calvin, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 136.
  72. Collins, p. 184.
  73. Refers to Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinistic Reformers, indicating their affinity for establishing state churches.
  74. Graham, p.172.
  75. Monter, p. 138.
  76. Parker, p.102.
  77. McFetridge, Rev. N. S. Calvinism in History. Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1882, pp. 57-58.
  78. Kuyper, pp. 138-140.
  79. , p. 133

Comments (3)

[…] the ‘then’ through the values and ideals of the ‘now.’ This is both true in looking at John Hubbird’s essay from 1983 and at the life works of John Calvin from the mid-16th century. It is a common error, for example, […]

[…] can be found in Will Durant, The Reformation, pp. 472-476. Durant cites his sources. See also Calvin’s Geneva: An Experiment in Christian Theocracy – published in The Radical Resurgence andCalvin’s Geneva: Applied Critical Thinking – published in The Radical […]

[…] can be found in Will Durant, The Reformation, pp. 472-476. Durant cites his sources. See also Calvin’s Geneva: An Experiment in Christian Theocracy – published in The Radical Resurgence andCalvin’s Geneva: Applied Critical Thinking – published in The Radical […]