Strassburg is even more marked. Something also he owed to Scotus and other medieval schoolmen. The book appeared anonymously, the author having, as he himself says, nothing in view beyond furnishing a statement of the faith of the persecuted Protestants, whom he saw cruelly cut to pieces by impious and perfidious court parasites. In this work, though produced when the author was only twenty-six years of age, we find a complete outline of the Calvinist theological system. In none of the later editions, nor in any of his later works do we find reason to believe that he ever changed his views on any essential point from what they were at the period of its first publication. Such an instance of maturity of mind and of opinion at so early an age would be remarkable under any circumstances; but in Calvin’s case it is rendered peculiarly so by the shortness of the time which had elapsed since he gave himself to theological studies. It may be doubted also if the history of literature presents us with another instance of a book written at so early an age, which has exercised such a prodigious influence upon the opinions and practices both of contemporaries and of posterity.
After a short visit (April 1536) to the court of Renée, duchess of Ferrara (cousin to Margaret of Navarre), which at that time afforded an asylum to several learned and pious fugitives from persecution, Calvin returned through Basel to France to arrange his affairs before finally taking farewell of his native country. His intention was to settle at Strassburg or Basel, and to devote himself to study. But being unable, in consequence of the war between Francis I. and Charles V., to reach Strassburg by the ordinary route, he with his younger brother Antoine and his half-sister Marie journeyed to Lyons and so to Geneva, making for Basel. In Geneva his progress was arrested, and his resolution to pursue the quiet path of studious research was dispelled by what he calls the “formidable obtestation” of Guillaume Farel. After many struggles and no small suffering, this energetic spirit had succeeded in planting the evangelical standard at Geneva; and anxious to secure the aid of such a man as Calvin, he entreated him on his arrival to relinquish his design of going farther, and to devote himself to the work in that city. Calvin at first declined, alleging as an excuse his need of securing more time for personal improvement, but ultimately, believing that he was divinely called to this task and that “God had stretched forth His hand upon me from on high to arrest me,” he consented to remain at Geneva. He hurried to Basel, transacted some business, and returned to Geneva in August 1536. He at once began to expound the epistles of St Paul in the church of St Pierre, and after about a year was also elected preacher by the magistrates with the consent of the people, an office which he would not accept until it had been repeatedly pressed upon him. His services seem to have been rendered for some time gratuitously, for in February 1537 there is an entry in the city registers to the effect that six crowns had been voted to him, “since he has as yet hardly received anything.”
Calvin was in his twenty-eighth year when he was thus constrained to settle at Geneva; and in this city the rest of his life, with the exception of a brief interval, was spent. The post to which he was thus called was not an easy one. Though the people of Geneva had cast off the obedience of Rome, it was largely a political revolt against the duke of Savoy, and they were still (says Beza) “but very imperfectly enlightened in divine knowledge; they had as yet hardly emerged from the filth of the papacy.” This laid them open to the incursions of those fanatical teachers, whom the excitement attendant upon the Reformation had called forth, and who hung mischievously upon the rear of the reforming body. To obviate the evils thence resulting, Calvin, in union with Farel, drew up a condensed statement of Christian doctrine consisting of twenty-one articles. This the citizens were summoned, in parties of ten each, to profess and swear to as the confession of their faith—a process which, though not in accordance with modern notions of the best way of establishing men in the faith, was gone through, Calvin tells us, “with much satisfaction.” As the people took this oath in the capacity of citizens, we may see here the basis laid for that theocratic system which subsequently became peculiarly characteristic of the Genevan polity. Deeply convinced of the importance of education for the young, Calvin and his coadjutors were solicitous to establish schools throughout the city, and to enforce on parents the sending of their children to them; and as he had no faith in education apart from religious training, he drew up a catechism of Christian doctrine which the children had to learn whilst they were receiving secular instruction. Of the troubles which arose from fanatical teachers, the chief proceeded from the efforts of the Anabaptists; a public disputation was held on the 16th and 17th of March 1537, and so excited the populace that the Council of Two Hundred stopped it, declared the Anabaptists vanquished and drove them from the city. About the same time also, the peace of Calvin and his friends was much disturbed and their work interrupted by Pierre Caroli, another native of northern France, who, though a man of loose principle and belief, had been appointed chief pastor at Lausanne and was discrediting the good work done by Pierre Viret in that city. Calvin went to Viret’s aid and brought Caroli before the commissioners of Bern on a charge of advocating prayers for the dead as a means of their earlier resurrection. Caroli brought a counter-charge against the Geneva divines of Sabellianism and Arianism, because they would not enforce the Athanasian creed, and had not used the words “Trinity” and “Person” in the confession they had drawn up. It was a struggle between the thoroughgoing humanistic reformer who drew his creed solely from the “word of God” and the merely semi-Protestant reformer who looked on the old creed as a priceless heritage. In a synod held at Bern the matter was fully discussed, when a verdict was given in favour of the Geneva divines, and Caroli deposed from his office and banished. He returned to France, rejoined the Roman communion and spent the rest of his life in passing to and from the old faith and the new. Thus ended an affair which seems to have occasioned Calvin much more uneasiness than the character of his assailant, and the manifest falsehood of the charge brought against him, would seem to justify. Two brief anti-Romanist tracts, one entitled De fugiendis impiorum sacris, the other De sacerdotio papali abjiciendo, were also published early in this year.
Hardly was the affair of Caroli settled, when new and severer trials came upon the Genevan Reformers. The austere simplicity of the ritual which Farel had introduced, and to which Calvin had conformed; the strictness with which the ministers sought to enforce not only the laws of morality, but certain sumptuary regulations respecting the dress and mode of living of the citizens; and their determination in spiritual matters and ecclesiastical ceremonies not to submit to the least dictation from the civil power, led to violent dissensions. Amidst much party strife Calvin perhaps showed more youthful impetuosity than experienced skill. He and his colleagues refused to administer the sacrament in the Bernese form, i.e. with unleavened bread, and on Easter Sunday, 1538, declined to do so at all because of the popular tumult. For this they were banished from the city. They went first to Bern, and soon after to Zürich, where a synod of the Swiss pastors had been convened. Before this assembly they pleaded their cause, and stated what were the points on which they were prepared to insist as needful for the proper discipline of the church. They declared that they would yield in the matter of ceremonies so far as to employ unleavened bread in the eucharist, to use fonts in baptism, and to allow festival days, provided the people might pursue their ordinary avocations after public service. These Calvin regarded as matters of indifference, provided the magistrates did not make them of importance, by seeking to enforce them; and he was the more willing to concede them, because he hoped thereby to meet the wishes of the Bernese brethren whose ritual was less simple than that established by Farel at Geneva. But he and his colleagues insisted, on the other hand, that for the proper maintenance of discipline, there should be a division of parishes—that excommunications should be permitted, and should be under the power of elders chosen by the council, in
- Praef. ad Psalmos.
- Beza, Vit. Calv. an. 1536.