The Magisterial Reformation: Part 9

  1. Calvin’s return to Geneva
  2. The difficulty of imposing religion on an unwilling population
  3. Calvin almost gives up

 In the last chapter, Calvin and Farel had just been ignominiously ejected from Geneva. From there, they travelled on to Basle, but then Farel was called away to serve the church in Neuchatel, and Calvin was invited to Strasbourg to serve as a minister in a French church which catered for refugees from France. During his stay in Strasbourg, which lasted about three years, he wrote a new edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and a Commentary on the book of Romans.

However, during this time another issue came back to haunt him. In 1537, when he had been labouring in Geneva, he had been accused of heresy; more precisely, of having a false view of the Trinity. The person who brought this accusation was a rather erratic figure called, Pierre Caroli. He had been vacillating between the Catholic Church and the reformers, but now professed to be on the side of the Reformed faith. Caroli had been installed by the Bernese authorities as the main minister in Lausanne. After reports by Caroli regarding Calvin’s teachings, Berne was very concerned that it might be associated with heresy, so Calvin and Farel had to make a defence of their beliefs before them. They were vindicated in the matter, and Caroli returned to the Catholic Church after being deposed by Berne. However, the problem for Calvin and Farel was that the rumours of heresy would not go away, and time and energy was taken up in trying to squash the rumours. It was a stressful, exhausting and exasperating time for Calvin, Farel and their close friend, Pierre Viret, who was the other minister at Lausanne.


That was in 1537. But only two years later, in 1539, when Calvin was now in Strasbourg, Caroli reappeared, seeking reconciliation. He claimed that he had only gone back to the Catholic Church because of what he had thought were the false teachings of Calvin and Farel. Caroli went to Neuchatel, where Farel was, and managed to convince him of his desire to return to the Reformed fold. Farel was glad to receive him back, believing that Caroli was genuine in seeking reconciliation. Caroli then went to Strasbourg, where Calvin was, in order to put things right with the leading reformers there, which included Martin Bucer. The reformers he spoke to made it clear that they disapproved of his actions, but again, were happy to receive him back. Calvin, on the other hand, was incandescent with rage.

I mentioned in the last talk how Calvin could take things very personally, and this certainly would be an example of that. Calvin declared that he would under no circumstances receive Caroli unless he fully retracted the accusations of heresy against him. Martin Bucer and the other reformers endeavoured to mediate in the matter. Calvin was invited to give his version of things and to enumerate Caroli’s faults. Calvin refused, very much doubting Caroli’s sincerity, and believing it would be a never-ending battle of words. The next day, Calvin had to meet with the leading reformers again for him to look at some statements (‘articles’) that Caroli had agreed to. But this time Calvin blew up in a rage. Calvin accused his colleagues of working behind his back, of prejudging the issue, and put the blame on Farel for having been so naïve in the beginning. Calvin was so distraught that he could not comply with their request that evening. Calvin later wrote about the incident in a letter to Farel:

“There I sinned grievously in not being able to keep within bounds, for bile had taken possession of my mind to the extent that I poured out bitterness on all sides…I complained that they had presented these articles to me for the purpose of exonerating Caroli, and that it was their opinion that these articles were good. While I was unheard, and judgement had already been pronounced, they required me to subscribe [to the articles], which if I refused, would turn them into my adversaries…At last, I forced myself out of the dining room…Bucer followed, and when he had soothed me by his gentle words he brought me back to the company. I said that I wished to consider the matter more fully before making any more distinct reply. When I got home I was seized with an extraordinary paroxysm, nor did I find any other solace than in sighs and tears, and I was the more deeply afflicted because you [Farel] had occasioned those evils for me. Again and again they reminded me of your leniency, who had mercifully embraced Caroli upon the spot, saying that I was too headstrong and could not be moved one inch from my judgement. Bucer, indeed, has tried every mode of representation that he might soothe my mind on the subject. Meanwhile, he invidiously uses your example against me.” (N1)

Calvin could, and would react to with force, in writing and in preaching, to opposition from enemies. As we shall see, he seemed to need public vindication and triumph. However, emotionally and mentally, Calvin could not cope with a situation where it was now his colleagues who were finding fault with him. It was completely unbearable and intolerable to him that there was no prospect of changing his friends’ minds concerning him, and about the duplicity of Caroli. His frustration knew no bounds, and he exploded with bitter accusations against his friends. Upon arriving home, he fell victim to a kind of emotional breakdown of frustration. It seems Calvin needed to feel vindicated and be seen to be vindicated, and even to triumph over his perceived enemies, and this trait emerges later on in his dealings with his opponents.


In the meantime, things were not working out well in Geneva. The church, in particular, was very much lacking leadership and competent ministers, and now the Catholic Church, through a particular Cardinal (Jacopo Sadoleto) was making overtures to the city of Geneva about returning to the fold. Sadoleto wrote so convincingly that neither Geneva nor Bern had anyone capable of replying in kind. Calvin was approached to compose a reply, and he agreed to do so. This was at the end of 1539. In September 1540, the Council of Geneva instructed one of its members, Ami Perrin, to oversee the recall of Calvin. However, this first request was refused. Calvin wrote to Farel saying: “whenever I call to mind the wretchedness of my life, 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 wracked 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.” (Opera Calvini 11, 91; Herminjard 6, 325-6; ET 1, 187 / Quoted Parker, p. 106).

Evidently, Calvin found his first stay in Geneva gruelling. However, Calvin also expressed himself in terms of being open to God’s will, should He make that clear. Initially, Strasbourg also did not want to lose Calvin, but as the overtures from Geneva continued, in the end, Calvin agreed to return. But he imposed conditions – he gave the Genevan Council to understand that he would only return on his terms, as had been expressed during his first stay. To this they agreed, and he was warmly received back in Geneva in September 1541. He had been away for three years.

Upon arrival, Calvin immediately set about drafting Ordinances for the ordering of the Christian religion in Geneva. These ordinances related to the government, administration and life of the church. It seems that Calvin had learnt nothing from his first attempt at trying to outwardly impose religion on people. No doubt, he must have felt encouraged to pursue his aims, since it was intimated by the council that he would have more of a free hand this time. However, 14 years of struggle lay ahead of him.

In November, the Ordinances were passed by the Genevan councils, but the councils made some significant changes to them. For example, a pastor could be installed only with the final approval of the council. Likewise, a pastor could only be deposed by a decision of the council and not by a decision of the clerics. In the amendments made to the ordinances, it stated clearly that ministers were subject to civil law and that the final sentence of punishment was the prerogative of the council.

A Consistory court, called the Consistoire, was set up, and it was responsible for church discipline, but it consisted of the ministers and 12 laymen, who were all chosen from the councils, and this meant that in the Consistory the council members outnumbered the ministers, which again gave the council control – at least, potentially, anyway. Moreover, the president of this body was to be the executive magistrate of the council. The amended Ordinances made it clear that the ministers (the clerics) had no civil jurisdiction, and the consistory court was not to usurp the authority of the councils.

I am surprised that Calvin did not kick up a fuss about the amendments, as they seemed to land him in a similar, if not identical situation as before, and indeed, the amendments did lay the ground for future tensions and conflicts between the religious ministers and the councils.

In the new instructions, church attendance was made mandatory for all citizens. This all seems far removed and foreign to what we read in the New Testament concerning the church.

It is no great surprise that embittered opposition started growing against Calvin. This is the natural result when you start legislating morality and imposing religious observance in the name of God’s law, to a large community of unwilling people. Opposition and defiance were an inevitable result of such efforts. It was like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. There was bound to be conflict.

None of the reformers understood that the Kingdom of God could not be brought about or established by legislation, by imposing God’s law on people. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom that you can only be born into. But, as we have seen, the reformers Luther and Calvin believed and taught that infant baptism is the medium through which we become God’s children. This falsehood, this deception, robbed them of the understanding and perception that people needed to be converted by the evangelistic preaching of the Gospel.

It was not so much that the people were against the Reformation itself, but against Calvin’s imposition of rules and regulations that deprived the citizens of the personal liberties and pleasures that they had been used to. Parker seems to confirm this assessment with the following words:

“The troubles were caused by two factors. The one, the undisciplined wilfulness and fear of a strong section of the community. The other, that blend of determination, excitability and intelligence that constituted Calvin’s character.” (Parker, p. 124).

In fact, it was about 10 years later, when Calvin felt he had been defeated in these struggles, that he handed in a letter of resignation to the city authorities, which, nevertheless, was refused by them. However, Calvin gained some respite and help when in 1546 new ministers from France arrived, who came to replace others who had left. They were well-educated and sympathetic to Calvin’s work of reformation, but one of them, Michel Cop, would soon be embroiled in a tumult of his own making.

Opposition Grows Against Calvin

Having extra clergy from France, on the other hand, only increased the anti-French feeling that was growing because of Calvin’s dominating style. This could only result in ongoing tensions and conflicts between the councils and Calvin, and that is exactly what happened. It was a recipe for trouble, if not disaster.

Gradually an opposition group developed against Calvin. These included respectable and notable families in Geneva and important council members, including Ami Perrin. (If you remember, Perrin had initially warmly welcomed Calvin to Geneva.) This opposition group was given the name ‘Libertines’, for obvious reasons, or ‘Perrinists’, after Ami Perrin.

In the same year, 1546, and in the years that followed, there were grumblings and complaints from various citizens against the increase in French clergy. In 1547, it is recorded that the watchman Francois Mestrat wanted the Frenchmen to be thrown into the Rhone River. (Annales Calviniani, Opera Calvini 21, col. 407).

In Geneva, it was not only dangerous, but also a criminal offence to speak against Calvin and his teaching. At the beginning of 1546, one of the Libertine group, Cartelier by name, spoke against Calvin in no uncertain terms at supper in his own home. He was imprisoned, and Calvin comments:

“I testified to the judge that it would be agreeable to me were he proceeded against with the utmost rigour of the law.” (Letter to Farel, Feb. 1546).

Can we imagine the apostle Paul – had he had the opportunity to do so – demanding the secular authorities punish someone who had criticised him? Had Calvin read and understood the scriptures about forgiveness, and rejoicing when someone reviles you, and says all manner of evil against you falsely; about blessing those that curse you and doing good to them that hate you (Mtt. 5:11, 44)?

In March 1548, one citizen (Millon, from Auvergne) was banished from Geneva because he had written ballads against Calvin. I suppose it is no wonder that some people have called Calvin ‘the Pope of Geneva’. In February, in the same letter as above, Calvin wrote to Farel saying, “With regard to those who gave out that we were establishing here a permanent seat of despotism, under colour of defence, let us suffer this rumour to spread on both sides. Their impudence has been met with civility and mildness, so that they ought to be ashamed of themselves. I trust that they will keep quiet. I seek, as far as I am able, to persuade our friends to remain unconcerned.” Calvin certainly felt he had ‘right’, if not God, on his side, and seemed unperturbed by accusations of being a despot. But it is clear that there was the feeling among some that he was acting like a pope.

Ami Perrin’s mother was bold enough to criticize Calvin before the Consistory. The following is recorded: “She continued to create insults at the said M. Calvin, among which are those that follow: that he came to Geneva to throw us into debates and wars, and that since he has been here there has been neither profit nor peace…Moreover, she reproached him that he did not live as he preached, and that she never found love in him…” (Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 423.)

Pierre Ameaux

Apart from Ami Perrin’s mother, quite a number of people, including other important citizens of Geneva, were feeling the reformer’s style of imposing religion on them was creating strife and upset in the community. In January 1546, tensions rose between Calvin and the councils about the conduct of one Pierre Ameaux, who accused Calvin of being a mere ‘Picard’ (i.e., a Frenchman), who preached false doctrine. Being a maker of playing cards, perhaps he had a particular reason to grumble about Calvin. But to accuse Calvin of preaching false doctrine was considered a crime in Geneva; so Ameaux was arrested. He was tried by the Small Council and ordered to pay a fine of 60 crowns and to publicly acknowledge his fault. However, the Council of the Two Hundred reduced the sentence, only requiring Ameaux to make an apology to Calvin before them. Calvin flatly refused to accept the latter as a suitable punishment for the slander against him. Ameaux had impugned the name of God, claiming that the word of God was false doctrine!

As I mentioned earlier, Calvin, believing that he truly represented God’s truth in his teaching, perceived any opposition to himself or his teaching as opposition to God and to His truth. Others might say that he was a man too easily offended and who could not tolerate any personal criticism of himself.  Whatever the case, Calvin threatened not to preach again unless the sentence was made more severe. (It is no wonder that some people thought that Calvin’s behaviour did not always live up to his preaching.) This caused some tumult in the city. The council of the Two Hundred gave in, and ordered that Ameaux be publicly paraded and humiliated. He had to make a circuit of the city in his shirt, and carrying a torch and kneeling at certain places, asking God’s forgiveness. This seemed to satisfy Calvin’s sense of justice (if not revenge) in suitably vindicating and restoring his reputation. Was Calvin any more Christian than the people he wanted punished?

Even ministers got into hot water if they impugned the character of Calvin. Henri de La Mare, who was pastor in the village of Jussy, privately criticised Calvin for his bad temper and inflexibility. He was hauled before the Consistory, where he also, to some extent, defended Ameaux, and repeated his view that Calvin was “a bit subject to his tempers…impatient man, hateful, and vindictive.” Well, de La Mare might have felt his opinion substantiated when Calvin ensured that he was ousted from ministry within the Genevan territory. (N2)

Dancing Forbidden

In April 1546, another crime was committed. Ami Perrin had held some of the most important positions on the Genevan Small Council. But, by all accounts, he was a worldly man, and dubbed by Calvin as ‘our comic Caesar’. Perrin took a leading part in the opposition that was growing against Calvin. A problem arose because it was reported that Perrin’s wife, along with others, had danced at a wedding party, which was attended by other important citizens of Geneva. Among those who had danced were Ami Perrin himself and the president of the Consistory Court, Amblard Corne. So they were imprisoned for the crime of having danced at a party, and made to confess their crimes and apologize before being released.

This is the Reformation in Switzerland. Neither priest nor politician understood the Gospel, or preached the Gospel. Neither priest nor politician understood what constituted the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. By means of the civic law, they tried to make people righteous and upright, and to cajole them with threats and imprisonment in order to persuade them to be good Christians – and being a good Christian meant you could not dance at weddings. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, on the part of both pastor and politician. Where there is no regeneration, there will be legalism – and that of the pharisaic sort, in other words, with an emphasis on the outward observance of rules and laws. By enforcing an outward conformity to certain rules of conduct, Calvin and the state sought to ‘sanctify’, or Christianize the worldly and the ungodly.

With regard to the case of dancing, some denied any wrongdoing, which infuriated Calvin. He relates his part in being able to force a confession from the wrongdoers by letting them know, in no uncertain terms the consequences of their dishonesty. Moreover, Calvin used his pulpit to publicly inveigh against dancing and other ‘loose’ behaviour of the Genevans. Calvin writes about this to Farel:

“After your departure the dances caused us more trouble than I had supposed. All those present were summoned to the Consistory, with the two exceptions of Corne and Perrin, [where they] shamelessly lied to God and us. I was incensed, as the vileness of the thing demanded, and I strongly inveighed against the contempt of God in that they thought nothing of making a mockery of the sacred admonitions we had used…When I was finally informed of their state of ease, I could do nothing but call God to witness that they would pay the penalty for such perfidy. I at the same time announced my resolution to uncover the truth even though it should be at the cost of my own life lest they should imagine that any advantage should come of lying.” (Calvin to Farel, Apr.1546).

With extreme diligence, if not ruthlessness, Calvin sought to put out the fires of ‘carnal and worldly’ conduct wherever and whenever they appeared in Geneva.

The Taverns And Dramas

The year 1546 was also the year that attempts were made to change the nature of the taverns, that is, the drinking houses in Geneva. So, the taverns were closed. In their place, five religious public houses were opened. Here there would be food and drink, as well as a French Bible available. There was to be no swearing or dancing. It was to be a place of edification, with the singing of hymns and the reading of Scripture. It should be no surprise to us that these ‘religious’ public houses did not last long, and the taverns were soon back in business!

As an illustration of a failed enterprise, the attempted ‘conversion’ of the taverns reflects the nature and the failure of the Protestant Reformation, in that it fails to truly change people’s lives spiritually and inwardly first. It is through the preaching of the evangelical Gospel that leads people to repentance and changed lives, where they themselves then choose not to go to pubs to get drunk. Of such things we do read in revivals of the past (for example, in the revival of 1859 in Belfast, or the 1904/05 revival in Wales, not to mention the changes in communities that happened during the Wesleyan revival), where pubs were closed, either through the conversion of the pub owner, or through lack of trade. There are no historical records that bear witness to anything even vaguely approaching these kinds of spiritual revivals under the leadership of the Protestant Reformers.

In the same year, 1546, a tumult arose because of a play called Acts of the Apostles. Calvin had read the text of this play and approved that the play could be performed for the edification of the people. Otherwise, worldly plays were forbidden by the council. However, a fellow minister, Michel Cop (who I mentioned earlier), stepped outside the agreed line and fiercely denounced it from his pulpit. This resulted in a riot in the streets by the Genevans, who were infuriated that they were being deprived of this entertainment. We are given to understand from the history books that such riots were not infrequent in Geneva. Calvin relates the following in his letter to Farel:

“At dawn, Michel, instead of preaching, inveighed against the actors. But so vehement was the second invective that a gang of people made straight for me with loud shouts, threats and what not. And had I not by a strong effort restrained the fury of some of them, they would have come to blows. I endeavoured in the second debate to appease their anger, acting moderately, for I judged that he had acted imprudently in having at such an unseasonable time chosen such a theme for preaching. But his extravagance was the more displeasing as I could not approve of what he had said.” (Calvin to Farel, 4 July 1546).

During the tumult, the council had ordered everyone to go home, but crowds of people remained in the streets, angrily demonstrating. According to Calvin, on the next day the instigators of the violence said they would have killed Cop, had not Calvin intervened. Cop was severely reprimanded not only by the council but also by Calvin. Cop’s attempt to keep the people on ‘the straight and narrow’ by angrily denouncing drama plays – including religious ones – failed spectacularly. In one sense, one could say that Ami Perrin’s mother was largely right. Calvin could only bring ‘debates and ‘wars’ without ‘profit and ‘peace’ because the reformers were engaged in rebuking the sins of a religious, but worldly community instead of preaching the Gospel to them and changing their hearts and lives.

In other matters, Calvin and his colleagues did not spare the council itself, accusing it of ‘moral laxity’ for not dealing properly with sexual immorality in the community. It is through many instances like these, that it becomes clear that Calvin did not believe in the separation of Church and State. He, as a minister of the church, wanted the secular authority to punish the sins of the people in order to promote righteousness in the city. The council retorted that if there be such persons, then the preachers should use discretion and inform the council of it instead of using the pulpit to publicly harangue the council about it. The inevitable tensions between state and church continued in Geneva as they had done since the time of Constantine.

Calvin did not view the Church as a separate body of believers in an otherwise godless community. The church was a mixed multitude of a godless majority and a godly minority, who could hardly be distinguished. The church was imperfect and its adherents still sinners, needing the rigours of the Law, by edict and by preaching, to keep sin in check. He regarded the city of Geneva as the Church, where righteousness was to be imposed on the citizens, and punishment or banishment inflicted on the openly sinful and rebellious ones.

Jacques Gruet And Riots

In 1547, new elections for important posts in the council executive changed things in favour of the anti-Calvin party. On 27th June a threatening letter was found in the pulpit of Saint Pierre. It was a coarse letter with implicit, if not clear death threats, telling the reformers to keep quiet and to stop blaming people and ruining their lives. (Opera Calvini 12, 545). Calvin brought the letter before the council, and in the event, one Jacques Gruet was arrested – he belonged to the anti-Calvin group. His house was searched and a number of writings and letters were found which were critical of Calvin and very anti-religious. In particular, a letter addressed to the magistrates was found. It highlighted the sentiments of not a few in Geneva. It said that they should ‘not be ruled by the voice or will of one man.’ It argued that all men are different with their different natures, opinions, and likes and dislikes. It goes on to say:

“Therefore, it seems to me that a magistrate should establish a state in which there is no discord of making a people subject to something against their nature.”

Now, leaving aside the nature and beliefs of this man Gruet, he is here making the point very clearly that you cannot make a leopard change its spots; you cannot force people into something that is fundamentally contrary to their nature. Or, if I may interpret it further, you should not Christianize people. The legal, outward imposition of modes of behaviour could not work when it is contrary to the person’s nature. I find here that what an atheist sees clearly, Calvin was blind to. Gruet’s letter continues by acknowledging that “everyone who maliciously and voluntarily hurts another deserves to be punished.” But then he concludes with: “But suppose I am a man who wants to eat his meals as he pleases, what is that to do with the law? Nothing.” (Opera Calvini 12, 564-5 / Quoted Parker, p. 137).

It is undoubtedly true that Gruet wanted to have the liberty to enjoy more than just eating and drinking; but there was a logic to his argument. However, Gruet was subjected to prolonged torture, which extracted from him a number of confessions, as a result of which he was beheaded in July 1547. In 1550, when workmen were doing renovations on what had been his house, they discovered all manner of shocking blasphemous material. This gave a sense of justice to the citizens of Geneva for the sentence inflicted on Gruet. Calvin inveighed against his writings, which were also publicly burned at that time.

Also in 1547, Ami Perrin was arrested and eventually released, but stripped of his honours. This happened because of his behaviour towards the council over a certain matter and for suspected intrigue with a foreign country, namely, France. However, all this caused another one of those terrible Genevan riots. The issue did not involve Calvin, but in the commotion, he made his way to the council chamber, and he relates the following about the event: “Much confused shouting was heard…Things got so loud that there was surely a riot…I at once run up to the place. Everything looks terrible. I throw myself into the thickest of the crowds, to the amazement of everyone. The whole mob makes a rush towards me; they seize me and drag me hither and thither – no doubt lest I should be injured! I called God and men to witness that…if they wanted to shed blood, to start with me. Even the worthless, but especially the more respectable, at once cooled down. I was at length dragged through the midst of them to the council. There new fights started, and I threw myself between them… I succeeded in getting everyone to sit down quietly, and then delivered a long and vehement speech, which they say moved all them.” (Opera Calvini 12, 632-3; ET 2, 134-5).

As we learned, one of the factors which led Geneva to recall Calvin was that they needed someone with strong leadership qualities. Moreover, Calvin’s integrity and uprightness, which was appreciated by at least some, gave his leadership the respect needed in decisive moments. There seems no doubt that Calvin was faithful in what he did, and he gave himself to the work tirelessly.

However, things were getting on top of Calvin. At about this time (1547), he wrote, “I have not yet decided what I am going to do, except that I can no longer tolerate the ways of this people, even though they may bear with mine.” (Opera Calvini 12, 639; ET 2, 137). But Calvin managed to revive from this mood and struggled on.

The Libertines, however, continued in their opposition to Calvin, undermining him and stirring up trouble wherever they could. When there was a significant number of opponents to Calvin on the councils, these would make a decision perhaps not so much on the merits of the case as they might have done, but in order to snub Calvin and to demonstrate their authority over him and the pastors.

Where Calvin did suffer a defeat to the council was in church appointments. Without going into details, one pastor (De Ecclesia, by name) had behaved badly and also taught error, and the ministers referred the matter to the council. The council responded by saying that the ministers should forgive and reinstate him. However, the full meeting of the company of pastors decided that he should not be restored, and they informed the council of this. The chief magistrate (syndic) at that time (1549) was none other than Ami Perrin, and he informed the pastors that De Ecclesia had been issued a final warning by the council, and he was to continue in the pastorate. The Company of pastors were forced into submission on the matter. This was just one case among others, where the council overruled the Company of pastors on appointments and demotions of ministers. This issued caused Calvin great frustration.

Jerome Bolsec

What turned out to be a very significant event and a blow to Calvin was the arrival of a French refugee who was forced to leave France because of his evangelical preaching. His name was Jerome Bolsec. He was a monk who had also ventured into practising medicine. He arrived in 1550 and settled just outside Geneva. Early on he was reprimanded in Geneva for challenging the doctrine of election. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1551 (October 16th) he attended a Friday Bible study (Congrégation) where various pastors were present. Bolsec started speaking against Calvin’s teaching on predestination, among other things, saying it made God a tyrant and the author of evil. He accused Calvin’s teaching of making an idol of God. However, he did not notice Calvin come in and sit down. When Bolsec had finished, Calvin stood up and spent one hour refuting Bolsec’s claims. At the end of the meeting, Bolsec was arrested and taken to prison. It was very dangerous to oppose Calvin’s teaching.

Bolsec was interrogated by the civil court, but it was too difficult for them to pronounce on matters so theologically complex. As a result, Calvin and the other ministers had to form the questions to be put to the prisoner. So it became a theological examination in front of the council. Bolsec did not show himself to be a competent theologian, but he stood firm in the debate but remained in prison during this time. He also claimed that ministers from the churches of other cities sided with him. They could not let this go unchallenged. So Geneva sent a letter to other Swiss churches asking for their opinion before making a decision on the matter. No doubt Geneva expected a suitable judgement to be made against Bolsec by the Swiss churches.

However, things did not turn out to Calvin’s satisfaction, or even in his favour. What made this a troublesome affair for him was the fact that Bolsec had expressed views about Calvin’s teaching that others also shared, even among his friends and co-reformers. In the end, the replies from the Swiss churches were a weak mixture of suggestions. Basle’s response was ambiguous with regard to any punishment, and Clavin complained about their response in a letter to Farel, calling it ‘cold and empty’. (Letter to Farel, Jan. 1552). However, that was nothing compared to reply from Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich. Bullinger had taken over from Zwingli and was an important figure in the Reformed movement in Switzerland. The church in Zürich expressed surprise that it was being asked for its opinion on an issue that had already been settled in an official document of doctrinal agreement made between Zurich and Berne (the Consensus Tigurinus). They did not understand why such a fuss was being made about this, and added that they felt Bolsec had been treated too severely by the Genevans. They advised that a reconciliation be made with Bolsec. This caused no end of annoyance and frustration to Calvin, who felt he was being treated like an enemy, and complained bitterly to Farel about Zurich’s and Bullinger’s response. (Letter to Farel, 8 Dec. 1551). In the same letter, he also complained about the lack of communication from the Senate (the Small Council) in Geneva, stating:

“The Senate did not consider the pastors worthy of being written to, but to heighten the insult, they limited their communication to the magistrates.”

Calvin was feeling sidelined by the authorities in Geneva. Another snub.

He also privately corresponded with Bullinger at this time, but Bullinger warned him that Bolsec was only saying what others had been saying about his views on predestination. More than that, there was explicit criticism from Bullinger that Calvin had overstepped the mark regarding predestination and gone beyond scripture. He told Calvin, “Now, believe me, many are offended by your statements on predestination in your Institutes, and Bolsec has drawn from them the same conclusions….” (Bullinger to Calvin, 1 Dec. 1551). Calvin could not let that go unanswered and defended his stance in no uncertain terms to Bullinger. The Bolsec affair ended up straining relations between Calvin and the Swiss churches.

At every turn, Calvin could not tolerate any challenge to his teaching, believing as he did, it was God’s truth.

After receiving the replies, the Genevan authorities banned Bolsec from Geneva at the end of December. However, things were far from over. Bolsec went to the Bernese lands, where he was allowed to voice his criticisms of Calvin and his doctrines, and soon drew in others who already were not enamoured with Calvin. Bolsec was a rather eccentric figure and eventually returned to the Catholic Church, but he found those who were ready and willing to listen to his criticisms of Calvin in the Bernese regions.

Calvin, in the end, went to Bern to clarify things regarding what he taught, and to secure peace. Although he was well-received, reservations still remained, and those who had criticisms of Calvin were still allowed to voice them openly and freely. This reached such a pitch that the Genevan council had to write a letter in protest to Bern.

The background to this is that Calvin had disaffected the Bernese because of his opposition to their liturgical rites and his criticism of their ministers, as well as Calvin wanting the clerics to be in charge of the sanction of excommunication instead of the councils having this power. They were also worried that Calvin was a maverick in their midst, who was unduly influencing the whole of the French-speaking region with his own doctrinal views. Relations between Calvin and Bern were as strained as ever.

The event with Bolsec is important for another reason. We have already seen how Calvin argued with the councils over the punishment that should be inflicted on Ameaux, Calvin wanting a much more public and severe one than the councils were disposed to impose. Also in the case with Bolsec, not only did the act of consulting the other Reformed cities turn out to Calvin’s great disadvantage, but it highlighted the tension between the council and Calvin. This will be an important factor when we come to look at Calvin’s involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus, when I shall be referring back to this event.

The 1550s

In the first half of the 1550s things were not going well for Calvin. There were continuing tensions with Bern, who in 1554 actually banned those writings of Calvin that they believed did not follow their own teachings. Resentment towards the preaching of the pastors in Geneva also carried on unabated. Then the elections in February 1553, gave the Libertines – the anti-Calvin faction – a majority on the chief seats within the council, with Ami Perrin as first syndic (executive magistrate). The Perrinists then took up positions on the Consistory, thus again threatening and limiting Calvin’s position and authority in matters of church discipline.

Tensions and conflict between Calvin and the councils emerged again over the issue of banning people from the Lord’s Supper. Calvin claimed that this was the prerogative of the Consistory, but was overruled at this time by the magistrates, who claimed this authority for themselves. The council took less and less notice of the ministers in matters relating to church discipline and appointments, and even banned the ministers, who were citizens of Geneva, from sitting on the General Council which was open to all citizens. It was a stressful time for Calvin, to say the least. In April, there were complaints from a number of citizens that they found the reprimands of the consistory oppressive, so the council called on the ministers to explain themselves.

In 1553 Calvin wrote, “they have never shown a more unbridled licence…The entire republic is now in disorder and they are striving to uproot the established order.” (Opera Calvini 14, 509; ET 2, 377-8).

After 12 years of political and religious infighting, and of opposition from the citizens of Geneva, in July (1553), Calvin had had enough and asked permission to resign. Thus it is recorded: “M. Calvin has remonstrated and asked that the council will not be displeased if, since he sees that some wish him ill, and many grumble and turn away from the Word, he goes into retirement and serves no longer.” (Opera Calvini 21, 547. Italics mine.) His request was denied. It seemed that the Perrinists wanted Calvin under their control, rather than let him loose as a free agent.

There are those who claim that Calvin believed in the separation between the Church and the State. As I have already stated elsewhere, this, at best, is only half true. In essence, it is not true at all. All the Protestant Reformers continued the state church system that evolved from the time of Constantine. They believed in Christendom. The state and church are really one entity with two parts. According to this view, the Church wields the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and the State wields the sword of physical punishment (Romans 13:1-6), and it is the States’ duty before God to purge the community of ungodliness, idolatry and heresy. Both are called of God to make and keep the community ‘godly’ and ‘Christian’. These ideas are clearly expressed in Calvin’s and other reformers’ writings.

Calvin certainly wanted the authority for the clerics to oversee and run church matters, but it is clear that all the reformers regarded the secular authorities, who themselves were religious, as a servant of God – and therefore in some respects a servant of the Church. The Church saw it as the duty of the civil powers to secure the purity of the Church from heresies, and to punish religious dissenters, and even to control the everyday conduct of its citizens. As I have pointed out from the beginning, in this kind of alliance between Church and State set up from the time of Constantine, the ‘Church’ was going to have to accept having its wings clipped – to a greater or lesser extent – by the power that had not only given it the privileged position it enjoyed, but also ensured that no other dissenting voice or teaching would be allowed to exist or survive in its regions. We have seen how the reformers exhorted princes and magistrates to persecute, imprison and kill dissenters to the Reformed religion. They believed the civil authority was ordained of God for this purpose. This does not represent a separation of Church and State.

What is true is that although Calvin expected the State to fulfil its divine duty in punishing the immoral and the heretic in society, he believed these civic powers should not interfere in the running of the church. That was his idea of a so-called ‘separation’ between the two. He wanted this concept to work ‘one way’, that is, in his favour. But it is naïve to think that those who hold the keys of power, that is, the State, will end up being so subservient to those who actually depend on them for their existence, that is, the Church! Calvin would have been horrified at the notion that the state had nothing to do with upholding and imposing the ‘one true religion’ in its domains.

In Chapter 10, we will look at an event that gives us an illustration of exactly this – the Church and State acting as one to bring a heretic to his death.


(N1) Opera Calvini, 10b, 396ff.; Herminjard 6, 52ff.; ET 1, 127ff  / Quoted in, T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin, Lion Hudson plc., 2006, p. 96.

(N2) Cited in Watt, Jeffrey R., “The Consistory and Social Discipline in Calvin’s Geneva”; 2020. Liberal Arts Faculty Books. 225; p. 19.