4. From the first to the second Stay in Geneva (1536-1541)
In Basel, Calvin lived under the pseudonym “Lucianus,” an
anagram of Calvinus. He worked further on his Protestant catechism for
the French Reformed, and in August 1535 finished his work. It was available
in print March 1536. Besides the writing of his catechism, which he called “Institutio
christianae religionis” (Institutes of the Christian Religion),
he further studied the bible, works of Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon
and even Martin Bucer. It was here at the latest that he learnt Hebrew
and read the Scholastics. He must have accomplished an immense work quota.
In April 1536, just after his Institutes had appeared, Calvin went to
Paris and met up with his brothers and sisters. Then he intended to go
further to Strasbourg, where he wanted to meet Bucer and others. However,
Calvin could not take the direct route, for war was again prevailing
between King Franz I of France and the Emperor Karl. And so he travelled
across Lyon and Geneva. This had consequences.
For in Geneva there were famous scenes between Wilhelm Farel and John
Calvin. Calvin reports on this himself:
“The shortest route to Strasbourg, where I wanted to return
at that time, was obstructed because of the war. Therefore, I intended
to travel through here quickly, without stopping longer than a night
in the town. The Papacy had been abolished in this town a short time
ago by the upright man of whom I have already spoken [Farel], and
by Master Pierre Viret. However, things did not stand as they should,
and there were malicious and dangerous divisions and groups among
the inhabitants. Then someone discovered me… [du Tillet] and
told the others. As a result, Farel (since he was seized by a wonderful
zeal to foster the gospel) immediately made every effort to stop
me from leaving. And after he had heard that I wanted to be free
for my own studies, and when he saw that he could not achieve anything
through pleading, he went so far as to curse me – that God
would damn my peace and my studies if I drew back in such an emergency
and failed to help and assist. These words frightened me and shook
me up so deeply that I gave up the journey I had undertaken. However,
because of my fear and shyness, I did not want to be obliged to take
up a particular office.”
The Reformation had been introduced in Geneva in 1535 and Farel had
already achieved a lot. However, since the Reformation was introduced
in Geneva on the part of the town council in order to emphasise the independence
of the town Geneva in relation to the bishops, the Reformation in Geneva
lacked a deep-rootedness in respect of content. The Roman-Catholic party
was still influential, and Farel felt that it was too much for him alone.
And so it was convenient for Calvin to remain in Geneva, and not as pastor
or preacher but rather as “teacher of Holy Scripture in the Geneva
Church.” But he was very soon called upon to preach and to help
in the building up of the church as well.
In 1537 Calvin made the suggestion to the town council of a new organisation
of the church. In this a basic characteristic of Calvin’s theology
becomes clear: always at stake for him is the form of the church and
how it lives. It is true that he intends no exclusive community of the
elect – this was the concept of the Anabaptists. Rather, Calvin
understands the church as a community of those who belong to it by choice.
Therefore he and Farel drew up a confession of faith (Confession de foi),
which was supposed to be signed by all Genevans “in order to establish
who agrees with the Gospel and who wants rather to belong to the kingdom
of the pope than to the kingdom of Christ.”
In addition to this he introduced some further changes. Psalms were sung
in the church services – still today a distinguishing feature of
Reformed communities worldwide.
A catechistic instruction was devised and a catechism written, much shorter
than the Institutes and clearly dependent upon Luther’s Small Catechism.
But the town council had difficulty with Calvin’s suggestions of
reform. The proposals were only agreed with after much hesitation. The
situation escalated when they were presented to the inhabitants of Geneva,
who were happy to sign the confession of belief. But many did not want
this, and so through this failed experiment the tension between the Catholics
and the Protestants grew. It was indeed a mistake on Calvin’s part
to want to succeed in this respect. The opposition to Calvin grew. Elections
were held in Geneva in 1538 and the parties of opposition, which were
by in large Roman-Catholic, took the victory. Besides the general unrest
among the people, the Anabaptists were preoccupied with additional problems.
And there were major, and in some cases dogmatic, accusations raised
against Farel and Calvin, for example, that Calvin was an Arian and denied
the divine nature of Christ.
This insinuation misses the mark in terms of the content of Calvin’s
theology; he is in no way a theologian in sympathy with Arianism. However,
Calvin rejected the accusations. Therefore the matter was brought to
Bern, where Calvin’s position aroused suspicion. Although this
had no consequences, Calvin’s position in Geneva was nevertheless
weakened through these insinuations. The opposition won the majority
in the elections of 1538 and the new council forbade Calvin and Farel
to preach on Easter Sunday. Calvin and Farel disregarded this command
and so were relieved of their office and had to leave the town within
It seems that the Geneva episode had no lasting significance, since Calvin
was only in Geneva for two years.
Calvin intended to return to Basel and to take up his studies again there.
Farel was called to Neuchatel in July. Friends criticised Calvin for
his obstinacy and he also realised that he had behaved wrongly and too
stubbornly, and drew the conclusion that he was not cut out for public
effectiveness, but should instead lead a quiet scholarly existence.
So he refused for a long while the plea of the Strasbourgers to come
to them and take charge of the French refugee-community there as pastor.
But he finally came because Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito requested
it so insistently. Strasbourg was one of the most significant centres
of German Protestantism in 1538. Although they had followed the Wittenberg
Reformation in 1536, Bucer and Capito retained independence, also theologically.
Bucer is to be regarded quite simply as the most important leader of
the negotiations of the Protestant party.
Calvin thus became pastor of the French refugee-community and constructed
it on the model of the Strasbourgers, taking over their order of service
and reworking it only slightly. Besides this, however, he held a professorial
chair in exegesis at the newly founded high school, where he interpreted
John’s Gospel and then several Pauline epistles. His commentaries
were also printed.
Above all, he worked on a new edition of his Institutes, which appeared
in 1539. If previously this had been more like a detailed Catechism,
which moreover still oriented itself on Luther’s theology, it was
now a substantial textbook of dogmatics in its own right.
The time in Strasbourg was entirely taken up. Each week he held four
sermons, his lectures, he worked on his books and even undertook several
trips to participate in talks on religion, e.g. in Frankfurt Main in
1539. It was there that Calvin made the acquaintance of Melanchthon,
and a friendship between them arose. Luther’s closest co-worker
thus became a friend of Calvin. Calvin had great respect for Luther throughout
his life, and Luther also expressed positive views about Calvin. At the
same time, however, Calvin had trouble with the pigheadedness of Luther
in the last years of his life.
Calvin found that the Lutheran communities laid too little emphasis on
church life and complied still too much with the Roman-Catholic liturgies
and forms of mass. He also found the dependence on the regional rulers
The situation in Strasbourg seemed favourable for Calvin, and it looked
like Calvin would remain there for a long time. In 1539, he received
citizenship in the small Republic, in accordance with his own wishes.
His financial situation also improved after his initial obligation to
buy a proportion of his own books.
Those in his circle had it in mind to marry him off. The thought did
not appear to have come to him of his own accord. Two attempts failed.
Finally Calvin agreed to marry Idelette de Bure. She was the widow of
an Anabaptist, who himself had converted. In 1540 Farel came from Neuchatel
in order to marry them.
Meanwhile in Geneva several unpleasant things had happened. After the
departure of Farel and Calvin much in the church life had become disorderly.
Friends of Calvin in Geneva attempted not to acknowledge the disciples
of Calvin and Farel, which caused Calvin to intervene. He demanded the
acknowledgement of new pastors. This achieved pacification, but only
in an unstable manner. Bern attempted to gain control over Geneva. Then
the disciples from the town were hunted down. A conflict was feared,
and possibly even an armed one. The Reformed party brought some of their
opponents to see that order would only be reestablished if Calvin were
to be called back as soon as possible. On 20th October 1540 a legation
set out from Geneva to Strasbourg in order to persuade Calvin to return
to Geneva. Calvin hesitated – and refused. Even Farel placed himself
in the service of the Genevans and sought to persuade Calvin, but without
success. Bucer wanted to keep Calvin in Strasbourg. The whole attempt
lasted in all for more than half a year, and finally Calvin agreed to
return for a few weeks. On 13th September 1541 Calvin arrived once more
in Geneva, but contrary to his plans, stayed there not only for a few
months but for the rest of his life.