The Day Calvin Lost His Church

The Calvin we all know is the author of the beastly two-volume Institutes on our shelves. He is a man of talent and poise, working his way through doctrine and Scripture, writing with ‘lucid brevity’ as he called it. The author of the final edition of the Institutes was, in fact, a man in full stride at the end of his career. The dragons were slain, and the church in Geneva was now on solid footing. The bitter days of controversy and the Servetus burning were behind him, and his ministry had taken root.

This is a story of when Calvin was still a knucklehead.

Calvin Arrives in Geneva

When Calvin arrived in Geneva he was an exile leaving his homeland for good. He had been a budding intellectual in the French humanist world, though his potential had never amounted to much before the fires of persecution drove Protestants out of the country. He stopped over in Geneva on the way to Strasbourg, had a fiery encounter with Guillaume Farel, and had chosen to bend his neck to the call to stay in Geneva for the sake of reform.

The context of Geneva was rather tense. Like most other Swiss cities, Geneva was independent, though it was under the jurisdiction of the Duke of Savoy. When Calvin arrived in 1536, though, the city had just been seized in a military operation by the Protestant city of Bern, taking it out from under Catholic rule politically.

The Genevan church was a different matter. Bern was an important city with a strong military, so the Genevan leaders knew Savoy would not quickly retaliate. Many in Geneva were at least open to hearing the Protestant message. The problem was that Bern was German-speaking and had no internal resources to send French-speaking pastors to these cities. And so they outsourced the work to men like Farel. This, in part, explains why Farel was so desperate for good pastoral help—he needed allies if he hoped to reform the city from the top down. The first Protestant service had only been held in Geneva on Good Friday in 1533.

The Day Calvin was Fired

So the situation was tense. Calvin and Farel were under orders from the leadership of Bern to reform the city, yet they were opposed by not a few in Geneva. The rulers in Geneva were not necessarily loyal to Rome, but they nevertheless feared for their safety from a Catholic attempt to retake the city. Zwingli had been killed in a similar attack only a few years prior.

Bern had given Calvin and Farel a Protestant worship service as well as several orders as to how to tie Geneva’s new church into that of Bern. For reasons not entirely clear, though, Farel and Calvin chose to press a new set of demands they had created: weekly communion, a new liturgy, and a number of things Bern had not officially approved.

The demands did not go over well. First they were met with a kind smile with a firm no. Then the situation grew bleak and came to a head during a communion service. Farel and Calvin doubled down on their commitment to these reforms and so withheld communion from the city leaders—effectively excommunicating the city leaders.


How Calvin Was Restored

One of the great stories of the Reformation is Calvin’s restoration after such a humiliating loss. Not all of the problems were his fault, but the blame was ascribed to him by the leadership in Geneva and Basel. They thought he and Farel had gone rogue.

Calvin’s restoration, though, was not through polemic, explanation, and blustering. It was through relationships and mentoring.

The man who worked to restore Calvin was Martin Bucer, a widely respected and irenic theologian from the first generation of the Reformation. Like Luther, Bucer had been a monk, though he sided with Protestantism after hearing Luther personally defend his theology at the Heidelberg Disputation. Bucer wound up in Strasbourg as a reformer with high standing in the budding Reformed movement in the Swiss regions. He was always grieved that Zwingli and Luther had failed to create a unified view on the Lord’s Supper. For most of his career he never ceased to strive for unity between Protestants.

Bucer found in Calvin a young man who needed to be coached back to wholeness in his ministry. The problems in Geneva revealed a young man, maybe a hothead, but they were not unforgivable. Left to fester, however, and they would limit severely Calvin’s future work. Bucer took it upon himself to invite Calvin to Strasbourg to continue working on his publications. The two shared a love of books and theology, and already Calvin’s writing style was showing the lucid brevity he would be known for.

Calvin agreed and came to live in Strasbourg, drawn both to Bucer and the libraries there. When he arrived he was lodged in a home that shared a garden with Bucer and his family. This relationship to Bucer is, it seems, part of the story in Calvin recovering from his setback. Calvin not only conversed with Bucer on theology and worked on both an expansion of the Institutes but also his Romans commentary, he also ate frequently at the Bucer table and witnessed for the first time the intimate life of a Protestant family. Calvin later would remark how much he learned about life, family, and leadership by living so closely to his mentor.

We of course must be careful not to romanticize this experience for Calvin. Challenges would remain both in Strasbourg and after he returned to Geneva. But this story does signal the personal nature of pastoral mentoring. This has, I think, become something of a lost art in the modern church. For Calvin, this level of personal connection was vital, not only to his personal restoration as a pastor in the Swiss regions, but also as the theologian he would become.

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