Calvin. History and Reception of a Reformation Week 1. Calvin's Life Sequence 6. Building the Reformation in Geneva (1540-1555) Hello and welcome to today's sequence, which will focus on how the Reformation was set up in Geneva -- this time, by Calvin himself. As we've seen, Calvin returned to Geneva in September, 1541. Over the next few months, Calvin worked feverishly -- to say the least. He began by writing a liturgy, "The Form of Prayers." More importantly, he began work on a catechism, which he would complete in 1542. In his farewell speech to the ministers, one month before his death in 1564, Calvin would say about this catechism: "When I came back from Strasbourg, I hastily drew the catechism, for I never wanted to accept the ministry lest they solemnly grant me these two points, namely upholding the catechism and the Church discipline; and while I was writing it, people came to fetch
the small pieces of paper, hardly bigger than a hand, and they carried them to the printer." In other words, as soon as Calvin filled up a piece of blank paper with writing, someone would immediately take it to the printer, so that it could be printed while Calvin worked on the next page. Needless to say, there is no surviving manuscript of this catechism. There have been innumerable printings, however. The oldest extant copy, of which there is only one left, dates back to 1545, and is located today not in Geneva, but in a German library. Calvin's Catechism, which has since been used by generations and generations of Reformed Protestants, was translated into many languages, including European vernaculars such as German, Italian, Dutch and Hungarian... But it was also translated into certain dead languages: into Latin, so as to disseminate it among the intellectuals; into Greek; and even into Hebrew, so that theology students could learn that language by studying a text whose content they knew virtually by heart. The Catechism is in the form of a series of questions and answers. To us, this may seem repetitive and boring, but at the time, organizing content in such a pattern was one of humanism's great innovations. Rather than a long, uninterrupted lecture, this method alternated between a question asked by the teacher (in this case, the pastor or minister) and a response supplied by the child. For example, the Catechism's first question: "What is the chief end of human life?" The child's answer: "To know God." In these words, we have something akin to a summary of the opening sentences of the "Institutes of the Christian Religion," which we'll discuss in more detail a little later. So the end of human life is to know God -- but then comes the second question: "What reason have you for saying so?" And the child's response: " Because He created us and placed us in this world to be glorified in us. And it is indeed right that our life, of which He is the beginning, should be devoted to His glory." For Calvin, the meaning of life is not to be sought only in man, but in God. God brings us to life, so it is only right that we glorify Him. In fact, the phrase "soli Deo gloria" ("for the glory of God alone") was one of Calvin's favorites. Calvin's Catechism continues: "What is the true and right knowledge of God?" And the child's response: "When He is so known that due honor is paid to Him." And here we have one of Calvinism's trademarks, if you'll pardon the expression. Indeed, knowledge of God could be conceived as strictly speculative: the knowledge of an intellectual, a scientist or a theologian. (Theologian, by the way, was a word Calvin loathed -- he would never have presented himself as a theologian.) For Calvin, true knowledge of God is practical knowledge. I know God so that I may honor Him. And how do I honor Him? By obeying God's commandments. Calvin's Catechism is divided into four parts. First, a commentary on the Apostles' Creed -- on faith. Second: a commentary on the decalogue, or Ten Commandments -- on the Law. If I endeavor to honor God, I must learn to obey God. Third part ("On Prayer"): a commentary on the Lord's prayer, the "Our Father". This commentary on the Lord's Prayer is a reminder that God, as our benevolent Father, hears our pleas and comes to our aid. The fourth part of the Catechism pertains to the Church ("On the sacraments"). In his farewell speech -- from which we've already quoted -- Calvin said he had two things to do upon returning from Strasbourg: to establish a catechism -- as we've seen, he did so -- but also to establish discipline. What does this mean? Calvin arrived in Geneva in September of 1541. Only two months later, in November, several Ecclesiastical Ordinances were published. And although they were officially published by the Council of Geneva -- the city's political authority -- it is clear that Calvin authored the majority of them. In fact, the Council modified certain parts of Calvin's text, which Calvin tried to oppose, unsuccessfully for the most part. The goal of these Ecclesiastical Ordinances was to establish the "spiritual governance" of the Church and of the city. Why both? In the 16th century, there was no distinction between what we would today refer to as the State, on the one hand, and the Church on the other. There was no such thing as secularism and it would therefore be anachronistic on our part to criticize the Ordinances of 1541 in this regard. The "spiritual governance" of the Church consisted in four orders or offices. First was the order of pastors, who were elected by other pastors already in office. A form of cooptation, then. But the Council amended Calvin's text and required that all new candidates be first vetted by the Council -- that is, by the political authority. As regards pastors, certain crimes were considered intolerable: heresy and rebellion against the ecclesiastical authorities, for instance. Others were defined as tolerable, such as negligence and a few other "minor" sins -- ill temper, anger, etc. The distinction between tolerable and intolerable offenses has led some to speculate that Calvin preferred his pastors mediocre rather than ambitious; that negligence was preferable in his eyes to rebellion against the Church. Whatever the case may be, these Ordinances established something of a list of specifications for ministers and regulated the performance of their pastoral duties, both in the city and the surrounding countryside. The second order was the order of doctors (teachers). This is something we'll explore in more detail in an upcoming sequence devoted to Calvin's College and Academy. We see, though, that as early as 1541, Calvin placed a great emphasis on training and education, establishing teachers as one of the four orders of the Church of Geneva. The third order is a very important one: the elders. The elders were men of authority, whose duties were "to watch over the conduct of every individual, to admonish lovingly those whom they see doing wrong or leading an irregular life; and when there is need, to bring the matter before
the Body, which shall be charged with administering brotherly discipline." Discipline fell under the purview of a body called the Consistory, made up of the pastors as well as a dozen citizens of note belonging to the city's political elite. Members of the Consistory, in the words of the Ordinances, were to "keep an eye on everything." What did this actually mean? Thanks to the research carried out by a team of US-based scholars, and their publication of several of the Consistory's registers from Calvin's time, we are now better able to answer this question. As of today (2013), seven such volumes have been published, under the editorial direction of the late Robert Kingdon and the young historians Thomas Lambert, Isabella Watt, Jeffrey Watt, and others. Members of the Consistory, then, were to "keep an eye on everything." This sort of thing undoubtedly seems appalling to anyone from the 21st century. And when we hear the story of a poor woman, reprimanded by the Consistory for having pronounced papal prayers over the grave of her late husband, or of the Consistory taking aim at people who failed to attend church, wandering the streets instead -- or even worse, going to the local tavern -- we can't help but think that it was sticking its nose where it had no business whatsoever. But we are not in the world of the 16th century. Furthermore, in Calvin's time, establishing discipline also meant protecting the weakest of the weak and the poorest of the poor. In fact, Geneva was quite probably the only city in 16th century Europe where a husband could not beat his wife with impunity. If a man assaulted his wife, he was convoked within a few days by the Consistory, which then chastised him, reprimanded him and instructed him not to repeat his offense. Thus, in Calvin's vision and in his concrete efforts to build a Christian society, the primary tool for the task was the Consistory. The fourth and last order designated by Calvin in his construction of the Church of Geneva was the order of deacons, whose role was to administer charity and tend to the sick. A few years later, when large numbers of refugees -- from France, mainly, but also from Italy -- poured into Geneva, the deacons were put in charge of managing Geneva's financial assistance: the so-called French and Italian "bourses" (or funds). Finally, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances also covered the sacraments -- baptism, the Lord's Supper -- as well as excommunication, that is, prohibition from taking part in the sacraments; but they remained rather prudent in this regard, failing to specify who, between the ecclesiastical and the civil authorities,
held the authority to excommunicate. Thus the tension between the civil authorities, on the one hand, and the Church, on the other, remained very high in 1541, as we'll see in upcoming sequences. We've now reached the end of today's sequence; thank you for your attention.