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Instituting a New Form of Protestantism

Luther’s ideas spread quickly from Germany and caught the attention of many believers throughout Europe. One such person, who eventually would leave his own indelible mark on the Reformation movement, was John Calvin. Calvin respected Luther and Luther’s ideas but he had in mind yet another form of Christianity different from the Church and from Lutheranism. Calvin envisioned a form of Christianity somewhat different than the Catholic Church and even different than the reformed Church Luther initially wanted. Calvin would get the chance to help develop his branch of Christianity in the city of Geneva.

Welcome to Geneva

Until the 1530s, Geneva, Switzerland, remained a predominantly Catholic city loyal to Rome and to the Church. Geneva, however, was far from a holy or even righteous city. The materialism that gripped other cities, including Rome, also influenced Geneva.

In an attempt to reform the Church in Geneva—and the city itself—a reformer named Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) worked with the few people in Geneva who were interested in Protestantism. At first behind closed doors and then later in public, Farel called for change. After being called before a council in 1532, he was reprimanded and run out of town—in fact, Farel barely escaped. He didn’t stay gone long, though, and he returned to Geneva in 1533.

Somehow, after two years of hard work, Farel managed to turn the city toward Protestantism. In 1535, the Council of Two Hundred, the dominant city council in Geneva, officially adopted Protestantism for the city. As in other towns touched by Protestantism, Geneva did away with mass and the icons. Geneva went a step further, though. The Council passed new laws that enforced strict guidelines on the behavior of its citizens—laws that banned gambling, dancing, and other unruly behavior. In reality, the laws did little to change the city.

Another Would-Be Lawyer Chooses Religion

In the midst of the struggle to get Geneva on track, Farel encountered a young man traveling through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg—a man named John Calvin (1509-1564).

Born not far from Paris, John Calvin received a terrific education as a young man. He began theology studies at the age of 14 and continued them until his father decided John should be a lawyer. John studied law and the humanities for a few years until his father died, then resumed studies that included Greek and Hebrew.

Not long after he renewed his religious studies, John had a change of heart about religion and the Church. Unfortunately, his interest in Protestantism came at a time when Protestants were being persecuted in and around Paris, so he left Paris and knocked around for a few years. On his way to Strasbourg, he ran into Farel and his life changed forever.

Farel was so impressed by Calvin that he extended him an invitation to stay in Geneva and help spread Protestantism. Calvin refused over and over, until Farel basically threatened to place a curse on him if he didn’t stay and help. How could Calvin say no to that?

Calvin's Theocracy

Calvin faced an uphill battle in a city that seemed apathetic toward religion and downright immoral. Calvin’s challenge was to change not only what people believed but also how they acted. Calvin and Farel drew up a list of articles that the city councils adopted in 1537. Included in these articles were rules that created an early curfew and banned gambling, card playing, dancing, and lewd songs. Citizens faced severe punishment for breaking these rules. The citizens of Geneva didn’t take kindly to Calvin’s theocracy, nor to a government with laws based on a system of religious beliefs and values.

A group known as the Libertines challenged Calvin’s ideas, eventually taking control of the councils and ordering Calvin to lay off the people of Geneva. Finally, after a dispute arose over the Lord’s Supper on Easter Sunday, the Council of Two Hundred banished Calvin and Farel.

Farel went one way and Calvin the other, to Strasbourg where he further refined his theology. While Calvin was busy working, writing, and getting married in Strasbourg, Geneva fell into disarray. When the Council of Two Hundred felt it had no alternative, it asked Calvin to return and get the city headed in the right direction again. Hesitantly, he returned.

Calvin immediately had the council pass a new constitution for the Church in Geneva. He established a rigorous routine: he taught and he preached, he wrote and he debated. He was determined to have an effect on the city this time around.

To benefit the citizens of Geneva, he helped build new hospitals, schools, and industries, but these improvements came at a price.

Calvin was no less the authoritarian and disciplinarian that he had been during his first stay in Geneva. He established a panel of 12 men called the consistory, who oversaw the discipline of lawbreakers, specifically those who opposed Calvinism. What must have seemed like a good idea at the time resulted in a very strict system of rules. To enforce the rules and to punish violators, the consistory often tortured and banished people. Occasionally the consistory excommunicated and even executed the serious criminals. While this punishment seems extremely harsh, execution for heresy took place on a regular basis all over Europe in the days of Calvin and Luther. Strangely enough, such treatment of nonbelievers fell in line with the theology of Calvin and his followers—a theology that was organized in a rather systematic manner, unlike the theology of Luther.

As a Matter of Fact

One of the best examples of the harshness of Calvin's theocracy in Geneva was the case of Michael Servetus (1511-1553), a Spaniard who happened to escape the Spanish Inquisition (see Chapter 5). After Servetus arrived in Geneva, it was discovered that Servetus was a Unitarian; he denied the existence of the trinity, or God the father, son, and holy spirit. That didn't sit well with Calvin. Servetus refused to recant and Calvin allowed him to be burned at the stake.


In 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his landmark work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the most definitive volumes concerning Protestant beliefs. He later revised the work several times and expanded his system each time. To understand Calvin’s theology, it is important to remember his background in law and in logic. Calvin didn’t use it, but you can use the acronym TULIP to remember his system of theology.

Calvin, as evidenced in his theocracy in Geneva, believed that the civic or state government should be subject to the laws of God. This is in stark contrast to Luther, who believed the two should be separate and that the church should be subordinate to the laws of a just, earthly government. The church, according to Calvin, existed to help the elect live just lives, lives that would make the elect worthy of being called Christians. Arguably, Calvin’s role in the Reformation was second only to Luther’s with regard to the impact and influence of his actions and theology.

Would You Believe?

Luther, like Calvin, also believed in predestination, though it never became the focal point of his theology.

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