Christ & Culture,
Was Geneva A Theocracy?
Michael S. Horton
1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
From the first-hand accounts, Oxford's Gillian Lewis notes, "The
city of Geneva possessed a significance which was symbolic and mythical.
Her friends saw her as the mirror and model of true piety, a haven of
refuge, a roosting-place for fledglings, a stronghold to train and dispatch
abroad soldiers of the Gospel and ministers of the Word." And yet,
there were enemies as well, enemies who saw Geneva as "Satan's
sanctuary, a source of heresy, atheism, and libertinage and a centre
for the active dissemination of sedition."1
Just as soon as Geneva embraced the Reformation officially and severed
its loyalties to the bishop and Duke of Savoy, the city was flooded
with refugees from all over Europe. Overnight Geneva became, after Wittenberg,
Zurich, and Strasbourg, a capitol of the Protestant faith. Foreign visitors
expressed amazement as they observed both the theological and practical
attractions of the city.
Nevertheless, the impressions we received from our high school teachers,
more than likely, had little in common with those reported by first-hand
witnesses, friend or foe. Images abound of a tyrant in a black academic
gown, organizing a sixteenth-century equivalent of the secret police
to insure that no one, at any time or any place, was enjoying himself.
The amazing thing about this is not the image itself, but the fact that
it has survived in the public imagination even though it has been refuted
by the consensus of the world's leading Renaissance and Reformation
historians for over half a century. The foundation for this public myth
is the assertion that Geneva was a theocracy and Calvin was its pope.
The Reluctant Reformer
Oxford professor Alister McGrath writes, "Before the Reformation
Geneva was an episcopal city in decline."2 In 1535 the city council
abolished the mass and the bishop responded by excommunicating the Genevan
population. Months later they minted their first coins, which read,
"After darkness, light!" Protestant Berne came to Geneva's
defense militarily and Geneva gained its independence from the Duke
of Savoy. Nevertheless, the city was in severe debt and administratively
confused, much as we are used to seeing with the new independent republics
of what used to be the Soviet Union. While the bishop threatened the
use of force, the people voted for the Reformation on May 25, 1536.
But that is only the beginning. Without qualified leadership, Geneva
was on the verge of collapse. What the new republic desperately needed
was a young visionary.
John Calvin was trained in theology and law, the latter being his
chosen course, studying under some of the most sensitive intellects
of the Renaissance, and had finished his first published work, a commentary
on Seneca's De Clementia. Combining his interests in language and civil
law, this work explored the Roman philosopher's concern (and, no doubt
Calvin's as well) for leniency and compassion in the execution of civil
justice. Seneca and Calvin both lived during difficult times, when power
was used for personal advantage to such a point that church and society
both had become demoralized.
At this time, Calvin was becoming a "Lutheran" and read
every evangelical tract he could find. Fleeing the authorities in Paris,
Calvin set off on July 15, 1536, for the reformed city of Strasbourg,
where Martin Bucer was centered. However, the French King and the Emperor
were engaged in a war which blocked the road to Strasbourg from France.
Frustrated, but undaunted, Calvin took a detour to Geneva for the night.
That's right, for the night.
Little did Calvin know what awaited him in God's providence. The chief
reformed pastor, Guillaume Farel, a stern older gentleman, greeted the
young reformer. Calvin was anonymous, and wanted it to stay that way.
Here is his own account:
Nobody there knew I was the author [of The Institutes]...until
finally Guillaume Farel kept me at Geneva, not so much by advice and
argument, as by a dreadful curse, as if God had laid his hand upon me
from heaven to stop me....Then someone...discovered me and made it known
to others. Upon this Farel...went out of his way to detain me. And after
having heard that I had several private studies for which I wished to
keep myself free..., he gave vent to imprecation, that it might please
God to curse my leisure and the peace for my study that I was looking
for, if I went away and refused to give them support and help in a situation
of such great need. These words so shocked and moved me that I gave
up the journey I had intended to make. However, conscious of my shame
and timidity, I did not want myself to be obliged to carry out any particular
Dr. McGrath observes, "Withdrawn in personality and intellectual
in inclination, he gave little indication of being of potential value
in the cut-and-thrust world of Genevan politics of the 1530s."4
At this time, Calvin was no more than a lecturer in the Bible and theology.
The big moment apparently came when Berne, attempting to convert Lausanne
via a public debate, invited Farel to represent the reformed position
and Farel brought Calvin along. Caught in a bit of a pinch over how
to handle the Catholic representative's claim that the reformed ignore
the church fathers, Calvin rose to answer. "Reeling off a remarkable
chain of references to their writings, including their location--apparently
totally from memory--Calvin virtually destroyed the credibility of his
opponent."5 After winning Lausanne to the Reformation, Calvin was
asked to write the Confession of Faith for the city. Thereupon he was
appointed pastor of St. Peter's, the cathedral church of Geneva.
After years of clerical domination, the city council was not about
to give the church even its proper spiritual authority, much less civil
power. "Unlike their catholic predecessors," writes McGrath,
"they were devoid of power and wealth within the city; indeed,
they were not even citizens of Geneva, with access to decision-making
bodies."6 Tension began to build between Calvin and the city council.
Calvin wanted communion to be administered frequently (preferably, every
time the Word is preached); he insisted on the authority for excommunication
resting with the church, not with the state, the latter often using
it as a threat against political enemies. In other words, Calvin wanted
more of a separation between the religious and civil spheres. However,
the city council, for political reasons, denied Calvin and Farel their
reforms. When they refused to tolerate the interference of the city
council in spiritual affairs, they were exiled to Strasbourg.
The Reluctant Returner
In Strasbourg (1538-41), Calvin felt as though he were in heaven. Martin
Bucer became his mentor and Calvin assumed the pastorate of the French
Reformed church there. During this time, Calvin published some of his
most noted works and settled down enough to marry Idelette de Bure,
the widow of an Anabaptist friend. With every success Calvin became
more satisfied in Strasbourg, but once again Geneva was calling.
First, the city council asked Calvin to write a response to Cardinal
Sadoleto's appeal for the Genevans to return to the Roman fold. This
Calvin did, and a convincing defense it is, and the reformer thought
the project was harmless enough, since he could write it in the leisure
of Strasbourg's more supportive environment. Geneva issued its apology
and a plea for Farel and Calvin to return, but neither appeared particularly
moved by the invitation. Finally, in February, 1541, Farel persuaded
Calvin to return, though he himself did not, and Calvin arrived September
Dr. McGrath points out "how deeply the myth of 'the great dictator
of Geneva' is embedded in popular religious and historical writings,"
and points to the work of Balzac and Huxley as examples of writers who
made assertions without any historical facts supporting them, but who
nevertheless seem to have had more influence in the shaping of the modern
view of Calvin than the facts of history.7 The Genevan reformer was
"denied access to the city's decision-making machinery. He could
not vote; he could not stand for office."8 In fact, he still had
little power over his own church affairs!
Did Calvin Have Servetus Burned
At The Stake?
There is one event which stands out in our minds concerning Calvin's
leadership in the Genevan church, however, which deserves closer consideration:
On October 25, 1553, the city council issued the decree that Michael
Servetus be burned at the stake for heresy.
Did Calvin "have Servetus burned at the stake," as is the
popular impression? The answer, clearly, is no! First, Calvin had corresponded
with Servetus and there is some evidence to suggest that he had even
tried to clandestinely meet with the anti-Trinitarian in order to try
to convince him of his error. After escaping certain execution from
Roman Catholic authorities in France and Vienna, Servetus arrived in
Geneva and made himself known to Calvin in public. Servetus was arrested
and, although Calvin was both a theologian and trained lawyer who had
been employed by the city council to draft legislation concerning social
welfare, city planning, sanitation, and the like, he was not the prosecuting
attorney. Remember, he did not even have the rights of a common citizen!
Second, Calvin was at the height of his battles with the city council
at this time. Had he, in fact, urged the execution of Servetus, that
might have been just the thing to have saved the victim's life! When
Servetus was given the option of facing trial in Vienna or Geneva, Servetus
chose Geneva. For some reason, he must have thought his chances of survival
were better in Geneva. However, the council, led by the anti-Calvin
faction at this time, was determined to demonstrate that Geneva could
be trusted as a reformed city committed to upholding the creeds and
Servetus was sentenced to death by burning. Calvin pleaded with the
council to execute Servetus in a more humane manner than the traditional
ritual burning for heretics. But, of course, the city council refused
Calvin's plea. Farel visited Calvin during the execution and was, reportedly,
so disturbed that he left without even saying farewell.
During this same period, by the way, thirty-nine heretics were burned
in Paris, the Inquisition was being enforced in Spain and Italy, and
other parts of Europe. In spite of the fact that many sought refuge
in Geneva who were less than orthodox, fleeing Catholic authorities,
Servetus was the only heretic burned there during Calvin's distinguished
In fact, it must be noted that Jews were invited by the reformed cities
to find safety from the Inquisition. The Puritan Cromwell was later
to make England a safe haven for dissenters, even for those with whom
he dissented, and especially for Jews. The same is true of The Netherlands
and Strasbourg. It is no small wonder that when we think of human rights
and international relations, these reformed (or once-reformed) capitols--Geneva,
Strasbourg (home of the Int'l Institute of Human Rights, the European
Parliament, and other relief and human rights agencies), Amsterdam,
and London, find their way to the top of the list.
Will The Real Calvin Please Stand
The fact is, Calvin was a caring pastor who visited patients dying of
the deadly and contagious plague in the newly organized hospital he
had established, even though he was warned of the dangers of contact.
He "not only risked his life," according to Dutch historian
L. Penning, "but accomplished more for the patients by adopting
sophisticated hygienic measures."9 He was the genius behind the
establishment of the network of deacons who, according to Dr. Gillian
Lewis, "took charge of the day-to-day care of the sick and impotent
poor," giving the position "the dignity of being a part of
the four-fold ministry of the church."10 It was he who urged the
council to secure low-interest loans in banking for the poor but entrepreneurial
exiles who had been trained in a craft through the training and employment
agency which was the functioning diaconate.
It was Calvin who urged universal, free education to all inhabitants
of the city, as Luther and the other reformers had done, and "from
1541 he always rose and went to bed with this thought uppermost in his
mind: 'How can we give Geneva a University?.'"11 And it was his
students who spread the gospel as well as proto-democratic ideals throughout
the western world.
For the reformers in general and for Calvin in particular, soli Deo
gloria (to God only be glory) was the design of life and good works
were caring for one's neighbor, working for justice and right dealings,
building churches, pubs, hospitals and universities for the honor of
the Great King.
So here is our "tyrant of Geneva," whose ministry was first
opposed, then summoned with repeated pleas, then frustrated, and finally
held in high honor by the people he is supposed to have abused. Penning
writes that, toward the end of his life, when Calvin was seen in the
streets, citizens and "famous strangers" would say, "'Look,
there goes our Master Calvin!'" On March 10, 1564 the council decreed
a day of prayer for Calvin's health and the reformer recovered for a
time. On Easter, April 2, Calvin was carried to St. Peter's in his chair
and after he received communion from Beza, his successor, the congregation
The council which had years earlier determined the length of sermons
in Geneva and opposed so much of his pastoral ministry voted to give
Calvin a substantial financial gift, but the reformer refused to accept
any money, since he could no longer fulfill the functions. On Saturday,
May 27, Calvin died, aged fifty-five years. "When late at night
the news of Calvin's death spread, there was much weeping in the town,
as a nation weeps when it loses its benefactor," writes Penning.
"Cannon Street was crowded with people; it became a pilgrimage
to the Reformer's death-bed, and the Government had to take measures
to prevent too great a pressure."12 The city, with its thousands
of exiles, citizens, and foreign dignitaries, followed the procession.
Calvin had insisted that he be placed in a simple pine box, buried in
an unmarked grave. This surely was not the funeral of a despot.
Even the greatest heroes of the past have blemishes and have made
decisions or statements which cause us, centuries later especially,
to flinch and Calvin is no exception. But at a time when preachers,
much less politicians and celebrities, appear to offer some less than
heroic role models, the shy and reluctant man of Geneva seems to have
weathered the disdain of those today, like those of his own day, who
cannot understand what it is like to be possessed by a passion for God.
Tom Wolfe, author of Bonfire of the Vanities, told TIME Magazine, "Ours
is not an age likely to produce great heroes." May today's Bible-believing
heirs of the Reformation prove him wrong.§
1. Dr. Gillian Lewis, "Calvin and Geneva," in International
Calvinism (Oxford Univ. Press), p. 39.
2. Dr. Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Cambridge: Basil
Blackwell, 1991), p. 86.
3. Ibid., p. 95.
4. Ibid., p. 96.
5. Ibid., p. 97.
7. Ibid., pp. 105 ff.
8. Ibid., p. 109.
9. L. Penning, Life and Times of Calvin, transl. by B.S. Berrington
(London: Kegan, Trench, Trubner, 1912), p. 287.
10. Lewis, op. cit., p. 44.
11. Penning, op. cit., p. 288.
12. Ibid., p. 391.
For Further Reading
Ralph Hancock, Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics
(NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1989); J. McNeill, The History & Character
of Calvinism (Oxford Univ. Press); Ronald Wallace, Calvin, Geneva
and the Reformation (Baker/Scottish Academic Press); Alister McGrath,
A Life of John Calvin (cited in notes); Menna Prestwich, ed.,
International Calvinism (cited in notes).
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical
theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate
of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.)
and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited
include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power
Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.