15 November 2006

"The most perfect school of Christ"

BY THE TIME Calvin arrived in Geneva in 1536, Geneva was an independent city. It had broken from the Catholic bishop and the House of Savoy, and was governed by three councils. These councils oversaw not only civic affairs, but religious and moral affairs as well. In February 1536, the councils issued a proclamation on religious and moral life, prohibiting blasphemy, profanity, excessive drinking, the playing of cards and dice, and the protection of adulterers, thieves, vagabonds, and spendthrifts. It prohibited all holidays except Sunday. The Catholic sacraments were forbidden, and all Genevans were required to attend Sunday worship.

Far from disagreeing with the regulations, Calvin welcomed their enforcement. Although his first stint in Geneva ended in banishment (he was expelled from the city because of quarrels over administration of the Lord’s Supper), his later return was more successful, turning the city into what John Knox called "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles."

Calvin implemented his ideas for an ecclesiastical polity in Geneva, stressing the autonomy of the church in religious and moral affairs. The church consisted of four offices: pastor, teacher, deacon, and elder, the last holding the highest place. There were twelve elders total, who comprised the Consistory, the body that oversaw the morals of Genevan citizens.

The Consistory visited each household to determine the state of its morals. Spies were commissioned by the Consistory to keep track of citizens and report on misconduct. Attentive attendance at church was mandatory; those who left early or made too much noise were reprimanded or imprisoned. Criticism of ministers (and particularly of Calvin) was punished. Dramatic plays were suppressed, and sexual immorality was severely penalized, either by imprisonment or by death (men and women were disciplined equally harshly). The playing of cards and dice, as well as dancing, was forbidden. Taverns were closed (the experiment lasted a full three months, after which they were re-opened).

After the death in Geneva of Michael Servetus (a heretic) by burning at the stake, Calvin issued a defense of the act in 1546, arguing for the right to condemn those who taught false doctrines. To be fair, Servetus would likely have suffered a similar fate in the Spanish Inquisition; and Calvin had tried to change the method of death to that by sword. The fact remains, however, that Calvin defended the act to, in his thought, protect souls and save God’s honor.

After crushing a riot in 1555, during which many of Calvin’s enemies fled or were put to death, Calvin’s regime solidified. He finally obtained the right for his Consistory to excommunicate on its own, rather than with approval from the councils. By 1559, hundreds had been excommunicated. Ministers were placed all throughout Geneva to more effectively oversee moral conduct, and regulations were implemented to decrease extravagance of food and clothing among citizens. The press was censored, and crosses (which smacked of Catholic “idolatry”) were removed from church spires. Calvin, who admitted his great weakness was a violent temper, had citizens punished if they failed to greet him with requisite respect by calling him “Master.”

Calvin, like any man, was complex, neither wholly evil nor wholly good. It seems only right that some of the lesser known (and less savory) aspects of his thought and life be known by those who revere him as a hero of the Reformation (that tragedy to Christian unity), and are taught a whitewashed history of his life.