The memorial stone Calvin made for himself. An evaluation of Calvin’s last self-assessment

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The Memorial Stone Calvin Made for Himself

An evaluation of Calvin’s last self-assessment

Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer

In this anthology called ‘Passion for Protestantism’ a remembrance of John Calvin cannot be absent. For if there has been one constant in 150 years of doing theology in Kampen, it is this that all these years his texts have been read without interruption and pondered repeatedly.[1] Also the notion of passion in theology is anything but foreign to him. Contrary to what one is lead to suspect by the characterization of his thinking in older German literature, driven by an anti-French sentiment, as being ‘rationalistic’, for him it is not reason after all, but the Holy Spirit that drives our knowledge of God.[2] And the Spirit can involve all human functions in this, also the passions, which in the classical philosophical tradition were tied to the human body.[3] It is more difficult to connect Calvin to a passion for Protestantism. For it is indeed true that as a reformer of the ‘second generation’ he helped supply the Reformation movement with a shape of its own – also with regard to church law – over against the emerging Contra-Reformation church of Rome. It is true that he was disgusted with the distortion of the true church with the ‘Papists’ and that he scoffed at all ‘hypocritical’ collaboration with it. But at the same time the point of all his activity never was the formation of a ‘Reformed Church’ alongside the Papal church, but rather the ‘reformation of the church’, to wit the entire church. Thus it was part of the tragedy of the last years of his life that with regard to his native country he continued to hang on to the strategy of working toward a ruler on the French throne, who would legally implement the ecclesiastical reform in his country. But in this he was overtaken by the actual developments that increasingly appeared to lead to the alternatives co-existence or civil war.[4] Consequently he never conceived of a separate Protestant identity in a religiously pluralistic context, let alone that he could have developed a passion for such an identity. So if I hope to show a bit of my own passion for reading Calvin in this contribution, I am not primarily interested in his ‘Protestantism’ as such, but in the question to what extent the matter to which he bore witness as a reformer is worth being brought up today within a catholic and ecumenical perspective. I do this by letting Calvin speak for himself and then also entering into a theological dialogue with this self-testimony. The text, which will form the basis of this dialogue, is that of the two farewell speeches with which Calvin himself shaped the end of his life.[5]

Calvin’s Two Farewell Speeches

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the possibility of shaping one’s own life beautifully as if it were a ‘work of art’. A number of remarks Michel Foucault made in the last phase of his life in particular constituted an occasion to ascribe new currency to the motif as it is found with the philosophers of antiquity.[6] Sometimes it is also recommended as an alternative to giving meaning from a – now, after all, lost – religious perspective on life. Well then, Calvin too – being a classically educated humanist – knew of this motif. It is very likely even that he deliberately, maybe even somewhat too deliberately, took it up and worked it out at the end of his own life, still completely within a religious view of life, of course.[7]

          For years various illnesses had been tormenting Calvin.[8] In the winter of 1558-1559 his state of health was so critical that he had to force himself to the utmost to be able to complete the work on the final shape of his Institutes. For a while things went better after that. But in the spring of 1564 the end seems to him to be inevitably approaching. He then completely takes over the stage-management of the last act of the spectacle of his life: the last lecture and the last Old Testament weekday sermon (February 2nd) – the last New Testament Sunday morning sermon (February 6th) – the last attendance at the ‘Vénérable Compagnie’ of the pastors (March 24th) – the last visit to the town hall (March 27th) – the last partaking of Holy Communion (April 2nd, Easter Sunday) – dictating his testament (April 25th).

          This series of farewell rituals finds its temporary conclusion and climax at two gatherings held on two consecutive days at Calvin’s house on the Rue des Chanoises. First he bids farewell to the members of the Small Council, the day to day administration of the city, consisting of about 25 members, who would meet three times a week and be chaired by the mayors (‘syndices’).[9] Certainly in his last years he had continuous access to this council (Thursday, April 27th). Next he takes leave of his fellow pastors with whom he had gradually formed a team that had not merely local, but also international influence (Friday – their set meeting day – April 28th). At these two occasions he addressed his guests in a more or less solemn way, but also in a personal way. Without a doubt this too was modeled after examples from antiquity (like the words of farewell that Plato lets Socrates speak in his Phaedo) and the Bible (like the speeches credited to Jacob/Israel directed at his sons in Genesis 49 and to Moses directed at the twelve tribes in Deuteronomy 33).

          Calvin’s first biographers, his colleagues Theodore Beza and Nicholas Colladon, who were there on the 28th, both have included the first speech in their biography and thus have provided a certain canonical quality. With this they no doubt accommodated the gesture their master had intended with his last actions. A gravestone with an inscription Calvin did not desire,[10] so that, like with Moses, ‘to this day no one knows where his grave is.’ (Deut. 34:6). But, just as, according to the intent of Deuteronomy, no ‘grave of Moses’ should be venerated anywhere and so the person should not be considered worthy of adoration, yet all the more the words of Moses’ Torah are to be heard and done by those that come after him, thus Calvin – not free of the inclination to maintain control where possible of his intellectual legacy and of the way his life’s work would be interpreted at least within the circle of his immediate ecclesiastical and political surroundings – will have also had in mind to live on in his words as they are written. So these protocolled ‘last words’ function as a memorial stone prepared and erected by the master himself.

Calvin about Himself and his Work; Some Distinctives

What a person says about himself or herself cannot be the last word with regard to the image one constructs of a person and the opinion one comes to about him/her. At the same time such a self-image or self-evaluation cannot be ignored, even if, in order to form a more complete picture of a person, the reactions of others, the background by which a person has been shaped and the influences that have emanated from him can have a strong qualifying effect on this self-interpretation.

          Below we will above all give the floor to Calvin himself, namely based on the way he speaks of himself and his work in these farewell speeches.[11] We describe a series of statements taken from these speeches with some six verbs.[12] And thus, as announced, we attempt in dialogue with the assessment Calvin here gives of himself to also verbalize how we deal with his person and work. 

1. Teaching

‘He (Calvin) has solemnly declared before God and the lords that he has endeavored to deliver plainly the Word that God entrusted to him’ (address to the members of the Small Council).

‘As to my doctrine, I have taught it faithfully’ (…) ‘and I have always pursued simplicity’ (address to the ministers of the Word).[13]

Calvin was brought to Geneva primarily to expound Scripture and he did consider the explication of the heavenly doctrine (the ‘doctrine’ in the second quote) his most important task. He commented on many Bible books in his academic teaching and he expounded at least as many before the congregation in the midst of current events. In this he imposed the harsh discipline on both the congregation as on himself of a ‘cursory’ reading. He had articulated his basic assumptions in the letter to Simon Grynée in Basle,[14] the letter of presentation with his first commentary, the one on Romans done in 1539 out of Strasbourg – the document that in fact also constituted the starting point for his understanding of the great discovery of the Reformation. The quest for simplicity and brevity that had a programmatic ring there resounds again here in a retrospective.[15] Calvin was a man of letters, and as a faithful interpreter of Scripture he wanted nothing more than to ‘simply’ do justice to what is written, from his very first Bible reading in the church of St. Pierre in 1536 onward. Moreover, at the conclusion of this same letter of presentation, the sought after simplicity is coupled to ‘liberty’ (‘libertas’). Good interpretation is not compatible with coercion. Church and society also need some kind of uniformization, Calvin was convinced of that – more than we tend to be – and he contributed his part to it, for better and for worse. But in the domain of interpretation such a quest for unity is not desirable. In the community of all interpreters before and after you the point is to explore the text’s infinite fields of meaning, to focus on that, and to not let any other or external objectives divert one from that.[16] In addition, ‘simplicity’ is set over against unnecessary complication that Calvin believed he was observing in much allegorical interpretive tradition. This does not exclude, rather it includes that for Calvin any exegesis of the text is ultimately aimed at its spiritual content. He did assume that what was written had ‘literally’ happened in that way (Moses’ authorship of the Torah, e.g.[17]), but for him that was never the point. The spasm this matter causes many that name themselves after him was foreign to him. I will give two examples: how he deals with the synoptic question and his hermeneutic of the credo. The first example: Whereas Andreas Osiander published a harmony of the Gospels in 1537 to show how it had to be possible to fit each text in the four (!) Gospels into the chronology of Jesus’ life, Calvin with his synoptic overview in the commentary on the first three (!) Gospels had in mind nothing more than a reading aid: it is convenient when you’re reading one synoptic gospel, to also have in front of you the text of the other two gospels. Calvin certainly never doubted that a ‘real’ chronology was possible, but the way he deals with the matter is strikingly relaxed, and his interest is primarily literary.[18] Second example: when in the second edition of the Institutes Calvin is about to explain the content of the faith on the basis of the Apostle’s creed, he warns in an introduction that we should not misunderstand the creed. Things like the ‘corporeality’ of the resurrection or the ‘three-dimensionality’ of the ascension do have their relative significance, nevertheless for the believer it is the spiritual reality to which they refer and the comfort that faith can find in them that is primary.[19] Expressed another way: because his faith rested ‘elsewhere’, namely in the Spirit, Calvin could not make the letter into an idol. And at the same time the Spirit drove him to take that same letter as seriously as possible. This free, and above all text-centered ‘literary’ attitude can even now render him a colleague for who is interested in the text he commented on.

2. Obeying

‘He (Calvin) has always (according to himself) made sure not to choose the way of capricious adventure or the way of error. Otherwise he would expect a condemnation to come on his head’ (address to the members of the Small Council).[20]

Calvin was driven by a strong sense of calling. Once put to it by an intervention ‘from heaven’[21] he never doubted this task with rediscovering the gospel and the advancement of God’s kingdom on the little piece of earth entrusted to him so he would take care of it. He did, by the way, doubt his personal suitability for this task. He was convinced, however, that he could warrant the purity of his service in the regular function as a minister and the more one-time function of a reformer even before the throne of God.[22] Looking at this from the outside one will have difficulty getting this. It is possible to point to parallels in the history of religion. Prophets in ancient Israel can be mentioned, like Elijah (the ‘troubler of Israel’, 1 Kings 18:17) or Jeremiah (‘overpowered’ by his God, Jer. 20:7); medieval zealots like Bernard of Clairvaux (almost always mentioned respectfully in the Institutes); or – it has often been observed – a contemporary, fellow student (though they didn’t study together) at the Collège de Montaigu and antipode like Ignatius of Loyola.

          One can also contemplate the psychological consequences that are almost inextricably bound up with such a sense of election, and object to that even identify elements leading to ill health. Calvin was a man, who was completely absorbed in doing his duty. His continuous writing, his nightly studying, his incessant embroilment in conflicts sapped his strength. Every portrait handed down of him as an older man shows an emaciated face, utter concentration and severity. The austerity he chose – sometimes downright poverty – and which he did not want to back out of, had a destructive effect on his tormented body. Conversely his ravaged body, susceptible as it was to illnesses, did not render his already moody character any more cheerful. In his orientation to ‘the contemplation of the future life,’ the ‘mortification’ as the main characteristic of the ‘life of the Christian’ that the Institutes speak of, almost totally predominates over the ‘being made alive,’ which Calvin does formally teach as the other side of being born again.[23]

          Calvin could be sarcastic and nasty and full of an almost cabaret-like humor.[24] But it is much harder to catch him making fun of himself or laughing just out of sheer enjoyment of life. An onlooker might easily shake his head in doubt about this. And it is hard to deny that the reformer in this way has contributed for countless many to the image of gospel preaching as an austere and gloomy force more about destroying life than invigorating it. From the outside we will never get an answer to the question whether this path of self-effacement was indeed inevitably imposed on him and whether this shape of his calling was the only one that could hold up in the court of eternity. If it turns out that Calvin was right about his doctrine of the permanent alertness of the soul after the body has died,[25] he himself knows more about this now.

3. Struggling

‘As one can see he had no doubt that the devil, who is into nothing but perverting things, raises up wicked people in the world with a fickle and raving spirit that are out to [condemn him]’ (address to the members of the Small Council).

‘They have always feared me more than loved me (address to the ministers).[26]

With the last statement Calvin has in mind a very specific community (most likely that of the city of Bern), but a wider view can be taken on this. The man who was determining the face of Geneva and of the ‘reformed’ branch of the reformation movement more and more, was increasingly radiating authority, and without a doubt his rhetoric had – and still has for those that are susceptible to it – a high degree ‘seductiveness’, but the question remains, whether this has resulted in him being ‘loved’ by many. Who shall say? According to the first page of his first Institute God is a just judge for evildoers, but above all a ‘merciful Father’ to those that trust in His forgiving nature.[27] Certainly the latter has been the all-determining factor in Calvin’s own faith and hence also for his theology. The key word is ‘mercy’: he sought it with extreme sensitivity, he thought he had found it in the biblical witness and experienced it in the voice of his heart and of it he tried to convey something on the most moving pages of his work. But at the same time there was for him the ’empirical’ fact that there simply are many that don’t take into account divine, unmerited mercy,[28] and for them he could not imagine anything else but that eternal judgment would have to be harsh. And in reflecting that eternal judgment he thereupon was harsh himself toward all who in his eyes were on the wrong track. What he repeatedly emphasizes is probably true that he himself did not seek the battle. But once put in the front line he also rarely tried to avoid it. Life, he teaches, is a tough military service in expectation of the (imminent) resurrection, and as long as that resurrection has not come, the enemies of the kingdom of God are on the prowl everywhere and God’s elect are standing with their backs against the wall.[29] There are enemies who corrupt sound doctrine: the most famous example is Michael Servetus – even in the centuries after his death Calvin will never live this down whether he would have wanted to or not. But there are also those that are looking to broaden their own power. And the vigilance needed here requires alertness and a sense of political responsibility. Calvin had more strategical and tactical insight than the leaders of the reformation in Germany before him. With this he was also able to influence lords and magistrates without ever having any illusions about them.[30] But this also brought him to the threshold of a new phenomenon in Europe in this guise: the religious war within Christianity itself. Almost from the start any appeal to divine mercy would have to come too late in such a case.[31] It is as if he were able to say with Bertolt Brecht: ‘we, who tried to prepare the soil for friendliness could ourselves not be friendly…’.[32]

4. Exhorting

‘For the rest it is necessary that the lords should hear a little word of exhortation’ (address to the members of the Small Council).

‘You are living among a wicked and wretched people, and though there are decent individuals, the people are wicked and evil, and when God will have taken me away you will have your work cut out for you’ (address to the ministers).[33]

Both speeches have the element of the ‘parenesis’, the exhortation, no doubt partly due to the example of the epistolary literature of the New Testament. The councilmen are told to remember to keep honoring God, who alone can sustain their republic, both in times of success as in times of calamity. They must be aware of their shortcomings and allow them to be corrected and they must be aware of their gifts and use them. In addition in their communications with the various generations, arrogance and envy shall play no part, there is to be no partiality in legal issues, and they must control their feelings. The next day the ministers receive their own admonitions: They must support Calvin’s successor Beza and lighten his load, not shirk their duties, and avoid quarrels among themselves. In all this it is certainly Calvin the moralist who is speaking (or for those that want to give it a positive spin, the wisdom teacher). Already in the ‘Articles’, in which the Genevan ministers had presented their program of reform to the council in 1536/1537, the reinstatement of (communion) discipline had been declared to be an identity-determining part of it,[34] and it would remain that way to the end – even increasingly so as the influence of the party of the ministers grew after 1555.

          Calvin’s words breathe an aura of wisdom, and the same is true for the parts of the Institutes that deal with discipline.[35] To his own understanding Calvin certainly wasn’t supporting a ‘stoical’ rigorism: there was no reason not to enjoy the earthly delights of life in moderation. But whether the entire population entertained the same ideas about ‘in moderation’ is doubtful. And thus what sounds like wisdom on paper, in actual practice could be experienced as a repressive system of control. Few in our time, says Karl Barth, could probably have breathed easily in the Geneva of Calvin’s days – or, we can add, in similar towns.[36] There have also been contemporaries that have seen something akin to a new coercive system in this new phase of the reformation Calvin style: different, but with little more freedom than the constraints of the church of Rome that had been abandoned. But then a crucial point is overlooked. Where Calvin speaks on the thoroughly reformational theme, which in the language of that time is called the theme of ‘justification and good works’, he does underline with much emphasis that ‘good works’ – ‘morality’ – in themselves have no significance for salvation.[37] They are a reflection of the work of God and are done in communion with Christ. But – unlike in the Church of Rome – they in no way constitute divine salvation, for their nature is purely human and they are performed in all transitoriness here on earth. Acts of love have no salvific significance so as to help people go to heaven. So from a crucial perspective ethics here have been secularized. And this means that we can indeed often frown on all the things Calvin might have considered ‘commandments’ (and therefore have doubts regarding the repressive nature of the Genevan society shaped and controlled in part by him). But at the same time it means fundamentally that we can talk with him about what exactly it is that we are commanded to do on earth.

5. Failing

‘He appreciates that the lords have suffered him in his too vehement responses (which he regrets, just like his vices) as God on his part has done the same’. ‘He does not wish to deny his shortcomings, for since God and his angels know them, he is not ashamed to confess them before men’ (address to the members of the Small Council).

“I can say (…) that I have always detested my vices and that the fear of God was rooted in my heart” (address to the ministers).[38]

In the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms Calvin calls himself shy and timid.[39] He is aware of the fact that, if he does allow himself to be persuaded to mingle with company, he lets himself go pretty quickly. To his chagrin Calvin had outbursts of anger.[40] Among the reformers Calvin may well have been the most sensitive spirit. But here the sensitivity is of such a nervous nature that it can turn into aggression. And the latter is dangerous in social communication, and in particular from a person of whom leadership is expected. The strategy Calvin chooses against these neuroses is that of self-control. At the same time he knows this strategy is only rarely successful.[41] To his fellow ministers he seems to be appealing to a kind of ethics of conviction: I did want what is good, but I didn’t succeed; I did hurt people, but my intentions were noble. But with his appeal to the ‘fear of God’ in his ‘heart’[42] he is saying more, and in his word to the members of the Small Council he gives a more detailed explanation of this. For whoever appears before God in fear and trembling, can, in his view, be completely honest. As a matter of fact, he can only be so there. We think of the famous beginning chapter of the Institutes (starting with the second edition): true self-knowledge is not based on human introspection but on the realization that there is someone else who knows myself better than I know myself.[43]

          Here we – again – encounter the double and ambiguous legacy Calvin has left. One can say that he not only knew his own neuroses, but also strengthened and encouraged quite a lot more with his followers that were potentially susceptible to them. But at the same time one can say that with his appeal to infinite divine mercy, he has pointed to an entity, which enables us to look at a person in such a way that s/he does not coincide his/her psychological complexes and which for that very reason can also render these complexes subject to discussion. It is not up to us to determine which aspect of the legacy is the ‘true’ one.

6. Holding on

‘I beseech you to change nothing and not to innovate’ (address to the ministers).[44]

At the conclusion of his address to the ministers of the Word Calvin remembers an important exhortation that he forgot. In 1541 he returned from Strasbourg with a revised catechism, a first ‘shape of prayers and ecclesiastic songs’ and a revised draft for the rules governing church life.[45] They were conceived in a hurry, but he did rather prefer that they should not be changed, not even by his fellow ministers that would survive him. There is an odd contradiction in these words. The man who tore down without fail, the man who radically sidelined traditional liturgy and traditional canon law and replaced them with new versions, would consider his own project untouchable?[46]

          The immediate context in which these words are situated first of all points us to the newly created shapes for the worship service. And on that level it is true: here innovations must always have the time to sink in, to take root, to be appropriated before one can assess whether the ‘experiment’ has been successful. The twenty years time that Calvin’s liturgical texts had been given when he died, are not particularly long in the life cycle of that kind of genre, so in that sense the designer did have a point when he asked to give them a chance for a bit longer. In the mean time the question has arisen whether the typical reformed liturgical shape, for which Geneva was one of the breeding grounds besides, e.g., Zurich and Strasbourg, London and Frankfurt, has not been conserved in almost its original shape a bit too long. It turns out time and again in ecumenical meetings how isolated it actually is, and it is telling as well that in this very area there has been much movement first with a vanguard and later also in large middle of the road sections of the churches that originated from the reformed branch of the reformation.[47] Calvin’s ‘catholic’ traits, his wish to celebrate the Eucharist weekly, e.g., often had to be compromised with the ‘reformed’ customs in Switzerland where he was a guest.[48] Sooner or later it will turn out that such a compromise cannot be frozen but that a call for new solutions will present itself within the tensions which have always been there.

          Of course the entreaty ‘change nothing’ can also be understood to have a broader application than merely to the liturgical sphere. In that case its untenability is even more obvious. After all, how many conceptions, mentalities and self-evident assumptions are there not that would have had to be true for Calvin that can impossibly be true for us any longer in the same manner? We only need to mention the continuation of the ‘corpus christianum’ as the unit of ecclesiastical and civil community,[49] his view of the role of women in the marriage relationship,[50] his absolutist understanding of truth,[51] his notion of a religious world view that would sooner or later have to clash with the way modern science explains the world[52] or the acceptance once, in any case, of the death penalty.[53] We cannot declare all these things ‘unchangeable’. And we also cannot regard it all as merely an historical accident or circumstance behind which another, ‘true’ Calvin is hidden.

          At the same time, however, there was also another dimension, which at some point would thrust itself forward in each of the texts presented. When Calvin spoke of his work as an exegete (point 1), he emphatically left room for any spiritual potency in the text of Scripture to be discovered by other generations. When he considered the self-sacrifice (point 2) he had to put up with to the detriment of his health, he did so from the perspective of his hope for an as yet unknown glorification of his body. When he pointed to his militant-activist life (point 3), he was pointing at the same time to a future radiance about this life that cannot be discerned in this way in the current transitoriness of things. When he was reminding of the necessity of an exhortation, a strict moral principle (point 4), he did so in the knowledge that no one can bring about anything without experiencing a mercy that comes from ’elsewhere’. When talking about himself (point 5), his character and his deficiencies, he pointed to a judgment about himself that he could not pronounce upon himself. In short: in all areas he remained the thinker ‘of hope’,[54] who realized that he could not render the final verdict on his own life and work himself. Perhaps that is the preeminent sense the Reformation has bestowed upon us and that still continues to give us something to ponder. And perhaps that indicates exactly why and in what sense we can honor Calvin even now, especially if we don’t take his motto ‘change nothing! renew nothing!’ too seriously in the end.  


[1]              I did experience some doubt about the truth of this claim when, as a new lecturer in the History of Christian Doctrine at Kampen, I noticed that the various volumes of the reissue of the oldest known French version of Calvin’s Institutes of 1541 by J. Pannier (Paris 1936-1939), that were in the library of the ThUK, still had to be cut open – while, at least from an aesthetic point of view, it is the finest, that is, well proportioned version of the Institutes.              

[2]              In those passages where Calvin is in dialogue with Platonic, Aristotelian, or Stoic anthropology, his interest is always theological. The decisive question for him is whether the claims of the philosophers hold up in light of the Reformed doctrine of the ‘enslaved’ and then the ‘liberated’ will. Cf. Inst. 1559: I.15.7-8; II.2.2-3; III.8.9-11. Unlike Melanchthon in his Loci Communes of 1521 (in the first chapter ‘De hominis viribus adeoque de libero arbitrio’) Calvin never attempted to defend this doctrine of the enslaved will on philosophical (deterministic) grounds; cf. W. Maurer, Der junge Melanchthon zwischen Humanismus und Reformation. Volume 2. Der Theologe, Göttingen 1969, 267.

[3]              For involving physical experience in the knowledge of God, see C. van der Kooi, Als in een spiegel. God kennen volgens Calvijn en Barth, Kampen 2002, 75 et passim.

[4]              See, e.g., R. Nürnberger, Die Politisierung des französischen Protestantismus, Tübingen 1948; H.A. Speelman, Calvijn en de zelfstandigheid van de kerk, Kampen 1994 (chapter 3).

[5]              What follows is an adaptation of the introduction to the tenth and last chapter of the anthology I compiled, introduced, and annotated, De handzame Calvijn [The Portable Calvin], Amsterdam 2004, 299-309.

[6]              Wilhelm Schmid, Philosophie der Lebenskunst. Eine Grundlegung, Frankfurt/M 1998; Joep Dohmen (ed.), Over levenskunst: de grote filosofen over het goede leven, Amsterdam 2002.

[7]              For the text of both farewell speeches – ‘Discours d’adieu aux mambres du petit conseil’ and ‘Discours d’adieu aux ministres’ – see OS (Opera Selecta) II, 398-404; unlike the Strasbourg publishers of the CO (Calvini Opera), the publishers of the OS had the autograph of the ‘discours d’adieu aux ministres’ as recorded by Jean Pinaut (OS II, 397) at their disposal. For the information about the background I am above all indebted to the ‘Einleitung’ by Matthias Freudenberg in: Calvin-Studienausgabe. Volume 2. Gestalt und Ordnung der Kirche, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1997, (281-303)281-287. In addition see W.F. Dankbaar, Calvin, sein Weg und sein Werk (translated from Dutch), Neukirchen 21966, 223-227; Willem van ’t Spijker, Calvin. Die Kirche in ihrer Geschichte. Ein Handbuch, volume 3, delivery J 2, Göttingen 2001, 201-202.

[8]              In a letter to a number of doctors in Montpellier on February 8th, 1664 (CO 20, 252-254; Rudolf Schwarz, Johannes Calvins Lebenswerk in seinen Briefen, volume 2, Tübingen 1909, 473-474) Calvin lists several latent, chronic, and acute ailments. He mentions there, e.g., gout, kidney stones, blood in his urine, colic pain, pain in his backside, coughing up blood, malaria, rheumatism of the joints, hemorrhoids, worms in the rectum, swollen blood vessels in the intestines, and obstruction of the gastric exit. In a letter to Renata of Ferrara dated April 2nd (CO 20, 278-279; Schwarz 2, 474-475) shortness of breath, lumbar pain, mucus in the lungs and coughing are added to this.

[9]              Bernard Cottret, Calvin. A biography (translated from French), Grand Rapids Mich. / Cambridge UK 2000, 350 (Appendix 3).

[10]            For this Freudenberg, op.cit. 283, refers to the testament, CO 20, 298-302; German translation in Schwarz 2, 476-478. There Calvin says that he wants to be buried ‘in the usual (in this church and this city) way,’ in order to await the day of the resurrection in the grave. That he did not have a gravestone in mind is probably a conclusion drawn from the fact that he does not reserve any money for that purpose but assigns all his monetary and other resources to his next of kin.

[11]            Calvin is very reticent to talk about himself in public texts. Exceptions are – apart from the farewell speeches – the open letter to cardinal Sadoleto of 1539 (OS I, 457-489, especially  460-463) – but Sadoleto had, of course, cast doubt on his and Farel’s integrity – and the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms of 1557 (CO 31, 13-35) – where, according to Calvin, it serves the cause of exegesis to realize that David articulates his own life’s story in songs of praise and in laments so that we too as God’s children can bring our own story before Him.

[12]            Also compare these six points to the five points Karl Barth lists to characterize Calvin in Die Theologie Calvins. Vorlesung Göttingen, Sommersemester 1922, In Verbindung mit Achim Reinstädler herausgegeben von Hans Scholl, Zürich 1993, 156-171. Barth mentions 1. Zeal for the Lord, 2. Shadow over his vitality, 3. Moralism, 4. Harshness toward people, 5. Oriented to the ‘Jenseits’ [beyond].

[13]            ‘Oultre plus il a protesté devant Dieu et Messieigneurs quil a tasché de porter purement la parolle que Dieu luy avoit commis’ (OS II, 398); ‘Quant à ma doctrine, i’ay enseigné fidellement (…) et me suis tousiours estudié à simplicité’ (OS II, 402-403).

[14]            CO 10/2, 402-406.

[15]            Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin. Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition, New York/Oxford 2000, 113, is of the opinion that Calvin in his later commentaries was no longer able to keep to the ‘brevitas’ he had envisioned in 1539. This text from 1564, however, shows that ‘simplicitas’ remained his goal.

[16]            Dieter Schellong, Calvins Auslegung der synoptischen Evangelien, Munich 1969, 17-18, words things as follows: ‘Bei der Exegese sind eher Differenzen zu ertragen als bei den dogmata religionis. Gott will die Geister der Seinen vor allem in den Dogmen übereinstimmend haben, in der Schriftauslegung räumt er mehr Freizügigkeit ein.’ (…) ‘Die(se) Akzentsetzung ist so zu verstehen, daß die Bibel reicher ist als das Dogma. [With exegesis differences are easier to endure than with the dogmas of religion. God wants his own to be of one mind particularly where doctrine is concerned. With scriptural exegesis he is more generous. … This particular emphasis is to be understood as follows: the Bible is richer than the dogma]’

[17]            ‘Argumentum in Genesin’, CO 23, (5-12)7-8.

[18]            CO 45. Cf. M.H. De Lang, De opkomst van de historische en literaire kritiek in de synoptische beschouwing van de evangeliën van Calvijn (1555) tot Griesbach (1774), Leiden 1993, 23-32.

[19]            Institutes 1554 VI.4, CO I, 479. To sharpen the point a bit: Calvin was not yet a fundamentalist, because he was still a Platonist.

[20]            ‘.. sasseurant de navoir point chemine a ladventure ny en erreur. Autrement il attendroit une condamnation sur la teste’ OS II, 398).

[21]            There is agreement now that both Calvin’s characterization of his ‘conversio’ as ‘subita’ as well as that of his calling to be a reformer coming ‘e coelo’ in the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms (CO 31, 21 and 23, resp.) are to be understood in a theological sense.

[22]            Cf. also ‘Ad Sadoleti epistolam’, the passage OS I, 480-484. Also remember Farel’s and Calvin’s answer, preserved in the Geneva council minutes, after they had been banned from the city at Easter, 1538: ‘si nous heussion servy les hommes nous fussions mal recompensez, mes nous servons ung grand maystre que nous recompenseraz’ [if we had been serving men, we would have been badly rewarded, but we serve a great master who will reward us] (CO 21, 226-227). To this Albert Rilliet remarks: ‘Calvin semble, pour son compte, n’en avoir douté’ [As far as Calvin is concerned he doesn’t seem to have doubted that].

[23]            Inst. 1536: OS I, 170; Inst. 1539-1554: IX.2; Inst. 1559: III.3.3. Cf. Karl Barth’s objections to Calvin on this point, Die kirchliche Dogmatik IV/2, § 66, Zürich 1955, 649-660.

[24]            For example in his treatise against the adoration of relics of 1543 (CO 6, 405-452) and in his comments on the articles disposed against the Reformation from the theological faculty of the Sorbonne of 1544 (CO 7, 4-44). The ‘Epinicion’ (Victory song for Christ), written ‘just for fun’ during his stay in Worms at the consultation of religion there on January 1st, 1541 can be placed in this sphere as well (CO 5, 423-427; OS I, 490-498).

[25]            In his Psychopannychia. Vivere apud Christum non dormire animis sanctos, qui in fide Christi decedunt (an early work, only published in 1542), CO 5, 165-232.

[26]            ‘Ne doubtant pas comme on voit que le diable qui ne tend qua pervertir ne suscite au monde de meschantes gens ayans espritz volages et frenetiques qui tendent à mesme fin’ (OS II, 398-399) ; ‘ils m’ont touiours plus craint qu’aimé’ (OS II, 404).

[27]            OS I, 37. Because the reformers continued to have difficulty seeing a liberating message in the notion of ‘righteousness’ in the sense of the Hebrew ‘tsedaka’, ‘misericordia’ rather became their main notion by which they expressed the liberation of the gospel. The connection of  ‘compassion’ (the Hebrew ‘rechamim’ associated with ‘uterus’) with being a father (cf. 2 Cor. 1:3) is interesting, e.g., for psychoanalysts and feminist theologians.

[28]            For this ‘empirical’ reason for Calvin’s doctrine of double election see, e.g., the paragraph on predestination in the catechism of 1538 (OS I, 390-391) and the opening of the third book in the Institutes of 1559 (III.2.1, OS IV, 1 l. 20-24).

[29]            Inst. III.8.7 and III.25.1 (‘dura militia’).

[30]            It appears that his sovereign François I indirectly praised Calvin in 1540 (according to the letter of Margaret of Navarre to Calvin, CO 11, 62) for his contribution to the formation of an anti-Habsburg coalition with the Protestant rulers in Germany during the consultation on religion. This would later become a permanent feature of French foreign policy under Richelieu.

[31]            Regarding Calvin’s continuous hesitation to face the reality of the impending war, Alistair E. McGrath remarks: Calvin ‘had not thought big enough’ and he observed ‘excessive prudence’ (A Life of John Calvin: a Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, Oxford 1990, 190-191), Heiko A. Oberman on the other hand: ‘it was not the triumph of the Kingdom of God in Geneva, but the bloody series of defeats of persecuted churches, which gave Europe a road to the future’ (The Two Reformations. The Journey from the Last Days to the New World, Yale 2003, 156).

[32]            Brecht, “An die Nachgeborenen”. What is being said here is particularly true for the effect of Calvin’s demeanor in the public domain. There is a lot of evidence that he could be very cordial in smaller circles, made friends quickly and was very loyal in friendships. His friendship with Philip Melanchthon is probably the most remarkable. In spite of all kinds of church political frictions and even doctrinal differences he held on to this friendship until Melanchton’s death in 1560 (see Calvin’s preface to a French translation of the Loci communes in 1545, CO 9, 847-850).

[33]            ‘Au reste il fault que Messeigneurs oyent quelque petit mot dexortation’ (OS II, 399); ‘vous estes en une perverse en malheureuse nation, et combien qu’il y ait des gens de bien, la nation est perverse et meschante, et vous aurez de l’affaire quand Dieu m’aura retiré’ (OS II, 402).

[34]            OS I, (369-377)372.

[35]            My experience with reading from Inst. IV.12.1-13 to students from various corners of reformed orthodoxy is that these passages have a strong moderating effect.

[36]            Karl Barth, ‘Zum 400. Todestag von Johannes Calvin (1964)’, on the CD Wortmeldungen, Zürich 2002. If as a homosexual today one reads, e.g., in W. Balke, Calvijn en de bijbel, Kampen 2003, 294, how Calvin preached against ‘effeminate’ men that behave ‘as if they would want to deny their sex’, one cannot help, in spite of the soundest sense of historical distance, already envisioning the scenes of persecution.

[37]            Cf. the doctrine of ‘duplex gratia’ (Inst. III.11.1) that dominates the entire third book of the Institutes of 1559.

[38]            ‘Estimant que Messeigneurs lont suporté en ses affections trop vehementes (esquelles il se deplait et en ses vices) comme Dieu a fait de son costé’ (OS II, 398); ‘(ses infirmités) lequelles il ne veult pas nier, car puis que Dieu et ses anges les scavent il na pas honte des les confesser devant les hommes’ (OS II, 400) ; ‘Si puis ie dire cela, que j’ay bien voulu. Que mes vices m’ont tousiours despleu, et que la racine de la crainte de Dieu a esté en mon coeur’ (OS II, 402).

[39]            CO 31, 25.

[40]            Cf. Calvin’s report in a letter to Farel of October 8th, 1539 (CO 10/2, 396-400; Schwarz 1, 78-81) of his exaggerated response to unexpectedly meeting his old opponent Pierre Caroli in Strasbourg again.

[41]            So Calvin did speak from experience when he distinguished the Christian ‘bearing the cross’ from the ‘iron philosophy’ of the Stoa: according to him it is humanly impossible to make it one’s life goal to banish every feeling of pain. Inst. 1539-1554: XXI.23 = Inst. 1559: III.8.9.

[42]            Cf. Calvin’s definition of the ‘pura germanaque religio’ as ‘fides, cum serio Dei timore coniuncta’; Inst. 1539-1554 I.9 (CO I, 285); Inst. 1559 I.2.2 (OS III, 37 l. 7-8).

[43]            See also Serene Jones, Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety, Louisville, Kentucky 1995, Chapter 3 (87-120): ‘An Apology for Divine Wisdom. A Reading of Chapter 1 of Book 1 of the Institutes’.

[44]            ‘Ie vous prie aussi ne changer rien, ne innover’ (OS II, 403).

[45]            ‘Catechismus Ecclesiae Genevensis’ 1542/1545 (OS II, 59-144); ‘La Forme des Prieres et Chantz ecclesiastiques’ 1542 (OS II, 1-58); ‘Ordonnances ecclésiastiques’ (Calvin’s draft of 1541 in CO 10/1, 15-30).

[46]            About the confluence of ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ elements in Calvin see the well-known study of William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait, Oxford/New York 1988.

[47]            See the report of the WARC-consultation ‘On the renewal of worship in reformed Churches today’ (January 2001) in: L. Vischer (ed.), Christian worship in Reformed Churches. Past and present, Grand Rapids 2003.

[48]            See the matter-of-fact note of the minutes secretary on the back of the copy of the ‘Articles’ of 1537 kept in the Geneva archives, with which the denial of Calvin’s proposals is recorded: ‘La cene demeure a quattres fois l’annee. Le baptesme tous les jours’ [The Lord’s supper stays at 4 times a year. Baptism every day] (OS I, 377).

[49]            In the preface to the Latin edition of his first catechism (1538) Calvin brings to mind the Biblical figures of king Asa (1 Kings 15), king Josiah (2 Kings 23) and after the return from exile of Ezra and Nehemia (Neh. 8-10) as examples of a custom of collective covenant renewal (OS I, 429). Citizens that refused to take the oath on the confession condemned themselves to banishment from the city.

[50]            With aptly chosen irony B. Cottret (op.cit. 140) paraphrases a word of Calvin from a recommendation in which he speaks against the necessity of the celibacy for ministers (CO 10/1, 228): ‘God, as was well known, created women so that men could devote themselves to the Lord’.

[51]            Cf. Calvin’s inability mentioned at the beginning of this contribution, to imagine an intra-Christian co-existence.

[52]            In the ‘Argumentum in Genesin’ of 1554 – so that’s 11 years after the theories of Copernicus were published – Calvin defends a (somewhat modified) Polemic cosmology, because he thinks he just cannot do justice to the first chapter of Genesis in any other way (CO 23, 9-10). In a more general sense he believes in the last edition of the Institutes to be able to support the ‘propria fidei doctrina’ (the doctrine of the faith proper; Inst. I.6.1, OS III, 61 l. 10-11) with a ‘generalis scripturae doctrina’ (a Christian view of the universe, Inst. I.2.1, OS III, 34 l. 23 and I.10.3, OS III, 87 l. 20).

[53]            Only in the matter of Servetus did Calvin join the Law of the Holy Roman Empire here, though he pleaded for a gentler version of the death penalty than being burned. See his letter to Farel of August 20th, 1553 (CO 14, 589-590; Schwarz 1, 483-484).

[54]            In the ‘Meditation über die Hoffnung’, with which Jürgen Moltmann begins his Theologie der Hoffnung (Munich 1966, 15-16), he rightly points to the passage on hope in the Institutes (1559 III.2.42), which carried the title ‘Que cest que Esperance’[What is hope] in the catechism of 1537 (OS I, 403).

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R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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