Calvin’s character harmonized with his theology. The oil painting in the University Library at Geneva pictures him as a severe and somber mystic; dark but bloodless complexion, scanty black beard, high forehead, penetrating, ruthless eyes. He was short and thin and physically frail, hardly fit to carry a city in his hands. But behind the weak frame burned a mind sharp, narrow, devoted, and intense, and a firm, indomitable will, perhaps a will to power. His intellect was a citadel of order, making him almost the Aquinas of Protestant theology. His memory was crowded and yet precise. He was ahead of his time in doubting astrology, abreast of it in rejecting Copernicus, a bit behind it (like Luther) in ascribing many terrestrial occurrences to the Devil. His timidity concealed his courage, his shyness disguised an inner pride, his humility before God became at times a commanding arrogance before men. He was painfully sensitive to criticism, and could not bear opposition with the patience of one who can conceive the possibility that he may be wrong. Racked with illness, bent with work, he often lost his temper and broke out into fits of angry eloquence; he confessed to Bucer that he found it difficult to tame “the wild beast of his wrath.”50 His virtues did not include humor, which might have softened his certainties, nor a sense of beauty, which might have spared ecclesiastical art. Yet he was no unmitigated kill-joy; he bade his followers be cheerful, play harmless games like bowling or quoits, and enjoy wine in moderation. He could be a kind and tender friend, and an unforgiving enemy, capable of hard judgments and stern revenge. Those who served him feared him,51 but those loved him most who knew him best. Sexually his life showed no fault. He lived simply, ate sparingly, fasted unostentatiously, slept only six hours a day, never took a holiday, used himself up without stint in what he thought was the service of God. He refused increases in salary, but labored to raise funds for the relief of the poor. “The strength of that heretic,” said Pope Pius IV, “consisted in this, that money never had the slightest charm for him. If I had such servants my dominion would extend from sea to sea.”52
A man of such mettle must raise many enemies. He fought them with vigor, and in the controversial language of the time. He described his opponents as riffraff, idiots, dogs, asses, pigs, and stinking beasts53—epithets less becoming to his elegant Latinity than to Luther’s gladiatorial style. But he had provocations. One day Jerome Bolsec, an ex-monk from France, interrupted Calvin’s sermon at St. Peter’s to denounce the predestinarian doctrine as an insult to God; Calvin answered him by citing Scripture; the police arrested Bolsec; the Consistory charged him with heresy; the Council was inclined to put him to death. But when the opinions of theologians in Zurich, Basel, and Bern were solicited, they proved disconcerting: Bern recommended caution in dealing with problems beyond human ken—a new note in the literature of the age; and Bullinger warned Calvin that “many are displeased with what you say in your Institutes about predestination, and draw the same conclusions as Bolsec.”54 The Council compromised on banishment (1551). Bolsec returned to France and Catholicism.
More important in result was Calvin’s controversy with Joachim Westphal. This Lutheran minister of Hamburg denounced as “Satanic blasphemies” the view of Zwingli and Calvin that Christ was only spiritually present in the Eucharist, and thought the Swiss Reformers should be refuted not by the pens of theologians but by the rods of magistrates (1552). Calvin answered him in terms so severe that his fellow Reformers at Zurich, Basel, and Bern refused to sign his remonstrance. He issued it nevertheless; Westphal and other Lutherans returned to the attack; Calvin branded them as “apes of Luther,” and argued so effectively that several regions hitherto Lutheran-Brandenburg, the Palatinate, and parts of Hesse, Bremen, Anhalt, and Baden—were won to the Swiss view and the Reformed Church; only the silence of Melanchthon (who secretly agreed with Calvin), and the post-mortem echo of Luther’s thunderbolts saved the rest of northern Germany for the Lutheran creed.
Turning from these assaults on the right, Calvin faced on the left a group of radicals recently arrived in Switzerland from Counter Reformation Italy. Caelius Secundus Curio, teaching in Lausanne and Basel, shocked Calvin by announcing that the saved—including many heathen—would far outnumber the damned. Laelius Socinus, son of a leading Italian jurist, settled in Zurich, studied Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew in order to understand the Bible better, learned too much, and lost his faith in the Trinity, predestination, original sin, and the atonement. He expressed his skepticism to Calvin, who answered as well as possible. Socinus agreed to refrain from public utterance of his doubts; but later he spoke out against the execution of Servetus, and was among the few who, in that fevered age, stood up for religious toleration.
In a state where religion and government were fused in an intoxicating mixture, it was natural that Calvin’s most persistent conflicts should be with the Patriotes and Libertins who had once expelled him and now deplored his return. The Patriots resented his French origin and supporters, abhorred his theology, nicknamed him Cain and called their dogs Calvin; they insulted him in the streets, and probably it was they who one night fired fifty shots outside his home. The Libertins preached a pantheistic creed without devils, angels, Eden, atonement, Bible, or pope. Queen Margaret of Navarre received and supported them at her court in Nérac, and reproved Calvin for his severity with them.
On June 27, 1547, Calvin found attached to his pulpit a placard reading:
Gross hypocrite! You and your companions will gain little by your pains. If you do not save yourselves by flight, nobody shall prevent your overthrow, and you will curse the hour when you left your monkery.... After people have suffered long they avenge themselves.... Take care that you are not served like M. Verle [who had been killed].... We will not have so many masters....55
Jacques Gruet, a leading Libertin, was arrested on suspicion of having written the placard; no proof was adduced. It was claimed that he had, some days previously, uttered threats against Calvin. In his room were found papers, allegedly in his handwriting, calling Calvin a haughty and ambitious hypocrite, and ridiculing the inspiration of the Scriptures and the immortality of the soul. He was tortured twice daily for thirty days until he confessed—we do not know how truthfully—that he had affixed the placard and conspired with French agents against Calvin and Geneva. On July 26, half dead, he was tied to a stake, his feet were nailed to it, and his head was cut off.56
Tension mounted until, on December 16,1547, the Patriotes and Libertins came armed to a meeting of the Great Council, and demanded an end to the power of the Consistory over the citizens. At the height of a violent tumult Calvin entered the room, faced the hostile leaders, and said, striking his breast: “If you want blood, there are still a few drops here; strike, then!” Swords were drawn, but no one ventured to be the first assassin. Calvin addressed the gathering with rare moderation, and finally persuaded all parties to a truce. Nevertheless his confidence in himself was shaken. On December 17 he wrote to Viret: “I hardly hope that the Church can be upheld much longer, at least by my ministry. Believe me, my power is broken, unless God stretch forth His hand.” But the opposition divided into factions, and subsided till the trial of Servetus offered another opportunity.