VIII. CALVIN TO THE END: 1554–64

Perhaps Calvin knew Castellio’s secret leaning toward Unitarianism—belief in a God not triune, therefore a rejection of Christ’s divinity; and he can be forgiven for seeing in this basic doubt the beginning of the end for Christianity. He feared this heresy all the more because he found it in Geneva itself, above all among the Protestant fugitives from Italy. These men saw no sense in replacing incredible transubstantiation with incredible predestination; their rebellion attacked the fundamental assumption of Christianity, that Christ was the Son of God. Matteo Gribaldi, professor of jurisprudence at Padua, had a summer home near Geneva. During the trial of Servetus he spoke openly against civil punishment for religious opinions, and advocated freedom of worship for all. Hailed before the Council, he was banished on suspicion of Unitarianism (1559). He secured appointment as professor of law in the University of Tübingen; Calvin sent word there of Gribaldi’s doubts; the university pressed him to sign a Trinitarian confession; instead he fled to Bern, where he died of the plague in 1564. Giorgio Blandrata, an Italian physician domiciled in Geneva, was summoned before the Council on a charge of questioning the divinity of Christ; he fled to Poland, where he found some tolerance for his heresy. Valentino Gentile, from Calabria, openly expressed Unitarian views in Geneva, was thrown into prison, was sentenced to death (1557), recanted, was released, went to Lyons, was arrested by the Catholic authorities, but was freed on his assurance that his chief interest lay in refuting Calvin. He joined Blandrata in Poland, returned to Switzerland, was seized by the Bernese magistrates, was convicted of perjury and heresy, and was beheaded (1566).

Amid these battles for the Lord, Calvin continued to live simply, and to rule Geneva by the power of a personality armed with the delusions of his followers. His position became stronger as years gave it roots. His only weakness was physical; headaches, asthma, dyspepsia, stone, gout, and fever racked and thinned his frame, and formed his face to taut severity and gloom. A long illness in 1558–59 left him lame and feeble, with repeated hemorrhages of the lungs. Thereafter he had to keep to his bed most of the time, though he continued to study, direct, and preach, even when he had to be borne to the sanctuary in a chair. On April 25, 1564, he made his will, full of confidence in his election to everlasting glory. On the twenty-sixth the syndics and the Council came to his bedside; he asked their pardon for his outbreaks of anger, and begged them to hold steadfastly to the pure doctrine of the Reformed Church. Farel, now in his eightieth year, came from Neuchâtel to bid him au revoir. After many days of prayer and suffering Calvin found peace (May 27, 1564).

His influence was even greater than Luther’s, but he walked in a path that Luther had cleared. Luther had protected his new church by rallying German nationalism to its support; the move was necessary, but it tied Lutheranism too narrowly to Teutonic stocks. Calvin loved France, and labored to promote the Huguenot cause, but he was no nationalist; religion was his country; and so his doctrine, however modified, inspired the Protestantism of Switzerland, France, Scotland, and America, and captured large sectors of Protestantism in Hungary, Poland, Germany, Holland, and England. Calvin gave to Protestantism in many lands an organization, confidence, and pride that enabled it to survive a thousand trials.

A year before his death his pupil Olevianus joined with Melanchthon’s pupil Ursinus in preparing the Heidelberg Catechism, which became the accepted expression of the Reformed faith in Germany and Holland. Bèze and Bullinger reconciled the creeds of Calvin and Zwingli in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), which became authoritative for the Reformed churches in Switzerland and France. In Geneva itself Calvin’s work was ably continued by Bèze. But year by year the business leaders who controlled the Councils resisted more and more successfully the attempts of the Consistory and the Venerable Company to place moral checks upon economic operations. After Bèze’s death (1608) the merchant princes consolidated their supremacy, and the Genevan Church lost the directive privileges that Calvin had won for it in nonreligious affairs. In the eighteenth century the influence of Voltaire moderated the Calvinist tradition, and ended the sway of a puritan ethic among the people. Catholicism patiently struggled to recapture a place in the city; it offered a Christianity without gloom and an ethic without severity; in 1954 the population was 42 per cent Catholic, 47 per cent Protestant.79 But the most impressive man-made structure in Geneva is the noble “Reformation Monument” which, running majestically along a park wall, celebrates the victories of Protestantism, and raises at its center the powerful figures of Farel, Calvin, Bèze, and Knox,

Meanwhile the hard theocracy of Calvin was sprouting democratic buds. The efforts of the Calvinist leaders to give schooling to all, and their inculcation of disciplined character, helped the sturdy burghers of Holland to oust the alien dictatorship of Spain, and supported the revolt of nobles and clergy in Scotland against a fascinating but imperious queen. The stoicism of a hard creed made the strong souls of the Scottish Covenanters, the English and Dutch Puritans, the Pilgrims of New England. It steadied the heart of Cromwell, guided the pen of blind Milton, and broke the power of the backward-facing Stuarts. It encouraged brave and ruthless men to win a continent and spread the base of education and self-government until all men could be free. Men who chose their own pastors soon claimed to choose their governors, and the self-ruled congregation became the self-governed municipality. The myth of divine election justified itself in the making of America.

When this function had been performed, the theory of predestination fell into the backwaters of Protestant belief. As social order returned in Europe after the Thirty Years’ War, in England after the revolutions of 1642 and 1689, in America after 1793, the pride of divine election changed into the pride of work and accomplishment; men felt stronger and more secure; fear lessened, and the frightened cruelty that had generated Calvin’s God gave way to a more humane vision that compelled a reconception of deity. Decade by decade the churches that had taken their lead from Calvin discarded the harsher elements of his creed. Theologians dared to believe that all who died in infancy were saved, and one respected divine announced, without causing a commotion, that “the number of the finally lost... will be very inconsiderable.” 80 We are grateful to be so reassured, and we will agree that even error lives because it serves some vital need. But we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.

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