John Calvin was an influential French theologian who became the leader of the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin fled Paris after a crackdown on Protestants by the Roman Catholic Church. It was during his fugitive years that he met William Farel, a headstrong Reformer and valiant contender for the faith. Yielding to Farel’s forceful persuasions, Calvin agreed to stay in Geneva to propel the Reformation cause in the city.
o Fugitive Years – Geneva (1536-1538)
From the outset, Calvin knew that his ministry in Geneva would not be an easy one. While the city had rejected Rome’s authority, the people – in particular a group called the Libertines – were not so ready to renounce their former vices and indulgent lifestyle.
Both Calvin and Farel worked together to introduce new reforms based on the Bible. This resulted in conflict with the civil authorities as well as the Libertines who viewed the reforms as imposing, and resented Calvin’s dominant influence in the city’s affairs. The climax came in April 1538 when Calvin refused to administer the Lord’s Supper to those living in sin. His radical stand caused a riot in the church. As a result, both Calvin and Farel were ordered to leave Geneva.
o Fugitive Years – Strasbourg (1538 – 1541)
For the next three years, Calvin found refuge in the German city of Strasbourg. It was in this Protestant city that Calvin found a friend and mentor in Martin Bucer, a eminent Reformer known for his biblical approach to church rule and administration. Under Bucer’s influence and tutelage, Calvin was guided to pastor a small congregation of French-speaking refugees who had fled to Strasbourg for protection. From Bucer, Calvin learnt much especially in the area of pastoral theology and church governance. Calvin employed Bucer’s liturgy and formulation of church rule as a pattern for his own congregation. Besides his pastoral duties, Calvin lectured at a university and continued his theological writings.
In August 1540, Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow in his congregation. Sadly, none of their children survived infancy. In Idelette, Calvin found a wonderful life companion and precious helpmeet in his ministerial labours. Her death in March 1549 grieved him deeply and he never remarried.
Despite personal setbacks, Calvin described his sojourn in Strasbourg as the three happiest years of his life. It was in this German city that Calvin published his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
It is clear that the Lord had providentially directed Calvin to Strasbourg (Ps 37: 23). It was here that he gained new insights on the Reformation from his interactions with other Reformers. Perhaps, this was God’s way of equipping His faithful servant for greater work in Geneva – the city that had expelled him three years earlier.
o Fugitive Years – Geneva (1541-1564)
In 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva in response to an invitation by the city’s ruling council. About a year earlier, the situation in the Swiss city had deteriorated – there was widespread moral decline and civil unrest. “In desperation, the authorities turned to the man whom they had banished, and the reluctant Reformer re-entered the city on 13 September, 1541, never again to relocate. When Calvin climbed back into the pulpit at the cathedral of St Pierre, he resumed his ministry at the precise point at which he had paused three years before, taking up the next verse of his systematic exposition of Scripture” (https://banneroftruth.org/us/about/banner-authors/john-calvin/).
Now given full authority to direct the city’s affairs, Calvin spent his final years in Geneva – preaching, writing commentaries, introducing ecclesiastical and public reforms, and working on his Institutes of Christian Religion.
In late 1541, the Genevan authorities accepted Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances which set out the Biblical pattern for church governance. Despite continual opposition from the Libertines, Calvin and his fellow Reformers pressed on faithfully with the preaching of God’s Word. By 1555, resistance from the Libertines had ceased and Calvin was able to continue his ministry, unhindered. His bold and uncompromising preaching brought about a great moral change in the lives of the people – which resulted thereafter in a second Reformation.
(… to be continued)