Geneva – city of Calvin Credo 28th October 2001




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Geneva – city of Calvin

Credo - 28th October 2001

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In the year 1535 when the tyranny of the Roman Antichrist had been cast aside, and its supersti­tions abolished, the most holy religion of Christ was here re­established in its purity, and the Church better ordered, by the singular beneficence of God. At the same time, this city herself, having repelled and put to flight her enemies, reclaimed her liberty, not without a notable and wondrous sign: The Senate and people of Geneva had this memorial made and erected here in perpetual memory, that it might be a witness to future generations of gratitude to God.”

Thus reads an ancient brass plaque in Geneva Cathedral, bes­ide the narrow, straight-backed wooden chair from which John Calvin used to teach. They were not ecumenical days.

As the birthplace of Calvinism and Presbyterianism, Gen­eva has influenced the relig­ious history of the British Isles. The United Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, indeed the “Wee Frees” too and Dr Paisley himself, would all feel indebted to the Genevan Reformation. Catholics seldom warm to the Puritan tradition, yet a visit to its roots can be instructive.

To get to Geneva Cathedral one walks up the Rue de Purg­atoire, past the Rue de I’Enfer and the Rue de Toutes Âmes into the Rue de l’Eveque. The Catholic connotations disap­pear as one enters the building, begun in 1160, but now stripped of all ornament. The clean lines of the Gothic vaults are austere and grey. All decoration was removed in 1535 when the city authorities sided with Bern and the Reformation.

The crowds, incited by the new teaching, destroyed the side altars, dismantled the organs and cleansed the building of every Papist statue and icon. They whitewashed over the medieval frescoes. Only the great pulpit survived along with some stained glass windows of the apostles in the chancel. No pictures of Catholic saints or Gospel scenes were to distract the reformed congre­gation from their sober concen­tration upon the Biblical word.

Today the side chapels rem­ain unused, or hold tombs of Protestant nobility. The pews are turned to face the pulpit rather than the communion table, upon which sits a huge Bible. Beneath is emblazoned the Reformation motto: “Post tenebras lux” — “After the dark­ness, light”

Beneath the cathedral the rec­ent archeological excavations witness to Catholic antiquity: one can see the foundations of the first cathedral and bapt­istry on the mid-fourth century.

Geneva began as a Celtic settlement. Julius Caesar mentions it in 58 BC as “Gen­ua”, when he captured it. Mod­ern Geneva is a prosperous city of international banks, hotels and villas, yachts and lake steamers, comfortably seated along the wooded shores of Lac Léman, where the Rhône flows out to begin its long journey to the Mediterranean.

Geneva is the second seat of the United Nations after New York, and its European head­quarters occupies the Palace of the old League of Nations. It is also home to the International Red Cross, the International Labour Organisation, and the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). The world’s largest particle accelerator is buried beneath a mountain a few miles outside the city, for firing electrons around a 27 km circle at almost the speed of light.

To some extent Geneva’s international prominence can be accredited to John Calvin. As the guiding spirit of Genev­an Protestantism, he establish­ed a rigid theocracy in the city – almost a Taliban style regime. It became the educational cen­tre for spreading Puritan teaching to France, England, Scotland, Holland and Hun­gary. Few pilgrims flock to Geneva in the way they might to Rome or Lourdes, yet in the 16th century the city was indeed the “Calvinist Rome.”

Jean Calvin was born in Picardy in 1509, the son of the bursar of the local Catholic dio­cese. Perhaps sleaze in Cath­olic financial affairs, about which his father grumbled, helped to tip him into the camp of the Reformers.

Trained as a lawyer at Paris University, he became enth­used by the Reformation doc­trines, and forfeited his Cath­olic Church emoluments in 1533. He became a teacher of Scripture at Strasbourg and Basle. Whereas Luther was an emotional character preaching a deeply personal experience, Calvin was a systematiser and logician. Given that Catholicism has corrupted the Gospel, how does one now build God’s Church in the world?

Guillaume Farel invited Calv­in to Geneva in 1536. However, Calvin’s strict interpretation of Scripture did not meet with approval, and they were both expelled from the city in 1539.

However a Catholic backlash from the conservative, rural areas threatened the Genevan Reformation. In 1541 the city’s Protestants beg­ged Calvin to return. They adop­ted his “Institutes of the Chris­tian Religion” as the rule of faith and practice for the city. Until his death in 1564, Calvin worked strenuously to make Geneva a model Christian city, enforced by rigorous discipline.

He banned dancing and playing cards. Sobriety was de rigueur. In 1542 he published his “Catechism of the Church of Geneva” and a liturgical text: “Form of Prayers and Ecclesiastical Chants”.

He was determined to root out the remains of “Catholic superstition.” Those who failed to attend Sunday worship and Bible instruction were punished. But so was the widower who put “Requiescat in Pace” on his wife’s tombstone, the goldsmith who made a chalice, and the barber who tonsured a priest.

Calvin taught “sola scrip­tura” — the Bible alone is the rule of faith — and “sola fide” —only by faith are we saved: works play no part. “Soli Deo gloria” — To God alone be glory (not to Mary or the saints).

However he incurred Luth­er’s wrath over his doctrine of the Eucharist. Luther had con­tinued to uphold the reality of Christ’s objective presence in the consecrated bread and wine. In Zurich, Zwingli taught that the consecrated bread and wine remained only bread and wine, symbols of Christ. For Calvin the Euchar­ist was not so important, and it is still celebrated only once a month in the cathedral.

“Why return always to this bread, when it is only faith in Christ incarnate, who suffered and died for us, that saves and sacrifices? The Gospel will not be imperilled if we abandon this god-made-bread.” (Farel)

Also objectionable is Calvin’s doctrine of the predestination of the damned as well as the elect — that God created many men without faith and grace, solely to be damned in hell for ever, in contrast to the “elect” who are saved by faith. Such a teaching contradicts the good­ness of God ard human free will.

Nevertheless Geneva appear­ed as a beacon of freedom to the Huguenots and Waldenses who were being persecuted in Catholic France and Italy. Ref­ugees flooded the city, includ­ing hundreds of English Prot­estants in Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-58). From Scotland came John Knox, who would go back to extirpate the iniquities of Catholicism in his native land.

Geneva’s central role in the Reformation is celebrated by the immense “Wall of the Ref­ormation”, 320ft long, erected in 1917 alongside the city bastions. In the park, the Genevois play chess on giant boards, with knee height pawns and waist-high royalty. The Reformers might not approve.

16ft high granite statues of Farel, Calvin, Beza and Knox stand in the centre, bearded, gowned and hooded. They clutch their bibles and stare blindly at the university buildings opposite.

Large plaques on either side commemorate the major land­marks in Protestant history: we behold John Knox preaching in St Giles’ Edinburgh before the court of Mary Stuart. The Pilg­rim Fathers sail from Plymouth aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and sign their compact before colonising New England. Oliv­er Cromwell stands in full bat­tle dress with his sword. The English Lords and Commons present the Declaration of Rights to William of Orange in 1689, when (I would say) the Dutch King had usurped the legitimate James II. The other panels record historic events in France, Holland and Prussia.

Luther and Zwingli are nota­bly absent from this celebra­tion of Protestant achievement. Their names are relegated to plain blocks of stone standing at the sides of the principal memorial. Calvin did not see eye to eye with them!

My journey in the steps of Calvin finished in the city cemetery of Pleinpalais. Tracking plot 707 across the perfect lawns between the cypress trees leads one to the resting place of Jean Calvin —in the company of, among oth­ers, Sir Humphrey Davy, inventor of the miners lamp.



Calvin’s grave is not that of any Catholic saint — no baroque altar piece with candles and gilded putti, no flowers or scribbled prayers on scraps of paper, no little tin arms or legs or kidney in thanks for miraculous healings. Merely a nine-inch high stone, with the initials J C faintly vis­ible. Not even a cross. A low shrub-hedge covers the grave and an iron railing surrounds it. A truly self-effacing grave for this historic personality. As Calvin would have said: “Only to God be the glory.”


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