Sacralism and Calvin’s Geneva

John Calvin

By Mark D. Harris

John Calvin, the Frenchman who became one of the most famous Christian theologians and controversial figures in history, initially wanted nothing more from life than to study and write in ivory tower academia in the 16th century. Intrigued by the nascent Reformation, he first fled Paris to avoid punishment for heresy, and then was shamed by reformed French evangelist William Farel into serving in the church in Geneva, Switzerland, a city of corruption in a land of libertines.

Most religions are sacral, meaning that they are tied to a certain ethnic group and geographic location. To be a Sumerian was to live in Mesopotamia, follow Sumerian culture and worship Sumerian deities such as Anu, Enki and Inanna. To be an Egyptian was to live along the Nile, speak Egyptian and worship Orisis, Isis and Anubis. To be a Hebrew was to live in Palestine, follow the Law of Moses and serve Jehovah. The early Christian church broke this mold, with believers in every people group, and every location in much of the world. The civic religion was emperor worship, intended to unify to the Empire against threats within and without, and the main cause of Christian persecution was that believers did not join the civic religion. Thus they were guilty of treason.

When Constantine adopted Christianity, however, faith in Jesus became the civic religion in the Roman Empire. For the first time, Christianity became sacral. While this gave governmental legitimacy to the organized Church and stopped official persecution, it also tied the new faith to a particular group of people, the Romans, and a particular location, the Empire. The Church was comprised not only those who believed but also of those who did not believe, provided they lived in the right geographic location. Groups like the Donatists rebelled against this old thinking, but Christendom, the kingdom of Christianity, became the predominant view of the Church for one thousand years. With threats from the Muslim world ever present, Christian thinkers joined those from every other culture in history and tied the State to the Church.

With the Reformation this question resurfaced; is the Church comprised of everyone in a certain place or is the Church everyone who believes in Christ? Fearful of destruction from Catholic or Muslim, the Reformers took the path of Christendom, the unity of Church and State.

Geneva was migrating into the Protestant camp, and therefore needed religious leaders to assume political power. As a result Calvin, with his amazing command of Scriptures and knowledge of theology, became a political leader. Consistent with his beliefs, Calvin led the city council to enact rigid laws of conduct, making illegal such common practices as drunkenness, cursing and dancing. He also enacted and enforced a curfew. This was not popular and so he was forced in flee after serving from 1536-1538.

From 1538 to 1541 Calvin ministered in Strasburg, France, married Idelette Storder de Bure, and enjoyed some of his best years. Because of deteriorating conditions in the city and despite opposition from the Catholics and the now freed libertines in Geneva, the city council in Geneva asked Calvin to resume leadership in 1541. The first few years were difficult, with a series of conflicts ending in the execution of Michael Servetus. With that event, the opposition collapsed and Calvin was the undisputed leader of Geneva until his death in 1564. On Calvin’s second tour in Geneva, he was even stricter than the first.

Calvin was the judge of Geneva, and the Bible was the guide. His Ecclesiastical Ordinances enlisted pastors to preach, doctors to teach, elders to discipline and deacons to serve. His Consistory was an ecclesiastical court.

In its libertine phase, it is easy to imagine how Geneva was and to compare it to libertine cities in the United States. Immorality, drunkenness, and other sorts of debauchery were the order of the day.

In its strict phase under the leadership of Calvin, it is hard to imagine such a city today. It is easy to picture a small group of Christians which is extremely strict, forbidding drinking, dancing, and staying out late. My children went to a Christian school in Germany where swinging your legs in chapel was a punishable offense. However, it is difficult to imagine this for an entire society. The diversity of society, the rejection of authority, and embrace of equality, and the advances in communication make it increasingly difficult for one man and a small group of men to impose such unpopular measures.

The carnage of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the advance of literacy and printing, and the Enlightenment cast doubt on the sacralist assumption, that everyone in a given area must share a religion to ensure domestic tranquility and international security. The experiment of the United States proved that assumption to be false. However, many countries have retained their sacralist religious tendencies, unifying the spiritual and secular. Islam is a sacralist religion, and so to renounce Islam is to be a traitor to family and country. An acquaintance told me the other day that one of the biggest problems for Christian growth in Thailand was that the natives believed that since they were Thai, they had to be Buddhist. I have heard similar sentiments from Indians as well as Native Americans regarding their “native” religions.

John Calvin’s Geneva moved from Catholic to Protestant but not from the unity of State and Church to the separation of State and Church, the New Testament model. This took many more centuries to accomplish.

For more information on Christian Sacralism, please see The Reformers and Their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin.

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