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Calvin’s Ideas About the Church Organisation Essay

There are many factors which are important to examine in determining the main reason for the success of the Genevan Reformation, for example Calvin’s ideas about the Church organisation and Calvin’s leadership and personal impact, the previous exposure of Geneva to Protestantism and Calvin’s ability to overcome his opponents. Calvin himself placed a strong emphasis on The Ecclesiastical Ordinances, differing from Luther who left organization to the Princes. As it was vital to him, in 1541 Calvin drafted an ecclesiastical constitution for Geneva which should be accepted in return for him taking on responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the city.

With some modifications it was approved by the political authorities and set in place a Calvinist Church order. Calvin believed there must be a strict structure to preach the Word and it consisted of four orders of ministers: Pastors to teach, preach, administer the Word and publicly and privately ‘admonish’ people’s conduct, Doctors to teach true doctrines and act as teachers in schools, Deacons to care for the poor, needy and sick who were chosen by the Little Council and finally the Elders who were to ‘supervise every person’s conduct and to warn backsliders and those of a disorderly life’; 12 lay people from different parts of the city.

Those who failed to comply with Calvin’s strict standards could be punished by the Calvinist court. The Consistories were independent of civil courts and secular authorities. It was hard to argue with this model as it was based on the scriptures and was widely copied. After 1555 his authority was unchallenged and the Little Council even adopted practices of the Grabeau. The Ordinances indoctrinated children in a sense; soon there was a generation who knew nothing but his teachings. However, this links to the previous exposure of Geneva to Protestantism, as Calvin offered an appealing solution in a time of religious crisis in the country. There were a small number of Genevan Reformers in the 1520s such as Farel and Viret. Both Lutheran and Zwinglian reformations were making great progress and the city of Berne had also carried out a reformation in 1528. Despite this, the Council could not make a decision and churches were ransacked, masses suspended and the cathedral clergy left.

Three months later there was a feeling of apathy as to what would replace the broken Catholic Church. Calvin came to Geneva offereing a truly reformed faith that was well ordered and supported authority. This appealed to many and he offered an alternative to Lutheranism which he felt had not ‘gone far enough’. This links to the next point, as Calvin himself was key in asserting authority through fear and his own charisma in order to gain support, for example as he was cunningly able to use the current situation in Geneva to manipulate the Council into seeing his ideas as desirable and accepting many of his radical proposals. In many ways Calvin should have been a poor leader; he was an intense scholar and mostly in poor health but he inspired admiration rather than affection.

Calvin himself is quoted to have said that the citizens of Berne ‘have always feared rather than loved me’. His single-minded, totally focused approach partly explains his success- also as a theologian and debater many suggested there was no equal. Finally, this links into the next factor that Calvin’s opposition was suppressed, so in most aspects there was no equal contestant, although it was a 14-year struggle. Calvin experienced both religious and political/social opposition. In 1542 Sebastian Castellio who was appointed as head of the Genevan college by Calvin claimed that a book in the Old Testament was in fact an erotic poem which should not be included in the scriptures; which Calvin felt this was an attack on. Castellio left Geneva and was expelled on his return by the Syndic due to Calvin’s convincing. The Michael Servitus affair is also a strong example of Calvin’s effective suppression of religious opposition.

He was a Spanish theologian who adopted extreme views and became offended when others did not accept them, eg. he condemned infant baptism and the Doctrine of the Trinity. He was suspected of heresy so went undercover in Vienna where he wrote a book and sent a copy to Calvin. Calvin recognized his work and sent authorities to where he was, but he escaped. Although he later turned up to one of Calvin’s sermons and was then burned at the stake. Diarmaid MacCulloch claims that many people opposed Calvin because they disagreed with his simple laws against e.g. dancing and singing. Some opposition was on the basic principle of who was in charge, the civil government was run by aristocrats and the Church by highly educated French elite so battles were always over who would decide punishments for wrongdoers.

The Libertines were constantly called before the Consistory for bad conduct eg. dancing, making obscene gestures and gambling etc. Perrin was part of the Syndic however when he began to complain and demand more power, therefore Syndics began to support Calvin against him. The Libertines were removed from all Genevan councils and fled or were tortured/executed. To conclude, I think that a number of factors were important in the success of the Genevan Reformation, and Calvin’s presence underpins all of them. Although Calvin has been accused of a ruthless approach I believe that his success in suppressing opposition was vital the Reformation as it disallowed powerful opposition from crushing Genevan efforts.

I then think that the structure of the Church under Calvin was the next important as many found it hard to fault this approach and it became widely used. Calvin personally was important in the Reformation as it was key that he was able to appeal to or incite fear in people in order to achieve his aims, but this ties in with his ability to suppress opposition. Lastly then, although I found the situation in Geneva and its exposure to Protestant ideas again vital, there were many key factors and it would be wrong to suggest that none played any role in the spread and success of Protestantism in Geneva.


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