Saturday, June 30, 2012

Calvin and Bolsec

Geneva March 1551. It is over ten years since Calvin, now 42, has returned  from his enforced exile in Bucer’s Strasbourg, no doubt having learned much from the way Bucer organised things in that city. Calvin is bent on cementing the work of Reformation in the church and the society of Geneva. For him this involves the tricky and contentious matter of distinguishing the jurisdiction of the church, which had to do with spiritual matters, and of the magistrate, who is the ‘minister’ of the gospel in civil affairs, charged with upholding and defending the one true church.  Where is the line between the jurisdiction of each to be drawn?

The issue was soon to be put to the test. Jerome Bolsec, an ex-Carmelite monk, now a physician, appears in the city. He holds ‘certain mistaken opinions concerning free will and predestination’, and is reprimanded by the pastors of Geneva (exactly whom, we are not told). He is summoned before the Consistory three times. He openly kept up his opposition to Calvin’s views. The story is that on the third of these occasions Calvin came into the meeting, slipping in unnoticed at the back. As soon as Bolsec had finished speaking Calvin stood up and offered a refutation, quoting passages from Augustine verbatim, which lasted for an hour. And then Bolsec was arrested. It appears that this was not what Calvin wanted, but rather that the matter be quietly dropped. Even in prison Bolsec kept up his opposition, slandering Calvin and the ministry more generally. The next we learn is of Bolsec’s trial, in October of that year, on a charge of promoting civil disorder, disturbing the peace by spreading his views in the city.

The theological issues

Bolsec denied Calvin’s teaching regarding eternal predestination, saying that the doctrine made God a tyrant. Instead he proposed that predestination is based on foreseen faith (and reprobation on foreseen unbelief), and so neither was ‘eternal’, or ‘absolute’.  For on this understanding of the word, God elects and predestines those whom he foresees will respond in faith to the gospel. In the views of the pastors of Geneva, headed by Calvin, such sentiments weakened the foundation of God’s sovereignty in the gift of his grace and was contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. Although Calvin had private discussions with Bolsec before his trial, the significance of which will emerge later, he does not appear to have published any rebuttal. But he offered a written defence of the Genevan view in the form of an explicit refutation of Bolsec’s claims, provided in the trial as evidence of the likely disruptive effect of Bolsec’s public disputations.

Calvin focuses on the charge that in eternal (or absolute) predestination God is the author of sin, because in such predestination  he necessitates the sinner to sin. That is, Bolsec concentrates his attention not so much on predestination as on reprobation. Calvin responds

To begin with, this terminology that God necessitates is not my language but the jargon of monks  which I never use. But it is also malicious impudence to say that I have applied the term sin to God or to his will. What I have said is that the will of God, in that it is the supreme cause, is the necessity of all things; but time and again I have stated that God for His part disposes and controls all that He does with such equity and justice that even the most wicked are compelled to glorify Him, and that His will is neither a tyranny nor an irrational whim but is in fact the true rule of all good. Moreover I have particularly stated and affirmed that men are compelled to do neither good or evil, but that those who do good do so of a free will which God gives them by His Holy Spirit, and that those who do evil do so of their own natural will which is corrupted and rebellious. M Jerome is thus shown at every point to be a slanderer who perverts good doctrine and the pure truth of God.

A number of things are noteworthy here. First, that Calvin himself is quite capable of drawing fine distinctions. Here, he draws the distinction between God necessitating men to sin, which he denies, and the will of God being the supreme cause, and the necessity of all things. What’s the difference?  The difference is that in sinning men act as men, of their own will. They have beliefs and desires of their own, and are able to act in accordance with them, whereas if God were to necessitate men to sin, this would obliterate their will.  God necessitates all things – rocks, plants, non-human animals, human beings, angels - in accordance with their various natures. Also it is important to note that Calvin reserves the term ‘free will’ for the activities of the regenerated will, freed from the slavery of sin. Those who do evil do so of their own natural will, that is a will that is ‘natural’ yet ‘unfree’ because unregenerate, in bondage to sin. ‘Freedom’ as it applies to human action, is a moral and spiritual term for Calvin, as it was for his mentor Augustine. Only the Son can make a person free. But Bolsec denies the operation of such effectual grace. Calvin again

He attempts, finally, to hide the wicked and disgraceful errors which are involved in his doctrine, such as his assertion that God gives to all a heart capable of obeying Him by faith, which implies that He does not give the will, but that man of his own free will accepts, if he so chooses, the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that our election and salvation are founded upon our merits. He asserts, in fact, that man has not lost his free will and that if he did not have free will, he would be a beast…..Again, the error of his assertion that the grace of God is equal for all and that men decide for themselves whether they are saved or damned, as though God does not elect by His free goodness that whom it is His will to have for his children, and having elected them does not reformed their hearts and affections in order to bring them to Jesus Christ, as though, having brought them to Christ, He does not establish them right to the end.

What is interesting about this is the way that Calvin displays the implications of the denial of eternal predestination. If Bolsec denies predestination in the way that Calvin and the Genevan pastors (and Augustine) understood it, then he has to say that God places all men, or some of all men, in a situation where his grace makes them salvable. God grace is thus merely enabling rather that efficacious. Men may by their wills freely cooperate with it, or they may freely decide not to do so. So, as Calvin puts it, in such thinking man in sin has not lost his free will, but may and must exercise it as a co-partner with God. And, contrary to Bolsec, Calvin states that those whom God elects in Christ he establishes ‘right to the end’. Election and predestination - the bondage of the will to sin - efficacious grace – renovation – perseverance to the end, form a web of ideas which stand or fall together.

So predestination was not an obsession for Calvin, but a key component in the display and deployment of an understanding of God’s grace for sinners. In defending it he was defending the gospel of grace. And the lines of the future controversy of the Calvinists with the Arminians were already beginning to be etched out, half a century before it erupted. The so-called ‘Five Points’ are not all here, and certainly they do not have the developed form they came to have later on, but they are well on their way.

One oddity is the way that critics of Calvinism such as Bolsec repeatedly attack the idea of predestination  (as they still do) when, theologically, it is divine election that is the more basic. For predestination is the divine ensuring that those who are elected to grace and glory in Jesus Christ are brought first to grace, and then to glory. Election sets the goal, and predestination is God’s achieving of it.  Still odder is the idea that predestination was Calvin’s invention, but of course it is scriptural terminology and is prominent in the theology of one of the great fathers of the church, St. Augustine, as well as others. Easier to understand is the close intertwining in Calvin’s mind of predestination and divine providence, since is through the workings of God’s providence that predestination works as well.

Bolsec had requested that his views be sent to the Reformed churches in nearby cities for comment, for he seems to have thought that he would find allies there.  They duly were circulated. The questions put to Bolsec, his answers to them, and the rejoinder of the ministers of Geneva, went out to Basle, Berne and Zurich. Calvin helped personally in preparing this circulation.  His name was at the head of the sixteen signatories. The copy to Zurich, preserved there still, is in his hand.

Calvin had mixed feelings about the character of the responses of the churches, received in November. He thought that from Berne was too timid, while Zurich’s pleased him. Support arrived in the form of an unsought letter from Neuchatel, where William Farel was a minister. Nevertheless, milder or stronger, all responses were unanimous in viewing Bolsec’s teaching with disfavor. The reception of these letters in effect brought the deliberations of the trial to a conclusion. The findings were relayed to the Congregation by Calvin on 18th December 1551. They were then ratified by the Council of Geneva.

‘On Thursday the 23rd of the month Maître Jerome was banished to the sound of the trumpet from the territory of Geneva’.

The banishment

As I mentioned at the outset, in the government of Geneva ecclesiastical and civil affairs were closely intertwined, in a way that made tension between the two inevitable. For the magistrate’s concern for civil affairs included the responsibility to curb disturbances of the peace. It was one thing to discuss theological issues at a conference of the learned, or by private correspondence, or by the publication of books in Latin. It was judged altogether another thing to have unorthodox opinions visited upon the ministry, or on the people at large. When Jerome Bolsec arrived in Geneva he at once made himself into a pubic figure, though it has to be said that the public authorities let him alone for a while. It was only when, in Calvin’s words (in his letter to the ministers of Switzerland in October 1551), having debated with the ministers of Geneva, he was imprisoned after he had ‘been tumultuously haranguing the common people not to allow themselves to be deceived by us.’

So by this stage Bolsec had become not only theologically awkward to the ecclesiastical authorities, but a civil nuisance, not because he was threatening violence, but because he was determined to keep up his opposition in the most public way, haranguing ‘the common people’. This in the eyes of the magistrates of Geneva was an issue of civil order, an aspect of which involved the maintenance the good  standing of the Christian faith in its Reformed understanding. Hence the theological character of the court proceedings which were designed to prove that  (despite Bolsec’s protestations) his errors were serious, and that it was against good order that ‘the common people’ should be exposed to his teaching and incited to disloyalty. Calvin says in one of his statements that he ‘had besought Messieurs [the magistrates] with tears that the matter might not be taken any further‘. What this would have meant in practice is not made clear. Perhaps it was that Calvin wished the affair to remain a purely ecclesiastical matter, though as Bolsec was not a citizen of Geneva he could not have been excommunicated, nor could he have been banished from Geneva without the active support of the magistrate. The complications of church-city relations in Calvin’s Geneva are all too apparent.

The first of three controversies  

While attending to Jerome Bolsec, Calvin was also reading a newly-published book by the Roman Catholic theologian Albertus Pighius of Louvain, Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace, published in August 1542, before the onset of the Bolsec affair.  In the book Pighius criticized  the 1539 edition (the second) of Calvin’s Institutes, on free will, the bondage of the will, and predestination. Calvin was anxious to rebut Pighius’s errors on the will as speedily as possible, and writing in great haste he produced The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, in time for its dissemination at the 1543 Frankfurt Book Fair. Later. In 1552 (Pighius in the mean time having died) Calvin published the other half of his rebuttal  of Pighius’s views, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. This book has become the standard account of Calvin’s views on the topic, besides the treatment to be found in the 1559 Institutes.  So while the Bolsec affair unfolded Calvin was also giving more formal, scholarly attention to the topic.  Perhaps he was spurred on by his concern over the public stir that Bolsec was trying to make. This was the second of his public debates on the subject.

The third controversy concerned a man whom Calvin had befriended, Sebastian Castellio, a skilled linguist. At one stage Calvin had found him a job, but Castellio later became disenchanted with his theology, and began speaking and publishing against him, not only on theological questions, but on how Calvin had behaved in the Servetus affair. Calvin’s Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person was published in 1557.  In that year, undeterred,  Castellio anonymously circulated Fourteen Articles or ‘calumnies’ on  Calvin’s views of providence and predestination, accompanied by a provocative letter. Beza persuaded Calvin to take up his pen again. The result was a fuller work against Castellio (though he is not mentioned by name), A Defence of the Secret Providence of God (1558), which despite its title was concerned with the theme of predestination as much as with providence. For in Calvin’s view the two were intertwined.

So predestination, though not for Calvin a theological axiom from which the main elements of the Christian faith can be deduced, plays a key role in understanding various important aspects of Calvin’s career. We might think of it in this way. Calvin came by a ‘sudden conversion’ to be captured and captivated by God’s sovereign grace to sinners through Jesus Christ. Predestination was woven into the fabric of this gospel. But predestination above all the themes of the Christian gospel, became an object of scorn and derision to various people, such as Bolsec and Castellio. Calvin defended it, often with an outspokenness which had the effect, if not the intention, of stoking up opposition to it still further. In this way the idea came to have a prominence that Calvin never intended it to have. We must bear this in mind the next time we are tempted to associate him with this one single idea.  Nevertheless,  studying his responses to critiques of it provides one window into his mind and heart, as well as revealing the uneasy alliance between church and magistrate in Geneva, and offering an introduction to some of the most significant  of Calvin’s publications.


The chief source of information regarding the Bolsec affair is The Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva, edited and translated by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (Grand Rapids Mich., Eerdmans, 1966), from which most of the information about the response to Bolsec has been taken. This gives full documentary evidence of the trial. See also the Letters of Calvin ed. Bonnet for 1551. Calvin’s work on predestination against Albertus Pighius (1552) is translated into English by J.K.S. Reid as Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, (London, James Clarke, 1961). The latest translation of Calvin’s early work on Castellio is contained in Calvin: Theological Treatises translated by J.K.S Reid (London, Library of Christian Classics, XXII, SCM Press, 1954). The most recent English translation of his main work against Castellio, A Defense of the Secret Providence of God, (1558)  (which includes the text of the Fourteen Articles) is by Keith Goad, edited by Paul Helm, (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010).