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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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3. Calvin. In the Swiss Reformation the city-state
made its last contribution to history; for it communi-
cated to a nascent church something of the pattern
of its own organization (and particularly government
by councils) as well as something of its spirit, so that
the secular and the spiritual seemed to have kinship
with one another, just as the development of the Cath-
olic hierarchy had fitted neatly into the feudal world.
Here, moreover, the transformation that occurred was
more radical—organized Christianity reshaped itself,
producing a palpably different landscape.

Signs of this are apparent in the case of Zwingli,
the original leader of the revolt within the Swiss Con-
federation. The initial breach occurred on matters of
discipline, but the changes in doctrine and thought
were more radical, more rationalistic than in the case
of the Lutheran Revolt. Here, however, the identifica-
tion of the movement with the political ambitions of
Zürich turned the Reformation into a politico-religious
affair—a patriotic cause—Zwingli meeting his death
in battle.

What we might regard as the international Refor-
mation is associated with John Calvin and with
Geneva—a city which was not yet part of the Con-
federation, and which belonged to no country, though
it stood at the point where France, Germany, Italy
and Switzerland came together. After trying to estab-
lish himself in the city from 1536 and being driven
out in 1538, Calvin from 1541 gained the mastery, and
held it till 1564, though this involved the expulsion
of many of the ancient families and the granting of
citizenship to hosts of refugees from abroad. At the
beginning of this period, the Reformation itself had
arrived at a critical stage. Many people had become
weary of the conflict, and there were distinguished
intellects as well as political leaders who had come
to desire ecclesiastical reunion. Under Melanchthon,
the Lutherans seemed to be trying to discover how
far they could go towards a reconciliation with
Catholicism. After the Peasants' Revolt in Germany
in 1525 there had been the spectacle of the revolu-
tionized city of Münster in 1534, and this had shown
what could happen if religious rebellion was not re-
strained. Calvin represented a new generation, and an
important part of his work was the stabilizing of the
Reformation—conceiving it as an international affair,
and erecting it if possible into an international order
comparable to the Catholic one of the Middle Ages.

In 1536, by the first version of his Institutes of the
Christian Religion
(which was to prove the best-seller
of the sixteenth century), and then, in the following
year, by his part in the “reunion” discussions in
Germany, he had been qualifying himself to become
an international leader. In 1539 his Letter to Cardinal
Sadoleto
had proved to be the most successful of the
popular defences of the Reformation. The wheel had
come into full cycle, and he saw that what was needed
was the reestablishment of ecclesiastical authority. He
realized that the situation called for three important
things: a confession of faith, a doctrine of the Church,
and an ecclesiastical discipline. His originality lay not
in the generation of new doctrines but in the better
coordination of received ones, and their adaptation to
the purpose of achieving a coherent system. Difficulties
concerning the question of the “real presence” in the
Eucharist prevented a union with the Lutherans, who
preserved something of the Catholic point of view, and,
for a long time, also, with the Zwinglians, who treated
the sacrament as rather a symbol and a remembrance


392

of Christ. These latter began to be reconciled, however,
from 1549.

It is in Calvinism that the Reformation, at least in
externals, begins to wear the aspect of almost a new
type of religion—like a new style in art or, as some
would think (perhaps unfairly) a change from poetry
to prose, if not a reaction against aestheticism itself.
It becomes clear now that religion is a very serious
matter; the preaching holds a great importance; and,
under the tighter authority that is possible in the city-
states, there arises a severer control of private life.
Calvin was ready (as Zwingli had been) to follow the
Bible more consistently than Luther, and this was
bound to give an increased importance to the Old
Testament. He put the idea of the sovereignty of God
at the center of his whole system, whereas Luther
might be said to have been preoccupied by the idea
of Grace. The emphasis on sovereignty had its
counterpart in the demand for obedience from the
human side. Here was the basis for a firm authoritar-
ianism—an insistence that the Christian life should be
a severe discipline.

It has been said that Catholicism is the religion of
priests, Lutheranism the religion of theologians, and
Calvinism the religion of the believing congregation.
In spite of its inaccuracies, this comparison throws light
on the Calvinist system in which, theoretically at least,
the Church was the congregation of believing Chris-
tians, independent of mystery and ceremony and ex-
ternal paraphernalia. The system governed through
assemblies, synods, consistories; pastors were elected
by congregations; and all pastors were equal, just as
all churches were equal. The layman was given a part
to play in ecclesiastical affairs; and the ministers were
to have no special immunities, no territorial lordships,
and they were to pay taxes like anybody else. The
ecclesiastical system was to have no prisons, no instru-
ments of mundane power; their sole weapon against
the offender was to be exclusion from the Lord's Sup-
per. In other words, sacerdotalism was at an end; and
it was Calvin rather than Luther who broke the power
of priests. It was all congenial to the pattern of a
city-state, and suggests a Christianity that is being
reshaped in the context of a more modern world.

Yet it was authoritarian, and only with the greatest
difficulty did Calvin impose it on an unwilling city.
Coming later than Luther, and having a more re-
morselessly logical mind, he did not pretend that the
individual might interpret Scripture for himself. If
congregations elected their ministers the qualifications
of these had to be approved, and their ordination
carried out, by other ministers, and in Calvin's time
the congregation would be provided with a nominee;
all it could do was to give or refuse its consent. In
reality, the system was governed by an oligarchy which
recruited itself by cooptation and closely superintended
its members, entering private houses, and exercising
control over private life. It was even something like
a police-state, with spies, informers, and occult agents,
and with neighbors and members of families betraying
one another—the culprit being handed over to the civil
magistrate, who carried out the requirements of the
Church. If the influx of foreign exiles enabled Calvin
to clinch his mastery of Geneva, it also provided him
with the means of extending his influence abroad. The
city became like a modern nest of international revo-
lution, where the foreign guests received their training,
and then departed to continue the work in their home
country.

Though he repressed freedom of conscience and
personal liberty, and, like Martin Luther, gave the
individual no right to rebel, he did allow disobedience
to rulers who commanded what was contrary to the
word of God, and he gave currency to a theory of
resistance to monarchy which was to be of great im-
portance in the subsequent period. Individuals had no
right to rebel but representative institutions (the
States-General in France, the Parliament in England,
for example) were justified in fighting the king. The
doctrine was quoted from Calvin by the early Whigs
and debated by the nascent Tories in seventeenth-
century England and it had already been significant
in other countries. It inaugurates the modern theory—
the modern paradox—of “constitutional revolution”
where the organ of revolt (as in France in 1789) is
the representative system itself.

It happened that, in various countries, Calvinism
spread originally in opposition to government, and its
leader approved of these movements and guided them.
Calvinism, in fact, often emerged in the attitude of
rebellion, and Calvin's warnings against this were not
always heeded, if indeed he himself was quite consis-
tent about the matter. It is not an accident that liberty
extends itself in the modern world via Holland, Great
Britain and the United States—countries where politi-
cal rebellion was allied to Calvinism.