Elect Exile: John Calvin the Refugee

Obbie T. Todd

In recent years, the idea that John Calvin ruled 16th century Geneva with an iron fist has become increasingly popular in Calvinist and non-Calvinist circles. After all, who else could order the burning of an anti-Trinitarian heretic? Standing at a distance, it’s easy for the 21st century Christian to simply conclude that Calvin was the “mayor of Geneva,” a magisterial Reformer who turned his Swiss chateau into a Christian autocracy of sorts. Such a picture of John Calvin, however, could not be further from the truth. For example, it was actually the Genevan City Council that officially ordered the burning of Servetus, whose effigy had already been burned by the Catholic Church for his heretical views. As Alister McGrath rightly observes, “The relation between reformer and city council was thus delicate, easily prone to disruption, with real power permanently in the hands of the latter.” (Reformation Thought, 19)

Furthermore, Calvin himself was a Frenchman living in Switzerland. He was an outsider, and this created significant political tension for someone attempting to supervise the morality of Geneva’s bourgeois class. In addition, Calvin wasn’t the only refugee in Geneva. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at the Academy, had also fled his native France. In fact, between the 1540s and 1560s, the influx of refugees into Geneva steadily rose from roughly 12,000 to 20,000. Persecution of Protestants by the Catholic Church in France and Italy brought thousands to seek asylum within the safe, mountainous confines of Geneva. Remarkably, Calvin eventually received his citizenship in Geneva only four years before his death! Until that time he remained in some ways a social outsider in the very city he was called to shepherd. A picture of Calvin the sojourner is never more vivid than in his ignominious burial in an unmarked Genevan grave, something he had requested himself.

“We are always on the road,” Calvin said. The circumstances surrounding Calvin’s introduction to Geneva were a constant reminder to him of the benevolent providence of God to a wandering people. Having left his French homeland, the road to Basel and Strasbourg was blocked by troop movements in Lorraine as the war between Francis I and Charles V dragged on. This forced Calvin to take an unexpected detour to the south through Geneva. There, a man by the name of Farel trapped the young Calvin and convinced him to stay. According to Farel, Calvin would be playing the part of cowardly Jonah should he refuse his calling to Geneva. It’s here that Calvin the Refugee would become Calvin the Reformer.

According to Calvin scholar Herman Selderhuis, Calvin’s “theology of the experience of being a stranger, of having heaven as one’s true home country, reduced the need for strong ties to one’s earthly home country, increased mobility and produced a pioneer mentality.” (John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, 215) Calvin called life a “churning river.” For him, life took place “in an ominous labyrinth,” an image he was fond of using in order to illustrate the uncertainty and frustration of the human experience. One could only escape this labyrinth and find purpose through the direction of Jesus Christ.

Calvin, after all, was eventually exiled from Geneva. The French refugee had also become a Swiss refugee. At issue was the city’s level of dependence with Bern, another Swiss city-state. For the faction of people who wanted strong relations with Bern, Calvin stood in their way. Hence, in 1538, the Reformer hit the road once again. On his way from Geneva to Basel, Calvin stopped in Strasbourg where a man by the name of Martin Bucer was waiting for him. This would spell the beginning of Calvin’s comfortable, proficient three-year exile from Geneva. It also served as yet another testament that Calvin’s life was never his own. Knowing himself to be the bookish type, Calvin once complained, “I would most like to withdraw.” Ironically, the years at Strasbourg were perhaps the only years in which he was able to do exactly that. Three years later, Geneva called upon Calvin once again – this time to refute Jacopo Sadoleto, bishop of Carpentras, who saw an opportunity to reclaim vulnerable Geneva for Rome. Calvin’s reply to Sadoleto on behalf of Geneva is a brilliant distillation of Reformation thought. In it, Calvin asserts,

“For though I am for the present relieved of the charge of the Church of Geneva, that circumstance ought not to prevent me from embracing it with paternal affection – God, when He gave it to me in charge, having bound me to be faithful to it forever.”

Calvin’s calling and perseverance were unwavering even in exile. As a refugee and sojourner, he understood his journey in light of Christ’s faithfulness and not his own. For this reason, Calvin often paralleled his own experiences – and that of Geneva – with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. Discussing the development of Calvin’s liturgy, Selderhuis avers, “Calvin saw a lot of himself in David, and together with his congregation – almost all French refugees – he could identify with the nation Israel that wandered in the desert, experienced so many setbacks and yet was in God’s care. The Psalms became existential pilgrim songs but also rhymed battle cries.” (91)

For most Christians today, the name John Calvin is synonymous with one word: predestination. However, in order to avoid the cold, distant, tyrannical stereotype so common in evangelical circles today, it’s necessary to contextualize John Calvin the person. More importantly, it’s incumbent upon modern readers to understand John Calvin the refugee alongside John Calvin the scholar. In a world of warring kingdoms, plagues, exiles, and social revolutions, Calvin’s doctrine of divine sovereignty was inextricable with his view of human suffering. For the sojourning Christian destined to bear the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:17), divine providence wasn’t an abstract theory; it was a precious comfort. It went hand-in-hand with the Gospel itself. According to Roland Bainton, “Both Calvin and Luther had an overwhelming sense of the majesty of God, but whereas for Luther this served to point up the miracle of forgiveness, for Calvin it gave rather the assurance of the impregnability of God’s purpose. (The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 114) From the vantage point of human suffering and sojourning, a sovereign God was a welcome friend and Savior. Consequently, for 21st century Christians who wish to explore the John Calvin the Reformer, it’s important we not neglect John Calvin the refugee.

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