Calvin, Bolsec and the Reformation
In 1551 — four hundred fifty years ago — a dramatic confrontation occurred in Geneva between John Calvin and Jerome Bolsec over the doctrine of predestination. Today that controversy is largely forgotten, but it was a significant episode that provides a remarkable window on the character and meaning of the Reformation.
The facts of the controversy are rather simple. Jerome Bolsec who was a Carmelite monk and doctor of theology in Paris, was drawn to the Reformation and so forced to leave France. By early 1551 he had settled in the canton of Geneva working as a physician. From early on he became a critic of Calvin's doctrine of predestination in a variety of ways and settings. The confrontation reached a new height, however, on October 16, 1551. One of the Genevan ministers at a regular Friday gathering for a sermon and discussion, preached on predestination. Bolsec seems to have believed that Calvin was out of town, but Calvin had returned early and had entered the meeting late, sitting in the back. In the discussion Bolsec rose to criticize Calvin and his doctrine of predestination very sharply. In answer to Bolsec, Calvin rose and gave a detailed, and according to his supporters, brilliant defense of predestination.
The city magistrates arrested Bolsec and he was placed on trial by the city. To demonstrate the correctness of the Genevan doctrine and the unity of Swiss Protestants, the magistrates in Geneva sent a letter to get advice from Basel, Zurich and Bern. The responses were extremely disappointing to Calvin: the support of the doctrine of predestination was tepid at best and the counsel of the cities was to be lenient with Bolsec.
The trial of Bolsec proceeded despite such advice, especially charging him with attacking the religious establishment of Geneva and bringing scurrilous charges against its doctrine. On December 23, 1551 he was banished permanently from Geneva. He eventually returned to the Roman Church and in 1577 wrote a vicious biography of Calvin which propagated many false stories about Calvin. Bolsec died in 1584.
The letter of the city of Geneva seeking advice from other ministers of Switzerland provides a clear summary of the way the Calvinists in Geneva understood Bolsec's position:
That worthless wretch rose up, and affirmed that the false and impious opinion, that the will of God is the cause of all things, took its rise during the present century from Laurentius Valla; but that in this he acted wrongly, for he charged God with the blame of all evils, and falsely imputed to him a tyrannical caprice, such as the ancient poets fancifully ascribed to their Jove. He then took up the second head, and affirmed that men are not saved because they have been elected, but that they are elected because they believe; that no one is condemned at the mere pleasure of God; that those only are condemned who deprive themselves of the election common to all. In dealing with this question, he inveighed against us with a great deal of violent abuse. 1
The Genevan ministers saw Bolsec as charging them with introducing theological novelties and with making God a tyrant and the author of sin. They also saw him as teaching that predestination was grounded in the actions of men rather than in the will of God.
The position of Calvin and the Genevan church on predestination was clear and well-known. Calvin had indeed written much that showed the biblical foundations as well as the importance of this doctrine for the church. When Calvin revised his Institutes in 1559, he alluded to this incident (as well as others) when he wrote in his first chapter on predestination:
A baffling question this seems to many. For they think nothing more inconsistent than that out of the common multitude of men some should be predestined to salvation, others to destruction. I, 21, 1
He wrote even more strongly in the next chapter: Some object that God would be contrary to himself if he should universally invite all men to him but admit only a few as elect. Thus, in their view, the universality of the promises removes the distinction of special grace; and some moderate men speak thus, not so much to stifle the truth as to bar thorny questions, and to bridle the curiosity of man. A laudable intention, this, but the design is not to be approved, for evasion is never excusable. But those who insolently revile election offer a quibble too disgusting, or an error too shameful.I, 22, 10
Calvin certainly recognized the difficulty of the doctrine for many: "Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous" (I, 21, 1). Yet he saw its importance for God's glory, for our humility and for our understanding of the character of God's grace.
He wrote, We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God's free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God's grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others.I, 21, 1
Although Calvin recognized the difficulty for many of the doctrine of predestination, that recognition did not make him more tolerant or patient of Bolsec. Bolsec was apparently not a particularly acute theologian. T.H.L. Parker commented on Bolsec that he was "a poor theologian technically."2 Calvin's impatience with Bolsec is clear in a letter that he wrote to Heinrich Bullinger, the leading minister of Zurich, on October 15, 1551 apparently just the day before his public confrontation with Bolsec. In this letter Calvin did not refer to Bolsec by name, but used him as an illustration of the kinds of problems that he faced in Geneva. With considerable agitation Calvin wrote:
A certain Dominican, a minister of the word in a neighboring village, has emerged from the mud under evil auspices. He bawled out openly in the assembly that he had a dispute with me and the Church of Geneva; and this without the least provocation. Not content with that, he brought forward a paper filled with foul accusations, in which I was bitterly reviled for more than twenty times. On the matter being known, he was sent home. Emboldened by impunity, any satellite of the Council of Trent insults me now with equal ferocity. This is the communion of the Church which we daily profess. I omit other matters equally dishonorable, which I endure, not without sadness; although I am not so much moved on my own account, as on that of the public; for I see clearly that such a breaking up of all orderly discipline, so foreign to Christianity, cannot stand for any length of time.3
This controversy is certainly primarily theological and focused on a doctrine very important to Calvin's understanding of Christian truth and life. Calvin is insistent that his God, the God of the Bible, is just and holy in all His doing, not some arbitrary Jupiter. He is also passionate about the need for sinners in humility to recognize that their salvation comes from God alone, planned from eternity and applied sovereignly to them.
The modern reader is certainly struck by the rhetoric of the discussion and the very strong language used. This matter of rhetoric leads us also to the context religiously that concerns Calvin at this time. That religious context of persecution, especially of the Reformed in France, leads us on to Calvin's sense of the need of a Protestant united front against Roman Catholic powers. All of these factors are important if we are to understand the Bolsec affair in context and to understand it as a critical moment in the Reformation.
Today we may look back on the language and the actions in this affair as very strong. But when we remember the context we can see how critical the issues were and how difficult the circumstances.
Calvin's letters 4 from this period not only illumine his attitudes to the Bolsec case, but show the context in which the case played itself out. Two letters in particular, both to Bullinger, bracket the period and show the depth of Calvin's concern for the severe persecution that Reformed people were suffering in France. He summarized the situation in a letter dated October 15, 1551 in these words:
For in order to gain new modes of venting his (the King of France, Henry II) rage against the people of God, he has been issuing atrocious edicts, by which the general prosperity of the kingdom is broken up. A right of appeal to the supreme courts has hitherto been, and still is, granted to persons guilty of poisoning, of forgery, and of robbery; yet this is denied to Christians: they are condemned by the ordinary judges to be dragged straight to the flames, without any liberty of appeal. It has been decreed, that the friends of those whose lives are at stake must not dare intercede for them, unless they wish to be charged with patronizing heresy. The better to fan the flames, all informers are to receive the third part of the goods of the accused. Should any judge appear too remiss, he is liable to a penalty. The King's chancellor is to guard against admitting such to public offices ... All are commanded, with more than usual earnestness, to adore the breaden god on bended knee. All parsons of parishes are commanded to read the Sorbonne articles every Sabbath for the benefit of the people, that a solemn abnegation of Christ may thus resound throughout the land ... Geneva is alluded to more than ten times in the edict, and always with a striking mark of reproach ... The flames are already kindled everywhere, and all highways are guarded lest any should seek an asylum here. If any opportunity occurs, we must spare no pains to alleviate the sufferings of our brethren.(320f) (to Bullinger on October 15
The situation had not improved and was perhaps worse when Calvin wrote again in March, 1552:
(to Bullinger in March, 1552) ...the king lately published an edict in which he makes unusual concessions to the Germans ... the king, as if he had exhausted his kindness upon the Germans, ceases not severely to oppress his own ... The edict has forty-seven heads. If in regard to four or five of the heads some reasonable relief were obtained, the brethren will think themselves not hardly dealt with. One for instance requires, that on holidays each with his family be present at the mass, and not only that he approve that idolatry by his gesture, and defile himself by impious and faithless hypocrisy, but that the articles of the Sorbonne be read aloud at the sacrifice; and thus all will subscribe to abominable blasphemies (342ff).
Calvin reacted to the Bolsec challenge out of this context. He realized that the attack on the Protestant movement in France (and elsewhere) was intense and threatened the very survival of the cause of the Gospel. He was convinced that the hour required a Protestant united front for theological and strategic reasons. Both the peace and order of the state and the well-being of the church were at stake. This conflict also raised anew the question of the perspicuity and therefore the functional authority of the Bible in the life of the church. Calvin was always intensely aware of the Roman claim that the obscurity of the Bible required an authoritative interpreter in the pope.
To encourage that united front and confound Bolsec's claim for support, the magistrates of Geneva sent a letter to the ministers of Switzerland, late in October, 1551, telling them of Bolsec's actions and teaching:
He made an attempt, eight months ago, in a public assembly of our church, to overthrow the doctrine of God's free election, which, as received from the Word of God we teach in common with you. Then, indeed, the impertinence of the man was regulated by some degree of moderation. He ceased not afterwards to make a noise in all places, with the intention of shaking the faith of the simple in this all-important doctrine. At length he openly disgorged what poison was in him (323).
The Senate, however, according to our request, resolved upon consulting you (324).
Although it is of very great importance to us and to the public tranquility, that the doctrine which we profess should meet with your approval, yet we have no reason to entreat your confidence in many words. The Institutes of our brother Calvin, against which he is especially directing his attacks, is not unknown among you. With what reverence and sobriety he has therein discussed the secret judgments of God, it is not for us to record: the book is its own bright witness. Nor in truth do we teach anything here but what is contained in God's holy Word, and what has been held by your church ever since the light of the Gospel was restored. That we are justified by faith, we all agree; but the real mercy of God can only be perceived when we learn that faith is the fruit of free adoption, and that, in point of fact, adoption flows from the eternal election of God (324).
The reactions to Geneva's appeal for help were disappointing. Publicly Calvin tried to keep his frustration to moderate expressions, but the severity of his sense of betrayal is clear. In his letter to Bullinger (March, 1552) Calvin complained about his reaction to Geneva on the Bolsec matter:
To the letters which I received when already on horseback, I only reply that I had good reason to expostulate, especially to a brother, in a brotherly way. Consider what we expected from you in the troubled state of our affairs. Consider, also, how contrary to our hopes was the answer you gave us; you may see that we had some cause to grieve. You wonder, because I utter a moderate and gentle complaint, that we were assisted less liberally than we had promised ourselves. However, I make no objection to my letters remaining buried, if they contained anything offensive (344).
Calvin wrote to Bullinger in January 1552: You write that you were astonished why we, annoyed by a vile and impious wretch, should ask your opinion of a doctrine which he was falsely attacking. In this impression you have been greatly mistaken, for when he accused us of holding impious doctrine, we deferred to your judgment out of respect to you. I fail to see why this should annoy you. I certainly did not think you would consider any amount of labour burdensome, which should bring so very great relief to your brethren (332).
...nor, in truth, did I propose dictating a formula to you, to which we desire your unqualified assent. It was enough, and more than enough, to have your approval of a doctrine which we held to be found in the Word of God, nor was it our object to discuss it with skill and acuteness; so far from that, the matter, when stripped of all artifice, shows that we wanted nothing more than that by refuting the man's wicked calumnies, you should bear testimony to our teaching only what was drawn from the pure fountain of God (332f).
Your charging us with the want of moderation and humanity, was caused, we think, by your placing less confidence in our letter than you ought to have done (333).
But for you to plead in defense of a man who seditiously disturbed a peaceful Church, who strove to divide us by deadly discord, who, without ever having received the slightest provocation, loaded us with all sorts of abuse, who publicly taunted us with representing God as a tyrannical governor, nay more, that we had put the Jove of the poets in the place of God, — to defend such man, I say, were the extreme of absurdity (333).
Altogether, I feel grieved beyond measure that there is not a better understanding between us. Indeed I was astounded, on finding from your letter, that the kind of teaching which I employ is displeasing to many good men, just as Jerome is offended by that of Zuingle. Wherein, I beseech you, lies the similarity? For Zuingle's book, to speak confidentially, is crammed with such knotty paradoxes, as to be very different, indeed, in point of moderation, from what I hold (333).
Although you disappointed my expectations, I nevertheless gladly offer you our friendship (334).
In his more private and personal letter to his dear friend Farel (January, 1552) he wrote more candidly, complaining of the communications from Basel that were "so cold and empty" (335), and Zurich who, but for earlier agreements, might have become "patrons of Jerome" (336). And of Berne he wrote, "You know how defective they are in courage and firmness" (336). Calvin believed by contrast that his reply was "exceedingly temperate" (336).
The Institutes testify fully and abundantly to what I think, even should I add nothing besides. First of all, I beg my readers to recall the admonition made there. This matter is not a subtle and obscure speculation, as they falsely think, which wearies the mind without profit. It is rather a solid argument excellently fitted to the use of the godly. For it builds up faith soundly, trains us to humility, elevates us to admiration of the immense goodness of God towards us, and excites us to praise this goodness. There is no consideration more apt for the building up of faith than that we should listen to this election which the Spirit of God testifies in our hearts to stand in the eternal and inflexible goodwill of God, invulnerable to all storms of the world, all assaults of Satan and all vacillation of the flesh. For then indeed our salvation is assured to us, since we find its cause in the breast of God. For thus we lay hold of life in Christ made manifest to faith, so that, led by the same faith, we can penetrate farther to see from what source this life proceeds. Confidence of salvation is founded upon Christ and rests on the promises of the gospel. Nor is it a negligible support when, believing in Christ, we hear that this is divinely given to us, that before the beginning of the world we were both ordained to faith and also elected to the inheritance of heavenly life. Hence arises an impregnable security.
Hence, if to honour the goodness of God it is chiefly necessary to remember how much we are indebted to him, they are malicious injurers of God who consider the doctrine of eternal election burdensome and vexatious. For if it is buried out of sight, half the grace of God must vanish with it. Let them clamour who will — we shall always equip the doctrine of gratuitous election as we teach it with this maxim, for without it the faithful cannot adequately apprehend how great is the goodness of God by which they are effectually called to salvation.
God, by His eternal goodwill, which has no cause outside itself, destined those whom He pleased to salvation, rejecting the rest; those whom HE dignified by gratuitous adoption HE illumined by His Spirit, so that they receive the life offered in Christ while others voluntarily disbelieve, so that they remain in darkness, destitute of the light of faith.