FOLLOWING the command of their Lord, that, when persecuted in one city, they should “flee to another,” the two Reformers, Calvin and Farel, retired from Geneva; we cannot doubt with much sadness of heart, and feeling disappointed at the apparent interruption of their work. This was in April, 1538.
They appear to have wandered in Switzerland for about four months. A glimpse of Calvin’s feelings at this time is given us by his letter to Louis de Tillet, dated July 10th, 1538: “On looking back, and considering the perplexities which environed me from the time when I first went thither, there is nothing I dread more than returning to the charge from which I have been set free. For while, when first I entered upon it, I could discern the calling of God, which held me fast bound, with which I consoled myself, now, on the contrary, I am in fear lest I tempt Him if I resume so great a burden, which has been already felt to be insupportable.
Nevertheless, I know assuredly that our Lord will guide me in that so very doubtful a deliberation; the more so because I shall look rather to what He will point out to me than to my own judgment, which beyond measure drawing me the contrary way, I feel ought to be suspected.”
To his church in Geneva he wrote, October 1st, 1538: “God is our witness, and your own consciences before His judgment-seat, that while we had our conversation among you, our whole study has been to keep you together in happy union and concord. … If, avoiding all conflict with men, except only in so far as we are constrained to have them opposed to us, inasmuch as they are the adversaries of Jesus Christ, we do resist the wiles of our spiritual enemy, being furnished with the armor wherewith the Lord would have His people to be girded and strengthened; there need be no fear about our victory. Wherefore, my brethren, if you seek true victory, do not oppose evil by evil of a like kind; but, laying aside all evil affections, be guided solely by your zeal for the service of God, moderated by His Spirit, and ruled by His Word.” Golden advice!
Farel went to Neuchatel, which became the scene of his labor to the end of his life. Calvin went to Basle. Staying for a short time in this city, so dear to him, he received an invitation from Bucer and Capito, the Protestant pastors of Strasburg, to settle with them there. To this request he acceded, yet not without hesitation. In August he wrote to Farel: “I suspect that Bucer will press me more strongly to go to Strasburg. I shall not fall in with this unless I am compelled by a greater necessity.” In his Preface to the Psalms he writes: “Being at liberty and released from my office, I had thought of living in peace, until Martin Bucer, using a remonstrance and protestation like those which Farel had used before, recalled me to another place.”
This city had become the refuge of thousands of persecuted persons, chiefly from France; and, attracted by Calvin’s preaching, many flocked there from other places. A large congregation of these refugees made him their pastor. He reached Strasburg in September, 1538, and remained there exactly three years.
In his new sphere of labor, the Town Council appointed him to give lectures on Scripture. Here he lectured every day to the students, taking the Gospel by John and the Epistle to the Romans as the basis of his expositions. In addition to this, he preached in the Dominican church four times a week, besides being engaged in his pastoral duties. These lectures drew students from other countries, so that Strasburg promised to become a rival to Wittemberg as a center of gospel light.
It appears that Calvin at this time was suffering from extreme poverty, as he wrote to Farel to say that he “did not possess a farthing.” The senate afterwards appointed him a small stipend.
But what was the condition in Geneva after the departure of Farel and Calvin? With an eye ever alert, the papacy saw a grand opportunity, in the absence of the Reformers, and in the presence of much disorder following their removal, to obtain a victory there. Accordingly, an able Romanist, Cardinal Sadoleto, was appointed by the pope to write a letter “to the Senate and People of Geneva.” This letter was as craftily worded as if it had been penned by a fox. In elegant language (Latin) the writer coined some glowing sentences in praise of Scripture, of salvation by Christ, and of justification by faith. But interwoven with all this was his sincere lament that the Genevese had forsaken the true fold, the papacy.
The effect of this remarkable epistle was not at all what the author, or his papal master, anticipated. It rather operated to alarm the people of Geneva, and certainly helped them to perceive the great folly of their recent acts, and the danger thereby produced.
Whilst this condition of anxiety existed at Geneva, Calvin obtained at Strasburg a copy of the cardinal’s letter, and immediately set to work to write a reply. It occupied him for six days, and as a piece of reasoning and of literature, it is worthy of the pen that wrote it.
This masterly reply took up the compliments and the arguments of the cardinal’s letter, and answered them one by one. An extract must suffice here: “The men of Geneva, extricating themselves from the slough of error in which they were sunk, have returned to the doctrine of the gospel; and this you call abandoning the truth of God. They have withdrawn from papal tyranny; and this you say is to separate from the church.”
Calvin’s reply speedily spread far and wide. Copies were sent to Wittemberg, and Luther obtained one. “Here,” said the German Reformer, “is a writing which has hands and feet. I rejoice that God raises up such men. They will continue what I have begun against Antichrist, and by the help of God they will complete it.”
We must not fail to realize here that Calvin’s other writings had reached Luther, notably his great work, the Institutes. Luther’s writings also were being circulated all over Europe. The question arises, and it is a very natural one: Did Luther and Calvin ever meet?
The answer has its touching aspect. They did not. According to human judgment, immense good would have occurred from a meeting of these two great Reformers. Luther’s bold, aggressive, fearless, impetuous, Teutonic zeal; Calvin gentle, majestic, refined, yet commanding learning. We should have thought that the effect of contact would be beneficial to each, and that each would receive something of advantage from the other. But we must never overlook that each did his own work better than the other could have done it; and that Christ knew the suitable sphere for the impetuous Peter and for the loving John. In one of his letters to Luther, Calvin says: “Oh, if I could fly towards thee, and enjoy thy society, if only for a few hours!” We can almost imagine, moreover, that the influence of Calvin upon Luther in the controversy about the Lord’s Supper would have healed the breach between Germany and Geneva, and would have convinced Luther of his mistake in refusing to concede one easily-said word in response to Zwingle and others.
But, alas! God’s workmen have their blemishes. Each light-bearing pitcher is an earthen vessel, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of them.
Moreover, we observe a similar disposition in the works of creation.
Saturn could not move in the orbit of Jupiter; nor could Venus glitter in our morning or evening sky in any orbit but her own. The oak, the ash, the elm, are clothed in the beauty most suited to each. And most certainly Calvin molded and continued and strengthened what Luther had begun.
We are able to record that Calvin the scholar and Melancthon the theologian met at this time. The concessions which Melancthon had proposed at times in his loving desire for peace had not the full approval of Calvin; but he never doubted the loyalty of Melancthon to the cause of God and truth. It is possible that Melancthon somewhat leaned to Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper; yet with the full knowledge of this, Calvin, in his letters to Farel, expressed his delight in Melancthon. And this was as it should be now. Why should a slight difference on a minor point be magnified into a fatal error when a servant of Christ is sound to the core by Divine teaching on all essential truth? It is certain that the friendship of Calvin and Melancthon was real, and that it continued throughout their lives, to the great advantage of the church of God.
How deep, and pure, and touching the love of Calvin towards Melancthon was will be seen in the following, written by the former after the death of the latter: “O Philip Melancthon—for it is thou whom, I address—thou who now livest at the hand of God with Christ, awaiting us on high till we are gathered with thee into blessed repose, a hundred times hast thou said to me when, wearied with toil and vexation, thou didst lean thy head upon my bosom, Would to God, would to God, that I might die upon that bosom! As for me, later, a hundred times have I wished that it had been granted us to be together. Certainly thou wouldst have been bolder to face struggles, more courageous to despise envy and calumny. Then also would have been suppressed the malignity of many whose audacity increased in proportion to what they called thy weak-minded fear.”
While Calvin was at Strasburg, a further attempt was made by the papacy to check the Reformation, this time by appearing to make concessions. A Conference was begun at Hagenau, on June 25th, 1540, and adjourned to the 28th. Calvin was deputed to be present. On June 30th the Conference was again adjourned. It was summoned to meet at Ratisbon in January, 1541, but did not open until April. Calvin’s keen mind perceived some insincerity in those who called this meeting, and his expectations of real gospel fruit were not great. Yet during the early days much was discussed, and some concessions were made by the Romanists. But when the question of the Real Presence came up for discussion, Calvin found it impossible to concede one hair’s breadth. Things indifferent he yielded; but truth on this point he felt must be maintained at all cost. “There,” he said, “stood the impassable rock which barred the way to further progress.
I had to explain in Latin what were my sentiments. Without fear of offense I condemned that peculiar local presence. The act of adoration I declared to be altogether insufferable.”
The Conference ended without any real and substantial fruit. Light and darkness, truth and error, sweet and bitter, had met; but they could not coalesce. The design of Rome had been to absorb the Reformation, which would have been equivalent to devouring it. But the design had failed; and henceforth the Reformation and the papacy turned each to its own path.
Would to God that the similar attempt on the part of Rome to-day to absorb our beloved country might have the same result!
It was while an exile at Strasburg that Calvin married, at the age of 31. His choice was Idelette de Bure, the widow of a Belgian refugee, Jean Storder.
She is described as being an eminently suitable partner in every way, a true helper, with true sympathy. “A most choice woman,” writes Beza.
His married life lasted only nine years. They had only one child, who lived but a few days. His wife died in March, 1549.
Of her, Calvin writes to Peter Viret, after her death: “My sorrow is no common one. I have lost the excellent companion of my life, who, if misfortune had come upon us, would have gladly shared with me, not merely exile and wretchedness, but death itself. While she lived, she was the faithful helper of my ministry; and never did I experience from her the least hindrance.”