Calvin and Severity

In my recent post on Calvin’s call to Geneva I identified with his feelings about the prospect. He was timid, bashful, full of feelings of inadequacy.

It is clear, however, that having accepted the call he developed a reputation for severity in his ministry in Geneva and later in Strasbourg. It is interesting that such a thing seemed to be the case. Fighting spiritual battles may seem to come easy to certain kinds of people. We can often believe that the severest people are somehow like that because of a personality that revels in controversy. However, this example highlights what may be a more widespread truth: often the spiritual battles begin within the individual and stepping into the public fray is not without an initial cost. The call of God may require a certain course of action which cannot be pursued without first summoning considerable courage to face down inner fears before carrying it out. This internal battle may take its own toll on the individual. I believe Calvin was such a man of inner sensitivity yet was courageous when God’s honour was at stake.

Nevertheless, severity was a problem as the following passage shows. Calvin returned to Geneva for a second time in 1541 with a resolution in mind:

Over one person Calvin determined that he would exercise control. This was himself. He had been blamed for being too severe, too unaccomodating. He acknowledged the reproof and set himself to correct the fault. So well did he think that he had learnt, that for the same fault he could even in his turn reprove Farel, who had got on the wrong side of his congregation at Neuchatel. To Oswald Myconius at Basel he was able to report that his gentleness was winning him friends.

Calvin went on to say to Myconius,

I value the public peace and hearty concord among ourselves so highly that I restrain myself.

(Both quotes from John Calvin, by T. H. L. Parker, p. 101.)

Clearly, Calvin had overshot in his earlier ministry and subsequently learned how to handle people better. Though still driven by a desire for reform of the church and its worship, he remembered that he was dealing with real people whom he must win over to his side rather than face them down.

Calvin appears to have been a better man than I have previously given credit!

Calvin and Severity