Pachabel's Canon in D 


Article of the Month




Paul Woolley


We should begin by asking what it is that we are talking about. To look at the last part of our title first, we can find an element in the definition of “toleration” provided by the Oxford English Dictionary that appears to give us what we are looking for: “the action or practice of . . . allowing what is not actually approved; forbearance, sufferance.” The last two terms appear to be primarily concerned with mental attitudes, while “allowing” may perhaps basically have a physical or legal, at least an external, reference. This definition, then, seems to me to embrace, in short compass, the varieties of attitude with which we are concerned. We want to find out about the mental climate as much as—perhaps more than—about the external permissions or prohibitions.

The other term of our subject is Calvin himself. I daresay that everyone at all acquainted with the Reformation has a mental image of Calvin. Confessedly it is not a perfect likeness. If, then, we freely seek more knowledge about him, it is well to question ourselves very briefly as to the atmosphere in which Calvin worked and as to the kind of man he was.

There were no century-old escutcheons in Calvin’s family. His people had been plain bargemen on the French rivers. But the society in which they and he lived was still, in many respects, a feudal society. Sharp social distinctions he was used to. But superimposed on them were the distinctions of learning; and these he cherished, while he tolerated the others. He cherished them because he believed that they led to truth and, as the dedications of his books show, he endeavored to use the social distinctions to advance the distinctions of learning. Society had not easily lent itself to distinctions of learning. They inevitably, in view of the effects of sin on the mind of man, led to what the church called heresy, to what, on the standard of the word of God, often was heresy. The church had again refused, several centuries before Calvin was born, to be complacent about heresy, and into that lack of complacency he was born. The society in which Calvin lived was, then, much more a unitary one than ours.

But there were forces—primarily economic and religious—breaking that society apart. Calvin was himself a source of some of them, though it must be borne in mind that every force in a field is acted on, while it acts, by every other force, and that no one is free from the influence of the others. Calvin was influenced by Rome even while helping to counteract Rome.

Our subject, then, is toleration and Calvin, and we are talking about these in an historical context. What the uses of history may be is a lively topic today. The presses turn out book after book on the subject and the variety of approach is almost startling. In any case, one of the uses of history is not to encourage slavish imitation. This is neither desirable nor possible. Positively, one of the uses is surely to discover, in a situation of change affecting human life, the relative effects of the various forces that make for change and the powers that oppose it.

Calvin was a reformer. He provided a colossal amount of force to a movement that was disrupting the church of the day, radically altering its character. He succeeded in keeping the decrees of the Pope from having any force or effect within Geneva. The bishop’s power was broken, the habits of the people were changed. They gave their children new names, they conducted business in a different way, they ate in novel restaurants, their entertainment was altered. Calvin was a reformer. Yet Calvin favored a capital sentence upon the heretic Servetus, he thought that witch-craft should be punished by the most severe penalty, he had exceedingly strict requirements for the ministers of Geneva, he favored a required subscription of belief from every inhabitant of the city, he wanted church attendance enforced by the civil magistrate. Calvin, say many moderns, was a tyrannical dictator. Here is a complex of forces that makes a study of Calvin and toleration something alive, something that encourages profound thinking.

Everyone has met individuals whose strong convictions lead them to live lives largely free of contact with other men. Calvin was not such a person. He had warm friends from his youth. He was an intimate of the Hangest family in his birthplace, Noyon. He held student office, annual deputy for the proctor of the Picard nation, while he was in the University of Orleans. He sought instruction from the best masters in Paris, whether they were congenial to the new learning or the old. Louis du Tillet became a close companion, to be succeeded later by Peter Viret and William Farel. With these men he either worked in physical proximity or carried on extensive correspondence. In Strassburg he admired Martin Butzer and had many dealings with him and Wolfgang Capito. Before he left there he was working intimately with Luther’s close follower, Philip Melanchthon, in endeavoring to negotiate an agreement with the theologians of Rome. Among a circle of such wide diversity Calvin found friends and congenial co laborers. He wrote to Melanchthon, “We may cheer each other with that blessed hope to which your letter calls us, that in heaven above we shall dwell forever, where we shall rejoice in love and in continuance of our friendship” (J. Bonnet [ed.] , Letters of John Calvin, I, 374).

To Henry Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor as the leader of the church in Zurich, Calvin wrote: “What ought we rather, dear Bullinger, to correspond about at this time than the preserving and confirming, by every possible means in our power, brotherly kindness among ourselves?

We must needs also endeavor by all means we can, that the churches to which we faithfully minister the word of the Lord may agree among themselves” (Bonnet, I, 113).

Calvin wished to live in an atmosphere of free intercourse and exchange of opinion even with those who held opinions fundamentally in opposition to his own. Speaking of those who differed with him about the Lord’s supper, he said, “Were there any hope of mollifying these men, I would not refuse to humble myself, and by supplicating them, purchase the peace of the Church” (“Second Defense against Westphal,” Tracts and Treatises, II, 248). And in his “Last Admonition to J. Westphal” he remarked, “I am not so given to avenge private injuries, as not to be ready, when any hope of cure appears, to lay aside all remembrance of them, and try all methods of brotherly pacification” (Tracts and Treatises, II, 348).

The Genevan Reformer wanted to use every possible means to advance agreement among group and organizations as well as among individuals. When Zurich theologians failed to attend a conference concerning Lutheran Reformed agreement he wrote:

We have reason to lament that good and otherwise right-hearted men are not more earnestly affected by the desire of promoting the public peace. For if they no longer need to care for the establishment among themselves of a godly union, they ought at least to consider it a duty to endeavor to come to a good mutual understanding with the churches. . . . If thus of set purpose we contend with each other, which can exceed the other in sin? (Bonnet, I, 89).

Calvin dedicated two Commentaries to Edward VI, king of England, in order to advance the king’s interest in the Reformation and to encourage him to consecrate “all to God and to our blessed Savior, who has so dearly purchased us. . . . I hope, indeed, sire, that God has stored you with such greatness and constancy of mind, that you will neither be weakened nor wearied. . . . Let me entreat you then, sire, to reach forward to the mark which is set before you.”

Calvin did not object to dealing with any man or any organization, if the cause of truth might be forwarded thereby. The manner of carrying on the contest for truth was to be as all-embracing, as comprehensive, as the extent of mankind permitted. All men and all means were to be used toward that objective. Calvin wrote to Roman Catholics as well as to Protestants. He addressed Jacopo Sadoleto, the bishop of Carpentras, he addressed the Roman Catholic king of France, he addressed a personal friend who reverted to Rome, Louis du Tillet. To any man he was ready to extend an invitation to discussion. To any man he was prepared to say that he would make every effort within his power to discover truth, to bring others into agreement with it, to convince opponents of the true relationship that exists in this universe of God’s creation. No trouble was too great to promote cooperation with others to the end of the triumph of God’s cause.

Calvin’s toleration toward persons was unlimited, unless he was convinced that those persons were firmly committed to making propaganda for error.

I have used the words “truth” and “error” in the preceding remarks. It seems impossible to picture Calvin without doing so. No delineation of Calvin would have any verisimilitude if it did not make a sharp distinction between truth and error. That distinction lay at the center of his thinking, as it still does at the heart of the thought of any man whose ideas can be safely used as guidelines for action.

What, then, can be said as to Calvin’s views on tolerance in the realm of ideas, ideas concerning beliefs as to truth, ideas concerning procedures for action, ideas concerning established institutions and forms in society?

The most profitable way to enter into the heart of these matters will be to take each area by itself and endeavor to discover some of the things Calvin has said on the point. Especial attention will be paid to his Comments on Scripture passages. Perhaps these are somewhat less well known than his other writings. They also have the advantage of allowing Calvin to speak in situations not immediately beclouded by the passion and prejudice of the contemporary Swiss, French, or German scene.

Calvin was thoroughly convinced that it was essential to distinguish truth from error. “Nothing is less tolerable than when God’s truth is turned into a lie” (Comm. Ezek. 13:19). “It is therefore the duty of the Church to defend and publish the truth, that it may be honored by posterity from age to age” (Comm. Isa. 43:10). “Numerous scribblers arise . . . who not only obscure the light of sound doctrine with clouds of error . . . but by a profane license of skepticism, allow themselves to uproot the whole of Religion. . . . They have no axiom more plausible than, that faith must be free and unfettered, so that it may be possible, by reducing everything to a matter of doubt, to render Scripture flexible (so to speak) as a nose of wax. Therefore, they . . . obtain at length such proficiency, that they are always learning, yet never come to the knowledge of the truth” (Comm. Gen., I, liif.).

The need to preserve the truth is vital. “When Paul described it to be a quality which essentially belongs to faith—to know the truth, he plainly shows that there is no faith without knowledge” (Comm. Titus 1:1). “Away, then, with all errors and all wavering and doubtful opinions about God, if we wish to have experience of his favor!” (Comm. Isa. 43:14). “What they know is nothing, so long as they do not hold the truth, which is the foundation of all knowledge” (Comm. II Tim. 3:7).

There may, however, be differences of opinion as to what truth is. “Word has been brought me . . . that you [Christopher Libertet] did not entirely approve of some things in my treatise. . . . So far from being offended because of your opinion, I am greatly delighted with this straightforward plainness” (Bonnet, I, 43). But Calvin did not stop there. He wanted discussion of the differences so that truth might be elicited and clarified.

It may be necessary at times, Calvin felt, to defend the truth by conflict. “We are Commanded to acquiesce in God’s truth alone: but when a lie is offered to us instead of truth, what can we do but hesitate and at length engage in conflict? . . . Meanwhile, if the contention which we now perceive between those who boast themselves pastors of the Church disturbs us, let this example come to mind.

What we suffer the ancients have experienced” (Comm. Ezek. 13:2, 3). It is important not to allow ourselves to neglect this duty of defense. “No one ought to permit himself to be turned aside in different directions contrary to his conscience, because when he loses his free agency, he will be compelled to . . . obey the foulest Commands” (Comm. Dan. 6:17).

The manner of defense is important: it must be Christian. “Some [ministers of the world] are always fulminating through a pretense of zeal, and forget themselves to be but men: they draw no sign of benevolence but indulge in mere bitterness. . . . Others, again, who are wicked and perfidious flatterers, gloss over the grossest iniquities” (Comm. Dan. 4:20-22). “Thence it follows, that private persons would act improperly, and would be by no means countenanced by his [Moses’] example, if they sought to repress wrong by force and arms” (Comm. Ex. 2:12).

The magistrate, the state, however, Calvin took to be in a different position. He is under obligation to repress error. “God . . . will have us to restrain wickedness. To this end hath he appointed magistrates” (Comm. Acts 5:34). Does this, however, extend to error in idea, in concept? Calvin pointed out that the Donatists held that:

no punishment ought to be inflicted on those who differ from others in religious doctrine. . . . What they desire is clear enough;... they wish to render everything uncertain in religion. . . and deny the right of inflicting punishment on heretics and blasphemers. . . . Augustine shows how ashamed Christian princes ought to be of their slothfulness, if they are indulgent to heretics and blasphemers, and do not vindicate God’s glory by lawful punishments. .. . It follows that kings are bound to defend the worship of God, and to execute vengeance upon those who profanely despise it, and on those who endeavor. . . to adulterate the true doctrine by their errors (Comm. Dan. 4:1-3).

Such action on the part of the civil magistrate should be based on a clear understanding—and a presentation to the public—of the grounds for it. Nebuchadnezzar’s edict prohibiting speech against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was “deserving of blame in this point, since he does not inquire what God’s nature is, with the view of obtaining sufficient reason for issuing it” (Comm. Dan. 3:29). The magistrate has this immense authority only because he is God’s representative. “This is the object of political government, that God’s tribunal should be erected on earth, wherein He may exercise the judge’s office, to the end that judges and magistrates should not . . . allow themselves to decide anything arbitrarily or wantonly, nor, in a word, assume to themselves what belongs to God” (Comm. Ex. 18:15).

Ignorance and weakness are, however, to be dealt with gently and kindly. “All teachers have . . . a rule here which they are to follow. . . modestly and kindly to accommodate themselves to the capacities of the ignorant and unlearned” (Comm. Rom. 1:14):

This is what he [Isaiah] means by the metaphor of the bruised reed, that he does not wish to break off and altogether crush these who are half-broken, but, on the contrary, to lift up and support them, so as to maintain and strengthen all that is good in them (Comm. Isa. 42:3).

We must neither crush the minds of the weak by excessive severity, nor encourage by our smooth language anything that is evil (idem).

But these who boldly and obstinately resist . . . must be broken’ and crushed . . . by the severity of the word (idem).

This may take time, especially in the case of magistrates.

Let us learn, therefore, from the Prophet’s example, to pray for blessings on our enemies who desire to destroy us, and especially to pray for tyrants; . . . we must modestly bear their yoke because they could not be our governors without God’s permission (Comm. Dan. 4:19).

The pastor, like the civil magistrate, must also defend the truth. “In a pastor there is demanded not only learning, but such zeal for pure doctrine as never to depart from it” (Comm. Titus 1:19). “A good pastor ought therefore to be on the watch, so as not to give silent permission to wicked and dangerous doctrines to make gradual progress, or to allow wicked men an opportunity of spreading them. . . . The Church may Command them to be silent; and if they persevere, they may at least be banished from the society of believers, so that they shall have no opportunity of doing harm” (Comm. Titus 1:11). However, “the Church militant . . . has no permission to execute vengeance, except against those who obstinately refuse to be reclaimed” (Comm. Ps. 18:47).

It is clear that Calvin allows no tolerance for erroneous ideas if every opportunity has been given to correct them. Patience and charity are vital, for men are won to the right side by this method. But the time comes when stubbornness is not to be conquered and the magistrate must forcibly suppress error.

Can there be as broad a tolerance for action as for idea and concept? Calvin again and again speaks of the need for charity. “The object of this precept was to banish inhumanity and barbarism from the chosen people, and also to impress upon them horror even of a just execution” (Comm. Deut. 21:22f.). “Even philosophers look upon cruelty directed against the helpless and miserable, as an act worthy only of a cowardly and grovelling nature” (Comm. Ps. 109:16). Calvin suggests that the burning in the Israelite camp in the wilderness was kindled by God “in some extreme part, so as to awaken their terror, in order that there might be room for pardon” (Comm. Num. 11:1). There was room for pardon even when it might seem unlikely. “In the fact that a woman [Rahab] who had gained a shameful livelihood by prostitution was shortly after admitted into the body of the chosen people, and became a member of the Church, we are provided with a striking display of divine grace” (Comm. Josh. 2:1).

Right action is important, however. “It is accounted before God no less weighty a sin to violate His worship by gross and impure superstitions, than openly and professedly to fall away from religion altogether” (Comm. Deut. 17:2). Hypocrites are reminded “of the certainty of destruction should they longer presume upon the forbearance of God, and thus provoke his anger the more, by imagining that he can favor the practice of sin” (Comm. Ps. 50:21). All are reminded that “we. . . hold fast by this rule, that, in reference to things which are either Commanded or forbidden of God, it is mainly requisite in the doing or forbearing that he may not be baulked of his due obedience, though we should offend the whole world (Bonnet, 1, 303). “A servant knowing his master’s will, and doing it not, is worthy of many stripes” (Comm. Amos 2:4f.).

There is, however, great latitude in many areas of conduct not prescribed by God’s Commandment. To a questioner in France he said, “the rule which I would propose for your observance, while you continue to live there, is that those [ceremonies] . . . which are not stamped with impiety you may observe, soberly indeed and sparingly, but when occasion requires freely and without anxiety. . . . Those which bear the smallest impress of sacrilege, you are no more to touch than you would the venom of a serpent” (Tracts and Treatises, III, 379). “Liberty lies in the conscience, and looks to God; the use of it lies in outward matters, and deals not with God only, but with men. Liberty is not granted to the flesh, which ought rather to be held captive under the yoke, but is a spiritual benefit, which none but pious minds are capable of enjoying” (Comm. Gal. 5:13). So the effect of an action upon our fellow men is to be regarded. In his Commentary on the remarks in I Corinthians 11:4 concerning covering the head, Calvin summarizes, “in fine, the one rule to be observed here is . . . decorum.”

The created universe is always to be looked on as entrusted to man by God for proper use. Man is responsible for the performance of this trust. “Since then the wicked, by their perverse abuse of God’s gifts, cause the world in a manner to degenerate and fall away from its first original, the prophet justly desires that they may be exterminated, until the race of them entirely fail” (Comm. Ps. 104:35). But this is not to be remembered unless there is also in mind the companion truth that “God’s goodness, which thus contends with the wickedness of men, shines forth universally even towards the ungodly, so that He does not cease to cherish and preserve those whom He has created although they be unworthy” (Comm. Deut. 28:12). Commenting on Jeremiah 18:21, he says:

The Prophet seems here to have been driven through indignation to utter prayers which are not consistent with a right feeling; for even if Christ had not said with his own mouth, that we are to pray for those who curse us, the very law of God, ever known to the holy fathers, was sufficient. . . . But it must be observed that he was moved not otherwise than by the Holy Spirit to become thus indignant against his enemies; for he could not have been excused on the ground that indignation often transgresses the bounds of patience, for the children of God ought to bear all injuries to the utmost; but, as I have said, the Prophet here has announced nothing rashly, . . . but obediently proclaimed what the Holy Spirit dictated.

However, Calvin explains that “when God allures so gently and kindly by his promises, and again pursues us with the thunders of his curse, it is partly to render us inexcusable, and partly to shut us up deprived of all confidence in our own righteousness, so that we may learn to embrace his covenant of Grace, and flee to Christ, who is the end of the law” (Commentary on the Four Last Books of Moses, I, xviii).

In sum, Calvin urges every effort to turn men to right action. He points out that there is really a much greater liberty of procedure than is often believed to be the case. This must be recognized. Even when a man persists in what is actually erroneous conduct, we must deal patiently with him, if there is any hope of his turning from the wrong ways. Only in the case of a stubborn and confirmed transgressor should punishment finally be administered by the magistrate. “He adds another exhortation, showing how the faithful ought to act in reproving their brethren, in order to restore them to the Lord. . . . To the meek and teachable we ought to use kindness; but others, who are hard and perverse, must be subdued by terror” (Comm. Jude 22).

So far we have been thinking primarily in terms of individuals. What was Calvin’s attitude toward the institutions of his culture so far as they were involved in error?

He longed for the unity of the church, but he recognized that the errors and corruptions of Rome made it impossible to maintain such unity. He spoke of those who try to cover evil with good and “who imagine they can admirably adjust religious differences by simply adorning their too gross corruptions with attractive colors. The actual state of things compels them to confess that the vile errors and abuses of Popery have so far prevailed as to render a Reformation absolutely necessary” (Comm. Gen. 28:6). He spoke of the Pope as “that detestable monster, Anti-christ, whose tyranny is exercised over the whole world” (Comm. Isa. 37:26). He saw the necessity of making the church worthy of confidence. “Nothing is more pestiferous in a Church than for men to be led away by a false confidence or trust” (Comm. Jer. 29:30-32). And he rejected the charge “that we have apostatized from the Church, because we have withdrawn from subjection to the See of Rome; . . . so Catholic—so universal—is the mass of errors by which they have overturned the whole of religion, that it would be enough to destroy and swallow up the Church a hundred times over” (Comm. John, I, 17). It was the leadership that was at fault. “We, indeed, Sadolet, deny not that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman Pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops . . . are ravening wolves” (Tracts and Treatises, I, 50).

The key to the desired unity of the church is the sole leadership of Christ. So Calvin even said that those “who at first extolled Henry [VIII], King of England, were certainly inconsiderate men; they gave him the supreme power in all things: and this always vexed me grievously; for they were guilty of blasphemy when they called him the chief Head of the Church under Christ” (Comm. Amos 7:10-13). But, further, Christ’s truth was necessary to the unity. “I burned for the unity of thy Church, provided thy truth were made the bond of concord” (Tracts and Treatises, I, 60).

The unity of the church, then, must be built about the union of the body with the head. “Christ will not and cannot be torn from his Church with which he is joined in an indissoluble knot, as the head to the body. Hence unless we cultivate unity with the faithful, we see that we are cut off from Christ” (Comm. Ezek. 13:9). There is no use in expecting the earthly church to attain to perfection. Calvin remarks that “some leave the Church because they require in it the highest perfection. They are indignant at vices which they deem intolerable, when they cannot be corrected; and thus, under the pretext of zeal, they separate themselves and seek to form for themselves a new world, in which there is to be a perfect Church” (Comm. Hag. 2:1-5). Even though the officers are deficient, the church is still there:

Whenever therefore it happens, by the Lord’s permission, that the Church is administered by pastors, whatever kind of persons they may be, if we see there the marks of the Church, it will be better not to break the unity. Nor need it be any hindrance that some points of doctrine are not quite so pure, seeing that there is scarcely any church which does not retain some remnants of former ignorance. It is sufficient for us if the doctrine on which the Church of God is founded be recognized, and maintain its place (Bonnet, I, 1011.).

Calvin commended Butzer for not separating from Luther over what he called “trifling observances” (Bonnet, I, 137). He strove to prevent the schismatic division of “any Church whatsoever, which, however it might be very corrupt in morals, and infected with strange doctrine, had not cut itself off entirely from that doctrine, upon which Paul teaches the Church of Christ to be founded” (Bonnet, I, 117).

What was the doctrine on which the church of Christ was founded and what were “trifling observances”? To consider the latter first, there were observances that were not “trifling.” The princes at Schmalkalden “displayed true greatness of soul” when they destroyed “certain impure images . . . together with their altars. They abolished also the elevation of the host in the supper” (Bonnet, I, 132). These non-trifling observances were to be eradicated. “Where there is the power of excommunication, there is an easy remedy for effecting a separation between the good and the bad” (Comm. I Cor. 5:10). When, therefore, the church has excommunicated anyone, no believer ought to receive him into terms of intimacy with himself” (Comm. I Cor. 5:11). However, there are limits here, as Calvin points out: “The Roman antichrist . . has burst forth into interdicts, prohibiting anyone from helping one that has been excommunicated to food, or fuel, or drink, or any other supports of life. Now, that is not strictness of discipline, but tyrannical and barbarous cruelty.”

The Reformation separation, then, was necessary. It is to be maintained by discipline and respected. “There are many proud men who despise the Church of God, because they think that God does not dwell in the midst of us, because we are obscure and of no great importance, and also because they regard our few number with contempt” (Comm. Hag. 2:1-5).

What now was the doctrine on which the church of Christ was founded? It was not something minor; it did not exclude differences of opinion. The church must continue, allowing freedom for variety of opinion. “We must not always reckon as contentious the man who does not acquiesce in our decisions, or who ventures to contradict us; but when temper and obstinacy show themselves, let us then say with Paul, that contentions are at variance with the custom of the Church” (Comm. I Cor. 11:16). “We must exercise moderation; so as not instantly to declare every man to be a `heretic’ who does not agree with our opinion. There are some matters on which Christians may differ from each other, without being divided into sects” (Comm. Titus 3:10). Even in Protestantism “overbearing tyranny has sprung forth already as the early blossom in the springtide of a reviving Church. . . . Let us therefore venture boldly to groan for freedom” (Bonnet, I, 467).

But how much freedom? Calvin suggests that the tests are “that the variety in the mode of teaching is such, that we all directed to one Christ, in whose truth being united together, we may grow up into one body and one spirit, and with the same mouth also proclaim whatever belongs to the sum of faith” (Tracts and Treatises, II, 34). He says, “If the whole aim of my vehemence was to prevent a good cause, even the sacred truth of Christ, from being overwhelmed . . . why should it be imputed to me as a fault?” (Tracts and Treatises, II, 351). The test, then, is “the sacred truth of Christ,” “the sum of faith.” We shall return shortly to further consideration of these terms.

As already noted in another connection, the state has a duty, according to Calvin, with reference to the faith—the duty of being its protector. He reminded citizens that

obedience is due to all who rule, because they have been raised to that honor not by chance, but by God’s providence. For many are wont to inquire too scrupulously by what right power has been attained; but we ought to be satisfied with this alone, that power is possessed and exercised. . . . Subjects ought to obey their rules without hesitation. . . . There is no kind of government to which we ought not to submit. . . . There has never been a tyranny, nor can one be imagined, however cruel and unbridled, in which some portion of equity has not appeared (Comm. I Pet. 2:131.).

On the other hand, rulers “are warned to submit reverently to God’s Word and not to think themselves exempted from what is common to all, or absolved, on account of their dignity, for God has no respect of persons” (Comm. Jer. 36:29f.). Their duty is protection, not direction, of the church.

What then is chiefly required of kings is this—to use the sword, with which they are invested, to render free . . . the worship of God.... They are inconsiderate men who give them too much power in spiritual things. . . . We now find what fruit is produced by this root . . . princes think themselves so spiritual, that there is no longer any church discipline; . . . they think that they cannot rule, except they . . . become chief judges as well in doctrine as in all spiritual government (Comm. Amos 7:10-13).

But when the church had established doctrine, the prince might enforce it: “godly princes may lawfully issue edicts, for compelling obstinate and rebellious persons to worship the true God, and to maintain the unity of the faith; for, though faith is voluntary, yet we see that such methods are useful for subduing the obstinacy of those who will not yield until they are compelled” (Comm. Luke 14:23). The state for Calvin obviously occupied a much larger place in matters of faith than is permitted by the Constitution of the United States.

* * * * * *

We have now perhaps reached the point where we may cease to quote extensively from Calvin and may endeavor to survey his position. To do so it is essential to think first of the climate of opinion in which his ideas are developed. The right of freedom of expression existed in a basic way nowhere in western Europe. The papal inquisition was an established institution except where the activity of the Reformers had forced—temporarily, Rome hoped—a halt (or where, in Spain, its powers had, in part, been absorbed by the state). The physical cruelty that characterized the Middle Ages had, as yet, seen little abatement. There were no societies for the prevention of cruelty to children or to animals. The civil magistrate everywhere assumed some power to regulate the church, the degree differing most frequently in inverse ratio to the power of the church in that particular area but, in rare instances, also because of the convictions of the ruler. It had long been assumed that the criterion of heresy was the disapprobation of the Pope, and inroads on that doctrine were only beginning to become established.

Against this background stands Calvin. His psychological attitude is basically a loving and kindly one. He wishes to promote an attitude of friendly brotherhood between the followers of Christ. There are, however, limits to this brotherhood, as is obvious from his characterization of the Pope as antichrist. It is not the type of brotherhood which allows equal standing to all ideas found to exist in the mind of a member of the human race. Instead, he makes a sharp distinction, unfashionable today, between truth and error. How does he recognize the two? This is a key question, but the answer is not hard to find. He has substituted the words of the Bible for the words of the Pope. The Bible is the only source of final authority.

Are brotherhood and friendliness interrupted, then, by divergence in opinions concerning truth? Not necessarily. Brotherhood is an important charge. It is a necessary consequence of common membership in the church, which is the body of Christ. Calvin was, as we have seen, even ready to recognize that there were congregations of the church of Christ in communion with Rome. But there were limits to the church. He found them not only in idea, in doctrine, but also in action, in practice. And, he said, they will be enforced by discipline in any true church.

In doctrine the church must teach Christ and his truth, “the sum of faith,” or, as he put it elsewhere, “that doctrine upon which Paul teaches the Church of Christ to be founded” (Bonnet, I, 117). The limits here are nowhere marked out with a red pencil on a creed but they are not difficult to discover. They must not infringe upon the source of authority: witness Calvin’s ultimate rejection of Castellio. They must not be anti-trinitarian: witness the rejection of Servetus. They must not impugn the efficacy of the finished work of Christ: witness his rejection of the Roman mass.

Right action is necessary to the recognition of a true church. The sacraments are important. The strenuous efforts that culminated in the Consensus Tigurinus are witness to this. Calvin’s signature of the Augustana Variata is also a witness, but it is likewise a witness as to the limits in the field of action. He would not sign the Augustana Invariata of 1530 but he could sign the Variata of 1540. The key lies in the difference between the two on the doctrine of the Lord’s supper. His vigorous discussions with Joachim Westphal of Hamburg are evidence of the importance he attached to this area, the area of action.

If the variation in doctrine within the church passed the limits of “the sum of faith” or if the variation in action obscured the purpose of the sacrament or cast disrepute upon the church, it must protect itself, either by preventive action or by the exercise of discipline. There are numerous examples that might be cited. Perhaps we may take as an appropriate one the attitudes taken by Calvin towards other officers in Geneva.

After his first two years at Geneva, Calvin was banished from the city for insisting on maintaining the freedom of the church in the conduct of its own worship. His fellow-minister William Farel was expelled with him, and their successors were weak and flexible men. Yet from Strassburg Calvin insisted that these successors were appointed by the Lord and were worthy of honor and respect (Bonnet, I, 144). He cautioned the Genevans against any rebellion against them or failing to recognize them as spiritual parents.

A few years later, after Calvin had returned to Geneva, one of the teachers of the city, Sebastian Castellio, wished to become a minister. Calvin opposed his admission to the office on the ground of his opinions. Castellio’s conclusion that the Song of Solomon was not properly a part of the canon of Scripture would be the occasion for trouble in the church, Calvin judged. Castellio also did not think that Calvin’s interpretation of “he descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed was a valid one. On these grounds he was denied ordination to the ministry in Geneva, and the former of these two objections seems to have been the more powerful.

Here is an excellent example of the limits of Calvin’s tolerance. He was charitable towards weakness, sympathetic towards good will and right intention. He could not, however, put his stamp of approval on a deletion from the Scriptures. This was undermining the basis on which the whole movement of Reform was founded. Personal feelings and conveniences were as nothing over against the welfare of the church. The healthy development of its members was the first charge. In studying Calvin one does not come to the conclusion, as is at times alleged, that he was an impersonal force, interested in an abstraction called truth. The welfare of the church consisted of the welfare of its members. What he was trying to do was to keep these sheep of Christ safe and to provide healthy conditions for their growth. This was his consuming desire and passion.

In great measure Calvin’s desire was fulfilled. But it was fulfilled more fully and more acceptably abroad than in Geneva. The results of his work bore greater fruit in Scotland and in the Netherlands than they did in Switzerland. From both of these America ultimately benefited also. Does this result have any connection with the subject of toleration? Perhaps it does, since it is hardly likely that the ideas themselves had greater value for Scots and Netherlanders than for Genevans. While we cannot attempt here to prove this thesis, I am willing to say that, in my judgment, the greater fruitage of Calvin’s ideas elsewhere than in Geneva is due to the fact that in other areas they were not subjected to implementation by the civil state to the same degree as was true in Geneva.

In Geneva the civil magistrate retained—in some instances temporarily and in some instances for longer periods—control over the selection of ministers, elders, and other church officers, over the imposition of disciplinary sanctions, over the forms for worship and administration of the sacraments, and over the religious conditions for citizenship. The doctrine and ethical principles of the church were incorporated into the civil code. Some of this was done against the wishes of Calvin, some of it with his thorough approval. It is here that his conception of toleration was not adequate.

The standard Calvin used, his measuring rod, the canon, was proper and perfect—the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. His desire to see this canon recognized, applied, and implemented by every member of Christ’s church was unimpeachably right. His personal love for the members of that church was warm, genuine, and catholic. He knew that its acceptance could only be effected by the Spirit of God moving in the individual heart.

It was, therefore, a lamentable mistake to allow the boundaries of error to be policed by civil servants and to be enforced by civil sanctions. A broader degree of civil tolerance would have complemented and adorned his personal virtue and have assisted in the attainment of an even wider scope for the insemination of those truths and principles he had so expertly developed from the conclusions of the earlier Reformers. He had purified them from dross, clarified them, and so cogently systematized them that their foundation in the Scriptures was patent and their delineation in the Institutes of the Christian Religion was a chef d’oeuvre. It is a chef d’oeuvre unsurpassed to the present day, which has enlightened and encouraged every generation of God’s children during the tortuous course of these four intervening centuries.


Paul Woolley taught church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He received his academic training at Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. He served as dean of the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, and as managing editor of the Westminster Theological Journal from 1936 through 1967.


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