December 21, 2003

...and another thing

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading Bernard Cottret's biography of John Calvin. It's an engaging read. Cottret, a French historian, is more interested in Calvin as French writer, French thinker, French stylist, than he is in Calvin as Protestant Reformer; it's also worth noting that he seems to have no particular axe to grind as far as the Reformation goes. (Cottret seems almost as bothered as, say, Erasmus was over some of the obscurantist issues on which the Reformation turned.) The book is excellent, and because I was reading it, I decided not to comment on this assertion from Edward Feser's essay, Does Islam Need a Pope?: must never be forgotten that it was Calvin, and not some Medieval Catholic, who founded in Geneva the world's first Christian totalitarian state...

Cottret notes that Geneva's political reformation began before Calvin ever set foot in the city; that Calvin was once kicked out of Geneva for a few years because he clashed with the temporal authority over the question of whether the Lord's Supper (the Protestant version of the Mass) should be celebrated monthly or four times a year. Throughout Calvin's tenure in Geneva, he battled with the civil magistrates, who had far more of a role in the congregations (they could excommunicate, or even condemn to death heretics) than the ministers (including Calvin) had. Cottret writes,

Geneva, in fact, was never a theocracy. Although they interpenetrated each other more than today, the religious and political powers, the ministry and the magistracy, were never one and the same. Calvin indeed had to fight step-by-step to maintain the autonomy of the church against the ascendancy of the councils. The question of excommunication was at the center of the debate. Was it a religious action, as Calvin maintained, or did it come under the civil jurisdiction, as his adversaries wished? To sum up, Calvin did not take over the state; he was neither a commanding general nor an ayatollah. On the contrary, he only wanted to maintain a minimum of liberty of action for the church.

Feser's argument, it seems to me, continues to crumble...

Posted by Ideofact at December 21, 2003 11:58 PM

Actually, that's very interesting... Are there any citations of works on Geneva's temporal authority and it's use of religion? I'm rather interested in uses of religion as political legitimization (pre-modern mostly, since that's my era of Japanese history, but it's spreading into modern history as well--technically, I suppose Calvin is early modern/modern).

Posted by: kristine at December 22, 2003 08:17 AM