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§ 58. The Catechism of Geneva. A.D. 1536 AND 1541.


Calvini Opera, ed. Baum, Cunitz, and Reuss, Vol. V. (1866), pp. 313–362 (the first draft, or Catechismus prior, 1538); Vol. VI. (1867), pp. 1–160 (the second catechism, in French and Latin).

Niemeyer, pp. 123–190 (the Latin text of the Larger Catechism, together with the prayers and liturgical forms); comp. his Proleg. pp. xxxvii.-xli.

The German text of the Larger Catechism in Beck (Vol. I. pp. 208–292), and Böckel (pp. 127–172).

An English translation, probably by the same Marian exiles who prepared the 'Geneva Bible,' appeared first at Geneva, 1556; then in Edinburgh, 1564; and is reprinted in Dunlop's Confessions, Vol. II. pp. 139–272; also in Horatius Bonar: Catechisms of the Scotch Reformation (Lond. 1866), pp. 4–88. It is divided into fifty-five Sundays.

Stähelin: Joh. Calvin, Vol. I. pp. 124 sqq.


The commanding influence of Calvin's theology and Church polity is manifest in all the leading confessions of the Reformed Churches, especially the French, Dutch, and Scotch, also in the Lambeth Articles, the Irish Articles, and the Westminster Standards. But the confessions which he himself prepared were intended, like those of Zwingli, for local and temporary rather than general purposes, and possess only a secondary authority. These are the Geneva Catechism, the Zurich Consensus, and the Geneva Consensus.882882   They were not included in the Corpus et Syntagma Confessionum, which appeared in Geneva.

Calvin, like Luther and other Reformers, did not consider it beneath his dignity, but rather a duty and a privilege, to utilize his profound learning for the benefit of children by adapting it to their simplicity. He made general education and catechetical instruction the basis of the republic.883883   George Bancroft calls Calvin 'the father of popular education, the inventor of the system of free schools.'—Liter. and Histor. Miscellanies, p. 406.

During his first residence at Geneva (1536), he prepared a catechism, in the French language, together with a form of discipline, as a basis of instruction for the newly reformed Church of that city.884884   The Latin translation has been recently republished by the Strasburg editors from a Basle edition: 'Catechismus, sive Christianæ Religionis institutio, communibus renatæ nuper in Evangelio Genevensis Ecclesiæ suffragiis recepta et vulgari quidem prius idiomate, nunc vero Latine etiam . . . in lucem edita. Joanne Calvino autore. Basileæ, A. M.D. XXXVIII.' See the Prolegomena to Opera, Vol. V. pp. xli. sqq. The French original, which was probably printed at Geneva, 1537, seems to have been lost. It is a brief summary of the Christian religion, a popular extract from his 'Institutes.' It treats, in fifty-eight sections (but not in the form of question and answer), of the religious constitution of man, the distinction between false and true religion, the knowledge of God, the 468original state of man, free-will, sin and death, the way of salvation, the law of God, the Ten Commandments, the sum of the law (Matt. xxii. 37), the aim of the law, faith in Christ, election and predestination, the nature of faith, justification and sanctification, repentance and regeneration, faith and good works, an exposition of the articles of the Apostles' Creed, and the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, the Church, human traditions, excommunication, and the civil magistrate. Then follows a short confession of faith, in twenty-one articles, extracted from the Catechism, which was to be binding upon all the citizens of Geneva—probably the first instance of a formal pledge to a symbolical book in the history of the Reformed Church.885885    'Confessio Fidei, in quam jurare cives onmes Genevenses et qui sub civitatis ejus ditione agunt, jussi sunt: excerpta e Catechismo quo utitur Ecclesia Genevensis.' It begins with the Word of God and ends with the magistrate. It seems to have been drawn up before the Catechism, immediately after the disputation at Lausanne, for Beza says: 'Tunc edita est a Calvino Christianæ doctrinæ quædam veluti formula, vixdum emergenti e papatus sordibus Genevensi Ecclesiæ accommodata. Addidit etiam Catechismum,' etc.

After his return from Strasburg Calvin rewrote the Catechism on a larger scale, and arranged in questions and answers: the catechist drawing out the information, and the pupil or child seeming to teach the master. It was prepared in great haste, for the printer demanded copy without giving him time to revise it. He often desired to perfect the book, but found no time.886886   So he said himself on his death-bed; see Stähelin, Vol. II. p. 467. It appeared in French, 1541 or 1542,887887   'Le Catechisme de l’Église de Genève, c’est à dire le Formulaire d’instruire les enfans en la Chrestienté fait en manière de dialogue ou le ministre interrogue et l’enfant respond.' The oldest copy extant was found in the ducal library at Gotha, printed 1545. On other editions, see the Prolegomena to Opera, Vol. VI. in Latin, 1545,888888   'Catechismus Ecclesiæ Genevensis, hoc est, Formula erudiendi pueros in doctrina Christi. Autore Joanné Calvino.' The Preface to the Latin edition is dated 'Genevæ, 4 Calendas Decembris, 1545.' The Strasburg editors give the French and Latin texts of 1545 in parallel columns, Vol. VI. pp. 8–159. In many editions Calvin's Liturgy is added. and very often. It was also translated into Italian (1551 and 1556), Spanish (1550), English (1556), German, Dutch, Hungarian, even into Greek and Hebrew.889889   Beza, in Vita, ad ann. 1541: 'Scripsit Catechismum Gallice et Latine, ab illo priore minime discrepantem, sed multo auctiorem, et in quæstiones ac responsiones distributum: quem merito nobis liceat admirandum quoddam opus vocare, tantopere plurimis etiam exteris populis probatum, ut non modo vernaculis plurimis linguis, utpote Germanica, Anglica, Scotica, Belgica, Hispanica, sed etiam Hebraice ab Immanuele Tremellio Judæo Christiano, et Græce ab Henrico Stephano legatur elegantissime conversus.' The title of the Greek translation is, Στοιχείωσις τῆς Χριστιανῶν πίστεως, ἠ Κατηχισμὸς, κατὰ τὴν παλαιὰν ὀνομασίαν. Græce et Latine, 1563. It was used for a long 469time in Reformed Churches and schools, especially in France and Scotland, and served a good purpose in promoting an intelligent piety and virtue on the solid basis of systematic Biblical instruction. Educational religion, which grows with our growth, is the most substantial, and must ever be the main reliance of the Church.

The object of this work, as explained in the preface, was to restore the catechetical instruction of the ancient Church, so sadly neglected by the Papists, who substituted for it the ceremony of confirmation, and to secure greater unity of faith and doctrine in the scattered Reformed congregations. Calvin showed his churchly tact in making the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer the basis. The leading idea is man's relation to God, and his heavenly destination. The whole is divided into five parts, as follows: 1. Of Faith—an exposition of the Creed (which here, as in the Heidelberg Catechism, precedes the Ten Commandments, while in the earlier Catechism of Calvin the opposite order was observed);890890   He made the Apostles' Creed the basis of his 'Catechism' and 'Institutes,' not because he believed it to be literally the product of the Apostles, but because it is a faithful summary of their teaching ('ex eorum scriptis fideliter collecta,' 'tiré de la pure doctrine apostolique'), and a formula which best expresses the common Christian faith ('formula confessionis, quam inter se communem habent Christiani omnes'). 2. Of the Law, or the Ten Commandments; 3. Of Prayer; 4. Of the Word of God; 5. Of the Sacraments. In the French edition the Catechism is divided into fifty-five lessons, for the fifty-two Sundays of the year and the three great festivals—a method followed in the later editions of the Heidelberg Catechism.891891   The distribution into Sundays appears first in the French edition of 1548, which has a 'Table pour trouver le lieu du Catechisme que le Ministre explique un chascun Dimanche.' See Opera, Vol. VI. Proleg. p. x. The First Book of Discipline of Scotland (1560), ch. 11, directs the ministers to teach the children Calvin's Catechism—'the most perfect that ever yet was used in the Kirk'—every Sunday afternoon in the presence of the people. See Bonar, l.c. pp. 3, 4.

Calvin's Catechism is fuller than Luther's, but less popular and childlike. It prepared the way and furnished material for a number of similar works, which have gradually superseded it, especially the Anglican (Nowell's), the Heidelberg, and the Westminster Catechisms. The Anglican Catechism is much shorter and more churchly in taking its starting-point from Baptism. The first question of the Westminster Catechism makes the glory of God 'the chief end of man,' and is a happy condensation of the first three questions of 470Calvin.892892 Calvin's Catechism. Westminster Shorter Catechism.    Min. Quis humanæ vitæ præcipuus est finis?    1st Ques. What is the chief end of man?    Puer. Ut Deum, a quo conditi sunt homines, ipsi noverint.    Ans. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.    Min. Quid causæ habes, cur hoc dicas?      Puer. Quoniam nos ideo creavit et collocavit in hoc mundo, quo glorificetur in nobis. Et sane vitam nostram, cujus ipse est initium, æquum est in ejus gloriam referri.      Min. Quod vero est summum bonum hominis?      Puer. Illud ipsum.   The Heidelberg Catechism begins more subjectively with 'the only comfort of man in life and in death,' herein betraying its German origin; but this also was suggested by the next questions of Calvin concerning the highest good or felicity of man and the firm foundation of our salvation. Otherwise the Heidelberg Catechism adheres to the order of the Genevan more closely than the Westminster, by retaining, as a basis of the dogmatic section, the Apostles' Creed (which the Westminster Catechism merely adds as an appendix).893893   Comp. Karl Sudhof: Olevianus und Ursinus (1857), pp. 88 sqq. Calvin is also responsible for the unhistorical interpretation of Christ's descent into Hades, by which he understood the anticipation of the sufferings of hell in Gethsemane and on the Cross. This is quite inconsistent with the position of this article between the burial and the resurrection. Ihe Westminster Catechism falls into another error by making it mean simply, 'He continued in the state of the dead and under the power of death till the third day.'

Guizot gives the preference to Calvin's Catechism over those modern ones which begin with speculative questions on the nature and existence of God. 'Calvin,' he says,894894   St. Louis and Calvin, p. 348. 'proceeds in a very different manner; he does not seek God—he knows him, possesses him, and takes God as his starting-point. God the Creator, man his creature, and the relation of man to God—these form the fundamental facts and natural basis of the history, doctrines, and laws of Christianity. Calvin's Catechism commences thus: "What is the chief end of human life?" "To know God." And this first assertion is the mainspring of all the principles and religious duties which are afterwards presented, not as the discoveries of the human mind, but as communications made by God in order to meet man's aspirations, and enable him to regulate his life. It is neither a scientific method, nor is the Catechism a philosophical work; it contains the assertion of a real, immemorial, universal, and historical fact, and explains the consequences of that fact. It is the 471natural and legitimate method of imparting religions instruction, inherent in the very first principle of all religion; it is especially in harmony with the origin and history of Christianity, and no one has ever recognized its power or proved its efficacy more fully than Calvin.'

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