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§ 166. Calvin’s Personal Character and Habits.

Calvin is one of those characters that command respect and admiration rather than affection, and forbid familiar approach, but gain upon closer acquaintance. The better he is known, the more he is admired and esteemed. Those who judge of his character from his conduct in the case of Servetus, and of his theology from the "decretum horribile," see the spots on the sun, but not the sun itself. Taking into account all his failings, he must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best of men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity.

He has been called by competent judges of different creeds and schools, "the theologian" par excellence, "the Aristotle of the Reformation," "the Thomas Aquinas of the Reformed Church," "the Lycurgus of a Christian democracy," "the Pope of Geneva." He has been compared, as a church ruler, to Gregory VII. and to Innocent III. The sceptical Renan even, who entirely dissents from his theology, calls him the most Christian man of his age." Such a combination of theoretic and practical pre-eminence is without a parallel in history. But he was also an intolerant inquisitor and persecutor, and his hands are stained with the blood of a heretic.12651265    His enemies in Geneva even started the proverb, if we are to believe the untrustworthy Baudouin: "Better with Beza in hell than with Calvin in heaven." Take these characteristics together, and you have the whole Calvin; omit one or the other of them, and you do him injustice. He will ever command admiration and even reverence, but can never be popular among the masses. No pilgrimages will be made to his grave. The fourth centennial of his birth, in 1909, is not likely to be celebrated with such enthusiasm as Luther’s was in 1883, and Zwingli’s in 1884. But the impression he made on the Swiss, French, Dutch, and especially on the Anglo-Saxon race in Great Britain and America, can never be erased.12661266    See the collection of remarkable tributes in § 68, pp. 270 sqq. I will only add two more from Dr. Baur and Dr. Möhler, the great historians who were colleagues and antagonists, the champions, indeed, of opposite creeds in one of the most important theological controversies of the nineteenth century. The Protestant Baur, in his Kirchengeschichte (IV. 374), calls Calvin a man "von seltener Gelehrsamkeit, feiner, vielseitiger Bildung, scharfem, durchdringendem Geiste, kräftigem, aber strengem Charakter, vollkommen würdig, den übrigen Häuptern der Reformation zur Seite zu stehen, an Schärfe des Geistes zum Theil ihnen noch überlegen." The Roman Catholic Möhler, the author of the Symbolik, which caused a great sensation in its day, says in his posthumous Kirchengeschichte (III. 189): "Calvin besass sehr viel Scharfsinn und eine ausnehmende Beredtsamkeit, und war weit gelehrter als alle übrigen Reformatoren, so dass Lehren, die bei einem andern abscheulich gewesen wären, aus seinem Munde wohl klingen;" but he adds: "Zu bedauern aber ist, dass eine so grosse geistige Kraft im Dienste des Irrthums war."

Calvin’s bodily presence, like that of St. Paul, was weak. His earthly tent scarcely covered his mighty spirit. He was of middle stature, dark complexion, thin, pale, emaciated, and in feeble health; but he had a finely chiseled face, a well-formed mouth, pointed beard, black hair, a prominent nose, a lofty forehead, and flaming eyes which kept their lustre to the last. He seemed to be all bone and nerve. He looked in death, Beza says, like one who was asleep. A commanding intellect and will shone through the frail body. There are several portraits of him; the best is the oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, which presents him in academic dress and in the attitude of teaching, with the mouth open, one hand laid upon the Bible, the other raised.12671267    It is reproduced on p. 256. Mr. Theophile Dufour, the librarian, assured me in 1886 that it is the most authentic portrait. Professor Diodati, a former librarian, wrote to Dr. Henry (III. P. I. Preface, p. vii): "Quant au portrait que l’on voit ànotre bibliothèque, il atoujours passépour authentique et fidèle. Nos peintres s’accordent àreconnaître qu’il est bien de l’époque de Calvin et qu’il est peint d’une manière remarquable. On l’a souvent attribuéa Holbein; mais cette opinion n’est pas constatée. Ce que l’on peut dire c’est qu’on y retrouve sa manière. En l’étudiant attentivement on lui trouve un air de véritéfrappant."

He calls himself timid and pusillanimous by nature; but his courage rose with danger, and his strength was perfected in weakness. He belonged to that class of persons who dread danger from a distance, but are fearless in its presence. In his conflict with the Libertines he did not yield an inch, and more than once exposed his life. He was plain, orderly and methodical in his habits and tastes, scrupulously neat in his dress, intemperately temperate, and unreasonably abstemious. For many years he took only one meal a day, and allowed himself too little sleep.

Calvin’s intellectual endowments were of the highest order and thoroughly disciplined: a retentive memory, quick perception, acute understanding, penetrating reason, sound judgment, complete command of language. He had the classical culture of the Renaissance, without its pedantry and moral weakness. He made it tributary to theology and piety. He was not equal to Augustin and Luther as a creative genius and originator of new ideas, but he surpassed them both and all his contemporaries as a scholar, as a polished and eloquent writer, as a systematic and logical thinker, and as an organizer and disciplinarian. His talents, we may say, rose to the full height of genius. His mind was cast in the mould of Paul, not in that of John. He had no mystic vein, and little imagination. He never forgot anything pertaining to his duty; he recognized persons whom he had but once seen many years previously. He spoke very much as he wrote, with clearness, precision, purity, and force, and equally well in Latin and French. He never wrote a dull line. His judgment was always clear and solid, and so exact, that, as Beza remarks, it often appeared like prophecy. His advice was always sound and useful. His eloquence was logic set on fire. But he lacked the power of illustration, which is often, before a popular audience, more effective in an orator than the closest argument.

His moral and religious character was grounded in the fear of God, which is "the beginning of wisdom." Severe against others, he was most severe against himself. He resembled a Hebrew prophet He may be called a Christian Elijah. His symbol was a hand offering the sacrifice of a burning heart to God. The Council of Geneva were impressed with "the great majesty" of his character.12681268    Dieu lui avait impriméun charactère d’une si grande majesté." Registres, June 8, 1564. Grenus, Fragments Biographiques. This significant expression accounts for his overawing power over his many enemies in Geneva, who might easily have crushed him at any time. His constant and sole aim was the glory of God, and the reformation of the Church. In his eyes, God alone was great, man but a fleeting shadow. Man, he said, must be nothing, that God in Christ may be everything. He was always guided by a strict sense of duty, even in the punishment of Servetus. In the preface to the last edition of his Institutes (1559), he says: "I have the testimony of my own conscience, of angels, and of God himself, that since I undertook the office of a teacher in the Church, I have had no other object in view than to profit the Church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness; yet I suppose there is no man more slandered or calumniated than myself."12691269    He meets these calumnies in a letter to Christopher Piperin, Oct. 18, 1555 (Opera, XV. 825 sq.), from which I quote the following passage: "When I hear that I am everywhere so foully defamed, I have not such iron nerves as not to be stung with pain. But it is no slight consolation to me that yourself and many other servants of Christ and pious worshippers of God sympathize with me in my injuries … . Why should I worry honest people with my zeal for vindicating my own reputation? Did there exist a greater necessity for it, having entreated their indulgence, I might lay my defence before them. But the scurrilous calumnies with which malignant men bespatter me are too unfounded and too silly to require any labored refutation on my part. The authors of them would tax me with self-importance, and laugh at me as being too anxiously concerned for my character. One example of these falsehoods is that immense sum of money which you mention. Everybody knows how frugally I live in my own house. Every one sees that I am at no expense for the splendor of my dress. It is well known everywhere that my only brother is far from being rich, and that the little which he has, he acquired without any influence of mine. Where, then, was that hidden treasure dug up? But they openly give out that I have robbed the poor. Well, this charge also, these most slanderous of men will be compelled to confess, was falsely got up without any grounds. I have never had the handling of one farthing of the money which charitable people have bestowed on the poor. About eight years ago, a man of rank [David de Busanton, a refugee; see Calvin’s letter to Viret, Aug. 17, 1545, Opera, XII. 139] died in my house who had deposited upwards of two thousand crowns with me, and without demanding one scrap of writing to prove the deposit. When I perceived that his life was in danger, though he wished to intrust that sum to my management, I refused to undertake so responsible a charge. I contrived, however, that eight hundred crowns should be sent to Strassburg to relieve the wants of the exiles. By my advice he chose men above suspicion to distribute the remainder of the sum. When he wished to appoint me one of their number, to which the others made no objections, I refused; but I see what nettles my enemies. As they form an estimate of my character from their own, they feel convinced that I must amass wherever I find a good opportunity. But if during my lifetime I do not escape the reputation of being rich, death will at last vindicate my character from this imputation." See his testament, p. 829. Nevertheless Bolsec (ch. XI.) unscrupulously repeated and exaggerated the calumny about the misappropriation of the legacy of two thousand crowns. Comp. the editorial notes in Opera, XV. 825 and 826.

Riches and honors had no charms for him. He soared far above filthy lucre and worldly ambition. His only ambition was that pure and holy ambition to serve God to the best of his ability. He steadily refused an increase of salary, and frequently also presents of every description, except for the poor and the refugees, whom he always had at heart, and aided to the extent of his means. He left only two hundred and fifty gold crowns, or, if we include the value of his furniture and library, about three hundred crowns, which he bequeathed to his younger brother, Antoine, and his children, except ten crowns to the schools, ten to the hospital for poor refugees, and ten to the daughter of a cousin. When Cardinal Sadolet passed through Geneva in disguise (about 1547), he was surprised to find that the Reformer lived in a plain house instead of an episcopal palace with a retinue of servants, and himself opened the door.12701270    This incident is related by Drelincourt, Bungener, and others, and believed in Geneva. When Pope Pius IV. heard of his death he paid him this tribute: "The strength of that heretic consisted in this,—that money never had the slightest charm for him. If I had such servants, my dominions would extend from sea to sea." In this respect all the Reformers were true successors of the Apostles. They were poor, but made many rich.

Calvin had defects which were partly the shadow of his virtues. He was passionate, prone to anger, censorious, impatient of contradiction, intolerant towards Romanists and heretics, somewhat austere and morose, and not without a trace of vindictiveness. He confessed in a letter to Bucer, and on his death-bed, that he found it difficult to tame "the wild beast of his wrath," and he humbly asked forgiveness for his weakness. He thanked the senators for their patience with his often "excessive vehemence." His intolerance sprang from the intensity of his convictions and his zeal for the truth. It unfortunately culminated in the tragedy of Servetus, which must be deplored and condemned, although justified by the laws and the public opinion in his age. Tolerance is a modern virtue.

Calvin used frequently contemptuous and uncharitable language against his opponents in his polemical writings, which cannot be defended, but he never condescended to coarse and vulgar abuse, like so many of his contemporaries.12711271    Comp. above, § 118, p. 595.

He has often been charged with coldness and want of domestic and social affection, but very unjustly. The chapter on his marriage and home life, and his letters on the death of his wife and only child show the contrary.12721272    · See above, § 92, pp. 413-424. The charge is a mistaken inference from his gloomy doctrine of eternal reprobation; but this was repulsive to his own feelings, else he would not have called it "a horrible decree." Experience teaches that even at this day the severest Calvinism is not seldom found connected with a sweet and amiable Christian temper. He was grave, dignified, and reserved, and kept strangers at a respectful distance; but he was, as Beza observes, cheerful in society and tolerant of those vices which spring from the natural infirmity of men. He treated his friends as his equals, with courtesy and manly frankness, but also with affectionate kindness. And they all bear testimony to this fact, and were as true and devoted to him as he was to them. The French martyrs wrote to him letters of gratitude for having fortified them to endure prison and torture with patience and resignation.12731273    Michelet (XI. 95): "Les martyrs, àleur dernier jour, se faisaient une consolation, un devoir d’écrire àCalvin. Ils n’auraient pas quittéla vie sans remercier celui dont la parole les avait menés àla mort. Leurs lettres, respectueuses, nobles et douces, arrachant les larmes." "He obtained," says Guizot, "the devoted affection of the best men and the esteem of all, without ever seeking to please them." "He possessed," says Tweedie, "the secret and inexplicable power of binding men to him by ties that nothing but sin or death could sever. They treasured up every word that dropped from his lips."

Among his most faithful friends were many of the best men and women of his age, of different character and disposition, such as Farel, Viret, Beza, Bucer, Grynaeus, Bullinger, Knox, Melanchthon, Queen Marguerite, and the Duchess Renée. His large correspondence is a noble monument to his heart as well as his intellect, and is a sufficient refutation of all calumnies. How tender is his reference to his departed friend Melanchthon, notwithstanding their difference of opinion on predestination and free-will: "It is to thee, I appeal, who now livest with Christ in the bosom of God, where thou waitest for us till we be gathered with thee to a holy rest. A hundred times hast thou said, when, wearied with thy labors and oppressed by thy troubles, thou reposedst thy head familiarly on my breast, ’Would that I could die in this bosom!’ Since then I have a thousand times wished that it had happened to us to be together." How noble is his admonition to Bullinger, when Luther made his last furious attack upon the Zwinglians and the Zürichers (1544), not to forget "how great a man Luther is and by what extraordinary gifts he excels." And how touching is his farewell letter to his old friend Farel (May 2, 1564): "Farewell, my best and truest brother! And since it is God’s will that you should survive me in this world, live mindful of our friendship, of which, as it was useful to the Church of God, the fruits await us in heaven. Pray, do not fatigue yourself on my account. It is with difficulty that I draw my breath, and I expect that every moment will be my last. It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is the reward of his followers both in life and in death. Again, farewell, with the brethren."

Calvin has also unjustly been charged with insensibility to the beauties of nature and art. It is true we seek in vain for specific allusions to the earthly paradise in which he lived, the lovely shores of Lake Leman, the murmur of the Rhone, the snowy grandeur of the monarch of mountains in Chamounix. But the writings of the other Reformers are equally bare of such allusions, and the beauties of Switzerland were not properly appreciated till towards the close of the eighteenth century, when Haller, Goethe, and Schiller directed attention to them. Calvin, however, had a lively sense of the wonders of creation and expressed it more than once. "Let us not disdain," he says, "to receive a pious delight from the works of God, which everywhere present themselves to view in this very beautiful theatre of the world"; and he points out that "God has wonderfully adorned heaven and earth with the utmost possible abundance, variety, and beauty, like a large and splendid mansion, most exquisitely and copiously furnished, and exhibited in man the masterpiece of his works by distinguishing him with such splendid beauty and such numerous and great privileges."12741274    Institutes, bk. I. ch. XIV. 20. This whole chapter on Creation is replete with admiration for the beauty and order of God’s universe. "Were I desirous," he says (21), "of pursuing the subject to its full extent, there would be no end; since there are as many miracles of divine power, as many monuments of divine goodness, as many proofs of divine wisdom as there are species of things in the world, and even as there are individual things either great or small."

He had a taste for music and poetry, like Luther and Zwingli. He introduced, in Strassburg and Geneva, congregational singing, which he described as "an excellent method of kindling the heart and making it burn with great ardor in prayer," and which has ever since been a most important part of worship in the Reformed Churches. He composed also a few poetic versifications of Psalms, and a sweet hymn to the Saviour, to whose service and glory his whole life was consecrated.


Calvin’s "Salutation à Iésus Christ" was discovered by Felix Bovet of Neuchâtel in an old Genevese prayer-book of 1545 (Calvin’s Liturgy), and published, together with eleven other poems (mostly translations of Psalms), by the Strassburg editors of Calvin’s works in 1867. (See vol. VI. 223 and Prolegg. XVIII. sq.) It reveals a poetic vein and a devotional fervor and tenderness which one could hardly expect from so severe a logician and polemic. A German translation was made by Dr. E. Stähelin of Basel, and an English translation by Mrs. Henry B. Smith of New York, and published in Schaff’s Christ in Song, 1868. ("I greet Thee, who my sure Redeemer art." New York ed. p. 678; London ed. p. 549.) We give it here in the original old French: —

"Ie te salue, mon certain Redempteur,

Ma vraye franc’ et mon seul Salvateur,

Qui tant de labeur,

D’ennuys et de douleur

As enduré pour moy:

Oste de noz cueurs

Toutes vaines langueurs,

Fol soucy et esmoy.

"Tu es le Roy misericordieux;

Puissant par tout et regnant en tous lieux;

Vueille donc regner

En nous, et dominer

Sur nous entierement,

Nous illuminer,

Ravyr et nous mener

A ton haut Firmament.

"Tu es la vie par laquelle vivons,

Toute sustanc’ et toute forc’ avons:

Donne nous confort

Contre la dure mort,

Que ne la craignons point,

Et sans desconfort

La passons d’un cueur fort

Quand ce viendra au point.

"Tu es la vraye et parfaite douceur,

Sans amertume, despit ne rigueur:

Fay nous savourer,

Aymer et adorer,

Ta tresdouce bonté;

Fay nous desirer,

Et tousiours demeurer

En ta douce unité.

"Nostre esperanc’ en autre n’est qu’en toy,

Sur ta promesse est fondée nostre foy:

Vueilles augmenter,

Ayder et conforter

Nostre espoir tellement,

Que bien surmonter

Nous puissions, et Porter

Tout mal patiemment.

"A toy cryons comme povres banys,

Enfans d’Eve pleins de maux infinis:

A toy souspirons,

Gemissons et plorons,

En la vallée de plours;

Pardon requerons

Et salut desirons,

Nous confessans pecheurs.

"Or avant donq, nostre Mediateur,

Nostre advocat et propiciateur,

Tourne tes doux yeux

Icy en ces bas lieux,

Et nous vueille monstrer

Le haut Dieu des Dieux,

Et aveq toy ’és cieux

Nous faire tous entrer.

"O debonnair’, o pitoyabl’ et doux,

Des ames saintes amyabl’ espoux,

Seigneur Iesus Christ,

Encontre L’antechrist

Remply de cruauté,

Donne nous L’esprit

De suyvir ton escript

En vraye verité."

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