Storm Centres of History: Geneva & Reformation

BBC Radio Devon – Pause for Thought:  Storm Centres

During the Pause for Thought recently, I’ve been talking about 7 places I have been to:  Storm-centres of history.

Today, we will go to Geneva.

Geneva is a beautiful city.  I don’t know if that was the case half a millennia ago, but back in the mid-16th century, it was a religious storm-centre that changed Europe and the world forever.

John Calvin (1509-64) was a shy, French intellectual; a 2nd generation Protestant Reformer. He was a lamb who would become a lion. 

This was about reforming what was deformed in Church and cultural life.

Calvin (the lamb) himself wanted to retire to a life of private study and theological writing.  He set out for Strasbourg but a French War diverted him to Geneva.

He survived there two years before being driven out, after meeting intense resistance from the city council.  Finally he got to Strasbourg where he developed his Reformation thinking and continued his work on his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Just 3 years later, Geneva appealed for him to return.  He did, with a far more sophisticated theological arsenal and confidence.  Calvin’s work attempted to reform the morals and worship of the church, according to a more biblical pattern.  

By the 1550’s, Calvin (the lion) was the leading spokesman of the Geneva power base.

By the time of his death in 1564, Calvin had made Geneva the centre of an international movement, which came to bear his name:  Calvinism. It is still one of the most potent and significant intellectual movements in human history.

When I visited Geneva during a sabbatical break 2 years ago, I went to the church Calvin preached at; the Reformation Museum set up next door; the wonderful monument The Reformation Wall in one of the parks; and near-by, Calvin’s simple grave.

The Reformation Wall, Geneva

In distinction to Karl Marx’s famous line, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”, Calvin wanted the change not for change’s sake, but for a higher purpose, a greater goal:  

The flourishing of humanity through the church in a world that God loves and has tasked the church with the proclamation of The Good News Jesus Christ – to bring this about.

Calvin is thought of as a dour, severe religious zealot; but rather, a man who was indebted to Renaissance humanism and classical learning.

He was democratic and liberal-minded, who viewed the world with rapturous wonder; He said, “The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, [and] justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra…”

“…as it were—the most conspicuous part of it; and the nearer the approaches are that God makes to us, the more intimate and condescending the communication of his benefits, the more attentively are we called to consider them.”

We are all in the theatre of God’s world, playing an instrument in the orchestra of humanity.  The question is, ‘Will our lives deform or reform the world?’


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