Calvin’s Early Contact with Anabaptists

[This is a summary of several chapters of Willem Balke’s Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals.]

John Calvin was no friend to Anabaptists and others in the “left-wing of the Reformation.” This fact is widely known, but less commonly recognized is how early and widespread were Calvin’s acquaintance with them. The term “Anabaptist” itself is a bit of a red-herring. Calvin, like most sixteenth-century writers, uses the term or “Catabaptists” to refer to a broad range of disconnected groups: German spiritualists, Italian rationalists, heterodox anarchists, and others. Almost everyone who did not fit into the Roman or Lutheran/Reformed churches was labeled Anabaptist. Many polemical treatises written against “Anabaptists” either could not or would not distinguish between these groups, or incorrectly assumed that traits belonging to one group were shared by all.

Calvin likely first came into contact with these sectarians during a stay in Paris in 1534. Paris was a hotbed of theological controversy, and representatives of all these groups were in residence. Calvin personally met Quintin Thieffrey, the head of a “libertine” sect, and Michael Servetus. A letter to Martin Bucer shows that by this time, Calvin was already knowledgeable enough in Anabaptist theology to differentiate it from Reformation theology. This same year, Calvin began to work on Psychopannychia (The Soul’s Vigilance), a defense of the soul’s existence and perception after death. Various sects and even some Lutherans at the time were attracted to the idea of soul sleep. The treatise would not be published until 1542; each successive preface strengthened the anti-Anabaptist rhetoric.

Later in 1534, Calvin fled Paris to Basel, where he met Bullinger and other Reformation leaders, and probably Karlstadt and Caroli. Basel had been a locus of Anabaptist activity; several debates had been held and refutations of Anabaptist theology written. Thus, by the end of 1534, Calvin was well-acquainted with the teachings of various left-wing sects.

Throughout 1534 and 1535, Calvin was preparing his first edition of Institutes. Calvin originally intended it as a summary of Reformation doctrine, but enlarged it in the aftermath of the Münster rebellion. A radical Anabaptist sect took control of the German town of Münster. One leader, Jan Matthys, declared the city the New Jerusalem and himself the royal successor of David. He legalized polygamy and instituted a communal lifestyle. Shocked by these developments, Catholic and Protestant armies joined forces, retook the town, and executed the ringleaders.

Governments across Europe were terrified by the idea that theological ideas could lead to such political disturbance. Many Catholics blamed Lutheran doctrine for the Anabaptists and insisted that spreading Protestantism would lead to similar outbreaks. Francis I, king of France, began persecuting Lutherans in his kingdom. Calvin, himself a Frenchman, added several chapters to Institutes and wrote a dedicatory letter to Francis, pleading for him to support the Reformation cause.

Throughout the first edition of Institutes, Calvin articulates Reformation doctrine against the Romanists one side and the Anabaptists on the other. He alludes to Münster several times. He promotes Reformation doctrine as a pure worship of God that encourages good morals and civil obedience. He expressly condemns violent rebellion and denies any connection to the Anabaptists. Calvin hoped that Francis would support the Reformation, but he at least desired that he recognize the distinction between Lutheran and Anabaptist and cease the persecution of loyal citizens. Unfortunately, Francis was unmoved by Calvin’s appeals.

As early as 1535, then, Calvin’s main objections to Anabaptism were already established. He embraced an organic conception of society in which the state worked with the church for the total well-being of its people. He recognized the divine establishment of government and the right of public persons to punish with the sword. He renounced the perfectionism that he saw at the root of the Anabaptist refusal to engage society. His theology of Word and Spirit prohibited a merely memorial view of the sacraments. He affirmed the propriety of infant baptism, but his justification for the practice had not yet moved much beyond Luther’s supposition of infant faith.

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Published in: on July 8, 2011 at 1:37 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. 🙂


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