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John Calvin: Scandal, Cover Up, and Bias
Or: The Old, Old Story of the Good ‘Ol Boys
History is a mirror. If anyone is a hearer of history only, and not a learner, “he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:24). One of the lessons of history that Christianity seems doomed to repeat is the propensity of leaders showing partiality for their fellow leaders.
This is a story about John Calvin and his mentor and friend William (Guillaume) Farel. It is a story about Calvin’s sin and shortcomings. Not to bash Calvin, but to hold up a mirror for ourselves. Can we see ourselves in Calvin in this story? If not, I fear we will continue to repeat history, remaining blind to our sin the same way we pass over the sins of our heroes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story centers on a wedding in 1558 between William Farel and Marie Thorel, and that is where we begin.
Wedding ceremonies in 16th century Europe were proceeded by banns, public announcements of the forthcoming marriage. As this post examines a scandal caused by the marriage of William Farel, it is only appropriate to reproduce a reading from his book of church liturgy forms:
“To take precautions against all such frauds we announce the coming marriage in the hearing of the whole church, congregation or parish for two or three Sundays. This ensures that we may be informed of all obstacles (if there be any) and that this beautiful, holy marriage may be performed only in a fitting way. When we have made the proclamation to the entire holy assembly and no obstacle is found or allegation raised in the assembly to this marriage, then they are married.”1
Banns provided time for people in the church and local community to raise objections to the marriage. How interesting is it, then, that Farel himself received vocal objections to the banns for his own marriage to Marie Thorel (or Mary Torel) which were published on September 11, September 25, and October 2, 1558.2
On September 26, 1558 Calvin wrote “in such perplexity” to the ministers of the Church of Neuchatel, where Farel was the pastor, because he, at age 69, was betrothed to Marie Thorel, a girl of about 16. Although Calvin observed “there is no law which forbids such a marriage”3, he nevertheless believed it “contrary to the order and seemliness of nature” and feared the scandal it would bring on Farel and the Calvinist network of reformed pastors.4
Details about the relationship between Farel and Thorel are few. Michiel A. van den Berg notes that Marie’s mother had fled from France for refuge and she and her daughter took up residence in the home of Farel, a minister who had remained single his entire life to that point.5 Apparently Farel had spoken with Calvin about the betrothal in person, even asking Calvin to perform the wedding ceremony, and Calvin tried in vain to dissuade Farel from proceeding. As a concession, Calvin urged Farel to “hasten your espousals” in order to avoid public scandal.6 But Farel delayed, word got out, and of course people started talking.
Calvin’s presentation of the matter shows a complication of contradictory beliefs and actions. On the one hand, he acknowledged that
“Half a year ago our poor brother [Farel] would have declared that they should have bound like a madman the person who at so advanced an age desired to marry so young a woman.”7
On the other hand, although Calvin clearly disapproved of the marriage, and although his relationship with Farel was permanently ruptured,8 still Calvin’s letter to the Neuchatel ministers and to Farel reveal his bias for his long-time friend and co-reformer. The following quotes are from Letters of John Calvin (3:473-475):
Because there was no law forbidding a 69 year old man marrying a 16 year old girl, there was no legal cause for breaking off the betrothal and thus trying to stop it would only “increase the scandal.”
Apparently Calvin thought that if the man in this case were “a private person”, the right course of action would be more clear.
But because Farel was such a public figure, people might think “that the preachers wish to have a law for themselves; and that, in favour of their profession, they violate the most indissoluble tie in the world…men will believe that you assume a privilege above others, as if you were not subject to the law and the common rule.”
Farel himself was framed as a victim to be handled with care: he was compared to “a man who had lost his wits”, and Calvin indicates that “after having made him sufficiently sharp reproaches, I forbore to say any thing more to him on the subject, for fear of reducing him to despair altogether. And, in fact, I have always feared and conjectured that the consequences which I had anticipated from this affair would occasion his death.”
Calvin admonished the Neuchatel ministers to go easy on Farel on account of his “thirty-six years and more in serving God and edifying his church, how profitable his labours have been, with what zeal he laboured, and even what advantages you have derived from him.” Because of his faithful service, Calvin said, “Let that dispose you to some indulgence, not to approve of the evil, but at least not to proceed with extreme rigour.”
Again, keep this quiet and go easy on the man: “Meanwhile, as it does not belong to me to point out to you your line of conduct, I shall only pray God to conduct you in the matter with such prudence and discretion that the scandal may be hushed up and produce as little evil as possible, and that our poor brother be not overwhelmed with sorrow.”
Not surprisingly, yet still tragically, Calvin never mentions Marie Thorel in these two letters.
William and Marie married on December 20, 1558, and as Bruce Gordon observes,
“Calvin’s predictions about the consequences proved sadly prescient. In Paris the Protestant congregation was shocked. The man who had brought about the reformation in Geneva and introduced the marriage of clergy had caused a damaging scandal by marrying a woman fifty years younger than himself. The Reformation had a disaster on its hands, and Calvin had to act. There was no possibility of a divorce. He claimed that Farel had succumbed to mental illness and was not of right mind, arguing that others should not put too much pressure on him lest he be driven to suicide. In so doing, Calvin brutally cut himself loose from his long-time friend and sought nothing more than damage limitation.” 9
To Tell or Not to Tell
The matter of secrecy is further highlighted in Calvin’s letter to Farel, also sent in September, 1558. He told Farel “you are much mistaken in thinking that the affair is quite a secret.” Nevertheless, Calvin did what he could to keep it under wraps:
“I myself, when I thought that the matter was fairly brought to a conclusion, admonished my colleagues to check the scandal as much as lay in their power by their temperate conversation. At the same time I besought them not to give publicity to the fact.”10
These efforts at hushing a public scandal are all the more notable when we take into account Calvin’s behavior toward those he deemed his political and religious enemies. We might think these were Catholics, but in Protestant Geneva it was Calvin’s fellow Protestants who were disciplined with public shame.
Pierre Ameaux found himself in Calvin’s crosshairs in 1546 related to a marital dispute and for criticizing Calvin’s doctrine. Ameaux was eventually brought before the Genevan civil magistrates, who argued for reconciliation betwen Ameaux and Calvin, but they both refused. The Consistory — the ecclesiastical body responsible for church discipline — demanded Ameaux be punished publicly, and in the end the civil leaders caved to pressure from the ministers. Jeffrey Watt notes that Calvin even “refused to preach until Ameaux had been punished publicly.”11 In the end,
“Ameaux was forced to parade through town clad only in a shirt with a torch and be pardoned in the centre of Geneva. He was ordered to give details, in a [loud and intelligible voice], of each charge he had made against Calvin, repudiate each criticism, and beg forgiveness from God, Calvin and the magistrates.”12
What was Ameaux’s offense, really? For such public shaming, one would think it was much worse than William Farel’s. But it appears that all he did was criticize Calvin. Another minister, Henri de La Mare, came to Ameaux’s defense but de La Mare himself “got on the wrong side of the reformer because he privately said that Calvin was an inflexible hothead.” When asked “if Ameaux had spoken ‘against God or only against men,’” de La Mare replied,
“I think that he said something against Calvin. . . . [A]nd if [Ameaux] was wrong, this was done after having drunk [alcohol]. I have always known him as a good man, virtuous, and of a great spirit. Calvin is a bit subject to his tempers, [he’s an] impatient man, hateful, and vindictive.’ To prove that he was not a vindictive man, Calvin ensured that de La Mare would never again serve as a minister in Genevan territory.”13
Speaking against Calvin resulted in public discipline and expulsion from city ministry, but if you were on the right side—Calvin’s side—discipline was limited to the equivalent of a stern talking.
Additionally, Watt shows that the male leaders displayed gender-discrimination in prosecuting marriages of widely differing ages.
“Members of the Genevan Consistory were “appalled” at a 70 year old woman marrying a 25 year old man, something “which even pagans do not tolerate, by which the order of nature would be shattered, as women should not marry men who are not near their own age, and those who are beyond the age of bearing children should not be married to young men.”14
Later in 1576 Geneva did create laws proscribing such marriages, but “they continued to be primarily concerned about women who were older than their husbands.”15 As I have chronicled elsewhere, male-centric bias, aka gender-blindness, is a historical given, but in this story it coincides with clergy bias. And that is something we need to pay more attention to.
We study Calvin and other eminent teachers with devotion. But God calls us to “consider the outcome of their way of life” (Hebrews 13:7). If we do consider their lives, do we consider their failings as well as their successes?
Kevin De Young said this aboult Calvin:
Calvin had weaknesses, but you can at least say this, that he understood what they were. It’s one thing if you have weaknesses and you’re aware of them and you plead with the Lord, “I messed up again, would You help me?” It’s another to be the sort of person everyone else knows your weakness except for you.
What De Young misses is that no one, not even Calvin, has an understanding of all of his or her weaknesses. Are we to only pay attention to the weaknesses that Calvin was aware of? Such selectivity is a near cousin to hagiography, comfortably passing over sins in our heroes that we’d also prefer to pass over in our own lives.
If John Calvin was capable of sins that keep hitting the Evangelical news, what about our own leaders? What about you and me? Calvin himself said,
“It is becoming that the people should be ruled by a kindlier, and, if I may so speak, laxer discipline; that the clergy should be stricter in their censures, and less indulgent to themselves than to others.”16
If John Calvin, esteemed Reformer and man of God, was capable of ignoring his own advice in being more indulgent and less strict with his fellow clergy, we should not be surprised to see it happen today. Not at some faraway church in that other denomination that has all the wrong doctrine. Not just in the faraway news, but in the pews on our own street corner. Let’s look in the mirror of history, see ourselves, and not be a “hearer who forgets but a doer who acts” in accord with the “perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1:25).
Quote from Michael Kruger
“Most elder boards, church courts, and board of directors for Christian ministries are composed of insiders, not outsiders. They are usually composed of the leader’s close friends, sometimes even family members. How, then, can they have objectivity in holding that leader accountable? It’s the same problem as police officers holding other police officers accountable for excessive force. They are all part of the same club. Thus, real accountability is difficult to achieve.”17
How do you address your blindspots, willful or otherwise? Who do you have in your life who will help you see what you cannot see on your own?
Jason Zuidema, Theodore Van Raalte, Early French Reform : The Theology and Spirituality of Guillaume Farel (Routledge, 2011), p. 204.
Letters of John Calvin, edited by Jules Bonnet, translated by Marcus Robert Gilchrist. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858, volume 3:473.
Friends of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), p. 87.
Michael Bruening writes, “It is clear that the close friendship among the trio that had existed throughout the 1540s and 1550s was never the same after Farel’s marriage,” Triumvirs, Patriarchs, or Friends? Evaluating the Relationship between Calvin, Viret, and Farel, p. 130.
Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 282.
The Consistory and Social Discipline in Calvin’s Geneva (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020), p. 194.
Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 96.
Watt, Consistory and Social Discipline, p. 19.
Ibid., pp. 122-123, quoting the Registers of the Consistory of Geneva.
Ibid., p. 123.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.12.22.
Bully Pulpit, p. 67.