Calvin's Geneva Turns to Arminius and the Arminians

From the Leiden book and conference, Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe, History of the Reformation scholar at Geneva University Maria-Cristina Pitassi lectures on the spread and influence of Arminius and Arminianism throughout French Switzerland, in Calvin's Geneva, of all places. She underscores what is, in my mind, one of the most tragic results of the Calvinistic overthrow of the Arminians after the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619).

Much like the complaint of the Calvinists aimed at Roman Catholics -- that they vied for controlling the theology and lives of all believers -- the Calvinists, in an ironic twist, paid all non-Calvinistic believers the same favor, and especially Arminius and the early Arminians, vying to control their lives, enforcing what they considered to be orthodoxy proper. The following is heavily edited from Pitassi's chapter, "Arminius Redivivus? The Arminian Influence in French Switzerland and at the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century." She writes the following.


Judging by the correspondence and official proceedings at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, one would think that Arminianism [which, anachronistically taken, has always been considered "nearly the universal view of the early Church fathers"1] was a dangerous gangrene infecting the body of the church in a number of Swiss cities. This assessment, not nearly shared by all, was made by ecclesiastical figures and authorities whose orthodoxy was beyond dispute. 

Thus the church at Bern [the de facto capital of Switzerland], which never passed up an opportunity to warn against the threats of divergent philosophies and theologies, had not ceased to denounce the rise of a heterodoxy that was either implicitly or explicitly Arminian in its orientation. In 1698, Bern turned on a handful of students from the Academy of Lausanne accused by the pastor of the German church in the city of propagating Arminian errors. ...

The different sources from which we can reconstruct the affair that would agitate the capital of Vaudi for a number of months give evidence of a climate where any sign of intellectual autonomy was taken as proof of Arminian error. Yet these sources also allow us to identify more clearly the contested theological points, and the targets at which the authorities were aiming. Not surprisingly, the touchstone on which the thought of each and every theologian was sounded concerned predestination [unconditional election], free will, original sin, grace, the satisfaction of Christ [i.e., the atonement] and good works.

When questioned, or later denounced, by their colleagues, the defendants adopted similar strategies, either denying the charge of heterodoxy altogether, or else admitting certain doctrinal deviations from which they claimed -- obviously -- to have come back and now forcefully denied. ... 

Even if the students appear to have expressed doubts on predestination rather easily, whether by beginning with the caveat that they were only novices in theology or else appealing to writers whose orthodoxy was beyond question ..., for the rest they were careful not to ruffle the feathers of their orthodox examiners. They at most admitted having had copies of Episcopius, Courcelles, Limborch or Le Clerc [Arminian, or rather, Remonstrant theologians] in hand, claiming that this was necessary given the state of controversy and that they only followed the example of their teachers in this. ...  

One who paid the price during these years of suspicion was Jean Frédéric Ostervald, pastor and theologian of Neuchâtel, who was a that time only at the beginning of a long career that would soon see him propelled to the front of the European ecclesiastical scene as one of the representatives of a Calvinism that sought rejuvenation in the fields of liturgy and pastorate. ...

Like many theologians of his generation, Ostervald was suspicious of any conception of theology as a system, and claimed the right to reread the Reformed tradition liberally and to distance himself from it wherever it had taken a wrong turn, such as in its overly negative view of human nature which in the end provided fodder for the libertines. The undeniable proximity of some of his positions to those of Arminianism was therefore less a matter of a support to the Arminian tradition than a change in attitude towards his orthodox heritage, which from that point on became subject of an unabashed critique which also redrew the polemical boundaries. ...

JACOB ARMINIUS (1559-1609) AND JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564)

Repeated accusations had been made during the Bernese inquest of 1698, when direct accusations were made on Geneva's role in spreading heterodoxy [i.e., Arminianism] among the Lausanne students, even stating that it came in the first place "from Geneva, where one produces these new opinions publicly without danger" ... and that the students from Lausanne who were at the Academy were "being spoiled by it." ... 

Several years later, when the moderated profile of Genevan Calvinism was clearly defined in spite of internal opposition, accusations would again arise, this time more precise in content and with a definite target. These surrounded Jean-Alphonse Turrettini [(1671-1737) son of François Turrettini (1623-1687), also known as Francis Turretin], and rightly so, one would be tempted to say, since he was without doubt the most significant figure of the Genevan church in the first half of the eighteenth century, the mainspring behind numerous reforms undertaken there, the respected and esteemed interlocutor of academics and political figures from all over Europe. 

[T]he evil which infected [Francis Turretin's son Jean-Alphonse], at least according to the prevailing opinion in Holland, was Arminianism for which he was said to have cultivated a secret but undeniable sympathy. However ... one could apparently be accused of Arminianism without actually expressing Arminian views, moderation [as opposed to zeal] in the defense of orthodox doctrines alone sufficing to arouse suspicion. ... 

[The] sources that fed the heterodox reputation of Turrettini and of the entire city of Geneva came partly from the city itself, stemming from Genevans who were unhappy with the new direction the changing tides [of a growing Arminian adoption] were effecting in their church. The question is therefore whether the pastors and theologians who accused Turrettini and Geneva of Arminianism did this only because they considered the slightest departure from a strict Calvinist credo definitive proof of Arminianism, or whether they had specific proofs to support their denunciations. 

If one goes by the criterion for the Bern investigation of 1698 ... one must admit that Arminian works did indeed circulate rather freely in Geneva. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, they regularly made their way into the library of the Academy, the majority brought, but some also given by individuals, such as the five works of Philip van Limborch and Jean Le Clerc that were given in 1702 by the pastors David Sartoris and Jean-Pierre Gallatin. More significantly, in 1711 the rector, who was no one other than Turrettini himself, sent a new copy of van Limborch's Theologia christiana, as well as Le Clerc's editions of Henry Hammond's Novum Testamentum and [Hugo] Grotius's De veritate religionis christianae, specifying that they were for the student's use. 

These events confirm the rumor reported by Ostervald that "in Zurich, Bern and in all of Switzerland, they are broadcasting that in Geneva they openly recommend to the theological students to read the Arminians ... and that Limborch and the New Testament of Mr. Le Clerc are their favorite works, and that they grant great freedom of opinion." Whether or not it was true that the students read and preferred these works, it is at any rate true that in Geneva they sold like hotcakes, and that people impatiently awaited their reprinting since the city bookstores had sold out.2        


1 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703. 

2 Maria-Cristina Pitassi, "Arminius Redivivus? The Arminian Influence in French Switzerland and at the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century," in Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe: Jacobus Arminius (1559/60-1609), eds. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin and Marijke Tolsma (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2010), 135-151.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.