Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Development of John Calvin's Doctrine of Infant Baptism in Reaction to the Anabaptists

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Development of John Calvin's Doctrine of Infant Baptism in Reaction to the Anabaptists

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article traces how encounters with the Anabaptists and their beliefs constantly forced John Calvin to expand and refine his doctrine of infant baptism. Calvin thought that the Anabaptist teaching cheapened grace, employed poor biblical hermeneutics, supported a false notion of the purpose of the church and even incited public lawlessness. The essay examines developments in Calvin's thought in historical context, including analysis in light of sixteenth century writings by the Anabaptists themselves. This article should be of value not only to students of Calvin's theology but also to historians of the Reformation and those interested in sacramentology and interdenominational discussions.

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In 1534, after an anonymous display of placards in Paris libeling the Catholic mass prompted King Francis I to outlaw "evangelicalism," John Calvin fled his native France for Basel. Theretofore Francis had shown mild sympathy for the Reformation cause. However, when the Affair of the Placards took place on October 18, 1534--in which placards libeling the Roman mass appeared throughout Paris and even in the king's own chambers--observes historian Alister McGrath, "Evangelicalism suddenly became perceived as a 'religion of rebels,' threatening to destabilize French society and endanger the status quo." (1) Calvin himself, for whom order was always a virtue, eschewed the methods of the Paris protesters as well, but he was already too closely associated with anti-Romanism to be sure of continued safety in his homeland. The Peasants' War in Germany was less than a decade past, and radical Anabaptists were violently attacking the establishments of Munster even as Calvin was looking for a stealthy exit from France. From the perspective of Francis, all Protestants--including everyone from Antoine Marcourt, the architect of the placards incident, to Lutherans to Calvin--were, like the German Anabaptists, a threat to political harmony. One might say fairly that Calvin spent the rest of his life trying to distance himself from this distasteful comparison, and he himself admitted as much in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. (2) Through the final edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1559 and until his death five years later, Calvin never ceased instituting "true religion" in opposition to what he, no less than Francis, thought to be Anabaptist extremism. Indeed, although Calvin certainly sought to defend infant baptism upon scriptural ground, the reason he did this so restrictively is that he was convinced that popular acceptance of the Anabaptist alternative would foment a volatile mix of false doctrine and attendant civil instability.

CALVIN'S PERSONAL ENCOUNTERS WITH ANABAPTISTS

It is well known that Calvin was detained in Geneva en route from Basel to Strasbourg by Guillaume Farel in August 1536. Farel threatened a divine curse upon Calvin if he would not help turn Geneva to the Reformed cause. Later that same year, a group of Dutch Anabaptists appeared in Geneva. To them, the Lutheran and Zwinglian reformations did not go far enough and were still too dependent upon secular government for support rather than the inaugurated Kingdom of God. On March 9, 1537, two Anabaptists, Herman de Gerbihan and Andry Benoit, challenged Calvin and Farel to a public debate. However, the Little Council, Geneva's ruling body, requested instead that the Dutchmen present their teachings in writing. Farel nonetheless arranged a debate shortly thereafter. Since Calvin could not attend it, Farel staged a second debate on March 29, and this time Calvin participated against the Anabaptists Jean Bomeromenus and Jean Stordeur. Stordeur was the first husband of Idelette de Bure, to whom Calvin himself would be married, after Stordeur's death, within three years. According to contemporary accounts of this second debate by Theodore Beza and Nicolas Colladon, Calvin was so effective that Anabaptism from then on would never be able to gain a foothold in Geneva. …

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