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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 125. Calvin and Bolsec.


I. Actes du procès intenté par Calvin et les autres ministres de Genève à Jérôme Bolsec de Paris (1551). Printed from the Register of the Venerable Company and the Archives of Geneva, in Opera, VIII. 141–248.—Calvin: De aeterna Dei Praedestinatione, etc., usually called Consensus Genevensis (1552)—chiefly an extract from the respective sections of his Institutes; reprinted in Opera, VIII. 249–366. It is the second part of his answer to Pighius ("the dead dog," as he calls him), but occasioned by the process of Bolsec, whose name he ignores in contempt.—Calvin’s letter to Libertetus (Fabri of Neuchâtel), January, 1552, in Opera, XIV. 278 sq.—The Letters of the Swiss Churches on the Bolsec affair, reprinted in vol. VIII. 229 sqq.—Beza: Vita Calv. ad ann. 1551.

II. Hierosme Hermes Bolsec, docteur Médecin à Lyon: Histoire de la vie, moeurs, actes, doctrine, constance et mort de Jean Calvin, jadis ministre de Genève, Lyon, 1577; Rééditée avec une introduction, des extraits de la vie de Th. de Bèze, par le même, et des notes à l’appuipar M. Louis-François Chastel, magistrat. Lyon, 1875 (xxxi and 328). On the character and different editions of this book, see La France Protest., II. 755 sqq.

III. Bayle: "Bolsec" in his "Diction. historique et critique."—F. Trechsel: Die Protest. Antitrinitarier (Heidelberg, 1844). Bd. I. 185–189 and 276–284.—Henry, III. 44 sqq., and the second Beilage to vol. III., which gives the documents (namely, the charges of the ministers of Geneva, Bolsec’s defence, his poem written in prison, the judgments of the Churches of Bern and Zürich—all of which are omitted in the English version, II. 130 sqq.).—Audin (favorable to Bolsec), ch. XXXIX.—Dyer, 265–283.—*Schweizer: Centraldogmen, I. 205–238.—Stähelin, I. 411–414; II. 287–292.—*La France Prot., sub, Bolsec," tom. II. 745–776 (second ed.). Against this article: Lettre d’un protestant Genevois aux lecteurs de la France Protestante, Genève, 1880. In defence of that article, Henri L. Bordier: L’école historique de Jérôme Bolsec, pour servir de supplement à l’article Bolsec de la France Protestante, Paris (Fischbacher), 1880.


Hieronymus (Hierosme) Hermes Bolsec, a native of Paris, was a Carmelite monk, but left the Roman Church, about 1545, and fled for protection to the Duchess of Ferrara, who admitted him to her house under the title of an almoner. There he married, and adopted the medical profession as a means of livelihood. Ever afterwards he called himself "Doctor of Medicine." He made himself odious by his turbulent character and conduct, and was expelled by the Duchess for some deception (as Beza reports).

In 1550 he settled at Geneva with his wife and a servant, and practised his profession. But he meddled in theology, and began to question Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. He denounced Calvin’s God as a hypocrite and liar, as a patron of criminals, and as worse than Satan. He was admonished, March 8, 1551, by the Venerable Company, and privately instructed by Calvin in that mystery, but without success. On a second offence he was summoned before the Consistory, and openly reprehended in the presence of fifteen ministers and other competent persons. He acknowledged that a certain number were elected by God to salvation, but he denied predestination to destruction; and, on closer examination, he extended election to all mankind, maintaining that grace efficacious to salvation is equally offered to all, and that the cause, why some receive and others reject it, lies in the free-will, with which all men were endowed. At the same time he abhorred the name of merits. This, in the eyes of Calvin, was a logical contradiction and an absurdity; for, he says, "if some were elected, it surely follows that others are not elected and left to perish. Unless we confess that those who come to Christ are drawn by the Father through the peculiar operation of the Holy Spirit on the elect, it follows either that all must be promiscuously elected, or that the cause of election lies in each man’s merit."

On the 16th of October, 1551, Bolsec attended the religious conference, which was held every Friday at St. Peter’s. John de St. André preached from John 8:47 on predestination, and inferred from the text that those who are not of God, oppose him to the last, because God grants the grace of obedience only to the elect. Bolsec suddenly interrupted the speaker, and argued that men are not saved because they are elected, but that they are elected because they have faith. He denounced, as false and godless, the notion that God decides the fate of man before his birth, consigning some to sin and punishment, others to virtue and eternal happiness. He loaded the clergy with abuse, and warned the congregation not to be led astray.

After he had finished this harangue, Calvin, who had entered the church unobserved, stepped up to him and so overwhelmed him, as Beza says, with arguments and with quotations from Scripture and Augustin, that "all felt exceedingly ashamed for the brazen-faced monk, except the monk himself." Farel also, who happened to be present, addressed the assembly. The lieutenant of police apprehended Bolsec for abusing the ministers and disturbing the public peace.

On the same afternoon the ministers drew up seventeen articles against Bolsec and presented them to the Council, with the request to call him to account. Bolsec, in his turn, proposed several questions to Calvin and asked a categorical answer (October 25). He asserted that Melanchthon, Bullinger, and Brenz shared his opinion.

The Consistory asked the Council to consult the Swiss Churches before passing judgment. Accordingly, the Council sent a list of Bolsec’s errors to Zürich, Bern, and Basel. They were five, as follows: —

1. That faith depends not on election, but election on faith.

2. That it is an insult to God to say that he abandons some to blindness, because it is his pleasure to do so.

3. That God leads to himself all rational creatures, and abandons only those who have often resisted him.

4. That God’s grace is universal, and some are not more predestinated to salvation than others.

5. That when St. Paul says (Eph. 1:5), that God has elected us through Christ, he does not mean election to salvation, but election to discipleship and apostleship.

At the same time Calvin and his colleagues addressed a circular letter to the Swiss Churches, which speaks in offensive and contemptuous terms of Bolsec, and charges him with cheating, deception, and impudence. Beza also wrote from Lausanne to Bullinger.

The replies of the Swiss Churches were very unsatisfactory to Calvin, although the verdict was, on the whole, in his favor. They reveal the difference between the German and the French Swiss on the subject of divine decrees and free-will. They assent to the doctrine of free election to salvation, but evade the impenetrable mystery of absolute and eternal reprobation, which was the most material point in the controversy.

The ministers of Zürich defended Zwingli against Bolsec’s charge, that in his work on Providence he made God the author of sin, and they referred to other works in which Zwingli traced sin to the corruption of the human will. Bullinger, in a private letter to Calvin, impressed upon him the necessity of moderation and mildness. "Believe me," he said, "many are displeased with what you say in your Institutes about predestination, and draw the same conclusions from it as Bolsec has drawn from Zwingli’s book on Providence." This affair caused a temporary alienation between Calvin and Bullinger. It was not till ten years afterwards that Bullinger decidedly embraced the Calvinistic dogma, and even then he laid no stress on reprobation.894894    On Bullinger’s views see above, pp. 210 sq., and Schweizer, I. 225, 255 sqq.

Myconius, in the name of the Church of Basel, answered evasively, and dwelt on what Calvin and Bolsec believed in common.

The reply of the ministers of Bern anticipates the modern spirit of toleration. They applaud the zeal for truth and unity, but emphasize the equally important duty of charity and forbearance. The good Shepherd, they say, cares for the sheep that has gone astray. It is much easier to win a man back by gentleness than to compel him by severity. As to the awful mystery of divine predestination, they remind Calvin of the perplexity felt by many good men who cling to the Scripture texts of God’s universal grace and goodness.

The effect of these letters was a milder judgment on Bolsec. He was banished for life from the territory of Geneva for exciting sedition and for Pelagianism, under pain of being whipped if he should ever return. The judgment was announced Dec. 23, 1551, with the sound of the trumpet.895895    Beza: "Senatus ... illum tum ut seditiosum, tum ut mere Pelagianum XXIII. Dec. publice damnatum urbe expulit, fustuariam poenam minatus, si vel in urbe vel in urbis territorio esset deprehensus." Reg. of the Ven. Comp. in Annal. 498: "MeIerosme fut banni àson de trompe des terres de Genève."

Bolsec retired to Thonon, in Bern, but as he created new disturbances he was banished (1555). He left for France, and sought admission into the ministry of the Reformed Church, but returned at last to the Roman communion.896896    According to Beza, Bolsec forsook his wife and allowed her to become a prostitute to the canons of Autun. He was classed by the national synod of Lyon among deposed ministers, and characterized as "an infamous liar" and "Apostate" (1563). He lived near Lyon and at Autun, and died at Annecy about 1584. Thirteen years after Calvin’s death he took mean and cowardly revenge by the publication of a libellous "Life of Calvin," which injured him much more than Calvin; and this was followed by a slanderous "Life of Beza," 1582. These books would long since have been forgotten, had not partisan zeal kept them alive.897897    Bayle said in his day: "Bolsec seroit un homme tout-à-fait plongédans les ténèbres de l’oubli, s’il ne s’était rendu fameux par certains ouvrages satiriques [meaning his attacks on Calvin and Beza], que les moines et les missionnaires citent encore." In recent times Galiffe and Audin have come up to the defence of Bolsec, but have been refuted by Henri L. Bordier in La France Protestante, II. 766 sqq., and in L’ecole historique de Jérôme Bolsec, Paris, 1880. Schweizer (I. 207) calls those libels "ersonnene Verleumdungen, wie rechtschaffene Katholiken laengst zugeben, anderen aber gut genug zum Wiederabdrucken."

The dispute with Bolsec occasioned Calvin’s tract, "On the Eternal Predestination of God," which he dedicated to the Syndics and Council of Geneva, under the name of Consensus Genevensis, or Agreement of the Genevese Pastors, Jan. 1, 1552. But it was not approved by the other Swiss Churches.

Beza remarks of the result of this controversy: "All that Satan gained by these discussions was, that this article of the Christian religion, which was formerly most obscure, became clear and transparent to all not disposed to be contentious."

The quarrel with Bolsec caused the dissolution of the friendship between Calvin and Jacques de Bourgogne, Sieur de Falais et Bredam, a descendant of the dukes of Burgundy, who with his wife, Jolunde de Brederode, a descendant of the old counts of Holland, settled in Geneva, 1548, and lived for some time in Calvin’s house at his invitation, when the wife of the latter was still living. His cook, Nicolas, served Calvin as clerk. Calvin took the greatest interest in De Falais, comforted him over the confiscation of his goods by Charles V., at whose court he had been educated, and wrote a defence for him against the calumnies before the emperor.898898    Apologia illustris D. Jacobi a Burgundia Fallesii Bredanique domini, qua apud Imperatoriam Majestatem inustas sibi criminationes diluit fideique suae confessionem edit. In Opera, X. Pt. I. 269-294. He also dedicated to him his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. His friendly correspondence from 1543 to 1852 is still extant, and does great credit to him.899899    It was published at Amsterdam in a separate volume, 1774, and is reprinted in the Opera and in the collection of Bonnet. Comp. on Calvin’s friendship with De Falais, Henry, III. 64-69; Stähelin, II. 293-302. But De Falais could not penetrate the mysteries of theology, nor sympathize with the severity of discipline in Geneva. He was shocked at the treatment of Bolsec; he felt indebted to him as a physician who had cured one of his maid-servants of a cancer. He interceded for him with the magistrates of Geneva and of Bern. He wrote to Bullinger: "Not without tears am I forced to see and hear this tragedy of Calvin." He begged him to unite with Calvin for the restoration of peace in the Church.

He left Geneva after the banishment of Bolsec and moved to Bern, where he lost his wife (1557) and married again. Bayle asserts, without authority, that in disgust at the Protestant dissensions he returned to the Roman Church.900900    Bolsec, in his life of Calvin, invented, among other slanders, the story that the real cause of De Falais’ leaving Geneva was an attempt of Calvin on the chastity of his wife!

Even Melanchthon was displeased with Calvin’s conduct in this unfortunate affair; but the alienation was only superficial and temporary. Judging from the imperfect information of Laelius Socinus, he was disposed to censure the Genevese for an excess of zeal in behalf of the "Stoic doctrine of necessity," as he called it, while he applauded the Zürichers for greater moderation. He expressed himself to this effect in private letters.901901    He wrote to Caspar Peucer, his son-in-law, Feb. 1, 1552: "Lelius mihi scribit, tanta esse Genevae certamina de Stoica necessitate, ut carceri inclusus sit quidam [Bolsec] a Zenone [Calvino] dissentiens. O rem miseram! Doctrina salutaris obscuratur peregrinis disputationibus." Mel.’s Opera (Corp. Ref.), vol. VII. 932. To his friend Camerarius he wrote, under the same date, Feb. 1, 1552 (VII. 930): "Hic Polonus a Lelio accepit literas .... Ac vide seculi furores, certamina Allobrogica [Genevensia] de Stoica necessitate tanta sunt, ut carceri inclusus sit quidam, qui a Zenone dissentit. Lelius narrat, se κορυφαίῳcuidam [Calvino] scripsisse, ne tam vehementer pugnet. Et mitiores sunt Tigurini." Socinus appealed to the judgment of Melanchthon in a letter to Calvin, and Calvin, in his reply, could not entirely deny it. Yet, upon the whole, Melanchthon, like Bullinger, was more on the side of Calvin, and in the more important affair of Servetus, both unequivocally justified his conduct, which is now generally condemned by Protestants.



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