Matt Tuininga, a friend and former student, has an interesting post at Christian in America in which he tells about the conflict between the consistory and some of the people in Geneva over the question of how the people should name their children. He writes:
During Calvin’s time in Geneva probably the single greatest area of controversy between the consistory and the people of Geneva revolved around a seemingly very trivial issue: names. To summarize a longstanding Geneva controversy, Calvin and the other pastors (all of whom were French; not a single one was a native Genevan) launched a campaign to prohibit the people of the city from giving their children traditional or familial names associated with Catholic saints or pagan figures, requiring instead that all infants must be baptized with a Christian (biblical) name.
He notes quite briefly why the pastors in Geneva insisted on biblical names for Christian children but doesn’t dwell on it. He turns to the resentment it fostered:
Of course, many of the people, including some of the governing elites, refused to oblige. So when they brought their children for baptism they did so presenting them with names prohibited by the city government. The response of the pastors was, in the middle of the baptismal ceremony in front of the whole church, to choose a name themselves. Remember, at the time the baptismal ceremony and Christening was legally binding. Often this sort of clerical heavy-handedness led to public confrontation and repeatedly it provoked riots.
He goes on to note the inconsistency between Calvin’s practice and theory and the inconsistency of the consistory’s demands with the evidence from the NT. There is no evidence that those with pagan names were re-named in Baptism, even though that might have been useful in that setting. He also draws lessons about being heavy-handed about which danger churches should be careful. As always, you should read Matt’s essay for yourself.
I don’t disagree with his application or lesson. Consistories (church authorities) do need to restrict their canons (rules) to those taught explicitly or implied by God’s Word, i.e., they need to respect Christian freedom. This concern is certainly deeply rooted in the Reformation. One of Luther’s early and great works was on The Freedom of the Christian Man, on the unique and final authority of God’s Word (sola Scriptura).
Nevertheless, the historian (more than the Calvinist) in me wants to add some context. I think Matt is not as sympathetic to the consistory as he should have been. Matt is an ethicist/theologian. They have a way of ransacking the past in order to make a point. We historians, however, want to say, “Whoa Nellie.” Let’s consider more fully why the Genevan consistory would have been so stubborn. Was it, as Matt implies, about power and control? In our late modern period we are quite suspicious of the exercise of authority and are predisposed to suspect that the use of power is arbitrary and probably unjust.
As one, however, who has sat in consistory (elders and ministers) meetings for 25 years I have not often seen consistories go looking for a fight. Sure, it happens but most of the time consistories are more likely to shy away from conflict (some of it necessary) than to engage in it. So, we need to ask why the ministers and elders were so insistent about this?
The historic practice of the church, including Protestants, was to give a Christian name to a child in baptism. In some places one’s first name is still called the “Christian name.” Your last name, your family name, is the surname. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (Church Order) of 1541, after Calvin’s return from exile (1538–41), did not stipulate anything regarding baptismal names.1 It had instructions about recording the names of the children and parents and reporting illegitimate children to the civil authorities (sex outside of marriage was a civil crime in most places until very recently). Godparents are to be members of the church, so that they can be expected to instruct the child in the faith in the event of the (quite possible) death of the parents.
In the 1546 Ecclesiastical Ordinances for the rural congregations, however, there was a rule, under section on the administration of baptism that said:
As for the names given, the ordinances of Messieurs shall be observed, both for avoiding superstition and idolatry and for removing from the Church all that is foolish and unseemly.
There followed this regulations against baptism by midwives. Here we begin to get a more complete picture. For Calvin and the other pastors superstition, as reflected in the use of midwives or in the choice of inappropriate baptismal names, was a religious matter. Superstition was a form of paganism. The reason midwives administered baptism (which the ordinances say, “shall be held as null and void”) is because they viewed baptism as a kind of magic talisman. In other words, the pastors were opposing the introduction of paganism back into the quite recently Reformed church through popular practices. Remember that Geneva has only been Reformed a short time. They were surrounded by aggressive, hostile Romanism in France (Geneva is like a thumb poking into France).
The conflict to which Matt refers began in 1546 when, after three months of debate, the Council of Geneva issued the ordinance on baptismal names:
In the first place it is forbidden to give the names of idols which once prevailed in the land, because superstitions could again be aroused by them, and also because they would be a memorial to the idolatry from which it has pleased God to deliver the land—names such as Suaire (Shroud), Claude, Mama, and others and also names by which kings are called, both because it is an abuse and also because there has been false confidence in them.2
Likewise the names of offices because they belong only to those to whom the charge was entrusted and who were called of God—such as Baptiste, Ange, (Angel) Evangéliste, and other such names.
Likewise names belonging to God alone or to our Lord Jesus Christ—such as Dieu le Fils (Son of God), Espirit (Spirit), Emmanuel, Sauveur (Savior), Jésus.
Likewise inept names to which some absurdity attaches and which could lead to mockery—such as Touissaint (All Saints), Croix (the Cross), Dimanche (Sunday), Typhaine (Epiphany), Sepulchre (tomb), Pasques (Passover/Easter), Pentecoste, and also Chrétien (Christian), because it is common to all.
Likewise double names and others which are ill-sounding such as Gonin, Mermet, Sermet, Allemand.
Likewise corrupted names, such as Tyvan and Tyvette instead of Etienne (Stephen), and Monet instead of Simon.3
Though some of these restrictions might seem arbitrary to us late moderns, consider that many civil jurisdictions still have laws on the books governing the choice of names. Though we might assume that we late modern Americans have complete autonomy as to how we will name our children, we do not. In many places citizens are restricted from using punctuation as a name, ideograms, and profanity among other things.
We might be shocked to learn about such restrictions because we tend to assume that there is no connection between a name and the person named (nominalism). We don’t have any associations with Betty or Veronica such that only certain girls may have those names (although it would be unusual even today for a boy to have the name Betty or Veronica or a girl to have the name Archie). In sixteenth-century Geneva, however, there was a certain commitment to the notion that there is a connection between a name and the person named.
The types of names that were forbidden were loaded names. Even now one suspects that we nominalist late moderns would flinch a little bit if someone named his child “Almighty God.” Our first response would be, “Really? Do you think that’s appropriate?”
Well, in sixteenth-century Geneva, the names of saints and the Savior or items associated with religious devotion did have strong connotations. These were religious and political statements. These were mere idle choices. Thus, these restrictions were part of the broader program of imposing from above (by the magistrate and the church) Reformed theology and piety.
Even today, however, even without the power of the magistrate behind a it, I can easily imagine a consistory taking issue with a parent who wanted to give her child an outrageous name. I can easily imagine that consistory refusing the baptize the child if the parent was obstreperous. A refusal to listen to counsel may signal other, profound issues.
So what is the real difference between us and sixteenth-century Geneva? First, there is a difference of degree (both Geneva and we have civil restrictions on names). We would be prepared to grant more latitude to parents in the choice of names. Second, today the consistory does not have the authority of the magistrate behind it. Nevertheless, the differences are not as massive as they might have seemed at first glance.
We, however, are not in the same geo-politcal situation facing the Genevan consistory. We are not facing enormous pressure from powerful, influential old-money families who are resisting not just the pastors but the very idea of Reformation at all. Some were Romanist at heart and others were simply Libertines. They resisted limits per se. They were using the sacrament of baptism to make a point, to weaken the authority and influence of the Reformed pastors and, in the minds of the pastors, of Christ and his Word. For us, the Reformation is 500 years old. In Geneva it was only a few decades old and practice was still developing the situation was still fluid. Late in Calvin’s life he thought that the entire European Reformation might come to naught. In that perspective we might wonder that the consistory did not pass even more restrictive legislation.
Finally, if we read closely (and perhaps between the lines a bit) we can see real pastoral care for those who had recently come to the Protestant faith but who were tempted to go back to familiar, comforting folk religion (which is what much of Romanism was, the formalization of popular religious practices) and even to paganism. The upheavals of the sixteenth century brought good things but they also brought uncertainty and doubt in their wake. The Genevan pastors may have been overly strict but if we understand their circumstances and challenges and concerns we might be a little slower to judge them anachronistically by our late modern standards.
1. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966).
2. Claude was a reference to “St. Claude, a Bishop and patron of the former Abbey of St Claude, an attraction for Romanists making pilgrimages and such pilgrimages were associated with attempts to earn sanctity and merit before the Lord. “Mama” was a reference to the Blessed Virgin, an object of Romanist prayer and piety.
3. Hughes, Register, 71–72.