Why Did the Geneva Consistory Insist on Biblical Names at Baptism?

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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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19 comments

  1. Excellent points, Dr. Clark, and thanks for the historical context, one reason why we need historians! I lived in Germany for a time, and the various regional governments still have restrictions on naming children. Good points.

  2. I for one appreciate the historical and systematic theologian you are, and that your posts are much safer for consumption than many others who usually have more opinion than historical fact. It’s nice to have you give us the actual context of situations, which shed light on possible motivations, enabling us to understand things more clearly and circumspectly. I wish more theologians would contribute on a popular level to give us more sound resources on the blogosphere.

  3. Scott,

    Thanks for the helpful and gracious post. Your discussion fits with what I’ve read, and it makes a fair point in terms of at least understanding where Calvin and his consistory were coming from. You conclude: “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.”

    I agree.

    That said, I’m not prepared to let Calvin and the consistory entirely off the hook. The problem is that every consistory ruling on things like this seems important and right at the time, given the context, because of the dangers, etc, etc. But obviously the eating of meat offered to idols, or the participation in feast days, was extremely important in Paul’s day as well, and yet Paul takes a different approach. In that sense, the Pauline approach to liberty, even as applied to issues closely related to paganism, comes across quite different from Calvin’s approach.

    I fear that the same sorts of arguments could be and have been used in contemporary churches: alcohol may not be inherently wrong but given the massive problems it caused in American society in the 19th Century it is eminently understandable that many Christians wanted to prohibit it altogether. Voting Democrat may not be inherently wrong but given how aggressively pro-choice the Democratic party is why not discipline those church members who support it?

    In other words, an argument can always be made to make a particular consistory policy seem logical, but in the end you are still stuck with the fact that the consistory is disciplining people not on the basis of God’s word but on the basis of human reasoning. And that is my concern. It would have been one thing for Calvin and his consistory to urge people not to choose certain names; it was a whole other thing to make it a condition of membership in the church.

    • Hi Matt,

      From a historian’s pov it’s not a matter of “letting off the hook.” I take your point that consistories need to be judicious in what they expect but I think we need to be very careful about using Geneva as a whipping post or piñata on the way to making prescriptions.

      One point I neglected to make in the post is that it’s difficult for me to compare the 1st century with the 16th. In that sense our post-Christian culture is much more like the 1st century. Under Christendom, however, with 1000 years of precedent, the notion of allowing people to baptize their children with pagan or offensive names was bound to be seen as a regression. On a spiritual level it probably was a regression. It certainly would have been seen as licentious and would have been used by Romanist critics as evidence that the Reformation was just an excuse for immorality. One still hears variations on that theme.

      In the 1st century Greco-Roman world, we Christians were a powerless minority, we didn’t have the temptation of Christendom. To the best of my knowledge we didn’t ask converts to change names as part of baptism or catechesis. We did ask them to make a decisive break with paganism, however. Regression to paganism was probably a threat but it looked different against the predominantly pagan social background.

      I don’t have any problems with Christians arguing against alcohol consumption as a matter of wisdom. That doesn’t infringe on Christian liberty does it? Wouldn’t the analogy be churches attempting to regulate Christian liberty regarding the consumption of alcohol? We should all oppose that on the basis of divinely instituted Christian freedom.

  4. Sure, I understand the annoyance when Calvin and Geneva become the whipping boy. Obviously Calvin is the focus of my work, both historical and constructive, so I find far more to admire in him than to reject. But ethicists and political theologians can’t cede the whole of church history to historical theologians wanting to put everything in context. We have to do our job too 🙂

    Sometimes, even though we understand why someone did what they did, we come to the conclusion that it was wrong. I understand why many priests, monks, and peasants embraced various forms of medieval piety that were unbiblical; I understand that given their context, they really had no other choice; but I can still say they were wrong.

    • I want theologians and ethicists to be a little more patient, a little more understanding of everyone they use as examples. I disagree with a great deal of medieval theology and piety but I am become more sympathetic as I try to understand how they came to their conclusions.

      Asking 16th-century Genevans not to be Constantinian is like asking them not to breathe. Constantinianism was assumed. It’s hard to understand the nature and power of such assumptions in a late modern, liquid world where it’s common practice to question every assumption and to assume that everything is up for grabs but that wasn’t the reigning assumption then.

      The chaos created by the Anabaptist radicals, the nascent unitarians, the inchoate rationalism and the intellectuals fiddling with alchemy->science these were deeply disturbing and disordering potentials that frightened Calvin.

      They frightened him because he was born into a world that was, as far as he knew, divinely ordered and orderly. That God had endowed the magistrate with the authority to establish and enforce religious orthodoxy was a given. I understand how this could be taken for granted. I was born into a world where shops were closed on Sunday. Blue Laws were a matter of fact. If someone asked “why” the answer was that it had “always been this way.” The radicalism of the 60s was genuinely frightening. It never occurred to most people I know to “question authority.” If the clash of ideologies and epistemologies and basic assumptions was frightening in the 1960s how much more so in the 16th century?

      I know there were alternative views but they were not well known or associated with radicals of various sorts, who represented disorder and potential chaos. They weren’t credible to most folk, including the Genevan consistory.

      In short, given their genuine, historical options, the consistory did what it could do. The circumstances simply didn’t exist that would allow them to question the “givens” sufficiently until perhaps after the 30 years war.

      Thus, it’s one thing to disagree with our forebears, that’s our right. It’s another thing to criticize them a-historically as if they should or could have known then what we know now. This, as I always say, is like criticizing Thomas for not theorizing about jet propulsion. It’s amusing but it’s not historical.

      The theory of mechanical flight didn’t exist until the Renaissance (1480s) and even then it was revolutionary and it took hundreds of years for someone to actualize the theory of helicopters (decades after the Wright Brothers). Should we criticize all those who might have put the theory to test? What would be the point? We’re better served to be amazed at what DaVinci was able to see. He’s the exception that tests the rule.

  5. Scott, trust me I know all this. Nothing you are telling me is new to me. But at the same time, it’s not like everyone did what Calvin and his consistory did, and no one rejected it at the time. There were people to the right of Calvin and people to the left of him. To many people what Calvin did was unacceptably radical, breaking far too much with what people knew and assumed. For other people, Calvin didn’t go nearly far enough, and I know the sources well enough to know that these people were not just the radicals. The point is, it was not settled in Calvin’s day who were the radicals and who were not. Even Constantinianism was questioned, albeit briefly, by the likes of Luther, Calvin, and various civil officials who were by no means Anabaptists. These issues were very much in flux.

    But surely the appropriate response of a Reformed ethicist (or historical theologian) is not simply to assume that Calvin was right, and that all the people who disagreed with him, to the right or to the left, were wrong. It makes far more sense to ask ourselves, was Calvin meeting his own theological principles of church governance and church discipline? This is precisely the point in Calvin I have been studying at length lately. Calvin raises a very, very high bar for exercising ministerial authority in ways that bind the conscience. Excluding people from baptism is most certainly binding the conscience, and I think it is neither anachronistic nor inappropriate to agree with some of the people of Calvin’s own day in saying that what he did here was inappropriate.

    It’s one thing to put people and events in context. It’s another to give them a free pass when it comes to theological and ethical analysis, not even holding them up to their own articulated standards. Otherwise we’d have to give all contemporary American Evangelicals a free pass when it comes to their ‘QIRC’ and related tendencies … After all, they’re only doing what they know best, in good conscience.

    But I agree that we need to be sensitive to context when we do that (as I try to be), and not overly harsh. I’m happy to leave it at that, and I appreciate your thoughtful engagement. You are, after all, my beloved teacher in historical theology 🙂

  6. I remember a great line from a comedian in the 1990’s: “Do you realize that in the middle of the next century the nursing homes will be full of people named Heather and Bambi?”

    Perhaps the “Geneva rule” warrants a second look after all . . .

  7. I don’t have any problems with Christians arguing against alcohol consumption as a matter of wisdom. That doesn’t infringe on Christian liberty does it? Wouldn’t the analogy be churches attempting to regulate Christian liberty regarding the consumption of alcohol? We should all oppose that on the basis of divinely instituted Christian freedom.

    Scott, maybe. But substance use legalism is sort of a slam dunk amongst modern Reformed (some even wonder if arguments claiming to be from wisdom are covers for moralism). A harder analogy would be education. Consider the PRCs recent decision to regulate Christian liberty to partake of anything but denominational day schools for children of officers. Geneva may have had its reasons for opposing pagan names for Christian kids, but a pocket of Little Geneva has done the same with pagan schools.

    I appreciate your words here as an historian—being slow to reach across time and place and whip on another is wise advice (which may have some bearing on the slavery topic as well). But Matt also makes some good points about nevertheless applying Reformed principles in any time and place. The PRC and its decision involve our time and place. Should we be just as slow in calling them out on this one, or are we close enough in time and place to give less rope?

    • Zrim,

      If we use the test, “may been reasonably expected to know” I think we can sort out the differences. We’ve ha5 nearly 500 years to work out a Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty/freedom. That’s a long time. The Genevan consistory had just over a decade to figure out how to respond to the challenge they were facing. Historically considered, it’s apples and oranges.

      I would use the same test to work through the claim that one must send one’s children to the denominational school or who claims that we may only use the KJV or we must be theonomists or use 6/24 creation as a boundary marker. Those are all evidences of QIRC. People who argue such views, in the way that they are frequently argued, may be expected to know better. We’re not living in the midst of the Copernican revolution. We’ve had time to process. We don’t live under the Constantinian assumption (well, some of us don’t) and we’ve had time to process the death of Christendom. The Westminster Divines sorted out the abiding validity of the civil law in WCF 19.4 in the 1640s so it’s pretty bizarre to see people arguing for the its opposite as if it were Reformed doctrine. We’ve had common language translations since Wycliffe and a variety of translations of Scripture from the original since Tyndale so we’ve had time to sort out and reject the arguments made by the likes of the KJV only crowd. The same is true for alcohol. We had a brief moment under the fundamentalists and liberals were tee-totalling became the norm but that was an anomaly. Reformed had liberty to drink alcohol before and after them.

      As I tried to suggest some years ago re Christian ed, we’re still in the throes of trying to figure out how to adapt educationally to modernity (and late modernity) but we’ve enough history to know that insisting on a denominational school is a unduly narrow. We must distinguish between schooling before modernity and schooling after because the antithesis that exists in modernity did not exist (at least not in the same way) prior to modernity.

      In short, we can reject the solutions reached by our forebears (as I’ve done in RRC) but we can’t do so high-handedly, as if they could have been expected to know what was impossible for them to know. If we treat the past that way we set up the pre-conditions for ignoring it, for treating them as “unenlightened” ignorant pre-moderns. We may not intend that outcome but that’s what will happen.

  8. We all have our “blind spots,” indeed. In our church (a PCA congregation in the very deep South), we sing “Jesus Loves Me” after every infant baptism, accompanied by the pastor carrying the little one up and down the center aisle. An objective observer might conclude that this act has become so entwined with the sacrament itself that the two are inseparable. Is baptism now defined as Introduction – Scripture reference – Prayer – Sacramental act – Prayer – Collective singing of “Jesus Love Me?”

    I’m also reminded of a story Dr. John Gerstner used to tell. He was the visiting preacher at a church and was asked to baptize an infant. The congregation’s tradition was to give a white rose during the ceremony. When Dr. Gerstner inquired what the white rose represented, the answer was, “The purity of the child.” Dr. Gerstner replied by asking, “Then what does the water represent?” The response: Silence.

  9. (Frank, in our former CRC the new pastor practiced the same, what to call it, paedo-parading. I’d never been aware of such a practice before and had never heard of it again until now. Have you any idea the origin, etc.?)

  10. Zrim,

    I don’t know anything about the origin of this practice. My best guess is that it would be a comfortable fit with the experience-centered mass evangelism of another generation – which would be my generation, actually. I can’t imagine it arising in a congregation self-consciously committed to the regulative principle in worship. To many people in the pews, I’m sure it seems all warm and cuddly (translate “spiritual”).

  11. Actually I think I agree with the Genevan consistory to some extent.

    If the name given is to be a baptismal name, then to endorse pagan names as if they were Christian names in the sacrament of baptism is sacrilegious. This seems to be the setting of christening an infant at baptism. It does not seem to me that the consistory is refusing to baptize anyone with a pagan or sperstitious name, but rather they are refusing to endorse giving a pagan or superstitious name to an infant

  12. Dr Clark,

    Thanks for your excellent post. However, I have a related question: when did Reformed churches stop the practice of naming children in baptism? Or is this still something the Dutch do?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Good question. I don’t have an answer except to say that it was a universal Christian practice in the medieval and Reformation periods. I suspect it died out in the modern period but I can’t say when.

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