Jerome Bolsec (1): The Primary Source Of Most Of Calvin’s Bad Press

The facts of the controversy are rather simple. Jerome Bolsec who was a Carmelite monk and doctor of theology in Paris, was drawn to the Reformation and so forced to leave France. By early 1551 he had settled in the canton of Geneva working as a physician. From early on he became a critic of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in a variety of ways and settings. The confrontation reached a new height, however, on October 16, 1551. One of the Genevan ministers at a regular Friday gathering for a sermon and discussion, preached on predestination. Bolsec seems to have believed that Calvin was out of town, but Calvin had returned early and had entered the meeting late, sitting in the back. In the discussion Bolsec rose to criticize Calvin and his doctrine of predestination very sharply. In answer to Bolsec, Calvin rose and gave a detailed, and according to his supporters, brilliant defense of predestination. The city magistrates arrested Bolsec and he was placed on trial by the city. To demonstrate the correctness of the Genevan doctrine and the unity of Swiss Protestants, the magistrates in Geneva sent a letter to get advice from Basel, Zurich and Bern. The responses were extremely disappointing to Calvin: the support of the doctrine of predestination was tepid at best and the counsel of the cities was to be lenient with Bolsec. The trial of Bolsec proceeded despite such advice, especially charging him with attacking the religious establishment of Geneva and bringing scurrilous charges against its doctrine. On December 23, 1551 he was banished permanently from Geneva. He eventually returned to the Roman Church and in 1577 wrote a vicious biography of Calvin which propagated many false stories about Calvin. Bolsec died in 1584. The letter of the city of Geneva seeking advice from other ministers of Switzerland provides a clear summary of the way the Calvinists in Geneva understood Bolsec’s position: “That worthless wretch rose up, and affirmed that the false and impious opinion, that the will of God is the cause of all things, took its rise during the present century from Laurentius Valla; but that in this he actedwrongly, for he charged God with the blame of all evils, and falsely imputed to him a tyrannical caprice, such as the ancient poets fancifully ascribed to their Jove. He then took up the second head, and affirmed that men are not saved because they have been elected, but that they are elected because they believe; that no one is condemned at the mere pleasure of God; that those only are condemned who deprive themselves of the election common to all. In dealing with this question, he inveighed against us with a great deal of violent abuse.” The Genevan ministers saw Bolsec as charging them with introducing theological novelties and with making God a tyrant and the author of sin. They also saw him as teaching that predestination was grounded in the actions of men rather than in the will of God. Read more»

W. Robert Godfrey | “Calvin, Bolsec, and the Reformation” (1) | 2001


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