T. H. L. Parker on the Bolsec / Calvin Dispute

Jerome Bolsec was originally a monk and doctor of theology in Paris. But, being converted to the evangelical (Reformational) faith, he fled France and settled upon the practice of medicine as a livelihood. This eventually brought him to Geneva where, in October of 1551, he attended a meeting of the Congrégation, a regular meeting of the Genevan clergy held primarily for preaching practice. One of the ministers preached on John 8.47, and tied it into the doctrine of predestination (quite a stretch, actually). In the time given over for discussion after the sermon, Bolsec raised questions about this doctrine. Now, Calvin was detained on other business, and was not present for the sermon. However, he did slip in the back without being noticed in time to hear Bolsec criticizing this doctrine and the Genevan ministers. Calvin mounted an hour-long ex tempore defense of this doctrine (I wish I could have seen Bolsec’s face when he realized that Calvin was there!). At the close of the meeting Bolsec was arrested by the magistracy, not for denying predestination, but for some of his more radical rhetorical flourishes against the Genevan pastors who were, after all, government employees.

Now that you know the background, I give you a particularly interesting paragraph from T. H. L. Parker’s discussion of this incident in his book, John Calvin: A Biography (113-114).
This doctrine is open to many objections, and these objections have been made often enough; we shall shortly hear Bolsec making some of them. But these objections are elementary, such as would occur to any serious-minded person, and we must not imagine that a subtle and thorough theologian like Calvin would be unaware of them. He makes certain safeguards which he obviously regards as sufficient. Whether they are sufficient is another matter; but we should not think that we can dent Calvin’s armour with reeds. Bolsec at any rate was a poor theologian technically, and, it would seem, particularly weak on the history of doctrines; he even thought that Calvin’s doctrine originated with Valla in the fifteenth century. He had a few sound criticisms of Calvin, but he was making them from the wrong point of view and so nullifying their force. He asks Calvin whether there is in God any will other than that revealed to us in Scripture. He is willing to say that God has elected from among men whom he has pleased and that this election is in Jesus Christ, apart from whom none is acceptable to God. But against such unexceptionable statements he will make election dependent on faith, reprobation on the rejection of the Gospel. And so he enters the venerable objections to the doctrine: it is making God the author of evil; it is making God a tyrant; it is making man a puppet; it is making two ways of salvation, one by election the other by Christ. The truth of the matter is that Bolsec was one of those people who can feel that there is something wrong with this doctrine in its classic formulation and are forced to deny it for the wrong reasons. Augustine’s and Calvin’s doctrine, we may well think, was not good. But Bolsec’s denial of it was far worse. It would have led to a Pelagianized Church; and of all Churches the Pelagian is religiously and morally the weakest.
Disclaimer: As usualy, I do not necessarily agree with the content of this quotation. It just seemed to me to be particularly interesting if not almost off the cuff.


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