Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 4

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin’s Friendship with William Farel
The two closest friendships that Calvin developed during his first stay in Geneva were with Pierre Viret and William Farel who had been laboring alongside one another in the Genevan reform. Calvin joined them in 1536, and the three men quickly became so close that people in town nicknamed them “the tripod” and “the three patriarchs.” Calvin dedicated his commentary on Titus to them, and after comparing their work together in Geneva to St. Paul’s work in Crete, he says this:
“I do not believe that there have ever been such friends who have lived together in such a deep friendship in their everyday style of life in this world as we have in our ministry. I have served here in the office of pastor with you two, and there was never between us any appearance of envy. It seems to me that you two and I were as one person.”
Interestingly, all three men were quite different in temperament. Whereas Farel was fiery and tenacious and ornery, Viret was calm, self-deprecating, and apparently had a wonderful sense of humor. In fact, it’s sometimes pointed out that one helpful way of understanding Calvin is to recognize that throughout his life he tried to blend Farel’s prophetic zeal with Viret’s moderation, albeit with varying degrees of success.

As it turns out, it was Viret whom Calvin referred to as his “greatest friend of all.” But Farel’s name is probably more familiar to most people primarily because of the fireworks that accompanied his first meeting with Calvin.

When Calvin was forced to leave Paris in January of 1535 – in part because of his connection to another friend, Nicholas Cop – he fled to Basel, where he finished the first edition of the Institutes. It became an instant bestseller. Calvin’s plan was to help spread the evangelical message as an independent scholar, and so he resolved to settle into a leisurely life of study and writing in evangelical Strasbourg. But as he was on his way there, he was forced to take a detour through Geneva.

When Farel heard that Calvin was in town, he seized the moment, and invited him to stay and help with the reform. Calvin politely declined his offer, and where most people would have accepted the decision with resignation, Farel decided to bring out the heavy artillery. The best description of what happened next was written by Calvin himself. As you listen to this, take a look at the monument to Farel in Neuchatel, which makes Calvin’s recollection of the episode all the more believable.
“Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing with his attempts to persuade me, he prayed that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance when the need was so urgent. By this denunciation, I was so stricken with terror that I desisted from the journey I had undertaken [and agreed to remain in Geneva].”
So for the next two years, Calvin and Farel were inseparable partners in the cause of the Reformation. When Calvin was invited back to Geneva in 1541, he nearly declined the invitation – in part because Farel hadn’t also been asked back. But Farel encouraged him to go, and he eventually did. Farel was later called to serve as pastor in Neuchatel, and even though they no longer worked side by side, he and Calvin remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Of all the things one could say about their friendship, to me the most striking is the way they were able to relate to one another with an unusual mix of both perfect frankness and indestructible commitment. To take just one example, Calvin often spoke to Farel about the fact that his writings were too verbose and his sermons too long. And as gossip about this continued to emanate out of Neuchatel, Calvin decided to confront his friend about it in a letter written in January of 1552:
“From my standpoint there is one thing that I want to caution you about: I understand that because of the length of your sermons there are many complaints. You have often confessed to me that you know this is a fault that that you would like to correct it. Therefore, I ask that you prevent these complaints from growing into seditious clamor, and I beg you to make a serious effort to restrain yourself rather than giving Satan the chance that we see him looking for.”
“I beg you to make a serious attempt to restrain yourself.” How can you not love that?! In one short sentence, Calvin expresses what so many parishioners instinctively know, but are too polite to say – that most sermons would be twice as good if they were half as long. And to portray his verbosity as essentially Satanic – well, that’s wonderful! Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out if Farel actually succeeded in becoming less prolix; somehow I doubt it.

As another example of their openness, consider this. After they had been expelled from Geneva, Calvin returned for a time to Basel. In the meantime, Farel had been invited to become a pastor in Neuchatel, and Calvin considered joining him there. But Martin Bucer thought that would be a bad idea. In his opinion, the two men didn’t always bring out the best in one another. Or, more precisely, he didn’t think Farel always brought out the best in Calvin. And so Bucer was worried that if Calvin went to Neuchatel, Farel’s fire-eating instincts would rub off on him and keep him from being as effective as he otherwise could be.

So Bucer spelled out all of this in a letter to Calvin. And I’m sure you can probably guess what Calvin did with the letter. He showed it to Farel – who you know must have been injured by it – and they proceeded to discuss the merits of Bucer’s argument. As it turns out, they must have realized that Bucer was making a good point because Calvin didn’t end up moving to Neuchatel. I mention this little episode because here you have two people, each very passionate in his own way, openly addressing a painful criticism, and rather than simply being offended by it, they were mature enough to acknowledge its basic truth. That’s impressive.

By far the most controversial and salacious episode in their relationship came when Farel decided to get married. For the first sixty-plus years of his life Farel was celibate, and at sixty-four he became gravely ill. Everyone thought he was going to die. Calvin even traveled from Geneva to Neuchatel to spend several days at his bedside. But while he was there, Calvin became so overwhelmed with emotion that he started to worry that he wouldn’t be able to hold himself together when his friend died. So just before Farel’s last hour, Calvin decided to say goodbye to him and return to Geneva.

But at the very moment that Calvin was telling people that his dear friend was dead, to his surprise, and everyone else’s, Farel recovered. And apparently he recovered with renewed gusto because five years later he revealed to Calvin that he had fallen in love with a refugee in Neuchatel, whom he planned to marry. Seems sweet enough, right? But there was a hitch. At the time of their engagement, Farel was 69 . . . and the girl he planned to marry was only 17!

And so Calvin responded to this in the same way that you and I probably would have. He told Farel that it was a terrible idea – not just because it’s gross, but especially because it would give enemies of the Reformation ammunition to ridicule the whole movement. So Calvin refused to participate in the wedding.

Now if you read up on this, you’ll occasionally hear that this led Calvin to break off his friendship with Farel. But that’s exactly wrong. In fact, Calvin did just the opposite; he lobbied the pastors of Neuchatel on Farel’s behalf to try to dissuade them from opposing the wedding. Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to them:
“I will not stop requesting you to remember how Farel worked for 36 long years or more to serve God and to build up the church – how successful his labors have been – with what zeal he worked – and even the blessings which you have received from him. This should persuade you to have some humaneness – not that you should approve of anything bad, but that you should not treat him so harshly . . . and that the poor brother should not be damaged by sadness and gloom.”
So through thick and thin, Calvin and Farel remained the closest of partners. And considering the role that Farel played in bringing Calvin to Geneva, their friendship also happens to be one of the more historically important of the whole Reformation.


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