By Dr. Ken Woo
MK: This post is from Dr. Ken Woo. Ken is a Calvin scholar who teaches history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Ken is an ordained minister, affiliated with the RCA. He and his family attend City Reformed. I had the privilege of talking with Ken about the influence of Calvin’s refugee experience on his own writing. Ken was gracious to write this post as a contribution to the blog. During this final week we are considering how we may be called to respond to things discussed in this blog. In this post, Ken draws from the experience of John Calvin to show that his refugee experience produced deep theological reflections. This is something that we should all seek to emulate.
“Earnest believers don’t always get what they want, but rather experience all kinds of pain because they left their country. Let such people be consoled with a single thought: 'Nevertheless, we are still in the house of God.'"
Readers of this blog might be surprised to learn that these words of comfort for immigrants and refugees, so timely in our present context, were spoken nearly five hundred years ago by none other than John Calvin (1509-1564). In this 1549 sermon on Psalm 27, the Genevan reformer held forth the importance of gathering to receive spiritual provision available only through the church’s ministry of preaching and sacraments, even if this means leaving places where such worship according to God’s design is not possible. Evangelicals across Europe made this choice, fleeing harassment and even the threat of death for their faith commitments. Many sought refuge in Calvin’s Geneva. Some came with their families. Others left family behind, along with property, livelihood, and social standing. A good number came from Calvin’s native France. These included the wealthy, who quickly transformed Geneva’s social elite. A significant group also came in poverty, representing a different kind of burden for their new city. Calvin’s congregation was mixed, comprised of native Genevans and an expanding throng of outsiders whose presence was not always welcome. He addressed Christians experiencing a sense of loss and displacement as the result of persecution, as well as those whose lives had been disrupted by the mass influx of foreigners. Nobody felt at home. As their pastor, Calvin offered this shared consolation: Our true belonging is with Christ, who nurtures us during our lifelong pilgrimage through a world in which we reside as perpetual strangers and aliens. Gathering as a community of sojourners, the church in worship enters the “house of God” in exile, a foretaste of home for weary pilgrims.
Calvin’s message was personal. He lived most of his adult life as a religious refugee, having left France for good in 1536 after embracing the Protestant faith considered heresy in his Catholic homeland. The Frenchman’s tenure in Geneva was an uneasy relationship for both. City officials banished him for three years over differences regarding church discipline and sacraments. Calvin clashed frequently with powerful members of the city’s native families who did not appreciate his reforms. That many of Geneva’s pastors were exiles from France did not assuage tensions. Calvin and his colleagues epitomized how foreigners were threatening old ways of life. Though he would gain increasing acceptance and influence over nearly three decades, one wonders if Calvin ever truly felt at home in a city that did not award him citizenship until 1559, just five years before his death. The reformer pastored immigrants and refugees as a fellow exile.
The Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman has suggested that Calvin’s theology was influenced by his situation as a religious refugee writing for refugee communities across Europe shaped by persecution and flight. Read in light of this context, Calvin’s familiar reflections on topics such as divine providence and election, the church, and the Lord’s Supper exhibit dimensions easily overlooked. To pilgrims who often feel only the sting of displacement, the reformer supplies a robust account of the Christian’s lasting home. Word and sacrament are manna in the wilderness, extended to the spiritually hungry through the church’s ministry. In such means of grace, God “has ordained a way for us, though still far off, to come near to him” (Calvin, Institutes, I.4.1). Regardless of their present circumstances, the gospel invites believers into a deeper sense of belonging and hope in union with Christ: “Nevertheless, we are still in the house of God.”
2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, widely associated with the beginning of the Reformation. As the church considers the complexities of welcoming immigrants, refugees, and political exiles today, Calvin could become a valuable conversation partner from another era rife with religious violence and mass migration. Oberman observes, “The fast-food of the neo-Calvinist Geneva-burger could not have met the needs of Calvin’s contemporaries and fellow-trekkers nor could it have provided the power for Calvin’s movement to survive to our own day” (John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees, 2009). Have we risked a distorted view of Calvin’s theology detached from the realities that informed it? Reading Calvin with his original context in mind may open connections between his situation and ours that are both surprising and fruitful. Good places to begin include the following resources.