John Calvin and the Case for Refugees

The term refugee, especially Syrian refugee, has evolved to become a societal buzzword beyond the point of being easily defined by those who use it. The West’s fascination with the concept spans politics, religion, economics, and culture. In Britain, many observers claim the desire to control the flow of people to and from the island helped usher in Brexit- the unglamorous departure of the United Kingdom from the European project.[1] Across continental Europe, states are wondering how their societies might change with this new influx of residents: change is certain to accompany the inflow of 1 million refugees in Germany.[2] Turkey is using the issue as a bargaining chip with the rest of Europe, as it is oftentimes for refugees the membrane between chaos and safety.[3] And in the United States, so far the most unaffected—by far—of any Western nation, there is huge disagreement as to whether the country should be admitting refugees at all, as it has just started to run its small program in recent months.[4] But underneath all of these concerns and questions lies a more fundamental problem: how is a sovereign nation to treat the ‘other’ of its society? Will those (racially, ethnically, sexually, religiously) ‘unlike’ the perceived native population be treated as outsiders or as brothers and sisters? Will they be considered human beings, with inherent rights and dignity, or will they be treated as subhuman objects of pity? Will they be welcomed, tolerated, or shunned? On a personal level, what is the religiously oriented – especially Christian – citizen to think? Is there an obligation to care and plead for ‘the other’?

The abundance of these questions contain no simple or easy answers, for to reduce the problem that the world faces to accessible platitudes and persuasive tricks cheapens the struggles of those suffering, makes common ground more remote, and ultimately misrepresents reality. But we must start somewhere.

Enter John Calvin.

John Calvin is not an easily characterized man. He was at once a commanding theologian, a civic thought leader, a pastor, and some would say a founder of modern capitalism and liberal democracy.[5] But beyond being misunderstood, he is often simply despised. As Jonathan Sheehan, a history professor at Berkeley, writes in the New York Times, “nothing outrages [my students]…more than two or three pages of John Calvin.”[6] Much of this disgust and anger comes from how Calvin is understood at a basic level. Relegated to a section of European History that attributes to him the doctrine of predestination and not much else, he can be easily thought of as the harshest among the Protestant Reformers of the Sixteenth Century. Compared to other reformers like Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus (Erasmus was Catholic but for the sake of argument I am calling him a reformer in the informal sense) who preached and wrote about the freedom of the Christian and the personal nature of Christ’s sacrifice, Calvin, the story goes, was more concerned with letting people know just how despised they were by God. True, Calvin held to a view of humanity that had little room for inherent merit (or ‘goodness’, for those more disposed to John Locke’s thinking), but this is a far cry from a God who hates his creation. Calvin’s overall outlook toward the world was one that prized God’s glory and will and viewed the sovereignty of God as the highest reality. Writing in his most famous work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin says that:

We must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgment, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.[7]

In other words, God is the ultimate source and focus of the universe. To Calvin, such a truth is a good thing for humans and ought to serve as a comfort. Even so, much of God’s character is in a sense paradoxical. But it is necessarily paradoxical (and logically so), as Calvin argues, since God is the foundation of all things. In God there is both justice and mercy, love and anger, creation and destruction. Taking a step back, this description is the very essence of a deity, regardless of belief system. But the uniqueness of Christianity, says Calvin, is that this essence has profound and intimate implications for the existence of humans. More specifically, God intends humans to be intensely relational and exists with them on a personal level. This is what Calvin calls the ‘knowledge of God and of man.’[8] And this theory on the knowledge of God is where we find the beginnings of Calvin’s view of ‘the other’.

Calvin’s theology of salvation was no less ‘God-centric’. Offensive at first, Calvin taught that no human action could merit salvation (passing from earth to heaven). But Calvin’s ‘predestination’ is more appropriately a declaration that only the grace of God can save a sinner (which defined here is any human being).[9] And if there is nothing I can do to earn salvation, there is nothing I can say my neighbor did to lose salvation. In essence, Calvin’s theology creates a level playing field, where ‘judging’ others has no place. To Calvin, the poor prostitute looked the same in the eyes of God as the pious and wealthy judge. This does not negate the fact that Calvin was still a product and a citizen of Sixteenth-century Europe—and was thus affected by the era’s prejudices and biases as is any person of any time period. But the opportunity for the outcast in Geneva represented a fundamentally different way of viewing ‘the other’.

Calvin’s ideas about the knowledge of God, combined with his doctrine on salvation, heavily influenced what he viewed to be a chief duty of mankind, which is personified in the way that ran Geneva: as a haven for refugees, a center of justice, and a home for ‘the other’.

Calvin agreed to become the Pastor of the Protestant Church in Geneva, Switzerland in 1542 after a series of negotiations that set forth very specific rules as to how the magistrates (civil authorities) and ecclesiastical authorities could interact and what power they each had. The underlying principle governing his reworking of Geneva was a separation of church and state.[10] In other words, he mandated that the city government could not wield power over church practice or discipline and that likewise the church could not exercise governing authority over the magisterial authority. While separate, the church and city government still worked closely together in many ways (although still not nearly as closely as the Catholic Church did with cities at the time).[11] It was by utilizing this relationship that Calvin enacted his radical change. This change, where we will spend the rest of the paper, can be subdivided into the work of the Consistory (church) and the City’s social programs (magisterial). The Consistory dealt solely with Christians; it was the Church’s governing body made up of various pastors and lay people. Harsh on its surface, it was the branch of religion that dealt with discipline. For Calvin, the public living out of religion was just as important as the inward faith. Accordingly, the Consistory served to ‘push’ people back to God by admonishing them for living in sin. The visible nature of the church requires accountability, argued Calvin, on the part of those professing to believe.

The Consistory was that accountability. It brought people in front of it to testify in cases as small as gambling and usury (charging interest) to cases as large as rebellion and adultery. The punishment for engaging in these various activities was most often verbal reproof and admonition and ‘minor’ excommunication (which might involve revoking the Christian rite of Communion for one week). Fundamentally, the Consistory existed not to be punitive, but to be instructive.[12] A study of the cases with which the Consistory dealt over the decades of Calvin’s tenure as Pastor show a strong trend away from the more fundamental issues of adultery and blasphemy (profanity toward God) to the ones having more to do with encouraging harmony and love for neighbor, like condemning quarrels and mauvais mesnage (literally: bad husbandry; essentially the poor management of a household, i.e. domestic issues).[13] The trend shows that over time, the religious community that the Consistory served got better at caring for each other and getting along and participated less in the behavior that was thought to contribute to social strife, oppression, and disunity. A more striking trend, however, can be gleaned by an analysis of the gender composition of the Consistory’s cases. Given the fact that all of this occurred in the middle of the Sixteenth Century (a time not particularly known for its advancement of women’s rights), it would seem reasonable to observe a Consistory that was heavily biased toward men. Even a cursory look at history, however, paints a very different picture. Calvin’s Consistory was decidedly biased against men. Over the main course of its existence, 1542- 1609, punishment for men constituted 64% of its total activity. Furthermore, the mix of offenses was skewed toward more serious offenses for men (like blasphemy and adultery) and toward less serious offenses (like petty theft and dancing) for women. As one observer said, “the Consistory is the paradise of women…[the Consistory and the City] pursue men and protect women”.[14] The painting titled Calvin refuses communion to libertines sums up well his distaste for the Sixteenth Century male’s typical role in society. While not a perfect body, the Consistory ultimately brought about positive and unifying change in the Genevan churches and brought justice to those who had few rights in that day, most especially women. In this sense, the Consistory sought out the powerless within the church and gave them a voice.

Outside the churches, Calvin sought change in the ‘secular’ rules of Geneva. Since most people residing in Geneva at this time would have been Christians, this group primarily consisted of non-natives and passers-through, otherwise known as refugees. As part of his negotiations to become pastor, he required that the magistrates of the City care for the outsiders in the town much better than they had in the past. In his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which dealt with such social policy, Calvin said the following:

About the poor and disabled, widow, and orphan: “It would be good, not only for the poor of the hospital, but also for those of the city who cannot help themselves, that they have a doctor and a surgeon of their own who… [will] be required to have care of the hospital and to visit the other poor.”[15]

About the refugee: “Moreover, besides the hospital for those passing through which must be maintained, there should be some attention given to any recognized as worthy of special charity.”[16]

Central to Calvin’s social policy was an intense devotion to the less fortunate in society. However they may present themselves, whether as orphans or widows or refugees, Calvin believed that he had a solemn and God-given duty to care for them. Much of this comes from his ideas about common grace, which say that God has endowed all of humanity, not just the Christian church, with varying degrees of truth and goodness (“every man [has] within himself undoubted evidence of heavenly grace by which he lives, moves, and has being”[17]). But even more of this sense of duty came from his own humility and posture that he was no different from any other person. That is, he was an imperfect person facing a perfect God. Thus, he could confidently affirm the rights of others to be treated as though they were marked by God just as Calvin was. This selfless consideration and treatment of people different from his own kind again shows up in the Institutes:

The Lord enjoins us to do good to all without exception…in this way we attain to do what is not to say difficult, but altogether against nature, to love those that hate us, render good for evil, and blessing for cursing, remembering that we are not to reflect on the wickedness of men, but look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, should by its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them.[18]

If this is how we ought to treat those in opposition to us, how much more ought we love and care for those who cause no harm or danger (i.e. refugees)? Calvin asked this question and as a result transformed Geneva into an epicenter of refugees. According to the prescriptions for the care of the poor set above, Calvin used liberally the bourse Francais, or ‘French purse’ (publicly donated funds) to aggressively expand hospitals and healthcare in the city, especially for French refugees. Other funds were created for refugees from the numerous other countries that came to Geneva. The spending of these funds was expanded to include other types of assistance, not solely healthcare, to refugees. And refugees were not the only beneficiaries, as aid and provisions were also generously given to non-refugee orphans, widows, and strangers.[19]

Of course, none of this praise of Calvin is to neglect the less desirable aspects of his character or policies, as he certainly had many (as does virtually anyone who is at least to some extent formed by their time period). The focus, as I have sought to show, is that through a flawed an imperfect person, one finds a model of Christian care and charity that ought to have relevance even today. If such care and compassion could abound in the strict, pre-Enlightenment days of Calvin, how much more could it abound in the liberal democracies of today?

Calvin’s methods are a model to all people, non-Christian and Christian alike. But to the Christian they carry a particular weight. If Christians are to take the Gospel and its call to charity and love seriously, difficult questions need to be answered. As Calvin has shown, one need not give up on the nuances of theology to lovingly embrace the refugees of today. I would argue that, to the contrary, that same theology ought to compel the church to be the chief pleaders of refugees’ cause, regardless of what threat they may be purported to represent.

The modern analog, in my opinion, can be seen in Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. A daughter of a pastor and noted for being a level-headed yet compassionate leader of Germany, she has shown a sacrificial way forward, choosing last year to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. And while it has been a difficult way forward, with confidence in her plan and its effects waxing and waning and terrorism threatening to distract from the humanitarian mission, Germany has been able to serve as a beacon of light for over 1 million refugees.[20] This kind of sacrifice embodies how Calvin viewed the Christians’ role in the world, especially as it relates to the refugee.

None of this to say that prudence is not appropriate to maximize safety. I am not suggesting that any country ought to knowingly and lovingly welcome terrorists. But on a higher level, people (and especially Christians) must be willing to sacrifice the supreme Western ideal of comfort in order to serve society’s forgotten, downtrodden, and oppressed. It’s precisely this sacrifice that makes the action so difficult and at the same time so worthy of the undertaking.

Isaiah 1:7 commands God’s people, at the time the Jewish nation, to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause” (English Standard Version). This command still stands. For the believing Christian, Christ’s calls to love one’s neighbor and to love ‘the least of these’ ought to serve as much more than suggestions. They have real implications on both personal and political behavior. The topic of refugees should not be an exception. Christians have shown the ability to plead the outsider’s cause in the past. It’s now time to show that they can do it today.


1R. (n.d.). Refugee crisis ‘decisive’ for Brexit, will break EU apart – Austrian FM. Retrieved November 07, 2016, from
2 Noack, R. (2016, May 4). Germany welcomed more than 1 million refugees in 2015. Now, the country is searching for its soul. Retrieved November 07, 2016, from
3Turkey threatens to back away from refugee deal with EU. (2016, July 31). Retrieved November 07, 2016, from
4 Park, H., & Omri, R. (2016, August 31). U.S. Reaches goal of admitting 10, 000 Syrian refugees. Here’s where they went. U.S. Retrieved from
5 Reid, S. W. (1986, January 10). John Calvin: One of the fathers of modern democracy. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from
6 Sheehan, J. (2016, September 12). Teaching Calvin in California. The Opinion Pages. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes. com/2016/09/12/opinion/teaching-calvin-in-california.html
7Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1959). Book 1, Chapter 2. Institutes of the Christian religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company.
8 Ibid., Book 1
9 Ibid., Book 3, Chapter 2
10 Calvin. (2009, January 8). Calvin College. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from
11 Gordon, B. (2015). Late Medieval Christianity. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation. Oxford University Press.
12 Lim, P. (2016). Reformation History Lecture 21.
13 Lambert, T. A., McDonald, W. M., & Watt, I. M. (2000). The registers of the Consistory of Geneva at the time of Calvin Vol. 1:1542-1544. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
14 Lim, P. (2016). Reformation History Lecture 23.
15 Calvin, J. (1541). Ecclesiastical Ordinances.
16 Ibid.
17 Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1959). Book 1, Chapter 5. Institutes of the Christian religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company.
18 Ibid.,, Book 3, Chapter 7
19 Lim, P. (2016). Reformation History Lecture 22.
20 Two weeks in September: The makings of Merkel’s decision to accept refugees – SPIEGEL ONLINE. (2016, August 24). Retrieved November 7, 2016, from Spiegel Online,
21 Lim, P. (2016). Reformation History Lecture 22.

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