Calvin's Geneva as Catechetical Polis

An important part of implementing catechesis in the local church is finding ways that it can become part of the structure of the church's life. If catechesis becomes something particularized, siphoned off, or specialized, it too easily turns into just one more thing the church does. It becomes just another program.

I've thought about this recently in reading about John Calvin's work in developing catechesis in the city of Geneva during the mid-1500s. Of course, Calvin, like Luther, wrote catechisms–in fact, he wrote and re-wrote them a couple of times. In fact, his famous Institutes began more or less as a kind of catechism—following Luther's. And though it evolved a lot over the years between its first publication (1536) and the final edition we know today (1559), it retained its catechetical focus.

But beyond writing catechisms, Calvin also undertook many efforts in the city of Geneva after 1541 to turn the city into new site of learning—a catechetical polis. Primary and secondary schools were established, like the Collége de Rive, which taught from the catechism, among other texts. The city hosted public lectures on the Bible. Calvin gave regular lectures in the chapel near the main cathedral church, the Auditoire de Calvin. Calvin oversaw the establishment of congregation classes, which functioned as a form of adult Bible classes. And of course, the installment of the Genevan Academy, toward the end of Calvin’s life, would be one of the enduring legacies of Genevan reform. 

Two of the most important structural developments in Calvin’s Geneva were the implementation of the “consistory,” a semi-judicial ecclesial-political body that would gain the power to enforce church discipline, and the development of catechism classes.

In total, Calvin re-envisioned the city itself—its structures, governance, and organization—as the very means through which catechesis could be part of the governing framework of daily life.

Along these lines, Matthew Myer Boulton (Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology) has provided an interesting reevaluation of Calvin’s project, especially in terms of what it means to envision theology and catechesis in the life of a church laden with habit-forming practices to form mature Christians.

Boulton argues that Calvin’s understanding of doctrine is “properly conceived and articulated in the first place for the sake of Christian formation, particularly the immersive, embodied, restorative training that may take place, God willing, by way of the church’s disciplinary treasury” (4). 

He goes on to show how Calvin envisioned the entire city of Geneva as both against monasticism but also alongside monasticism as a proper inheritance of the early church. Calvin was critical of monastic institutions, not because of their way of life but because their way of life was exclusivist and elitist. Calvin agreed that people needed to live in accordance with a rule of life, a distinctive paideia. But this kind of life was for all, not just the monks.

“For Calvin, monastics are mistaken only insofar as they make elite, difficult, and rare what should be ordinary, accessible, and common in Christian communities: namely, whole human lives formed in and through the church’s distinctive repertoire of disciplines, from singing psalms to daily prayer to communing with Christ at the sacred supper” (15).

The church, not the monastery, would function as the central educating unity of the city. What would such a "catechetical polis" look like?

“Calvin argued that in Reformed Geneva, worship services should be frequent, and should include the Lord’s Supper at least weekly; prayer should be both continual and punctuated by a daily office and a weekly day of prayer on Wednesdays; psalm singing should be pervasive, in church, at home, and in the fields; catechesis should be rigorous and grounded in both the home and the Sunday services; moral and spiritual life should be accountable, ultimately overseen by the city’s consistory; and engagement with Scripture … should be the discipline that founds and forms all the others. Disciples should engage the Bible as often and as deeply as they can, Calvin advised, reading it, listening to others read it, and frequently attending to preachers expounding it, putting particular passages in context and applying them to everyday life” (43).

One of the things Calvin consistently thought about was the relation of theology and life, or what he frequently referred to as pietas. Pietas does not name what usually goes by the English word piety, but rather a deep fusion between proper affections for God—love, sincerity, reverence, and fear—along with knowledge of God and his saving benefits. In his 1537 Catechism, he wrote: “True piety consists in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences him as Lord, embraces his righteousness, and dreads offending him worse than death.” And in the Institutes he put it this way: “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”

That is to say, for Calvin, catechesis has for its aim an all-encompassing life with and in God.

Now, I’m not very much interested in re-duplicating Calvin’s model for city governance, or the more juridical and disciplinary measures with which he approached the enforcement of catechesis. Moreover, I think something is lost when we detach theology from its more speculative ends, which aims at contemplation and life in God. Theology is practical, to be sure, but not at the expense of contemplation.

However, I do think there is much to be gained from thinking about catechesis as more than just the catechism. Catechisms—the actual text or content of what is taught in catechesis—are tools, and a tool can be used in a multitude of settings. The key is to consider the right way to use the tool.

What kinds of settings are most appropriate to using a catechism? How does teaching the catechism fit within the “structures” of the church's life? How is it situated within a broader matrix of Christian formation, worship, and mission?

We may not (probably will not) answer these questions just like Calvin, but we cannot avoid such questions. What then can we learn?