Jean Balard of Geneva

In Calvin’s Geneva, E. William Monter gives Balard’s dates as circa 1488 to 1555. He lived in the Lower City of Geneva near the Eastern gate. (Note here are what look like confirming documents for Monter, but I don’t read French.)

Balard was a merchant specializing in ironware, according to Monter, but he was also part of the city government for several years.

He had been active in civic councils since 1515, participating in 40 of 149 sessions over the next decade. He was suddenly raised to prominence in 1525 as one of Geneva’s four Syndics or chief magistrates,; the portion of his diary that has survived begins in that year (pp. 9-10)

According to D’Aubigne, during an early military crisis, Balard was against Reform.

Balard proposed another remedy: ‘Let mass be publicly celebrated once more,’ he said; ‘the mass is an expiation that will render God propitious to us.’ — ‘The mass is not worth a straw,’ exclaimed a huguenot. — ‘If it is so,’ retorted a catholic, ‘the death and passion of Jesus Christ are good for nothing.’ At these words the assembly became greatly excited. ‘Blasphemy!’ exclaimed some. ‘Balard has spoken blasphemy! He is a heretic. All who maintain the sacrifice of the host nullify the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.’ The council put an end to the discussion by resolving ‘that the priests should prove that the preachers spoke falsely, or else that they should go to the sermons and convince themselves that the ministers spoke the truth.’

According to Philip Schaff, Calvin “was appointed, together with the Syndics Roset, Porral, and Balard, to draw up a new code of laws, as early as Nov. 1, 1541.”

Schaff elaborates:

We have seen that in his first interview with the Syndics and Council after his return, Sept. 13, 1541, he insisted on the introduction of an ecclesiastical constitution and discipline in accordance with the Word of God and the primitive Church.685 The Council complied with his wishes, and intrusted the work to the five pastors (Calvin, Viret, Jacques Bernard, Henry de la Mare, and Aym‚ Champereau) and six councillors (decided Guillermins), to whom was added Jean Balard as advisory member. The document was prepared under his directing influence, submitted to the Councils, slightly altered, and solemnly ratified by a general assembly of citizens (the Conseil g‚n‚ral), Jan. 2, 1542, as the fundamental church law of the Republic of Geneva.686 Its essential features have passed into the constitution and discipline of most of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches of Europe and America. The official text of the “Ordinances “is preserved in the Registers of the Venerable Company, and opens with the following introduction: – “In the name of God Almighty, we, the Syndics, Small and Great Councils with our people assembled at the sound of the trumpet and the great clock, according to our ancient customs, have considered that the matter above all others worthy of recommendation is to preserve the doctrine of the holy gospel of our Lord in its purity, to protect the Christian Church, to instruct faithfully the youth, and to provide a hospital for the proper support of the poor,-all of which cannot be done without a definite order and rule of life, from which every estate may learn the duty of its office. For this reason we have deemed it wise to reduce the spiritual government, such as our Lord has shown us and instituted by his Word, to a good form to be introduced and observed among us. Therefore we have ordered and established to follow and to guard in our city and territory the following ecclesiastical polity, taken from the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (boldface added)

And some more from D’Aubigne:

They wanted Balard to go to sermon, but he did not; they wanted him to leave the city, but he remained; they wanted him to close his warehouse (he was a large ironmonger), and it was no sooner shut than he reopened it. fo163 He continued to be a member of the Council and discharged all its functions. Girardet de la Rive took his child a league from the city to have it christened by a priest; and yet he was re-elected syndic in 1539 and 1543, and in Calvin’s time, in 1547, was appointed one of the six commissioners for drawing up the ordinances of justice.

While Balard was better off than the average Genevan, he only owned one house and a bit of pasture and vineyard outside the Genevan walls. He could hardly be claimed to have influence with his peers due to his wealth when many of them owned six of more homes in various places in and out of the city.

He both seem to have eventually succumbed to some degree to the Reformation in the city. After being put on the Small Council for the second time in 1539, he received more scrutiny. Monter writes:

However, at Christmas 1539, he was once again interrogated about his religious beliefs by the Republic’s prosecuting attorney, Thomas Genod (formerly parish priest at St. Gervais, now married to the only Genevan nun who had accepted the Reformation). Balard responded that he was “entirely ready to believe all the articles of faith that the whole city believes, and that he wishes his body to be united with the body of the city, as a loyal citizen should do,” but his interrogators were unsatisfied. A second interrogation on Christmas Eve ended when Balard answered that, “he couldn’t judge things which he didn’t know or understand; but since it pleases the government that he say the Mass is evil, he will say that the Mass is evil.” He added that “no one could judge of a man’s heart, and the Gospel says that those who are godly shall live and these who are ungodly will perish.” “Afterwards he confessed the Mass to be evil,” calmly remarks the official register, and no doubt Balard took communion that Christmas.

But he left the Small Council at that point, never to return to it.

Balard served Geneva in others ways as well including giving from his own finances to help the city. He was one of the many people who worked for Genevan independence from the House of Savoy even though he wasn’t a big fan of the Swiss Alliance.

Reading Calvin’s Geneva has been a frustrating experience in many ways. I feel like the way I have thought of Reformation Church history has been really anachronistic and artificially teaching-centered. John Calvin is this pastor who writes theology that we learn from him. But what do we really learn about a man from a book he writes? What do we learn about his real life?

Calvin taught, we are told, that lesser magistrates could resist “higher” magistrates. We act as if we owe this to Calvin. What nonsense. Geneva was doing this long before they had ever heard of Calvin. The only reason there was ever a place for Calvin in Geneva was due to Geneva’s struggle for independence against the House of Savoy.

(The House of Savoy… several times a phrase in the history I’m reading now makes me think back to… reading Frank Herbert’s Dune! The Medieval world is so strange to us. No wonder we simplify it.)

Calvin may, at most, be credited with passing on to us the consensus of many in the medieval world. But his transmission should not be used to steal credit from the source.

And what about “the spirituality of the Church”? What a joke! As a born and raised American pluralist/secularist, I can say the thought of a city prosecutor badgering a man to confess that Mass is evil is somewhat painful to contemplate. But “the Spirituality of Geneva” is something that would give Thornwell nightmares. John Calvin has more in common with Constantine the Great than he does with any contemporary Calvinist. Mere agreement with the teaching in the Institutes simply does not cover that much of Calvin’s life and mission.

I’ll keep the post title, even though I’m now not sure what this post is about or why I’m writing it…

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