The Geneva Academy – “A Renaissance school”

Contrary to popular belief, early Calvinists (including Calvin) thought highly of the classical Greek and Latin texts. John McNeill, in his book, The History and Character of Calvinism, describes the curriculum and activities of the Calvin’s Geneva Academy (pg. 194-5):

In Calvin’s rules, attention was given to clean and tidy conditions, promptness, and disciplined behavior. Punishments were to be proportioned to offenses and must not be excessive or cruel….The Pupils…were classified into seven grades, from beginners (class 7) to the graduating class. These grades were not necessarily annual, since, on evidence of attainment, students might be promoted within the year. But ordinarily they awaited the annual celebration of 1 May, when, examinations over, awards and promotions were made. In class 7 the boys passed from the alphabet to fluent French reading and went on to get a taste of Latin. Class 6 was drilled in Latin grammar and simple composition. Vergil, Ovid, and Cicero followed, and, amid an ample diet of Cicero, Greek grammar was begun in class 4. Classes 3 to 1 had an abundance of Latin and Greek literature. On Saturdays the pupils listened for an hour to a reading from the desk of portions of the Greek New Testament. Rhetoric and dialectic were taught on the basis of classical texts. Reviews and disputations were prominently featured: debating exercises were conducted in groups of ten.

….With respect to the predominance of the classics in the curriculum, the college was a typical Renaissance school. It was said, from their readiness in Latin declamation, that the boys of Geneva talked like Sorbonne doctors. Calvin, like Sturm, wanted to develop competence in Latin speech and writing on the model of Cicero. But another feature is less marked: the Psalms were sung, not in Latin but in French; the hour from eleven to twelve daily was devoted to this exercise. The alumni of the Geneva school were nothing if not vocal in speech and song.

This busts the myth that the early Calvinists cared for nothing but theology. They were committed to studying, knowing, and even cherishing the Latin and Greek classics.  It also shows how far Calvinists today have strayed from the Reformed tradition in this regard.

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