Vol 8, Chapter XIII – Constitution and Discipline of the Church of Geneva

98. Literature

I. Calvin’s Institutio Christ. Religionis, the fourth book, which treats of the Church and the Sacraments. — Les | ordinances | ecclésiastiques de | l’église de Genève. | Item | l’ordre des escoles | de la dite cité.| Gen., 1541. 92 pp. 4°; another ed., 1562, 110 pp. Reprinted in Opera, X. fol. 15-30. (Projet d’ordinances ecclésiastiques, 1541). The same vol. contains also L’ordre du College de Genève; Leges academicae (1559), fol. 65-90; and Les ordinances ecclésiastiques de 1561, fol. 91-124. Comp. the Prolegomena, IX. sq., and also the earliest document on the organization and worship of the Church of Geneva, 1537, fol. 5-14.

II. Dr. Georg Weber: Geschichtliche Darstellung des Calvinismus im Verhaeltniss zum Staat in Genf und Frankreich bis zur Aufhebung des Edikts von Nantes, Heidelberg, 1836 (pp. 872). The first two chapters only (pp. 1-32) treat of Calvin and Geneva; the greater part of the book is a history of the French Reformation till 1685. — C. B. Hundeshagen: Ueber den Einfluss des Calvinismus auf die Ideen von Staat, und staats-buergerlicher Freiheit, Bern, 1842. — *Amédée Roget: L’église et l’état à Genève du vivant de Calvin. Étude d’histoire politico-ecclèsiastique, Genève, 1867 (pp. 92). Comp. also his Histoire du peuple de Genève depuis la réforme jusqu’à l’escalade (1536-1602), 1870-1883, 7 vols.

III. Henry, Part II. chs. III.-VI. Comp. his small biography, pp. 165-196. — Dyer, ch. III. — Staehelin, bk. IV. (vol. I. 319 sqq.). — Kampschulte, I. 385-480. This is the end of his work; vols. II. and III. were prevented by his premature death (Dec. 3, 1872), and intrusted to Professor Cornelius of Munich (a friend and colleague of the late Dr. Doellinger), but he has so far only published a few papers on special points, in the Transactions of the Munich Academy. See p. 230. Merle D’Aubigné, bk. XI. chs. XXII.-XXIV. (vol. VII. 73 sqq.). These are his last chapters on Calvin, coming down to February, 1542; the continuation was prevented by his death in 1872.


99. Calvin’s Idea of the Holy Catholic Church

During his sojourn at Strassburg, Calvin matured his views on the Church and the Sacraments, and embodied them in the fourth book of the second edition of his Institutes, which appeared in the same year as his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1539). His ideal was high and comprehensive, far beyond what he was able to realize in the little district of Geneva. “In no respect, perhaps,” says a distinguished Scotch Presbyterian scholar, “are the Institutes more remarkable than in a certain comprehensiveness and catholicity of tone, which to many will appear strangely associated with his name. But Calvin was far too enlightened not to recognize the grandeur of the Catholic idea which had descended through so many ages; this idea had, in truth, for such a mind as his, special attractions, and his own system mainly sought to give to the same idea a new and higher form. The narrowness and intolerance of his ecclesiastical rule did not so much spring out of the general principles laid down in the Institutes, as from his special interpretation and application of these principles.”

When Paul was a prisoner in Rome, chained to a heathen soldier, and when Christianity was confined to a small band of humble believers scattered through a hostile world, he described to the Ephesians his sublime conception of the Church as the mystical “body of Christ, the fulness of Him who filleth all in all.” Yet in the same and other epistles he finds it necessary to warn the members of this holy brotherhood even against such vulgar vices as theft, intemperance, and fornication. The contradiction is only apparent, and disappears in the distinction between the ideal and the real, the essential and the phenomenal, the Church as it is in the mind of Christ and the Church as it is in the masses of nominal Christians.

The same apparent contradiction we find in Calvin, in Luther, and other Reformers. They cherished the deepest respect for the holy Catholic Church of Christ, and yet felt it their duty to protest with all their might against the abuses and corruptions of the actual Church of their age, and especially against the papal hierarchy which ruled it with despotic power. We may go further back to the protest of the Hebrew Prophets against the corrupt priesthood. Christ himself, who recognized the divine economy of the history of Israel, and came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, attacked with withering severity the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses’ seat, and was condemned by the high priest and the Jewish hierarchy to the death of the cross. These scriptural antecedents help very much to understand and to justify the course of the Reformers.

Nothing can be more truly Catholic than Calvin’s description of the historic Church. It reminds one of the finest passages in St. Cyprian and St. Augustin. After explaining the meaning of the article of the Apostles’ Creed on the holy Catholic Church, as embracing not only the visible Church, but all God’s elect, living and departed, he thus speaks of the visible or historic Catholic Church:

“As our present design is to treat of the visible Church, we may learn even from the title of mother, how useful and even necessary it is for us to know her; since there is no other way of entrance into life, unless we are conceived by her, born of her, nourished at her breast, and continually preserved under her care and government till we are divested of this mortal flesh and become I like the angels’ (Mat_22:30). For our infirmity will not admit of our dismission from her school; we must continue under her instruction and discipline to the end of our lives. It is also to be remarked that out of her bosom there can be no hope of remission of sins, or any salvation, according to the testimony of Isaiah (Isa_37:32) and Joel (Joe_2:32); which is confirmed by Ezekiel (Eze_13:9), when he denounces that those whom God excludes from the heavenly life shalt not be enrolled among his people. So, on the contrary, those who devote themselves to the service of God are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason the Psalmist says, ‘Remember me, O Lord, with the favor that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation, that I may see the prosperity of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance’ (Psa_106:4, Psa_106:5). In these words the paternal favor of God, and the peculiar testimony of the spiritual life, are restricted to his flock, to teach us that it is always fatally dangerous to be separated from the Church.”

So strong are the claims of the visible Church upon us that even abounding corruptions cannot justify a secession. Reasoning against the Anabaptists and other radicals who endeavored to build up a new Church of converts directly from the Bible, without any regard to the intervening historical Church, he says:

“Dreadful are those descriptions in which Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habakkuk, and others, deplore the disorders of the Church at Jerusalem. There was such general and extreme corruption in the people, in the magistrates, and in the priests that Isaiah does not hesitate to compare Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah. Religion was partly despised, partly corrupted. Their manners were generally disgraced by thefts, robberies, treacheries, murders, and similar crimes.

“Nevertheless, the Prophets on this account neither raised themselves new churches, nor built new altars for the oblation of separate sacrifices; but whatever were the characters of the people, yet because they considered that God had deposited his word among that nation, and instituted the ceremonies in which he was there worshipped, they lifted up pure hands to him even in the congregation of the impious. If they had thought that they contracted any contagion from these services, surely they would have suffered a hundred deaths rather than have permitted themselves to be dragged to them. There was nothing, therefore, to prevent their departure from them, but the desire of preserving the unity of the Church.

“But if the holy Prophets were restrained by a sense of duty from forsaking the Church on account of the numerous and enormous crimes which were practiced, not by a few individuals, but almost by the whole nation, it is extreme arrogance in us, if we presume immediately to withdraw from the communion of a Church, where the conduct of all the members is not compatible either with our judgment or even with the Christian profession.

“Now what kind of an age was that of Christ and his Apostles? Yet the desperate impiety of the Pharisees, and the dissolute lives everywhere led by the people, could not prevent them from using the same sacrifices, and assembling in the same temple with others, for the public exercises of religion. How did this happen, but from a knowledge that the society of the wicked could not contaminate those who, with pure consciences, united with them in the same solemnities.

“If any one pay no deference to the Prophets and the Apostles, let him at least acquiesce in the authority of Christ. Cyprian has excellently remarked: ‘Although tares, or impure vessels, are found in the Church, yet this is not a reason why we should withdraw from it. It only behooves us to labor that we may be the wheat, and to use our utmost endeavors and exertions that we may be vessels of gold or of silver. But to break in pieces the vessels of earth belongs to the Lord alone, to whom a rod of iron is also given. Nor let any one arrogate to himself what is the exclusive province of the Son of God, by pretending to fan the floor, clear away the chaff, and separate all the tares by the judgment of man. This is proud obstinacy, and sacrilegious presumption, originating in a corrupt frenzy.’

“Let these two points, then, be considered as decided: first, that he who voluntarily deserts the external communion of the Church where the Word of God is preached, and the sacraments are administered, is without any excuse; secondly, that the faults either of few persons or of many form no obstacles to a due profession of our faith in the use of the ceremonies instituted by God; because the pious conscience is not wounded by the unworthiness of any other individual, whether he be a pastor or a private person; nor are the mysteries less pure and salutary to a holy and upright man, because they are received at the same time by the impure.”

How, then, with such high churchly views, could Calvin justify his separation from the Roman Church in which he was born and trained? He vindicated his position in the Answer to Sadolet, from which we have given large extracts. He did it more fully in his masterly work, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” which, “in the name of all who wish Christ to reign,” he addressed to the Emperor Charles V. and the Diet to be assembled at Speier in February, 1544. It is replete with weighty arguments and accurate learning, and by far one of the ablest controversial books of that age. The following is a passage bearing upon this point:

“The last and principal charge which they bring against us is, that we have made a schism in the Church. And here they fiercely maintain against us, that for no reason is it lawful to break the unity of the Church. How far they do us injustice the books of our authors bear witness. Now, however, let them take this brief reply — that we neither dissent from the Church, nor are aliens from her communion. But, as by this specious name of Church, they are wont to cast dust in the eyes even of persons otherwise pious and right-hearted, I beseech your Imperial Majesty, and you, Most Illustrious Princes, first, to divest yourselves of all prejudice, that you may give an impartial ear to our defence; secondly, not to be instantly terrified on hearing the name of Church, but to remember that the Prophets and Apostles had, with the pretended Church of their days, a contest similar to that which you see us have in the present day with the Roman pontiff and his whole train. When they, by the command of God, inveighed freely against idolatry, superstition, and the profanation of the temple, and its sacred rites, against the carelessness and lethargy of priests, — and against the general avarice, cruelty, and licentiousness, they were constantly met with the objection which our opponents have ever in their mouths — that by dissenting from the common opinion, they violated the unity of the Church. The ordinary government of the Church was then vested in the priests. They had not presumptuously arrogated it to themselves, but God had conferred it upon them by his law. It would occupy too much time to point out all the instances. Let us, therefore, be contented with a single instance, in the case of Jeremiah.

“He had to do with the whole college of priests, and the arms with which they attacked him were these: ‘Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet’ (Jer_18:18). They had among them a high priest, to reject whose judgment was a capital crime, and they had the whole order to which God himself had committed the government of the Jewish Church concurring with them. If the unity of the Church is violated by him, who, instructed solely by Divine truth, opposes himself to ordinary authority, the Prophet must be a schismatic; because, not at all deterred by such menaces from warring with the impiety of the priests, he steadily persevered.

“That the eternal truth of God preached by the Prophets and Apostles, is on our side, we are prepared to show, and it is indeed easy for any man to perceive. But all that is done is to assail us with this battering-ram, ‘Nothing can excuse withdrawal from the Church.’ We deny out and out that we do so. With what, then, do they urge us? With nothing more than this, that to them belongs the ordinary government of the Church. But how much better right had the enemies of Jeremiah to use this argument? To them, at all events, there still remained a legal priesthood, instituted by God; so that their vocation was unquestionable. Those who in the present day have the name of prelates, cannot prove their vocation by any laws, human or divine. Be it, however, that in this respect both are on a footing, still, unless they previously convict the holy Prophet of schism, they will prove nothing against us by that specious title of Church.

“I have thus mentioned one Prophet as an example. But all the others declare that they had the same battle to fight — wicked priests endeavoring to overwhelm them by a perversion of this term Church. And how did the Apostles act? Was it not necessary for them, in professing themselves the servants of Christ, to declare war upon the synagogue? And yet the office and dignity of the priesthood were not then lost. But it will be said that, though the Prophets and Apostles dissented from wicked priests in doctrine, they still cultivated communion with them in sacrifices and prayers. I admit they did, provided they were not forced into idolatry. But which of the Prophets do we read of as having ever sacrificed in Bethel? Which of the faithful, do we suppose, communicated in impure sacrifices, when the temple was polluted by Antiochus, and profane rites were introduced into it?

“On the whole, we conclude that the servants of God never felt themselves obstructed by this empty title of Church, when it was put forward to support the reign of impiety. It is not enough, therefore, simply to throw out the name of Church, but judgment must be used to ascertain which is the true Church, and what is the nature of its unity. And the thing necessary to be attended to, first of all, is, to beware of separating the Church from Christ, its Head. When I say Christ, I include the doctrine of his gospel which he sealed with his blood. Our adversaries, therefore, if they would persuade us that they are the true Church must, first of all, show that the true doctrine of God is among them; and this is the meaning of what we often repeat, viz. that the uniform characteristics of a well-ordered Church are the preaching of sound doctrine, and the pure administration of the Sacraments. For, since Paul declares (Eph_2:20) that the Church is ‘built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets,’ it necessarily follows that any church not resting on this foundation must immediately fall.

“I come now to our opponents.

“They, no doubt, boast in lofty terms that Christ is on their side. As soon as they exhibit him in their word we will believe it, but not sooner. They, in the same way, insist on the term Church. But where, we ask, is that doctrine which Paul declares to be the only foundation of the Church? Doubtless, your Imperial Majesty now sees that there is a vast difference between assailing us with the reality and assailing us only with the name of Church. We are as ready to confess as they are that those who abandon the Church, the common mother of the faithful, the ‘pillar and ground of the truth,’ revolt from Christ also; but we mean a Church which, from incorruptible seed, begets children for immortality, and, when begotten, nourishes them with spiritual food (that seed and food being the Word of God), and which, by its ministry, preserves entire the truth which God deposited in its bosom. This mark is in no degree doubtful, in no degree fallacious, and it is the mark which God himself impressed upon his Church, that she might be discerned thereby. Do we seem unjust in demanding to see this mark? Wherever it exists not, no face of a Church is seen. If the name, merely, is put forward, we have only to quote the well-known passage of Jeremiah, ‘Trust ye not in lying words, saying, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these’ (Jer_7:4). Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?’ (Jer_7:11).

“In like manner, the unity of the Church, such as Paul describes it, we protest we hold sacred, and we denounce anathema against all who in any way violate it. The principle from which Paul derives unity is, that there is ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,’ who hath called us into one hope (Eph_4:4-6). Therefore, we are one body and one spirit, as is here enjoined, if we adhere to God only, i.e. be bound to each other by the tie of faith. We ought, moreover, to remember what is said in another passage, ‘that faith cometh by the word of God.’ Let it, therefore, be a fixed point, that a holy unity exists amongst us, when, consenting in pure doctrine, we are united in Christ alone. And, indeed, if concurrence in any kind of doctrine were sufficient, in what possible way could the Church of God be distinguished from the impious factions of the wicked? Wherefore, the Apostle shortly after adds, that the ministry was instituted ‘for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God: that we be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, who is the Head, even Christ’ (Eph_4:12-15). Could he more plainly comprise the whole unity of the Church in a holy agreement in true doctrine, than when he calls us back to Christ and to faith, which is included in the knowledge of him, and to obedience to the truth? Nor is any lengthened demonstration of this needed by those who believe the Church to be that sheepfold of which Christ alone is the Shepherd, and where his voice only is heard, and distinguished from the voice of strangers. And this is confirmed by Paul, when he prays for the Romans, ‘The God of patience and consolation grant you to be of the same mind one with another, according to Christ Jesus; that, ye may with one accord and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom_15:5, Rom_15:6).

“Let our opponents, then, in the first instance, draw near to Christ, and then let them convict us of schism, in daring to dissent from them in doctrine. But, since I have made it plain that Christ is banished from their society, and the doctrine of his gospel exterminated, their charge against us simply amounts to this, that we adhere to Christ in preference to them. For what man, pray, will believe that those who refuse to be led away from Christ and his truth, in order to deliver themselves into the power of men, are thereby schismatics, and deserters from the communion of the Church?

“I certainly admit that respect is to be shown to priests, and that there is great danger in despising ordinary authority. If, then, they were to say, that we are not at our own hand to resist ordinary authority, we should have no difficulty in subscribing to the sentiment. For we are not so rude as not to see what confusion must arise when the authority of rulers is not respected. Let pastors, then, have their due honor — an honor, however, not derogatory in any degree to the supreme authority of Christ, to whom it behooves them and every man to be subject. For God declares, by Malachi, that the government of the Israelitish Church was committed to the priests, under the condition that they should faithfully fulfil the covenant made with them, viz. that ‘their lips should keep knowledge,’ and expound the law to the people (Mal_2:7). When the priests altogether failed in this condition, he declares, that, by their perfidy, the covenant was abrogated and made null. Pastors are mistaken if they imagine that they are invested with the government of the Church on any other terms than that of being ministers and witnesses of the truth of God. As long, therefore, as, in opposition to the law and to the nature of their office, they eagerly wage war with the truth of God, let them not arrogate to themselves a power which God never bestowed, either formerly on priests, or now on bishops, on any other terms than those which have been mentioned.”

When the Romanists demanded miracles from the Reformers as a test of their innovations, Calvin replied that this was “unreasonable; for we forgo no new gospel, but retain the very same, whose truth was confirmed by all the miracles ever wrought by Christ and the Apostles. The opponents have this advantage over us, that they confirm their faith by continual miracles even to this day. But they allege miracles which are calculated to unsettle a mind otherwise well established; for they are frivolous and ridiculous, or vain and false. Nor, if they were ever so preternatural, ought they to have any weight in opposition to the truth of God, since the name of God ought to be sanctified in all places and at all times, whether by miraculous events or by the common order of nature.”

Luther had the same Catholic Church feeling, and gave strong expression to it in his writings against the radicals, and in a letter to the Margrave of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia (1532), in which he says: “It is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony of the entire holy Christian Church as held from the beginning for now over fifteen hundred years in all the world.” And yet he asserted the right of conscience and private judgment at Worms against popes and Councils, because he deemed it “unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience bound in the Word of God.”


100. The Visible and Invisible Church

Comp. vol. VII. § 85, and the literature there quoted.

A distinction between real and nominal Christianity is as old as the Church, and has never been denied. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” We can know all that are actually called, but God only knows those who are truly chosen. The kindred parables of the tares and of the net illustrate the fact that the kingdom of heaven in this world includes good and bad men, and that a final separation will not take place before the judgment day. (Mat_13:24-30, Mat_13:47-49) Paul distinguishes between an outward circumcision of the flesh and an inward circumcision of the heart; between a carnal Israel and a spiritual Israel; and he speaks of Gentiles who are ignorant of the written law, yet, do by nature the things of the law,” and will judge those who,” with the letter and circumcision, are transgressors of the law.” He thereby intimates that God’s mercy is not bounded by the limits of the visible Church. (Rom_2:14, Rom_2:15, Rom_2:28, Rom_2:29; Col_2:11)

Augustin makes a distinction between the true body of Christ, which consists of the elect children of God from the beginning, and the mixed body of Christ, which comprehends all the baptized. In the Middle Ages the Church was identified with the dominion of the papacy, and the Cyprianic maxim, “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” was narrowed into “Extra ecclesiam Romanam nulla salus,” to the exclusion not only of heretical sects, but also of the Oriental Church. Wiclif and Hus, in opposition to the corruptions of the papal Church, renewed the distinction of Augustin, under a different and less happy designation of the congregation of the predestinated or the elect, and the congregation of those who are only foreknown.

The Reformers introduced the terminology “visible” and invisible” Church. By this they did not mean two distinct and separate Churches, but rather two classes of Christians within the same outward communion. The invisible Church is in the visible Church, as the soul is in the body, or the kernel in the shell, but God only knows with certainty who belong to the invisible Church and will ultimately be saved; and in this sense his true children are invisible, that is, not certainly recognizable and known to men. We may object to the terminology, but the distinction is real and important.

Luther, who openly adopted the view of Hus at the disputation of Leipzig, first applied the term “invisible” to the true Church, which is meant in the Apostles’ Creed. The Augsburg Confession defines the Church to be “the congregation of saints (or believers), in which the Gospel is purely taught, and the sacraments are rightly administered.” This definition is too narrow for the invisible Church, and would exclude the Baptists and Quakers.

The Reformed system of doctrine extends the domain of the invisible or true Church and the possibility of salvation beyond the boundaries of the visible Church, and holds that the Spirit of God is not bound to the ordinary means of grace, but may work and save “when, where, and how he pleases.” Zwingli first introduced both terms. He meant by the “visible” Church the community of all who bear the Christian name, by the “invisible” Church the totality of true believers of all ages. And he included in the invisible Church all the pious heathen, and all infants dying in infancy, whether baptized or not. In this liberal view, however, he stood almost alone in his age and anticipated modern opinions.

Calvin defines the distinction more clearly and fully than any of the Reformers, and his view passed into the Second Helvetic, the Scotch, the Westminster, and other Reformed Confessions.

“The Church,” he says, “is used in the sacred Scriptures in two senses. Sometimes when they mention ‘the Church’ they intend that which is really such in the sight of God (quae revera est coram Deo), into which none are received but those who by adoption and grace are the children of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit are the true members of Christ. And then it comprehends not only the saints at any one time resident on earth, but all the elect who have lived from the beginning of the world.

“But the word ‘Church’ is frequently used in the Scriptures to designate the whole multitude dispersed all over the world, who profess to worship one God and Jesus Christ, who are initiated into his faith by baptism, who testify their unity in true doctrine and charity by a participation of the sacred supper, who consent to the word of the Lord, and preserve the ministry which Christ has instituted for the purpose of preaching it. In this Church are included many hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and appearance; many persons, ambitious, avaricious, envious, slanderous, and dissolute in their lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because they cannot be convicted by a legitimate process, or because discipline is not always maintained with sufficient vigor.

“As it is necessary therefore to believe that Church which is invisible to us, and known to God alone, so this Church, which is visible to men, we are commanded to honor, and to maintain communion with it.”

Calvin does not go as far as Zwingli in extending the number of the elect, but there is nothing in his principles to forbid such extension. He makes salvation dependent upon God’s sovereign grace, and not upon the visible means of grace. He expressly includes in the invisible Church “all the elect who have lived from the beginning of the world,” and even those who had no historical knowledge of Christ. He says, in agreement with Augustin:, According to the secret predestination of God, there are many sheep without the pale of the Church, and many wolves within it. For God knows and seals those who know not either him or themselves. Of those who externally bear his seal, his eyes alone can discern who are unfeignedly holy, and will persevere to the end, which is the completion of salvation.” But in the judgment of charity, he continues, we must acknowledge as members of the Church “all those who, by a confession of faith, an exemplary life, and a participation in the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with ourselves.”


101. The Civil Government

On civil government see Institutes, IV. ch. XX., De politica administratione (in Tholuck’s ed. II. 475-496).

Calvin discusses the nature and function of Civil Government at length, and with the ability and wisdom of a statesman, in the last chapter of his Institutes.

He holds that the Church is consistent with all forms of government and social conditions, even with civil servitude (1Co_7:21). But some kind of government is as necessary to mankind in this world as bread and water, light and air; and it is far more excellent, since it protects life and property, maintains law and order, and enables men to live peaceably together, and to pursue their several avocations.

As to the different forms of government, Calvin discusses the merits of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. All are compatible with Christianity and command our obedience. All have their advantages and dangers. Monarchy easily degenerates into despotism, aristocracy into oligarchy or the faction of a few, democracy into mobocracy and sedition. He gives the preference to a mixture of aristocracy and democracy. He infused a more aristocratic spirit into the democratic Republic of Geneva, and saw a precedent in the government of Moses with seventy elders elected from the wisest and best of the people. It is safer, he thinks, for the government to be in the hands of many than of one, for they may afford each other assistance, and restrain arrogance and ambition.

Civil government is of divine origin. “All power is ordained of God” (Rom_13:1). “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice” (Pro_8:15). The magistrates are called “gods” (Psa_82:1, Psa_82:6; a passage indorsed by Christ, Joh_10:35), because they are invested with God’s authority and act as his vicegerents. “Civil magistracy is not only holy and legitimate, but far the most sacred and honorable in human life.” Submission to lawful government is the duty of every citizen. To resist it, is to set at naught the ordinance of God (Rom_13:3, Rom_13:4; comp. Tit_3:1; 1Pe_2:13, 1Pe_2:14). Paul admonishes Timothy that in the public congregation “supplication, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings be made for kings and for all that are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity” (1Ti_2:1, 1Ti_2:2). We must obey and pray even for bad rulers, and endure in patience and humility till God exercises his judgment. The punishment of evildoers belongs only to God and to the magistrates. Sometimes God punishes the people by wicked rulers, and punishes these by other bad rulers. We, as individuals, must suffer rather than rebel. Only in one case are we required to disobey, — when the civil ruler commands us to do anything against the will of God and against our conscience. Then, “we must obey God rather than men” (Act_5:29).

Calvin was thus a strong upholder of authority in the State. He did not advise or encourage the active resistance of the Huguenots at the beginning of the civil wars in France, although he gave a tacit consent.

Calvin extended the authority and duty of civil government to both Tables of the Law. He assigns to it, in Christian society, the office, — “to cherish and support the external worship of God, to preserve the true doctrine of religion, to defend the constitution of the Church, and to regulate our lives in a manner requisite for the social welfare.” He proves this view from the Old Testament, and quotes the passage in Isa_49:23, that “kings shall be nursing-fathers and queens nursing-mothers” to the Church. He refers to the examples of Moses, Joshua and the Judges, David, Josiah, and Hezekiah.

Here is the critical point where religious persecution by the State comes in as an inevitable consequence. Offences against the Church are offences against the State, and vice versa, and deserve punishment by fines, imprisonment, exile, and, if necessary, by death. On this ground the execution of Servetus and other heretics was justified by all who held the same theory; fortunately, it has no support whatever in the New Testament, but is directly contrary to the spirit of the gospel.

Geneva, after the emancipation from the power of the bishop and the duke of Savoy, was a self-governing Republic under the protection of Bern and the Swiss Confederacy. The civil government assumed the episcopal power, and exercised it first in favor, then against, and at last permanently for the Reformation.

The Republic was composed of all citizens of age, who met annually in general assembly (conseil général), usually in St. Peter’s, under the sounding of bells, and trumpets, for the ratification of laws and the election of officers. The administrative power was lodged in four Syndics; the legislative power in two Councils, the Council of Sixty, and the Council of Two Hundred. The former existed since 1457; the latter was instituted in 1526, after the alliance with Freiburg and Bern, in imitation of the Constitution of these and other Swiss cities. The Sixty were by right members of the Council of Two Hundred. In 1530 the Two Hundred assumed the right to elect the ordinary or little Council of Twenty-Five, who were a part of the two other Councils and had previously been elected by the Syndics. The real power lay in the hands of the Syndics and the little Council of Twenty-five, which formed an oligarchy with legislative, executive, and judicial functions.

Calvin did not change these fundamental institutions of the Republic, but he infused into them a Christian and disciplinary spirit, and improved the legislation. He was appointed, together with the Syndics Roset, Porral, and Balard, to draw up a new code of laws, as early as Nov. 1, 1541. He devoted much time to this work, and paid attention even to the minutest details concerning the administration of justice, the city police, the military, the firemen, the watchmen on the tower, and the like.

The city showed her gratitude by presenting him with “a cask of old wine” for these extra services.

Many of his regulations continued in legal force down to the eighteenth century.

Calvin was consulted in all important affairs of the State, and his advice was usually followed; but he never occupied a political or civil office. He was not even a citizen of Geneva till 1559 (eighteen years after his second arrival), and never appeared before the Councils except when some ecclesiastical question was debated, or when his advice was asked. It is a mistake, therefore, to call him the head of the Republic, except in a purely intellectual and moral sense.

The code of laws was revised with the aid of Calvin by his friend, Germain Colladon (1510-1594), an eminent juris-consult and member of a distinguished family of French refugees who settled at Geneva. The revised code was begun in 1560, and published in 1568.

Among the laws of Geneva we mention a press law, the oldest in Switzerland, dated Feb. 15, 1560. Laws against the freedom of the press existed before, especially in Spain. Alexander VI., a Spaniard, issued a bull in 1501, instructing the German prelates to exercise a close supervision over printers. Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic established a censorship which prohibited, under severe penalties, the printing, importation, and sale of any book that had not previously passed an examination and obtained a license. Rome adopted the same policy. Other countries, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, followed the example. In Russia, the severest restrictions of the press are still in force.

The press law of Geneva was comparatively moderate. It put the press under the supervision of three prudent and experienced men, to be appointed by the government. These men have authority to appoint able and trustworthy printers, to examine every book before it is printed, to prevent popish, heretical, and infidel publications, to protect the publisher against piracy; but Bibles, catechisms, prayers, and psalms may be printed by all publishers; new translations of the Scriptures are privileged in the first edition.

The censorship of the press continued in Geneva till the eighteenth century. In 1600 the Council forbade the printing of the essays of Montaigne; in 1763 Rousseau’s Emile was condemned to be burned.

It should be noted, however, that under the influence of Calvin Geneva became one of the most important places of publication. The famous Robert Stephen (Etienne, 1503-1559), being censured by the Sorbonne of Paris, settled in Geneva after the death of his father, Henri, as a professed Protestant, and printed there two editions of the Hebrew Bible, and an edition of the Greek Testament, with the Vulgate and Erasmian versions, in 1551, which for the first time contains the versicular division of the text according to our present usage. To him we owe the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (third ed. 1543, in 4 vols.), and to his son, Henri, the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (1572, 4 vols.). Beza published several editions of his Greek Testament in Geneva (1565-1598), which were chiefly used by King James’ translators. In the same city appeared the English version of the New Testament by Whittingham, 1557; then of the whole Bible, 1560. This is the so-called “Geneva Bible,” or “Breeches Bible” (from the rendering of Gen_3:7), which was for a long time the most popular English version, and passed through about two hundred editions from 1560 to 1630. Geneva has well maintained its literary reputation to this day.


102. Distinctive Principles of Calvin’s Church Polity

Calvin was a legislator and the founder of a new system of church polity and discipline. He had a legal training, which was of much use to him in organizing the Reformed Church at Geneva. If he had lived in the Middle Ages, he might have been a Hildebrand or an Innocent III. But the spirit of the Reformation required a reconstruction of church government on an evangelical and popular basis.

Calvin laid great stress on the outward organization and order of the Church, but in subordination to sound doctrine and the inner spiritual life. He compares the former to the body, while the doctrine which regulates the worship of God, and points out the way of salvation, is the soul which animates the body and renders it lively and active.

The Calvinistic system of church polity is based upon the following principles, which have exerted great influence in the development of Protestantism: — 

1. The autonomy of the Church, or its right of self-government under the sole headship of Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church likewise claims autonomy, but in a hierarchical sense, and under the supreme control of the pope, who, as the visible vicar of Christ, demands passive obedience from priests and people. Calvin vests the self-government in the Christian congregation, and regards all the ministers of the gospel, in their official character, as ambassadors and representatives of Christ. “Christ alone,” he says, “ought to rule and reign in the Church, and to have all preeminence in it, and this government ought to be exercised and administered solely by his word; yet as he dwells not among us by a visible presence, so as to make an audible declaration of his will to us, he uses for this purpose the ministry of men whom he employs as his delegates, not to transfer his right and honor to them, but only that he may himself do his work by their lips; just as an artificer makes use of an instrument in the performance of his work.”

In practice, however, the autonomy both of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and of the Protestant Churches is more or less curtailed and checked by the civil government wherever Church and State are united, and where the State supports the Church. For self-government requires self-support. Calvin intended to institute synods, and to make the clergy independent of State patronage, but in this he did not succeed.

The Lutheran Reformers subjected the Church to the secular rulers, and made her an obedient handmaid of the State; but they complained bitterly of the selfish and arbitrary misgovernment of the princes. The congregations in most Lutheran countries of Europe have no voice in the election of their own pastors. The Reformers of German Switzerland conceded more power to the people in a democratic republic, and introduced synods, but they likewise put the supreme power into the hands of the civil government of the several cantons. In monarchical England the governorship of the Church was usurped and exercised by Henry VIII. and, in a milder form, by Queen Elizabeth and her successors, and acquiesced in by the bishops. The churches under Calvin’s influence always maintained, at least in theory, the independence of the Church in all spiritual affairs, and the right of individual congregations in the election of their own pastors. Calvin derives this right from the Greek verb used in the passage which says that Paul and Barnabas ordained presbyters by the suffrages or votes of the people. “Those two apostles,” he says, “ordained the presbyters; but the whole multitude, according to the custom observed among the Greeks, declared by the elevation of their hands who was the object of their choice …. It is not credible that Paul granted to Timothy and Titus more power (1Ti_5:22; Tit_1:5) than he assumed to himself.” After quoting with approval two passages from Cyprian, he concludes that the apostolic and best mode of electing pastors is by the consent of the whole people; yet other pastors ought to preside over the election, “to guard the multitude from falling into improprieties through inconstancy, intrigue, and confusion.”

The Presbyterian Church of Scotland has labored and suffered more than any Protestant Church for the principle of the sole headship of Christ; first against popery, then against prelacy, and last against patronage. In North America this principle is almost universally acknowledged.

2. The parity of the clergy as distinct from a jure divino hierarchy whether papal or prelatical.

Calvin maintained, with Jerome, the original identity of bishops (overseers) and presbyters (elders); and in this he has the support of the best modern exegetes and historians.

But he did not on this account reject all distinctions among ministers, which rest on human right and historical development, nor deny the right of adapting the Church order to varying conditions and circumstances. He was not an exclusive or bigoted Presbyterian. He had no objection to episcopacy in large countries, like Poland and England, provided the evangelical doctrines be preached. In his correspondence with Archbishop Cranmer and Protector Somerset, he suggests various improvements, but does not oppose episcopacy. In a long letter to King Sigismund Augustus of Poland, he even approves of it in that kingdom.

But Presbyterianism and Congregationalism are more congenial to the spirit of Calvinism than prelacy. In the conflict with Anglican prelacy during the seventeenth century, the Calvinistic Churches became exclusively Presbyterian in Scotland, or Independent in England and New England. During the same period, in opposition to the enforced introduction of the Anglican liturgy, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists abandoned liturgical worship; while Calvin and the Reformed Churches on the Continent approved of forms of devotion in connection with free prayer in public worship.

3. The participation of the Christian laity in Church government and discipline. This is a very important feature.

In the Roman Church the laity are passive, and have no share whatever in legislation. Theirs is simply to obey the priesthood. Luther first effectively proclaimed the doctrine of the general priesthood of the laity, but Calvin put it into an organized form, and made the laity a regular agency in the local congregation, and in the synods and Councils of the Church. His views are gaining ground in other denominations, and are almost generally adopted in the United States. Even the Protestant Episcopal Church gives, in the lower house of her diocesan and general conventions, to the laity an equal representation with the clergy.

4. Strict discipline to be exercised jointly by ministers and lay-elders, with the consent of the whole congregation.

In this point Calvin went far beyond the older Reformers, and achieved greater success, as we shall see hereafter.

5. Union of Church and State on a theocratic basis, if possible, or separation, if necessary to secure the purity and self-government of the Church. This requires fuller exposition.


103. Church and State

Calvin’s Church polity is usually styled a theocracy, by friends in praise, by foes in censure. This is true, but in a qualified sense. He aimed at the sole rule of Christ and his Word both in Church and State, but without mixture and interference. The two powers were almost equally balanced in Geneva. The early Puritan colonies in New England were an imitation of the Geneva model.

In theory, Calvin made a clearer distinction between the spiritual and secular powers than was usual in his age, when both were inextricably interwoven and confused. He compares the Church to the soul, the State to the body. The one has to do with the spiritual and eternal welfare of man, the other with the affairs of this present, transitory life. Each is independent and sovereign in its own sphere. He was opposed to any interference of the civil government with the internal affairs and discipline of the Church. He was displeased with the servile condition of the clergy in Germany and in Bern, and often complained (even on his death-bed) of the interference of Bern with the Church in Geneva. But he was equally opposed to a clerical control of civil and political affairs, and confined the Church to the spiritual sword. He never held a civil office. The ministers were not eligible to the magistracy and the Councils.

Yet he did not go so far as to separate the two powers; on the contrary, he united them as closely as their different functions would admit. His fundamental idea was, that God alone is Lord on earth as well as in heaven, and should rule supreme in Church and State. In this sense he was theocratic or christocratic. God uses Church and State as two distinct but co-operative arms for the upbuilding of Christ’s kingdom. The law for both is the revealed will of God in the Holy Scriptures. The Church gives moral support to the State, while the State gives temporal support to the Church.

Calvin’s ideal of Christian society resembles that of Hildebrand, but differs from it on the following important points:

1. Calvin’s theory professed to be based upon the Scriptures, as the only rule of faith and practice; the papal theocracy drew its support chiefly from tradition and the Canon law.

Calvin’s arguments, however, are exclusively taken from the Old Testament. The Calvinistic as well as the papal theocracy is Mosaic and legalistic rather than Christian and evangelical. The Apostolic Church had no connection whatever with the State except to obey its legitimate demands. Christ’s rule is expressed in that wisest word ever uttered on this subject: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mat_22:21).

2. Calvin recognized only the invisible headship of Christ, and rejected the papal claim to world-dominion as an anti-christian usurpation.

3. He had a much higher view of the State than the popes. He considered it equally divine in origin and authority as the Church, and fully independent in all temporal matters; while the papal hierarchy in the Middle Ages often overruled the State by ecclesiastical authority. Hildebrand compared the Church to the sun, the State to the moon which borrows her light from the sun, and claimed and exercised the right of deposing kings and absolving subjects from their oaths of allegiance. Boniface VIII. formulated this claim in the well-known theory of the two swords.

4. Calvin’s theocracy was based upon the sovereignty of the Christian people and the general priesthood of believers; the papal theocracy was an exclusive rule of the priesthood.

In practice, the two powers were not as clearly distinct at Geneva as in theory. They often intermeddled with each other. The ministers criticised the acts of the magistrates from the pulpit; and the magistrates called the ministers to account for their sermons. Discipline was a common territory for both, and the Consistory was a mixed body of clergymen and laymen. The government fixed and paid the salaries of the pastors, and approved their nomination and transfer from one parish to another. None could even absent himself for a length of time without leave by the Council. The Large Council voted on the Confession of Faith and Discipline, and gave them the power of law.

The Reformed Church of Geneva, in one word, was an established Church or State Church, and continues so to this day, though no more in an exclusive sense, but with liberty to Dissenters, whether Catholic or Protestant, who have of late been increasing by immigration.

The union of Church and State is tacitly assumed or directly asserted in nearly all the Protestant Confessions of Faith, which make it the duty of the civil government to support religion, to protect orthodoxy, and to punish heresy.

In modern times the character of the State and its attitude towards the Church has undergone a material change in Switzerland as well as in other countries. The State is no longer identified with a particular Church, and has become either indifferent, or hostile, or tolerant. It is composed of members of all creeds, and should, in the name of justice, support all, or none; in either case allowing to all full liberty as far as is consistent with the public peace.

Under these circumstances the Church has to choose between liberty with self-support, and dependence with government support. If Calvin lived at this day, he would undoubtedly prefer the former. Calvinists and Presbyterians have taken the lead in the struggle for Church independence against the Erastian and rationalistic encroachments of the civil power. Free Churches have been organized in French Switzerland (Geneva, Vaud, Neuchàtel), in France, Holland, and especially in Presbyterian Scotland. The heroic sacrifices of the Free Church of Scotland in seceding from the Established Church, and making full provision for all her wants by voluntary contributions, form one of the brightest chapters in the history of Protestantism. The Dissenters in England have always maintained and exercised the voluntary principle since their legal recognition by the Toleration Act of 1689. In the British Provinces and in North America, all denominations are on a basis of equality before the law, and enjoy, under the protection of the government, full liberty of self-government with the corresponding duty of self-support. The condition of modern society demands a peaceful separation of Church and State, or a Free Church in a Free State.