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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 73. Calvin’s Call.


As in the case of Paul, Calvin’s call to his life-work coincided with his conversion, and he proved it by his labors. "By their fruits ye shall know them."

We must distinguish between an ordinary and an extraordinary call, or the call to the ministry of the gospel, and the call to reform the Church. The ordinary ministry is necessary for the being, the extraordinary for the well-being, of the Church. The former corresponds to the priesthood in the Jewish dispensation, and continues in unbroken succession; the latter resembles the mission of the prophets, and appears sporadically in great emergencies. The office of a reformer comes nearest the office of an apostle. There are founders of the Church universal, as Peter and Paul; so there are founders of particular churches, as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Zinzendorf, Wesley; but none of the Reformers was infallible.

1. All the Reformers were born, baptized, confirmed, and educated in the historic Catholic Church, which cast them out; as the Apostles were circumcised and trained in the Synagogue, which cast them out. They never doubted the validity of the Catholic ordinances, and rejected the idea of re-baptism. Distinguishing between the divine substance and the human addition, Calvin said of his baptism, "I renounce the chrism, but retain the baptism."417417    "Je renonce le cresme, et retient mon Baptesme." Colladon, in Op. XXI. 53.

The Reformers were also ordained priests in the Roman Church, except Melanchthon and Calvin,—the greatest theologians among them. A remarkable exception. Melanchthon remained a layman all his life; yet his authority to teach is undoubted. Calvin became a regular minister; but how?

He was, as we have seen, intended and educated for the Roman priesthood, and early received the clerical tonsure.418418    The value of the tonsure was differently estimated, but it was generally excluded from the lower orders. Calvin says (Inst. IV. ch. 19, § 22): "Some represent the clerical tonsure to be the first order of all, and episcopacy the last; others exclude the tonsure, and place the archiepiscopal office among the orders." Peter the Lombard distinguishes seven orders, corresponding to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:2, 3),—beadles, readers, exorcists, acolytes, subdeacons, deacons, priests. He regards the episcopate, not as a separate ordo, but only as a dignity with four grades,—patriarch, archbishop, metropolitan, bishop. Several schoolmen and canonists reckon eight or nine ordines, including bishops and archbishops. The Council of Trent defined the three ordines majores,—bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons. He also held two benefices, and preached sometimes in Pont l’Evèque, and also in Lignières, a little town near Bourges, where he made the impression that, he preached better than the monks."419419    Colladon, Op. XXI. 56: "Il prescha (while he studied at Bourges) quelquefois en une petite ville du pays de Berry, nommée Lignières, et eut entrée en la maison du seigneur du lieu qui estoit pour lors: lequel ... disait ... qu’il lui semblait que, M. Jean Calvin preshoit mieux que les moines." His preaching at Pont l’Evèque is mentioned by Colladon, ibid. fol. 64, and by Beza, fol. 121. See above, p. 301.

But he never read mass, and never entered the higher orders, properly so called.

After he left the Roman Church, there was no Evangelical bishop in France to ordain him; the bishops, so far, all remained in the old Church, except two or three in East Prussia and Sweden. If the validity of the Christian ministry depended on an unbroken succession of diocesan bishops, which again depends on historical proof, it would be difficult to defend the Reformation and to resist the claims of Rome. But the Reformers planted themselves on the promise of Christ, the ever-present head of the Church, who is equally near to his people in any age. They rejected the Roman Catholic idea of ordination as a divinely instituted sacrament, which can only be performed by bishops, and which confers priestly powers of offering sacrifice and dispensing absolution. They taught the general priesthood of believers, and fell back upon the internal call of the Holy Spirit and the external call of the Christian people. Luther, in his earlier writings, lodged the power of the keys in the congregation, and identified ordination with vocation. "Whoever is called," he says, "is ordained, and must preach: this is our Lord’s consecration and true chrism." He even consecrated, by a bold irregularity, his friend Amsdorf as superintendent of Naumburg, to show that he could make a bishop as well as the pope, and could do it without the use of consecrated oil.

Calvin was regularly elected pastor and teacher of theology at Geneva in 1536 by the presbyters and the council, with the consent of the whole people.420420    Beza, Vita C. (XXI. 125 sq.) Suffragiis presbyterii et magistratus, accedente plebis consensu, delectus non concionator tantum (hoc autem primum recuserat), sed etiam sacrarumliterarum doctor, quod unum admittebat, est designatus anno Domini MDXXXVI mense Augusto." Comp. Colladon, ibid. fol. 58 sq.: "declaréPasteur et Docteur en caste Eglise [de Genève]avec légitime élection et approbation."

This popular election was a revival of the primitive custom. The greatest bishops of the early Church—such as Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustin—were elected by the voice of the people, which they obeyed as the voice of God.

We are not informed whether Calvin was solemnly introduced into his office by prayer and the laying on of the hands of presbyters (such as Farel and Viret), after the apostolic custom (1 Tim. 4:14), which is observed in the Reformed Churches. He did not regard ordination as absolutely indispensable, but as a venerable rite sanctioned by the practice of the Apostles which has the force of a precept.421421    Inst. IV. ch. III. § 16. He even ascribed to it a semi-sacramental character. "The imposition of hands," he says, "which is used at the introduction of the true presbyters and ministers of the Church into their office, I have no objection to consider as a sacrament; for, in the first place, that sacrament is taken from the Scripture, and, in the next place, it is declared by Paul to be not unnecessary or useless, but a faithful symbol of spiritual grace (1 Tim. 4:14). I have not enumerated it as a third among the sacraments, because it is not ordinary or common to all the faithful, but a special rite for a particular office. The ascription of this honor to the Christian ministry, however, furnishes no reason of pride in Roman priests; for Christ has commanded the ordination of ministers to dispense his Gospel and his mysteries, not the inauguration of priests to offer sacrifices. He has commissioned them to preach the Gospel and to feed his flock, and not to immolate victims."422422    Institutes, IV. ch. XIX. § 28. (In Tholuck’s ed. II. 470.)

The evangelical ministry in the non-episcopal Churches was of necessity presbyterial, that is, descended from the, Presbyterate, which was originally identical with the episcopate. Even the Church of England, during her formative period under the reigns of Edward VI. and Elizabeth, recognized the validity of presbyterial ordination, not only in the Lutheran and Reformed Churches of the Continent, but within her own jurisdiction, as in the cases of Peter Martyr, professor of theology at Oxford; Bucer, Fagius, and Cartwright, professors at Cambridge; John à Lasco, pastor in London; Dean Whittingham of Durham, and many others.423423    Keble says in his Introduction to Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity:, Nearly up to the time when Hooker wrote (1594), numbers had been admitted to the ministry of the Church of England with no better than presbyterial ordination."

2. But whence did Calvin and the other Reformers derive their authority to reform the old Catholic Church and to found new Churches? Here we must resort to a special divine call and outfit. The Reformers belong not to the regular order of priests, but to the irregular order of prophets whom God calls directly by his Spirit from the plough or the shepherd’s staff or the workshop or the study. So he raises and endows men with rare genius for poetry or art or science or invention or discovery. All good gifts come from God; but the gift of genius is exceptional, and cannot be derived or propagated by ordinary descent. There are divine irregularities as well as divine regularities. God writes on a crooked as well as on a straight line. Even Paul was called out of due time, and did not seek ordination from Peter or any other apostle, but derived his authority directly from Christ, and proved his ministry by the abundance of his labors.

In the apostolic age there were apostles, prophets, and evangelists for the Church at large, and presbyter-bishops and deacons for particular congregations. The former are considered extraordinary officers. But their race is not yet extinct, any more than the race of men of genius in any other sphere of life. They arise whenever and wherever they are needed.

We are bound to the ordinary means of grace, but God is free, and his Spirit works when, where, and how he pleases. God calls ordinary men for ordinary work in the ordinary way; and he calls extraordinary men for extraordinary work in an extraordinary way. He has done so in times past, and will do so to the end of time.424424    Our own age is witness to this fact. I may refer to Dwight Lyman Moody, who is a plain, unordained layman, but a genuine, God-taught evangelist. He has probably converted more people to a Christian life than any clergyman or learned professor of theology of this age, and has made his home at Northfield a Jerusalem for Bible students from all parts of the country, and even from across the sea.

Hooker, the most "judicious" of Anglican divines, says: Though thousands were debtors to Calvin, as touching divine knowledge, yet he was to none, only to God."



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