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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 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.675675    "De necessitate reformandae Ecclesiae" (Opera, VI. 459 sq.): "Regimen in ecclesia, munus pastorale, et reliquus ordo, una cum sacramentis, instar corporis sunt, doctrina autem illa, quae rite colendi Dei regulam praescribit, et ubi salutis fiduciam debeant hominum conscientiae ostendit, anima est, quae corpus ipsum inspirat, vividum et actuosum reddit; facit denique, ne sit mortuum et inutile cadaver."

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."676676    Inst. IV. ch. III. § 1.

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.677677    Acta 14:23, Χειροτονήσαντες, voting by uplifting the hand. "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 (1 Tim. 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."678678    Inst. IV. Ch. III. § 15; comp. ch. IV. § 11 sqq., where he quotes the old rule: "Let him who is to preside over all, be chosen by all.’

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.679679    In his Commentary on Phil. 1:1, he correctly infers from the plural ἐπίσκοποι, that "nomen episcopi omnibus Verbi ministris esse commune, quum plures uni ecclesiae Episcopos attribuat. Sunt igitur synonyma Episcopus et Pastor. Atque hic locus ex iis unus est, quos Hieronymus ad illud probandum citat, in Epistola ad Evagrium, et in expositione Epistolae ad Titum." In his Commentary on Acts 20:28 (comp. with verse 17), he says: "Omnes Ephesinos Presbyteros indifferentur a Paulo sic [episcopi] vocantur, unde colligimus secundum Scripturae usum nihil a Presbyteris differre Episcopos, sed vitio et corruptela factum esse, ut qui primas tenebant in singulis civitatibus Episcopi vocari coeperint." Comp. also his commentaries on the relevant passages in the Pastoral Epistles, and his Inst. IV. ch. III. § 8, and ch. IV. § 2 (where he quotes Jerome in full). The Lutheran symbols likewise teach the identity of the episcopate and presbyterate (see the second Appendix to the Smalcaldian Articles, p. 341, ed. J. T. Müller); but the Lutheran Churches in Germany have Superintendents and General Superintendents (called "Bishops" in Prussia, "Prelates" in Württemberg). Sweden, Norway, and Denmark retained or reintroduced episcopacy (jure humano, not jure divino). The church government of the Lutheran Churches in America is a compromise between the Presbyterian and synodical system and congregational independency.

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.680680    Melanchthon in this respect went much further and was willing to submit to a papacy, provided the pope would tolerate the free preaching of the gospel. He subscribed the Smalcaldian Articles with the restriction: "De pontifice statuo, si evangelium admitteret, posse ei propter pacem et communem tranquillitatem Christianorum ... superioritatem in episcopos ... jure humano etiam a nobis permitti." 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.681681    He says in this letter, dated Geneva, 5th Dec., 1554: "The ancient Church indeed instituted patriarchates, and to different provinces assigned certain primacies, that by this bond of concord the bishops might remain more closely united among themselves. Exactly as if, at the present day, one archbishop should have a certain pre-eminence in the illustrious kingdom of Poland, not to lord it over the others, nor arrogate to himself a right of which they were forcibly deprived; but for the sake of order to occupy the first place in synods, and cherish a holy unity between his colleagues and brethren. Then there might be either provincial or urban bishops, whose functions should be particularly directed to the preservation of order. As nature dictates, one of these should be chosen from each college, to whom this care should be specially confided. But it is one thing to hold a moderate dignity such as is not imcompatible with the abilities of a man, and another to comprise the whole world under one overgrown government. What the Romanists keep prating about one single head is then altogether nugatory, because neither the sacred commandment of God, nor the established usage of the Church sanctions a second head to be joined with Christ, whom alone the Heavenly Father has set over all." Bonnet-Constable, III. 104. Comp. Inst. IV. ch. IV. §§ 1-4; Henry II. 68, 375; III. 427 sqq.; Dyer, 283 sqq.; 456 sq.

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.



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