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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 103. Church and State.


Calvin’s Church polity is usually styled a theocracy, by friends in praise, by foes in censure.682682    By Weber, Henry, and Stähelin, and many others; also by Kampschulte, who remarks (I. 471): "Der Grundgedanke, von dem der Gesetzgeber Genfs ausgeht, ist die Theokratie. Er will in Genf den Gottesstaat herstellen." But Amédée Roget (L’église et l’état àGenève du vivant de Calvin) and Merle d’Aubigné (vol. VII. 120) dissent from this view and point to the limitations of the ecclesiastical power in Geneva. Merle d’Aubigné says: "Calvin was not a theocrat, unless the term be taken in the most spiritual sense." 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.683683    Inst. IV. ch. XX. § 1."Volui," he wrote to a friend, "sicut aequum est, spiritualem potestatem acivili judicio distingui." Epp. et Resp. 263. 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" (Matt. 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.684684    Conf. Helvetica II. ch. XXX.; Conf. Gallicana, ch. XXXIX. (God has put the sword into the hands of magistrates to suppress crimes against the first as well as the second table of his Commandments"); Conf. Belgica, ch. XXXVI.; Conf. Scotica, Art. XXIV.; Thirty-nine Articles, Art. XXXVII. (changed in the American recension); Westminster Conf. ch. XXIII. (changed in the American recension).

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.



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