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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 105. The Venerable Company and the Consistory.


The Church of Geneva consisted of all baptized and professing Christians subject to discipline. It had, at the time of Calvin, a uniform creed; Romanists and sectarians being excluded. It was represented and governed by the Venerable Company and the Consistory.

1. The Venerable Company was a purely clerical body, consisting of all the pastors of the city and district of Geneva. It had no political power. It was intrusted with the general supervision of all strictly ecclesiastical affairs, especially the education, qualification, ordination, and installation of the ministers of the gospel. But the consent of the civil government and the congregation was necessary for the final induction to the ministry. Thus the pastors and the people were to co-operate.

2. The Consistory or Presbytery was a mixed body of clergymen and laymen, and larger and more influential than the Venerable Company. It represented the union of Church and State. It embraced, at the time of Calvin, five city Pastors and twelve Seniors or Lay-Elders, two of whom were selected from the Council of Sixty and ten from the Council of Two Hundred. The laymen, therefore, had the majority; but the clerical element was comparatively fixed, while the Elders were elected annually under the influence of the clergy. A Syndic was the constitutional head.703703    The revised Eccles. Ordinances of 1561 provide (Opera, X. P. I. 121) that one of the four Syndics preside over the Consistory with the marshal’s staff (avec son bâton) which signifies civil jurisdiction rather than spiritual regime, afin de mieux garder la distinction qui nous est monstrée en l’Escriture saincte entre le qlaive et authoritédu Magistrat, et la superintendence qui doit estre en Eglise." This regulation of Calvin refutes the assertion of Dyer (p. 142), that " Calvin usurped the perpetual presidency of the Consistory," and that " he wished Beza to succeed him in this presidency." Calvin never presided in form, but ruled the proceedings in fact by his superior intelligence and weighty judgment.704704    "While he was not president of this body, it may be truly said that he was its soul." Merle d’Aubigné (VII. 120). So also Cramer, Roget, and others.

The Consistory went into operation immediately after the adoption of the Ordinances, and met every Thursday. The reports begin from the tenth meeting, which was held on Thursday, Feb. 16, 1542.705705    Annal., XXI. 291, sub Février 16, 1542: "Dixième séance du Consistoire, première dont il existe un procès verbal, lequel mentionne entre autres la présence de Calvin et de Viret. Les autres ministres membres du C., sont Bernard, Henri, et Champeraux. Viret est mentionnépour la dernière fois le 18 juillet. Calvin assiste régulièrement aux séances pendant tout l’exercice 1542-43, exceptécinq fois."

The duty of the Consistory was the maintenance and exercise of discipline. Every house was to be visited annually by a Minister and Elder. To facilitate the working of this system the city was divided into three parishes—St. Peter’s, the Magdalen, and St. Gervais. Calvin officiated in St. Peter’s.

The Consistorial Court was the controlling power in the Church of Geneva. It has often been misrepresented as a sort of tribunal of Inquisition or Star Chamber. But it could only use the spiritual sword, and had nothing to do with civil and temporal punishments, which belonged exclusively to the Council. The names of Gruet, Bolsec, and Servetus do not even appear in its records.706706    A. Roget, l.c., p. 31: "Le Consistoire ne pouvait infliger aucune peine, et, chose remarquable, il n’avait aucune attribution doctrinale. L’ancien syndic Cramer, dans l’excellente préface qu’il a placée en tête des extraits des Registres du Consistoire, a fait observer que Gruet, Bolsec et Servet ne sant pas même nommés dans les documents qu’il a analysés; toutes les fois qu’un procès de doctrine est instruit, c’est le Conseil qui prononce, sur le préavis des pasteurs." Calvin wrote to the ministers of Zürich, Nov. 26, 1553: "The Consistory has no civil jurisdiction, but only the right to reprove according to the Word of God, and its severest punishment is excommunication."707707    Opera, XIV. 675: "Nulla in Consistorio civilis jurisdictio, sed tantum reprehensiones ex Verbo Domini: ultima vero poena, excommunicatio." He wisely provided for the preponderance of the lay-element.

At first the Council, following the example of Basel and Bern, denied to the Consistory the right of excommunication.708708    On March 19, 1543, the Council of the Sixty resolved "que le Consistoire n’ait ni jurisdiction ni puissance de défendre la cène, sinon seulement d’admonester et puis faire relation en Conseil, afin que la Seigneurie avise de juger sur les délinquants suivant leur demerites." Reg., quoted by Roget, p. 37. A month before, the government of Bern had categorically refused the right of excommunication to the ministers of Lausanne. Ruchat, V. 211. The persons excluded from the Lord’s Table usually appealed to the Council, which often interceded in their behalf or directed them to make an apology to the Consistory. There was also a difference of opinion as regards the consequences of excommunication. The Consistory demanded that persons cut off from the Church for grievous offenses and scandalous lives should be banished from the State for a year, or until they repent; but the Council did not agree. Calvin could not always carry out his views, and acted on the principle to tolerate what he could not abolish.709709    "Tolero quod tollere non licet," as he says in one of his letters. It was only after his final victory over the Libertines in 1555 that the Council conceded to the Consistory the undisputed power of excommunication.710710    Roget (p. 67): "Le point de vue soutenu par Calvin dans la question de la cène avait enfin triomphéirrévocablement et, dès 1555, nous trouvons le Consistoire en possession, d’une manière incontestée, du droit d’accorder ou de refuser la participation aux sacrements. Toutefois, le Conseil et les ministres ne sont pas complétement d’accord sur les consequences que doit entrainer l’excommunication."

From these facts we may judge with what right Calvin has so often been called "the Pope of Geneva," mostly by way of reproach.711711    Roget (p. 83 sq.) has collected such exaggerated judgments from several French writers and contradicts them. Florimond de Raemond says: "Calvin se rendit le maistre, l’évesque, le seigneur, disposant de la religion, de l’estat, de la ville, du gouvernement, de la police, comme bon luy sembloit." Duruy: "Calvin eut dès 1541 et exerça jusqu’àsa mort un pouvoir absolu. Il organisa le gouvernement de Genève au profit presque exclusif des ministres du culte réformé." Capefigue: "Calvin réunissait tons les fils du pouvoir suprême en sa personne." Paul Janet: "Calvin a étéle magistrat suprême d’une democratie." Rosseuw St. Hilaire: "Tout excès appelle une reaction en sens contraire, Calvin subordonne l’Etat àl’Eglise." Saisset: "L’Etat devenait une théocratie et les citoyens de Genève n’etaient plus que les sujets d’un petit nombre de ministres, sujets eux-mêmes de Calvin, lequel dominait les trois Conseils du sein du Consistoire et paraissait it la fois le roiet le pontifesouverain de la cite." As far as the designation is true, it is an involuntary tribute to his genius and character. For he had no material support, and he never used his influence for gain or personal ends. The Genevese knew him well and obeyed him freely.



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