THE ECCLESIASTICAL ORDINANCES. (SEPTEMBER, 1541.)
As soon as Calvin arrived at Geneva his active exertions were called for in several directions. But his great business was the composition of the Ordinances, and taking part in the deliberations of the commission appointed for the purpose by the Council. ‘Calvin,’ says one of his biographers, ‘drew up a scheme of church order and discipline.’ Although he was in reality its author, it is nevertheless probable that others, and particularly Viret, had a hand in it. Many difficulties, many different opinions must have appeared in the course of the discussions; but Calvin was determined to show much forbearance and consideration for his colleagues. ‘I will endeavor,’ he said, ‘to maintain a good understanding and harmony with all with whom I have to act, and brotherly kindness, too, if they will allow me, combining with it as much fidelity and diligence as I possibly can. So far as it depends on me, I will give no ground of offence to anyone.’ Such was the spirit which Calvin entered on the work. In the same he wrote to Bucer: ‘If in any way I do not answer to your expectation, you know that I am in your power and subject to your authority. Admonish me, chastise me, exercise towards me all the authority of a father over his son.’ It appears, however, that Calvin encountered no opposition on the part of the members of the commission.
The six laymen who had been associated with him were more or less in the number of his adherents. Objections were to come from other quarters.
After about fourteen days, says Calvin, our task was finished, and the plan was presented by the commissioners to the Little Council. It had been determined (September 16) that the articles should be submitted to examination by the Little Council, the Council of the Two Hundred, and the General Council. On September 28 the Council began to apply itself to the document laid before it. If the commission began its work the day after it had been instituted, the fourteen days of which Calvin speaks extend to September 28. It appears that the syndics, informed beforehand of the presentation of the project, had caused the members of the Council to be called together for that day, in order to consult about the ‘Ordinances concerning religion.’ But the Council was not complete. ‘Many of the lords councilors had not obeyed the summons to appear.’ Are we to suppose that they would have preferred not to meddle with this business?
This was probably, the reason in some cases, but there may have been other reasons. Whatever the fact may be, it was resolved that the absentees ‘should be again summon for the next day,’ and that remonstrances should be addressed to those who had not appeared.’ f118 On the 29th of September, then, the Council began to read the articles of the ‘Ordinances on Church Government,’ and they continued their work on the following days. Many of them were accepted, others were rejected.
This task of examination in the Council was rather a long one. ‘We have not yet received any answer,’ wrote Calvin to Bucer, on October 15, seventeen days after the had been presented. Some people were astonished at these prolix discussions; but Calvin said, ‘I am not greatly disquieted by the delay.’ He thought it natural that some of the council should object to his propositions. ‘Meanwhile,’ said he, ‘we are confident that what we ask will be granted.’ Nevertheless, anxious that the members of the Council should obtain information from others rather than from himself on the points which seemed to make them hesitate, the reformer suggested a plan which appeared to him advisable, namely, that the Council should previously enter into communication on this subject with the churches of German Switzerland, and should not come to any decision without ascertaining their opinion. He was sure of their support. ‘We earnestly desire that this should be done,’ he added. f118a At length the Council communicated its remarks. The commission—and in this Calvin was predominant—did not yield on any essential article. It did make, however, some concessions, for example, as to the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin had asked that it should be celebrated once a month.
It is known that he personally would have liked a still more frequent celebration. The Council insisted on its continuing to be observed only four times a year; and Calvin yielded. He altered and softened some expressions. He thought this course legitimate by reason of the weakness of the time. On the 25th of October, the preachers, probably Calvin and Viret, brought to the Council the amended Articles, and at the same time addressed to them ‘becoming admonitions praying them to settle and pass them.’ The matter was adjourned to the next day; and the ordinary Council was convoked for that day under the penalty stated in the oath of a councilor (sous la peine du serment ). On October 27, they were still busied with the Ordinances; and this ecclesiastical constitution was finally established ‘as it was contained in writing in the articles.’ On November 9, the scheme was presented by the ordinary Council to the Council of the Two Hundred; and the latter adopted it after making one or two unimportant amendments. On November 20, it was read to the General Council, in which it passed ‘by a very large majority.’ Consent, however, was not so unanimous as to show that there were no longer any opponents of these ordinances. According to Theodore Beza, there were some among the people and also among the leading citizens, who, while they had indeed renounced the Pope, had only in outward appearance attached themselves to Jesus Christ. There were, likewise, some ministers who did not venture openly to reject the ordinances, but who were secretly opposed to them. Calvin, by perseverance and moderation, overcame these difficulties. He showed that not only the doctrine but also the administration of the church ought to be in conformity with holy Scriptures. He supported his view by the opinion of the most learned men of the age—of Oecolampadius, Zwinglius, Zwickius, Melanchthon, Bucer, Capito, and Myconius, whose writings he quoted; but, in a conciliatory spirit, he added that churches which were not so advanced must not be condemned as if they were not Christian. The articles, after the insertion of some trifling amendments and additions, were definitively accepted (January 2, 1542), by the Three Councils. f119 What, then, were the spirit, the aim, and the constitution of the church demanded by Calvin?
The Kingdom of God is the essence of the church. Jesus Christ came to establish it by communicating to fallen men a divine life. The Reformers had this in mind when, in January 1537, they had presented to the Council the first articles concerning the organization of the church, ‘because it had pleased the Lord the better to establish his kingdom here .’ But this kingdom can be established only by means of the church or the assembly of believers. It is, therefore, important that this church should be organized in conformity with holy Scripture; and this is Calvin’s practical point of view in the new Ordinances. They begin with the following words:— ‘In the name of God Almighty: ‘We, Syndics, Little and Great Councils, with our people assembled at the sound of the trumpet and of the great bell, according to our ancient customs. ‘Having considered that it is a matter worthy above all others of recommendation that the doctrine of the holy Gospel of our Lord should be indeed preserved in its purity, that the Christian church should be duly maintained, that the young should for the future be faithfully instructed, and that the hospital should be kept in good condition for the support of the poor, it has seemed good to us that the spiritual government, as our Lord institutes it by his Word, should be reduced into proper form to be kept among us; and thus we have ordained and established for observance in our own town and territory the ecclesiastical policy set forth below, seeing that it is taken from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ f120 Thus Calvin wished to establish the church of Geneva after the model of the primitive church. More than that, it was in the word itself, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ , that he would seek its nature, its rules, and its character. Here is no question of tradition, not even of the most ancient.
This is the characteristic feature of the church as Calvin wished to establish it.
In pagan antiquity legislators had made it their foremost aim to train their peoples for war by exercises adapted to develop their strength and their dexterity. Moses, at the same time that he set forth a living God, the Creator, and his holy will, had been obliged, in order to keep the people from evil, and to represent in figures things to come, to bind them up in a network of numerous ceremonies. The Popes of modern Rome, putting at the head of their system their own infallible and absolute sovereignty, checked the development of the peoples; while, by their indulgences and their absolutions, they loosened the bonds of duty, and struck a blow at morals. Calvin, who knew that sin is the ruin of nations , desired for Geneva the conditions which are essential to the real prosperity of a people, namely, that it should be good, pure, and sound in body and in mind. His purpose was larger still. He wished to make of the city which received him that which it in fact became—a fortress, capable not only of offering resistance to Rome, but, in addition, of winning the victory over her, and of substituting for her superstitions and her despotism truth and freedom. Nothing less than the salvation of modern Christendom was to be the result of his efforts. In order to make of Geneva a Villafranca, as at a later period it was sometimes named, it was not enough that he should deliver discourses, as had frequently been demanded of him; it was necessary to watch over this seed of the Word when cast into men’s hearts to the end that it might flourish there. The ruin of Rome had been her separation of morals from faith. Had not the world seen a Pope, John XXIII., when charged ‘with all the mortal sins, infinite in number, and likewise abominable,’ make answer ‘that he had indeed, as a man, committed some of these sins, but that it was not possible to condemn a Pope except for heresy’? Immorality had found its way not only into the abodes of the laity, but into convents, presbyteries, bishoprics, and the palace of the Pope. And thenceforward the Papacy was ruined. Calvin longed for Christianity in its integrity, for its faith and its works. It is not enough that a stream of water be near a meadow. It may pass beside it, and leave it dry. There must be conduits and canals which the water may pass, spread over, and fertilize the lands. Calvin thought that he was bound to do something of this sort for the establishment of the church which he had at heart.
The earnestness with which he insisted on the necessity of a truly Christian life is, perhaps, the distinguishing characteristic of Calvin among all Reformers. ‘There ought to be perceptible in our life,’ said he, a ‘melody and harmony between the justice of God and our own condition, and the image of Christ ought to appear in our obedience. If we adopt us for his children, it is to this life .’ In the Ordinances he did not stop to demonstrate this doctrine; it was not the place to do so. He kept to the practical side. ‘ With regard to what belongs to the Christian life,’ said he, ‘the faults which are in it must be corrected.’ And, contrary to the common opinion, he adds with regard to the remonstrances to be made, ‘Nevertheless, let all this be carried out with such moderation, that there may be no severity to burden anyone; and also let correction be only mild (mediocre ), to bring back sinners to our Lord.’
Calvin especially sets himself to establish what the ministry in the church ought to be; and in doing this he shows not only what the ministers, but also what the members of the Church ought to be: for St. Paul says to the faithful, Be ye imitators of me, as I also am of Christ. ‘There are,’ says Calvin, ‘four orders of offices which our Lord has instituted for the government of his Church: Firstly, pastors; next, teachers; after them, elders; and, fourthly, deacons.’ He names pastors before teachers; faith first, according to the Scriptures, and afterwards knowledge.
Speaking first of pastors, Calvin insists on the importance of doctrine, or of faith in Christ, since so long as we have not this, ‘we are,’ said he, ‘only dry and useless wood; but all those who have a living root in Christ are, on the contrary, fruitful vines.’ ‘The first thing,’ say the Ordinances , ‘is touching doctrine. It will be right for the ministers to declare that they hold the doctrine approved in the church; it will be necessary to hear them treat particularly the doctrine of the Lord.’ But he takes great pains to show that, he means a living doctrine, and not a dry scholastic dogma. ‘It must be such as the minister may communicate to the people to edification.’ f125 And, as he elsewhere says, ‘since there is no truth if it is not shown by its fruits,’ he desires that minister should teach by his life, ‘being a man of good moral character, and always conducting himself blamelessly.’ On this point he insists. He knows that morals are the science of man; and, nevertheless, as was said at a later period, that ‘in the times we live in, the corruption of morals is in the convents, and in the devotional books of monks and nuns...’ He enlarges, therefore, on this topic, and gives a long catalogue of vices which are altogether intolerable in a minister, the model of the flock. ‘Manifest blasphemy,’ he said, ‘and all kinds of bribery, falsehood, perjury, immodesty, thefts, drunkenness, fighting, usury, scandalous games, any crime entailing civil disgrace, and many other sins besides.’ Any minister who commits these crimes ought to be deposed from his office, so that a lesson may thus be given to all Christians. He admits; however, that there are vices the correction of which ought to be attempted by brotherly admonition, such as ‘a manner of dealing with Scripture which is unusual, and gives rise to scandal; curiosity, which prompts idle questioning; negligence in studying the holy books. Buffoonery (scurrilite ), lying, evil-speaking (detraction ) licentious words, injurious words, rashness, cunning tricks (mauvaises cauteles ), avarice and excessive niggardliness, unbridled anger, quarrelling, etc.’ f128 Calvin has been frequently censured for his severe morality; but a celebrated French moralist, a member of the Academy, La Bruyere—said, ‘An easy and slack morality falls to the ground with him who preaches it.’
Calvin thought the same.
But he knew that rules and prohibitions would not suffice. He was acquainted with that saying of the wise man of Israel, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ f129 Thus say the Ordinances —‘At noon on Sundays let there be a catechizing, that is to say, instruction of young children in all the three churches. Let all citizens and inhabitants be under obligation to bring or send their children to it. Let a certain formulary be provided as a basis of this instruction; that while doctrine is imparted to them, they may be questioned about what has been said, to see if they have really understood and retained it. When a child is sufficiently instructed to dispense with the catechism, let him solemnly repeat the substance of its contents, and thus make a sort of profession of Christianity in the presence of the church.’ Calvin knew and taught that ‘when little children are presented to the Lord, he receives them humanely and with great gentleness,’ and he added ‘that it would be a too cruel thing to exclude (forclorre ) from the grace of God those who are of this age.’ He wishes ‘the elders to have an eye to them , that they may watch over them.’ He thus says in his Ordinances , what a great poet has repeated in his verses’:— O vous, sur ces enfants, si chers, si precieux, Ministres du Seigneur, ayez toujours les yeux. f132 It is not with children alone that he concerns himself, it is with all the weak. He thinks of the sick. He fears that many neglect to find consolation in God by His word, and die without the doctrine which would then be to them more salutary than ever; and he requires that no one should be sick more than three days without sending for a minister. He takes thought for the poor, and will have the deacons receive and dispense ‘as well the daily alms as possessions, annuities, and pensions.’ He does not forget the sick poor, and will have ‘them cared for and their wounds dressed.’ He ands for the town hospital a paid physician and surgeon, who shall also visit the other poor. He thinks also of foreigners. Many came to Geneva to escape persecution. He therefore founds a hospital for wayfarers. He demands a separate hospital for the plague. But with regard to beggary, he declares it contrary to good police, and wishes that ‘officers should be appointed to remove from the place the beggars who would offer resistance (belistrer ); and if they were rude and insolent (qu’ils se rebecquassent )’ he demands that they should be brought before one of the syndics. With respect to the last class of the unfortunate, prisoners, he wishes that every Saturday afternoon they should be assembled for admonition and exhortation, and that if any of them should be in chains (aux ceps ) and it is not thought advisable to remove them, admission should be granted to some minister to console them; for if it is put off till they are to be led out to die, they are often so overcome by terror that they can neither receive nor understand anything. f136 For these functions and for others, great care must be taken in the choice of men for the ‘four orders of offices which the Lord has instituted for the government of his church.’ ‘No one is to intrude into the office of a minister without a call.’ We have seen that the examination turns on doctrine and on morals. There is no room for hesitation in regard to this: but there was in Calvin’s mind some doubt as to the mode of their election. He had always acknowledged that two orders ought to have a share in it: the pastors and the people. But in the Institution chretienne, in which he speaks in general terms, he insists that the common freedom and right of the church (du troupeau ) shall be in no respect infringed or diminished. He desires that ‘the pastor should preside at the elections, in order to lead the people by good counsel and not for the purpose of cutting out their work for them according to their own views, without regard to others .’ ‘The pastors,’ he adds, ‘ought to preside at the election in order that the multitude may not proceed in a frivolous, factious, or tumultuous manner.’ Calvin in the Ordinances went beyond this rule. He established ‘that the ministers should in the first instance elect the man who was to be appointed to the office; that afterwards he should be presented to the Council; and that if the Council accepted him, he should be finally introduced to the people by preaching, to the end that he might be by the common consent of the faithful.’ f138 Assuredly the right of the church was hereby curtailed . Calvin might be mistaken in his estimate, and might suppose that the bold Genevese would dare to reject the elect of two authorities, the spiritual and the temporal. It did not turn out so; the consent of the people was an empty ceremony and was ultimately dispensed with. The source of the evil was the circumstance that church and nation were the same body; and that the nation supplied the church with a great number of members who had neither the intelligence nor the piety necessary to the choice of competent and pious ministers. When the church is composed of men who openly profess the great truths of the Gospel and conform their lives thereto, it is possible to trust to the flock, which does not exclude the natural influence of pastors. But when the church is a vast medley, when perhaps even the incompetent elements predominate in it, it is necessary to assign a larger share in the election to the ministers. Calvin, however, made it too large, for it annulled that of the members of the church. But election in a church by numbers is always a difficult matter. The Ordinances added ‘that for the purpose of introducing the elected minister, it would be proper to adopt the practice of laying on of hands, as in the time of the apostles; but that considering the superstitions which have prevailed in past ages, the practice shall be disused from regard to the infirmity of the times.’ f139 ‘The laying on of hands was at a later period re-established.
The elected minister was to take, at the hands of the syndics and council, an oath, prepared subsequently, by which he pledged himself ‘to serve God faithfully, setting forth his word purely, with a good conscience making use of his doctrine for the promotion of his glory and for the benefit of the people, without giving way either to hatred or to favor or to any other carnal desire, taking pains that the people dwell together in peace and unity, and setting an example of obedience to all others.’ F139a After the order of ministers, Calvin places ‘that of teachers,’ which he calls also ‘the order of schools.’ The reader in theology is to make it his aim ‘that the purity of the Gospel be not corrupted by ignorance or erroneous opinions.’ ‘Sound doctrine,’ said he elsewhere, ‘must be carefully entrusted to the hands of faithful ministers who are competent to teach it; and in this way he established, after St. Paul ( 1 Timothy 2:2), the necessity for schools of theology.
He did not stop here; he pleaded the cause of letters and the sciences. ‘These lessons’ (theological) said he, ‘cannot profit unless there be in the first place instruction in languages and natural science.’ Then, anxious ‘to raise up seed for the time to come,’ he applies himself to the case of childhood. ‘It will needful,’ he says, ‘to erect a college for the instruction of children, in order to prepare them as well for the ministry as for the civil government. Consequently he demands for young people ‘a learned man shall have under his charge readers (professors) as well in languages as in dialectics, and, in addition, masters to teach young children.’ Calvin, endowed with great clearness of understanding, would have none of ‘those subtitles by means of which men who are greedy of reputation push themselves into notice, and which are puffed out to such a size that they hide the true doctrines of the Gospel, which is simple and makes little show, while this ostentatious pomp is received with applause by the world.’ But while aware of the uselessness and the danger of half knowledge and of ‘those flighty speculations which make the simplicity of the true doctrine contemptible in the eyes of a world almost always attracted by outward display,’ he attached importance to the acquisition of information, and to variety of knowledge on many subjects. Hence, in all lands into which his influence has penetrated, it is found that the people are well taught, and true science held in honor.
After the teachers come the elders, of whom there were to be twelve, that is to say, nearly two elders to each minister. They were to be ‘people of good life and honesty, without reproach and beyond suspicion, above all fearing God and having much spiritual discretion.’ Lastly come the deacons, whose functions we have already pointed out. f142 The assembly of the ministers and the elders formed the consistory. The twelve elders were elected, not by the church, but by the Council of State or Little Council. They were not taken indiscriminately from among the members of the church. Two were to belong to the Little Council, four to the Council of Sixty, and six to the Council of the Two Hundred. Before proceeding, however, to the election, the Council summoned the ministers to state their views on the subject; and when election had been made, it was presented to the Council of the Two Hundred, for its approval.’ f143 These elders appointed or delegated by the Councils were substantially magistrates; but the fact that the ministers were consulted, the influence which the pastors must have over their lay colleagues, and the very nature of their functions made them rather beings of two species, belonging partly to the church and partly to the state. This fact gives peculiar importance to this body. It has frequently been called a tribunal; but it was not such in reality. Exhortation and conciliation played the principal part in its proceedings. It has also been said that matters of doctrine belonged to the ministers, and matters of morality to the elders. This is not the exact truth.
The two classes of men who formed the consistory had to do with errors of both kinds. Lastly, this body has been likened to the Inquisition. We cast aside with indignation this assimilation of Genevese presbyterianism to the terrible, secret, and cruel institution which depopulated provinces, cost Spain alone the loss of five millions of her subjects, which filled her with superstitions and ignorance, and lowered her in the scale of nations, while Geneva, under the influence of her pastors and her elders, increased in intelligence, in morality, in prosperity, in population, in influence, and in greatness.
The pastors took charge of the public worship. The preaching of the Word was to be the essential feature of it. ‘The duty of the pastors, say the Ordinances, ‘who are sometimes also named in the Scriptures overseers (episcopos ), elders, and ministers, is to announce the Word of God for instruction, admonition, exhortation, and reproof.’ The Reformation deprived the priest of his magic, his power to transform by a word a bit of bread and make of it the body and blood of Christ—Jesus Christ in his entire being as God and man. This glory, with which the head of the priest had till this time been encompassed, was now taken from him; the minister was servant of the Word, and this was his glory. The service of the Word became the center of all the functions of a minister. ‘Every time the Gospel is preached,’ said Calvin, ‘it is as if God himself came in person solemnly to summon us, to the end that we may no longer be like people groping in darkness, and not knowing whither to go.’ The times for preaching were multiplied by Calvin. On Sunday there were sermons at daybreak, again at nine o’clock, and at three o’clock; and six in the course of the week. f146 While, however, Calvin most energetically rejected the superstition of the mass, he knew that Christ would have in his church not only the teaching of the truth by the word, but besides this, union with him. To know him was insufficient; it was needful to have him. He insisted on the fact that Christ verily imparted to his disciples not only his doctrine, but in addition to that his life. This is recalled to mind by the sacrament of the Supper, which becomes in truth a means of communion with the Savior, by quickening faith in his body which is broken for us, in his blood which is shed for remission of sins. We find him also again and again expressing his desire for a frequent communion. He did not obtain this, and doubtless understood that as he had to do with a multitude often caring little about this union, it would not do to have the Supper too frequently repeated.
But it remained ever true that the Lord, having promised his presence to every assembly gathered in his name, could not be absent from the feast to which he invited his people, and there gave heavenly food to those who had faith receive it.
Lastly, Calvin assigned an important place to the public prayers. Those which he composed himself, which appear in his liturgy, are rich not only in doctrine but in spiritual power. He wished also that all the people should take an active part in the worship by the singing of psalms. The whole service was simple but serious, full of dignity and calling the people to worship in spirit and in truth. f148 The elders had the function of overseers, which is expressed by the Greek word ejpi>skopov One of these was elected in each quarter of the town, in order to have an eye everywhere . ‘They used to be accompanied says Bonivard in his Police Ecclesiastique ,’ by the tithing-men (dizeniers ) from house to house asking of all the members of the household a reason for their faith. After that, if they think that there is any evil in the house, general or particular, they admonish to repentance.’ The consistory ‘met once a week, on Thursday morning, to see if there were any disorder in the church and to discuss remedies, when needful.’ Those who taught contrary to the received doctrine and those who showed themselves to be despisers of ecclesiastical order were to be called before it, for the purpose of conference and to be admonished. If they became obedient they were to be dismissed with kindliness; but if they persisted in going from bad to worse, after being thrice admonished, they were to be separated from the church. f150 Private vices were to be privately rebuked; and no one was to bring his neighbor before the church for any offence which was not notorious or scandalous, except after being proved rebellious. With respect to notorious and open vices, the duty of the elders would be to call before them those who are tainted with them, for the purpose of addressing friendly representations to them and, if amendment should appear, to trouble them no further. If they persisted in doing wrong, they were to be admonished a second time. If, after all, this should have no effect, they were to be denounced as despisers of God, and to be kept away from the Lord’s Supper until a change of life was seen in them. f151 We cannot deny, however, that the Ordinances were severe, and that men and women were summoned before the consistory on grounds which now appear very trivial. Consequently, this discipline has been spoken against in the modern world. But minds more enlightened do justice to Calvin. ‘Without the transformation of morals,’ says a magistrate of our own times, distinguished for his moderation and the fairness of his views, ‘the reformation at Geneva would have been nothing more than a change in the forms of worship. The new foundation which was needed for a perpetual struggle would have been wanting. Nothing less than the genius of Calvin, admitted even by his opponents, would have sufficed to inspire with enthusiasm and to transform a people, and to breathe into it a new life. In order to effect a religious revolution, as he understood it, the submission of all the outward actions of life to a severe discipline was necessary; but the burden of this discipline in the sixteenth century must not be estimated by the conceptions of the nineteenth. In that age it would everywhere meet with the principle of obedience in full force; and it was lightened for all by the knowledge that no social position was exempted from its operation.’ f152 Calvin knew that a hand mightier than his must religious and moral order in Geneva. ‘If God do not work by his spirit,’ said he, ‘all the doctrine that may be set forth will be like a trifle to the winds.’ There was at this time a of public manifestation of this thought. In the month of December 1542, the Council ordered that the monogram of the name of Jesus should be engraved on the gates of the town (Jesus graves en pierre ). The chronicles of Roset say that the Council ‘ordered to be engraved on the gates of the new walls which were being built, the name of Jesus above the armorial bearings .’ It is very commonly stated that this resolution was adopted at the request of Calvin; but neither the registers of the Council, nor those of the consistory, nor Roset, mention it. This does not indeed imply that he had nothing to do with it; and this inscription was at all events placed by order of the Council, which was friendly to Calvin.
But it was nothing new. Roset states that ‘this name was engraved on the old gates of the city, time out of mind .’ It had been placed there on the demand of the syndics, in 1471, and the custom appears to be still more ancient.
Opinions differs as to the nature of the government of the church of Geneva in the sixteenth century. Some have called it a theocracy , and have seen in it the predominance of the church over the state. This view is the most widely spread, and is current among both friends and opponents of the reformer. In our days the contrary view has been maintained. It has been asserted that at the time of the reformation of Geneva, the authority of the state was completely substituted for that of the ecclesiastical power; that the Council from that time intruded on ground which was altogether within the province of the church. In fact, it went to such a length as to regulate the hour and the number of sermons; and a minister could neither publish a book, nor absent himself for a few days, without the permission of the Council. f155 This last point of view is the true one; but there were sometimes circumstances which modified this state of things. Much depended on the relations of Calvin with the governing body. If he were not on good terms with them, the Council rigorously imposed its authority. Thus it was that in the affair of Servetus, Calvin, in spite of reiterated demands, could not induce the magistrate to soften the punishment of the unhappy Spaniard.
But when their relations were agreeable, Calvin’s influence was undoubtedly powerful. There is no need to suppose that the state of things was always the same and absolutely self-consistent. But if the legislation be considered by itself, apart from the circumstances which we have just pointed out, and without regard to the conviction which possessed Calvin’s mind that when essential matters of faith are at stake we must obey God, and not man, then it is not untrue to say that ‘Calvin impressed on his organization a lay, not to say a democratic, stamp; that he did not invest the clergy either with exclusive authority or even with the presidency of the church; and that assigning carefully the part of the magistrate and that of the ministry he set at the summit of his scheme a secular episcopate, which he placed in the hands of the state.’ f156 It is true that this episcopate was placed in the hands of the state; but it is not certain that it was Calvin who placed it there. It was the state that assumed it. Before Calvin’s arrival, and while Farel and his friends were evangelizing Geneva, the Council had constantly exercised this overseership; and it was unwilling to throw it up by resigning it afterwards to the ministers. The Ordinances were not accepted exactly in the form in which Calvin had conceived them. The commission, of which the majority were laymen, and the Council itself introduced corrections and additions, as we have previously remarked. But we insist on this point in order that the part of Calvin and that of the Council in this business may be clearly distinguished from each other. If the draft, names the elders, the official copy adds, ‘Otherwise named appointees of the seignory (commis par la seigneurie );’ and elsewhere, ‘deputies of the seignory to the consistory .’ This is important. If the subject be the examination of a minister, and his introduction to the people, the official copy adds, ‘being first of all, after examination had, presented to the seignory .’ If the draft says, ‘To obviate any scandals of life it will be necessary that there should be some form of correction ;’ the official copy adds, ‘which shall pertain to the seignory .’ If the draft says of the schoolmaster, ‘that no one is to be received unless he is approved by the ministers;’ the official copy adds, ‘having first of all presented him to the seignory , and that the examination must be made in the presence of two lords of the Little Council .’ If the draft set out how the elders and the ministers are to proceed in their admonitions, the Council adds, ‘We have ordered that the said ministers are not to assume to themselves any jurisdiction; but that they are merely to hear the parties, and make the above-mentioned representations; and upon their statement of the case we shall be able to consult, and to deliver judgement, according to the exigencies of the case.’
Finally, the following additional article, proposed by the commission, was inserted in the official text, at the end of the Ordinances. ‘And let all this be done in such a manner that the ministers may have no civil jurisdiction, and make use only of the spiritual sword of the Word of God, as St. Paul enjoins upon them. And that this consistory shall in no respect trench upon either the authority of the seignory or ordinary courts of justice; but that the power may continue in its integrity. And if there should be need of inflicting any penalty and of attaching the parties, that the ministers with the consistory, after hearing the parties and making such representations as shall be proper, are to report the whole to the Council, which, on their statement, will consider of their decree, and give judgment according to the facts.’ f158 The Council displayed its zeal even in mere trifles. Not once only, but every time the word elder occurs, it added to it or substituted for it the words appointed or deputed by the seignory. And whenever the report, to designate the Council, employs the word Messieurs, the official copy does not fail to insert in its place the seignory.
If Calvin had a large share in the Ordinances, assuredly the Council had its share too. The corrections which Calvin’s work received at their hands are all the more remarkable because at no other time did they hold him in greater esteem. The members of the seignory were friends of his, and the reformer having yielded to their entreaties so frequently repeated, it would have been natural that they should exhibit some deference to him; but, on the contrary their manner of proceeding had a little stiffness in it. Calvin having, it seems, some fears about the alterations which the Council might have introduced into his scheme, requested, in concert with his colleagues, to see them; but the Council decided that it was not for the preachers to revise them , and that the whole should be delivered the same day to the Council of the Two Hundred.
According to all these data, the responsibility of Calvin in the ecclesiastical government of Geneva does not seem so great as is supposed; and the circumstance that the deputies or nominees of the Council formed the majority in the consistory is certainly significant. Many of the alterations or additions were just. This was especially the case with the article which assigned to the ministers the spiritual sword alone. Calvin must have acceded to it with joy. But others were real encroachments of the civil power. It is probable that the reformer was pained to see them, for he wished the church to have for its supreme law the word of its divine head.
He would never have made a compromise on doctrine; but considering the great work which had to be done in Geneva, he believed—as otherwise he must have renounced the hope of accomplishing it—that he ought to make concessions on some points of government. He always condemned ‘the hypocrites who, while omitting judgment, mercy, and faith, and even reviling the law, are all the more rigorous in matters which are not of great importance.’ He did not strain at a gnat while he swallowed a camel. The dangers involved in the intrusion of the state into the affairs of the church were not recognized in his time; and sacrifices which he made were more important than he imagined.