Calvin Against the Anabaptists

In several recent posts, I have hinted at the tendency of Reformed disciplinarian thinking to fall into the same errors as Anabaptism, attempting to collapse the gap between the pure Church, hidden in Christ and only glimpsed in the world, and the mixed Church of wheat and tares in which we must live and worship—or, to put it more succinctly, attempting to immanentize the eschaton, anticipating the judgment which only Christ can make by claiming to identify in the here and now all those who are his and those who are not.  

In his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists (a critique of the Schleitheim Confession), however, John Calvin offers an extraordinarily fine summary of what is at stake, and why rightly Reformed discipline must never seek to overstep its all too human limits.  (Of course, it may justly be argued that Calvin himself perhaps did not always sufficiently maintain these caveats in practice, and later disciplinarians would certainly cite him as precedent for some of their excesses.)  Here is the nub of the matter:

“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there.  Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.

“We, on the contrary, confess that it certainly is an imperfection and an unfortunate stain in a church where this order is absent.  Nevertheless, we do not hold it to be the church, nor persist in its necessity for communion, nor do we hold that it is lawful for people to separate themselves from the church.”

He subdivides this matter into two questions: (1) is a church that does not discipline still a church? (2) is it legitimate to separate oneself from a church on the account that it does not practice discipline?

On the first, he appeals to the example of the Corinthians and Galatians, who were still designated “churches” despite their severe corruptions.

“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24).  Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47).  These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”

This ongoing pollution is of two kinds: first, the persistent sin in the lives of believers, who are simul justus et peccator, so that “even if we had the best-disciplined church in the world, nevertheless, we could not evade the fact that we would daily need our Lord’s cleansing of us in delivering us from our sins by His grace”; second, in that the church always contains hypocrites, who do not fear God or honor him in their lives.  

Now, it is the role of excommunication to remove the latter from the Church, but we must be realistic about its limits:

“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present.  For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.

“Therefore, in sum, let us hold to what our Lord says, that until the end of the world, it is necessary to tolerate many bad weeds, for fear that if we should pull them all up we might lose the good grain in the process (Matt. 13:25, 29).  What more do we want?  Our Lord, in order to test his own, has willed to subject His church to this poverty, so that it has always contained a mixture of good and bad.”

It is for this reason that Calvin refuses to elevate discipline to a mark of the Church, as some other reformers, influenced by the Anabaptists, were doing:

“For we owe this honor to the Lord’s holy Word and to His holy sacraments: that wherever we see this Word preached, and, following the rule that it gives us, God therein purely worshiped without superstition, and the sacraments administered, we conclude without difficulty that there the church exists.  Otherwise, what would you have?  That the wickedness of hypocrites, or the contemptuous of God, should be able to destroy the dignity and virtue of the Word of our Lord and His sacraments?

“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured.  But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”

Discipline cannot be a mark, because discipline is something that we do, and the Church is the work of God:

“it would be incorrect to base consideration solely on men.  For the majesty of the Word of God and His sacraments ought to be so highly esteemed by us that wherever we see that majesty we may know with certainty that the church exists, notwithstanding the vices and errors that characterize the common life of men.

“In summary, whenever we have to decide what constitutes the church, the judgment of God deserves to be preferred over ours.  But the Anabaptists cannot acquiesce in the judgment of God.”


The second question to be addressed follows logically from this discussion—ought we to separate ourselves from churches that do not discipline properly?  (Note that Calvin has in mind a context where there is essentially one established Christian community—or one Protestant community at least—not a modern denominational setting where many different instantiations of the church exist alongside one another.  To separate from the church at Geneva, in Calvin’s context, would have been a declaration that it was not a legitimate church.)  The Anabaptists said that “wherever the undisciplined are not excluded from the communion of the sacrament, the Christian corrupts himself by communing there.”  Unholiness, on this understanding, is intrinsically contagious.  Note that this is not the concern (which Calvin elsewhere will express) that sinners left undisciplined will corrupt other Christians by their bad example, but that their mere presence at the Table is sufficient to bring judgment on all present, to turn the Supper of the Lord into a table of demons.  Such attitudes remain remarkably common among many Reformed today (I knew a Reformed seminary professor once who considered that at a church that practiced paedocommunion, one could not receive a valid sacrament!).  Calvin has firm words for this kind of thinking:

“a Christian ought certainly to be sad whenever he sees the Lord’s Supper being corrupted by the reception of the malicious and unworthy.  To the best of his ability, he ought to work to see that such does not happen.  Nevertheless, if it does happen, it is not lawful for him to withdraw from communion and deprive himself of the Supper.  Rather he ought always continue to worship God with the others, listen to the Word, and receive the Lord’s Supper as long as he lives in that place.”

Calvin goes on to fortify this opinion with Biblical examples, and particularly with the example of Christ himself, who did not scorn to participate in the rites of a deeply corrupt temple system.  Indeed, we should remember that Paul is quite clear in 1 Cor. 11:28 where chief responsibility for fencing the Table lies:

“he does not command everyone to examine the faults of his neighbors, but says accordingly, ‘Let every man search himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For whoever comes in an unworthy manner will receive his condemnation.

“In these words there are two matters to note.  The first is, to eat the bread of the Lord in an unworthy manner does not mean having communion with those who are unworthy of it, but not preparing oneself properly by examining if one has faith and repentance.  The second is, that when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we ought not begin by examining others, but each should examine himself.”


In summary, Calvin says, while churches should seek to discipline the openly ungodly in their midst, such discipline should not think of itself as maintaining more than a poor approximation of the holiness that properly belongs to the Church:

“let us take thought of what we can do.  And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”

(all quotes taken from pp. 57-66 of Calvin’s Treatises Against the Anabaptists and the Libertines, edited and translated by Benjamin Wirt Farley)

Genevan Mythbusters

My essay, “Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up?” is now up over at the Calvinist International, summarizing some of my recent barrage of research into the development of church discipline and ecclesiology in 16th-century Calvinism.  In it, I ask how much typical narratives of Calvin’s ecclesiology correspond to what he actually said and did in Geneva.  On a conventional narrative,

“We would find Calvin arriving in Geneva and gathering around him a band of like-minded pastors and laymen, with whom, having studied the Scriptures carefully, he drafted a church constitution.  This constitution would provide for individual congregations to elect elders for spiritual government and deacons for more temporal needs, and each group of elders would be presided over by a pastor.  Together, elders and pastor would oversee the spiritual and moral lives of their congregants, rebuking them and excommunicating them where necessary; deacons, meanwhile, would gather and manage the alms of the congregation for the needs of its members.  Elders and pastors from individual congregations would meet together regularly with all the others within the city of Geneva, and this synod would vote on decisions binding on all the individual congregations, and would hear appeals on disciplinary matters.  Calvin and his fellow pastors would have made this constitution without consulting the city council, though, in order to keep the peace, they would probably have sought the city council’s blessing, or at least their permission, to carry through this arrangement among such believers in Geneva who wished to participate in this scheme.  And here is the key point—they would not have sought to impose this system on the whole populace of Geneva, since the visible church is a gathered congregation of the truly faithful who willingly submit to discipline, not the whole body of merely outward professors of the faith.  Any Christians in Geneva who wished to participate in Calvin’s churches would have done so, and Calvin and his fellow pastors would have had no interest in imposing their discipline on those outside this church (though they certainly might have tried to evangelize them and to convince them to join).  Those excommunicated from these churches would lose their access to the sacraments and their membership in the spiritual kingdom, but would remain unimpaired citizens of Geneva and members of the society there.”

But what do we actually find?  Well, you can go read the rest of the essay to find out. 

Lutheran, Reformed, and the Danger of Historical Hindsight

At every point in his task, the historian is faced with two essential and frequently-conflicting duties: the responsibility to tell us what really happened, and the responsibility to tell us the significance of what happened.  Without the latter, all he provides is a disjointed chronicle, a sequence of happenings with no clear logic to them, which is not history.  But as soon as he attempts to tell us the significance of what happened, he risks undermining his first responsibility.  For to make sense of what happened, he must place it in a narrative, make it part of an unfolding process with an inner logic and coherence, a causal sequence that has a certain air of inevitability.  But of course, that is not how events actually happen.  The narrative into which the event is later placed does not yet exist when it takes place; the subsequent events are all as yet contingent, not inevitable.  To describe an event, then, in light of the events that succeeded it is to be, in a certain sense, false to it, since none of those who experienced it (unless they are remarkably prescient) experienced it in that light.

Peter Leithart provides a compelling illustration of this problem in Deep Exegesis, discussing the example of the Defenestration of Prague—when the Bohemians threw two imperial ambassadors out the window of Prague Castle (they were lucky enough to land safely in a pile of manure), setting in motion a chain of events that caused the Thirty Years’ War.  It is customary, therefore, for historians to describe the Defenestration as the event that started the Thirty Years’ War.  And yet while clearly true in one sense, at the time, this was far from true.  It was not clear at the time that anything more than a diplomatic insult had occurred; a war was far from inevitable, much less one lasting thirty years.  In this case the falsehood is perhaps minor and forgivable, and in any case the task of history cannot do without such narratives, but in other cases this hindsight viewpoint perpetrates much more serious misconstruals of events, portraying radically contingent events as an inevitably unfolding sequence, obscuring the fact that the final outcome long hung in the balance.

Perhaps it is merely because I spend more time in the field, but it is my suspicion that Reformation historians are particularly prone to this kind of hindsight bias.  It is not hard to see why.  What was at the time a chaotic and inchoate reform movement or cluster of reform movements, led by dozens of men from different backgrounds, of different abilities, and possessed of different visions, eventually brought forth a set of fairly well-defined denominational traditions: Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist—each of these capable of further subdivision, especially the Reformed.  Seeking to bring order out of the chaos of the sixteenth-century, nothing is easier than for historians to take these later divisions as their starting point, and proceed to narrate the Reformation as the seemingly-inevitable unfolding of nascent disagreements into these permanently-divided traditions.  Indeed, a sort of contest ensues, whereby historians try to outdo one another in finding the earliest seed of these subsequent divisions: the development of the Reformed can be traced by to 1550—no, 1540—no, 1530—no, 1520. 

One cannot deny, of course, that these efforts are often fascinating and instructive, helping to make sense of later developments that otherwise would seem random and illogical, without precedent.  We cannot do without these attempts to draw out the enduring significance of 16th-century events.  But we must be careful not to let them cloud too much our understanding of what really happened, or to flatten out complex spectrums of disagreement into two rival incompatible positions.  Reformation historiography, in many ways, is still just beginning to come to terms with the extent of its hindsight bias.  The myth of Anglicanism as an independent movement, discernible as such from the beginning, is dying very hard indeed.  The sharp and straightforward divide between “Erastianism” and Calvinist ecclesiology, between Zurich and Geneva, is another favorite narrative schema, which despite being rendered increasingly untenable by fresh scholarship, continues to hold sway in most Reformation histories. 


Perhaps the most pervasive such hindsight dichotomy, which continues to bedevil Reformation scholarship, seriously impairing understanding of how the key actors at the time actually perceived themselves and their work, is the Lutheran-Reformed divide.  Of course, clearly enough, the two traditions had diverged quite decisively and irremediably by the end of the 16th century, and went on to develop independent bodies of theology, liturgy, hymnody, etc.  Moreover, clearly enough, the disputes between them can be traced well back into the early Reformation period, and were fought out sharply by some participants.  Few sensible historians could deny, I think, that after the death of Melanchthon in 1560, the two branches had diverged fundamentally and, barring a radical reversal, irreconcilably—though even this was probably not clear to many observers at the time.  But few historians are content with this claim.  

On the contrary, nothing is more common in Reformation histories than to find a line like this: “Once it became clear that Luther and Zwingli would not come to agreement on the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, a split became inevitable between the Lutherans (or, to use the terminology of the day, the “evangelicals”) and the Reformed” (Glenn Sunshine, “Discipline as the Third Mark of the Church: Three Views”).  The Colloquy of Marburg, 1529, is identified as this decisive point of disagreement, the watershed from which, inevitably, flowed forth two distinct streams of the Reformation.  (Needless to say, once this watershed has been anchored in the minds of historians, they cannot rest content with it, but proceed backward to the beginning of Zwingli’s teaching in the early 1520s as the point of departure.)  And of course, if the two streams are already fundamentally distinct after 1529, then historians have no hesitation in discussing “Lutheran” and “Reformed” theologians as clearly separate groups in the 1530s, 1540s, and so on, despite the ambiguities and anachronisms thus produced, and in explaining events in terms of the deep-seated and irreconcilable conflict between these two (so that theologians are forever being described as “doing X in order to distance themselves from the Reformed” or “doing Y in order to conciliate the Lutherans” and so on).   

It almost goes without saying, however, that if we are describing the events of the 1530s and 1540s from the point of view of the self-understanding of those involved, this dichotomy rarely holds.  Most Protestants, at this time, viewed themselves as part of a single group, within which there existed significant differences of opinion on certain points, along what was a fairly continuous spectrum, rather than a simple dichotomy.  Of course, historians have increasingly recognized the common ground between Calvin and Melanchthon, for instance, but what is true remarkable is that not even Marburg was the great Parting of the Ways that it has been routinely identified as in subsequent narratives.  On the contrary, the theologians who gathered at Marburg were conscious of significant potential disagreements beforehand, and recognized the importance of coming to some kind of unity, to ensure the success of the Reformation.  And believe it or not, they succeeded in large part.  at the conclusion of the meeting, they drew up 15 Marburg Articles, covering the different topics they had debated.  On fourteen of the articles, they professed themselves in full agreement; the Eucharist was the only one where differences remained, and even here, they were able to delineate significant areas of common ground.  Melanchthon considered the meeting a good success, and many theologians over the following years had great confidence that the remaining disagreement would be readily resolved.  

And indeed, so it might have seemed to be by the 1540s as key leaders Calvin and Melanchthon reached a meeting of the minds—only for renewed conflict in the 1550s to drive a deep wedge between the parties.  In hindsight, of course, we can see that not only on the Eucharistic issue, but on other matters as well, “Lutheran” and “Reformed” theologians were starting to highlight different themes which would give in the end a fundamentally different character to the two traditions.  We would be foolish to do without the benefit of this hindsight; but we are foolish also when we allow it to blind us to a clear vision of events as they actually occurred.

The Hart of the Matter

Darryl Hart has again lobbed one of his predictable grenades at the “Internationalist” R2K critics (though I am deeply hurt to find that my name has dropped off the Most Wanted list), complete with his obligatory Federal Vision allusions and gay jokes.  As the substance of his critique (what substance there is, at any rate) rests on a long quotation from Torrance Kirby that never even does him the service of mentioning the matter that he is using it to illuminate, a detailed response is hardly necessary.  

However, Hart does finally edge us closer to the heart of the matter at a couple points, one of which I want to address here briefly (the other one I’ll be tackling in a longer essay forthcoming at TCI).  Finally recognizing that the “Internationalist” critics are neither theonomist nor neo-Calvinist, he is zeroing in on the source of disagreement when he says that, on the Internationalist reading of Reformation ecclesiology, “As long as you belong to Christ, it doesn’t matter what the preaching, sacraments, ordination standards, or worship patterns are in your own church.”  In one sense, we would say, “well yes, duh”; in another sense, “well yes, but.”  

On the one hand, it is indubitably true that the Reformers believed that these things “don’t matter” in the sense that one can genuinely belong to Christ despite being in a church that lacks true preaching, pure sacraments, godly ordination standards, or edifying worship patterns.  As Bullinger so finely puts it in the Second Helvetic Confession (the most widely adopted of all the 16th-cent. Reformed confessions):

“Nevertheless, by the signs [of the true Church] mentioned above, we do not so narrowly restrict the Church as to teach that all those are outside the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments, at least not willingly and through contempt, but rather, being forced by necessity, unwillingly abstain from them or are deprived of them; or in whom faith sometimes fails, though it is not entirely extinguished and does not wholly cease; or in whom imperfections and errors due to weakness are found. For we know that God had some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel.”  

On the other hand, though, it doesn’t follow from this that none of these things matter at all.  On the first two, preaching and the sacraments, the Reformers were unanimous that in the ordinary course of God’s working, these are indispensable for the life of the Church and the faithful Christian—hence their status as notae ecclesiae (though this never meant that there was no room for variation in how preaching and sacraments were practiced).  However, the latter two were normally classed among the adiaphora, “things indifferent,” so that we could say they “don’t matter.”  Of course, even this would be a misunderstanding to some extent of the adiaphora concept, as it was never meant to convey absolute indifference—there is still a right and wrong, a better and worse, but not one right and wrong that applied to all churches irregardless of time, place, and circumstance (see my essay here for more clarification on the adiaphora concept).

This issue—a right understanding of adiaphora, and of sola fide as relativizing (not marginalizing, mind you, but putting into proper perspective) the role of the external media of the visible church, is, we might say, the theological heart of the matter.


The historical heart of the matter, on the other hand, concerns how we understand the emphasis on and practice of church discipline in the early Reformed tradition, particularly in Calvin and his Geneva, to which R2Ks appeal as the flagship for their ecclesiology.  In this, I would suggest, Hart and his allies are relying on an increasingly outmoded (though still cherished) scholarly narrative about the nature and significance of Genevan discipline in the formative stages of the Reformed tradition.  A fresh look at the historical realities, I will argue in my upcoming TCI post, shatters a number of sacred Presbyterian cows and compels a new understanding of what was going on in the early development of Reformed discipline.

The Dutch Disciplinarian Deja Vu

Although mainstream Reformation scholarship has long since emerged out of confessionalist provincialism, and started learning to trace developments in the continental Reformation across cultural and political boundaries, cross-pollinating between France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and even Italy and Poland, English Reformation scholarship continues to lag behind the curve.  To be sure, the frenetic commerce with continental Protestantism in the reign of Edward VI has received much attention, and the dependence of Elizabethan Puritans on ties with Geneva has been a recurrent theme.  Only recently, though, has the dependence of “Anglicans,” or apologists for the Elizabethan establishment, on Continental models received significant attention (notably, for instance, in Torrance Kirby’s The Zurich Connection).

Most remarkably, the developments in England’s closest continental neighbor, the Netherlands, have received scarcely a syllable’s mention in the voluminous scholarship on debates between the Puritans, pressing for a further reformation modeled on Genevan polity, and Anglicans, defending a magisterial reformed Church under royal administration and with less rigorous discipline.  This despite the documented close connections between both Puritans and conformist apologists with people and places on the other side of the Channel.  And the parallels, as it turns out, are uncanny—the appeals to Zurich vs. Geneva, the debates over excommunication, the emergent Calvinist concept of the church as an autonomous spiritual kingdom (along semi-Anabaptistic lines), gathered out of and separate from the broader professing Christian community, the accusations by their opponents that their discipline constituted a new popery, etc.  

I excerpt some passages from Alastair Duke’s fascinating essay, “The Ambivalent Face of Calvinism in the Netherlands, 1561-1618,” that describe some of the Dutch debates in the 1560s-1580s, exactly contemporaneous with the English debates:

“To the Erastians among the civil authorities the Reformed church no longer had any need of consistories now that it lived under a Christian magistracy.  Caspar Coolhaes, a minister at Leiden between 1574 and 1582, supported this opinion.  In a treatise written in 1582 he argued ‘wherever the Christian magistracy discharges the office of guardian towards the church . . . there is no need for any consistory’ and he pointed to the example of the church at Zurich.  In the early seventeenth century Cornelis Pietersz Hooft complained that the contemporary Calvinist ministers had failed to distinguish between the circumsntaces ‘of a church which is under the protection of a  Christian magistracy and one which is under the cross.’

But when Hooft wrote of a Christian magistracy he was, at least as far as his opponents were concerned, merely begging the question.  In 1607 a minister in a synod at Delft declared that he would not acknowledge the civil powers as ‘Christian’ until they had expelled from the country everyone who refused to join the Reformed church!  An uncharacteristically extreme statement, no doubt, but it demonstrates the problem contemporaries had in reaching a consensus on the qualities expected of a Christian magistracy.  The Calvinists had their own definitions.  The authors of the Netherlands Confession of Faith laid on the magistrates the responsibility for the uprooting of all idolatry and false religion ‘so that the kingdom of Antichrist may be overthrown and the kingdom of Christ Jesus advanced.’  The problems for the Reformed were twofold.  Could magistrates, who themselves declined to submit to the Reformed discipline, fuflil such a charge?  And secondly, should the Christian discipline be maintained, even where a Christian magistracy occurred? . . . 

“Petrus Dathenus, who was noted for his Calvinist fervour, confessed in a letter too Bullinger in 1570 that it would be unrealistic to expect the same strict discipline in a territorial church, such as was then being established int he Palatinate, as could be maintained in Geneva or in the Dutch stranger-church at London.  As a minister who would be required to answer before the Lord for those committed to his care, he was satisfied if he could clearly distinguish his flock and if the sacraments could be protected against open profanation. . . .

[Many Dutch Calvinists, however,] would not surrender consistorial discipline.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was to remain carefully supervised to ensure that those who sat at the Table ate ‘worthily’.  That was only possible with consistorial discipline: in the absence of discipline the Lord’s Supper could not take place. . . . the fundamental distinction between ‘the children of God’ and ‘the children of the world’ did not change [with the emergence of a Christian magistracy], for that was quintessential to Dutch Calvinism.  Ranged on the other side in this debate about the nature of the church were those for whom the Reformation had, above all else, put an end to the tyranny of penance, which had brought despair to sinners, and restored evangelical liberty.”  
“In the Low Countries the Calvinists were accused by other evangelicals of forging a ‘new monkery’ and of setting up ‘the Genevan inquisition’, on account of the strict discipline which surrounded the Lord’s Supper.  To Duifhuis, for whom church orders belonged to the category of matters indifferent, any other sort of discipline than that exercised by the magistrates represented a ‘tyrannizing over consciences, and a remnant of the Popish yoke’ . . . These critics of the Calvinists wanted a comprehensive church.  In the church orders drafted by the States of Holland in 1576 and 1591 the Lord’s Table would have been opened to all who wished to come.”

 “With some, especially among the magistrates, there was a natural desire to retain control of the new church, but one may also detect an irritation at the refusal of the Reformed churches to fulfill the part of a comprehensive church to which all patriotic Dutchmen might belong.  From the standpoint of the civil powers the Calvinists’ separation of society into two camps was very inconvenient.  No wonder some magistrates, notably at Leiden, looked enviously on the Reformed church at Zurich, where discipline remained unambiguously in the hands of the lay powers and where consistories were unknown.  
But the Calvinists were not convinced.  They believed themselves to belong to a people whom it had pleased God to call forth from the nations.  That they found themselves, at least for a time, in a small minority caused them no surprise.  After all, as their confession of faith declared, the Church might appear to the world to be ‘very small’, as in the time of Ahab, yet even then the Lord had reservers to Himself seven thousand, who had not bowed down to Baal.”