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.”