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. 

3 thoughts on “Genevan Mythbusters

  1. Brad, you wrote:"there are coherent, and much more theologically sound, ways of arriving at a more modern division of church and state without adopting the Anabaptist assumptions underlying much disciplinarian Presbyterianism."I may have asked you this before, but can you offer a definition of "disciplinarian" as you're applying it to Presbyterianism here? Does that word have other common ecclesial meaning/s from which you want to distinguish the meaning you intend?And, could you summarize the "Anabaptist assumptions" to which you refer that contrast with the more sound assumptions you advocate?Really appreciating your contribution to the discussion.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Huh, weird, my comment didn't post. Basically it said, these are really good questions, and deserve a full follow-up post in answer. So if you can wait a few days for an answer, I'll try to make it a good one.

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