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. 


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.