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. 

A Kind Word or Two for Disciplinarianism

In two very interesting essays on Calvinist church discipline, Robert Kingdon suggests some qualifications to traditional narratives.  First, although in England at least, presbyterian church discipline proved so threatening to the jurisdiction of the magistracy, Kingdon doesn’t think it was always seen so.  In “Social Control and Political Control in Calvin’s Geneva,” Kingdon argues that as a matter of fact, so successful was Calvin’s consistory in achieving social cohesion and control in Geneva that it may have been the source of envy by some other magistracies, which were eager above all in that period for an effective way of achieving an orderly, moral populace.  The adoption of Calvinist discipline in the Palatinate, over Erastian, he suggests, may paradoxically have been due to the magistrate’s decision that the former was actually a better political tool.  (Of course, what’s interesting in this whole argument is Kingdon’s realization that ecclesiastical discipline, even in Geneva, was more an extension of civic order than a “government of the spiritual kingdom.”)   

In his second essay, “Calvinist Discipline in the Old World and the New,” however, Kingdon asks us to learn to see this “social control” in positive terms, not merely negative.  Sure, the Genevan Consistory and its offspring were capable of authoritarian overreaches, but in fact, the vast majority of cases the consistory involved itself in were interventions on behalf of the exploited, rather than mere busybody meddling.  And even a controlling morality police, he points out, is not without real social blessings.  Calvinist discipline, he argues, actually worked:

“It did strengthen family ties.  It did reduce immorality.  For example, in every community with a substantial Calvinist presence for which we have adequate records, we can demonstrate that the rate of illegitimate births dropped sharply to very low levels, among the lowest ever recorded in history.”

One Small Step to Rome

Jason Stellman’s announcement on Sunday that he was resigning from the Presbyterian Church in America and headed toward Rome has struck the narrow Reformed world like a bombshell, setting heads and tongues wagging over the past couple days.  As a noted representative of the most arch-conservative Confessionalist wing of the PCA, priding itself on its staunch adherence to Reformed standards, and as lead prosecutor for several years against Peter J. Leithart (largely on the basis that Leithart’s theology tended toward Rome), Stellman’s volte-face is so layered with irony that it would be richly amusing if not so sad.  

In his resignation letter, Stellman cites (not untypically for converts) his loss of confidence in sola Scriptura and sola fide.  A number of excellent responses have already gone up—from Doug Wilson, from Peter Leithart, and from Steven and Peter at TCI.  I have little to add to these excellent thoughts, so I’d like to just highlight a couple of the key points and add perhaps one significant point omitted.  

Wilson argues that Stellman has, as is usual, caricatured both sola Scriptura and sola fide in his rejection of them, and goes on to suggest that it may have been the PCA’s disciplinary failure (in his eyes) to condemn Leithart that led to his disillusionment with Protestant disciplinarianism and turn toward someone wielding a bigger ecclesiastical stick.  Leithart, in his post, hones in on the sola Scriptura issue, suggesting that here, at any rate, the transition of hyper-Reformed confessionalism to Rome has perhaps been a comparatively smooth one for Stellman.  Stellman’s brand of confessionalism, shared by many within conservative Reformed denominations, and most notably by “Escondido theologians” Scott Clark, Darryl Hart, David VanDrunen and (more temperately) Michael Horton, attributes a level of regulative authority to the Westminster Confession and other Reformed standards that functionally denies sola Scriptura, although continuing to do lip service to it.  Among many Reformed confessionalists, the confessional standards, and the ongoing teaching authority of the ministerium that follows these standards, wield an authority that is almost beyond appeal and is not dissimilar to that claimed by Catholics for the magisterium.  This suggests Stellman was not so much reacting away from a hyper-Protestant individualism, as Wilson suggests, but rather that he never had a real Protestant sense of the authority of the individual believer’s conscience before Scripture to begin with.  


This is a point that Escalante and Wedgeworth develop at considerable length in their response, arguing that Stellman’s recent move confirms what they (and I) have been arguing for some time about the inner unity between de jure divino Presbyterian two-kingdoms theory and Catholicism.  Stellman, unsurprisingly, has been one of the most vocal exponents of VanDrunen-style two-kingdoms theology, writing a book on the subject, Dual Citizens, in 2009.  By equating the spiritual kingdom of Christ with a juridical model of the visible church, its boundaries rigorously policed by ordained authorities, these men undermine the Protestant teaching of the priesthood of all believers, substituting a heteronomous visible authority to mediate between the believer and God.  As they put it in their post, “Its disciplinarian center cannot accept a mere political and prudential submission to recognized authority for the sake of external order, or a voluntary submission to moral and intellectual authority in wisdom and charity.  Instead it demands that the mechanism of church polity serve as a rule of faith and the precondition for pious exegesis and faithful church membership.”  Their post goes on to sketch the outlines of what the alternative—Reformed irenicism—looks like, with a properly-defined role for Scripture, authority, and individual reason.    


To all this, I want to merely briefly add a thought on the second concern Stellman voices, that of the incoherence of sola fide.  Wedgeworth and Escalante say that the answer to that “question is actually predetermined by Mr. Stellman’s heteronomy,” and I suppose I just want to make more explicit here what is implicit in their post.  Here again, Wilson has suggested that Stellman is perhaps simply reacting against an aberrant nuda fide version of the doctrine, and that perhaps he just needs to be acquainted with a more robust, meaty concept of faith.  Perhaps there is something to this; I have frequently heard the accusation that the Escondido theology is antinomian.  But my own impression of the disciplinarian confessionalist wing of Reformed theology (within which I grew up) is quite the contrary—namely, that it has little real grasp of the spirit of sola fide to begin with.  Here again, then, I would suggest (without knowing Stellman, his work, or his background in any detail) that perhaps the transition to Catholicism is a surprisingly smooth one, a change more in letter than in spirit.  If discipline is of the esse of the Church, then participation in the life of the grace is dependent upon adherence to moral rules tightly policed by “spiritual rulers,” and the freedom of a conscience justified by faith alone is replaced by either a nervous or an arrogant legalism.  Of course, there are plenty of Protestant legalisms besides presbyterian ones, no doubt about that.  But it would be foolish to deny that institutionalizing the moralistic impulse, in the form of the consistory, tends to intensify it.  In any case, the solas hang together.  The disciplinarian abandonment of the priesthood of all believers entails an abandonment also of the freedom of all believers.  And those moves having been made, the most consistent ideological resting place is Rome.  (Richard Hooker understood this all four hundred years ago, of course.)


A fantastic little passage from Book I of Hooker’s Laws, which could apply as much to the Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of today as it did to the Presbyterian demagogues of his own day.

“He that goeth about to perswade a multitude, that they are not so well governed as they ought to be, shall never want attentive and favourable hearers; because they know the manifold defects whereunto every kind of regiment is subject, but the secret lets and difficulties, which in publike proceedings are innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the judgement to consider.  And because such as openly reprove supposed disorders of state are taken for principall friends to the common benefite of all, and for men that carry singular freedome of mind; under this faire and plausible coulour whatsoever they utter passeth for good and currant.  That which wanteth in the waight of their speech, is supplyed by the aptnes of men’s minds to accept and believe it.  Whereas on the other side, if we maintaine thinges that are established, we have not onely to strive with a number of heavie prejudices deepely rooted in the hearts of men, who thinke that herein we serve the time, and speake in favour of the present state, because therby we eyther holde or seeke preferment; but also to beare such exceptions as minds so averted before hand usually take against that which they are loath should be powred into them.”

A Phenomenology of Schism

Over the past couple weeks, I have been reveling in the glories of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a text which my intellectual conscience has been nagging me to read for years, but which I have only now, following O’Donovan’s proddings, sat down to read through properly, from start to finish.  Among its innumerable virtues, the one that first strikes the reader is the remarkably irenic tone–in an age of violence and vitriol, pugnacious polemics, and taunting tracts, when even the soberest theologians routinely stooped to slanders and maledictions, Hooker stands as a paragon of patient, reasonable persuasion–aimed not at crushing the opposition, but at restoring peace and unity.  

This patient approach affords him time and clarity to to analyze his opponents with a penetrating insight that yields a remarkably perceptive psychological portrait of their schism, and of schismatics in general.  The portrait, while none too flattering, lays stress not upon their special depravity, but on the foibles common to humankind, which theological controversy tends to exacerbate: “Nature worketh in us all a love to our owne counsels.  The contradiction of others is a fanne to inflame that love.  Our love set on fire to maintaine that which once we have done, sharpneth the wit to dispute, to argue, and by all means to reason for it.”  

This explains the disputatious character of the Presbyterian leaders.  But how have they gained followers?  Here Hooker manifests a keen understanding of the timeless phenomenon of demagoguery:

“First in the hearing of the multitude, the faults especially of higher callings are ripped up with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpnes of reproofe; which being oftentimes done begetteth a good opinion of integritie, zeale and holines, to such constant reproovers of sinne, as by likelihood would never be so much offended at that which is evill, unlesse themselves were singularly good.  The next thinge hereunto is to impute all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth, unto the kind of Ecclesiastical governement established.  Wherein, as before by reproving faults, they purchased unto themselves with the multitude a name to be vertuous; so by finding out this kinde of cause they obtaine to be judged wise above others….”

“Having gotten thus much sway in the hearts of men, a third step is to propose their owne forme of Church government, as the only soveraigne remedy of all evils; and to adorne it with all the glorious titles that may be. And the nature, as of men that have sicke bodies, so likewise of the people in the crasednes of their mindes possest with dislike and discontentment at things present, is to imagine that any thing (the vertue whereof they heare commended) would helpe them; but that most, which they least have tryed….”

“After that the phancie of the common sort hath once throughlie apprehended the Spirit to be author of their perswasion concerning discipline, then is instilled into their hearts, that the same Spirit leading men into this opinion, doth thereby seale them to be God’s children, and that as the state of the times now standeth, the most speciall token to know them that are God’s own from others, is an earnest affection that waie.  This hath bred high tearmes of separation betweene such and the rest of the world, whereby the one sort are named The brethren, The godlie, and so forth, the other worldlings, timeservers, pleasers of men not of God, with such like.”

He goes on to offer some particularly penetrating observations on why women in particular are attracted to such a movement, ending with this amusing one: “finally, apter through a singular delight which they take in giving verie large and particular intelligence how all neere about them stand affected as concerning the same cause.”  “But be they women or be they men,” he goes on, “if once they have tasted of that cup, let any man of contrarie opinion open his mouth to perswade them, they close up their eares, his reasons they waigh not, all is answered with rehearsall of the words of John, ‘We are of God, he that knoweth God, heareth us,” as for the rest, yet are of the world, for this world’s pomp and vanitie it is that ye speake, and the world whose ye are heareth you.’”

 After comparing this mindset with that of some of the sects of Anabaptists, which fell rapidly from holiness to heresy, he concludes with the sobering admonition: 

“For my purpose herein is to show that when the minds of men are once erroniously perswaded that it is the will of God to have those things done which they phancie, their opinions are as thornes in their sides never suffering them to take rest till they have brought their speculations into practise: the lets and impediments of which practise their restless desire and studie to remoove leadeth them every day forth by the hand into other more dangerous opinions, sometimes quite and cleane contrarie to their first pretended meanings: so as what will grow out of such errors as go masked under the cloke of divine authority, impossible it is that ever the wit of man should imagine, till time have brought foorth the fruits of them.”