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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 15 — The Ecclesiastical Ordinances

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Assembly in the Cathedral — Calvin's Address — Resolves to Stem the Tide of Moral Ruin — Proposal to the Council — The Ecclesiastical Ordinances Drafted — Voted by the People — His Ecclesiastical Government — Four Orders of Ministers — Two in Reality — The Venerable Company — Election of Pastors — Consistory — Its Functions — The Council Punishes in the Last Resort — The Ecclesiastical Ordinances the Laws of the State — Freely Accepted by the People — Is this the Inquisition over again? — No — A Theocratic Republic established at Geneva — Bungener's Defence of it.

THE first act done by Calvin and the Senate and people of Geneva was to bow themselves in humiliation before the Eternal Sovereign. Only a day or two after the Reformer's arrival, the great bell Clemence rung out its deep, far-resounding peal over city, lake, and champaign. The citizens flocked to the cathedral to hear again the voice that was dearer to them than ever.

Calvin addressed them, dwelling briefly on those awful events which gave so deep a solemnity to the passing time. In the East the Turk was overrunning Hungary, and shedding Christian blood in torrents. Nearer to them the Postilence was ravaging the cities of Germany and the towns on the Rhine. In France and England their brethren were falling by the sword of the persecutor. In Barbary, whither he had gone to fight the Moors, the emperor's fleet and army were perishing by the tempests of the sky. The Reformer called on them to see in these mingled events the hand of God, punishing the nations in his anger. The Sacrament was then dispensed, and the services of the day were closed with a solemn prayer, in which the little city, environed on every side by powerful enemies, cast itself upon the arm of the Almighty. [1]

Without a moment's delay Calvin set about his great task. Everywhere, over the entire face of Christendom, moral ruin was at work. The feeble restraints of the Roman Church were dissolved. The power of the German Reformation was decaying, the Political element having acquired the predominance. An outburst of pantheistic doctrines was about to drown Europe in a flood of hideous immoralities and frightful disorders. What was needed was a great moral power, strong enough to awe the atheism that was lifting up its portentous head. This was the Herculean labor to which Calvin was called. He understood it. In his clear, calm judgment, and constructive skill — in his powers of memory and of logic — in a genius equally fitted for speculation or for business — in his intellectual vision which extended wide, yet penetrated deep — in his indomitable patience, inflexible conscientiousness, and profound submission to the Bible, he was the one man, of all then living, who possessed the gifts necessary for the work. he would begin by regenerating Geneva, and from Geneva as a center there would go forth a regenerating influence over the face of Christendom. Accordingly, on his first appearance before the Council, and before he had been many hours within their walls, he demanded the erection of a court of morals, or ecclesiastical discipline. "Immediately after I had offered my services to the Senate," says he, writing to Farel, "I declared that a Church could not hold together unless a settled government should be agreed on, such as is prescribed to us in the Word of God, and such as was in use in the ancient Church. I requested that they would appoint certain of their number who might confer with us on the subject. Six were then appointed." [2] The Senate's consent had, in fact, been given when it supplicated him to return, for it well knew that he could return not otherwise than as a Reformer.

Such dispatch did Calvin and his colleagues use in this matter, that the draft of the ecclesiastical discipline was presented to the Council on the 28th of September. Its examination was begun and continued till the 27th of October. The project, as definitely amended, was, on the 9th of November, adopted by the Council of Two Hundred; and on the 20th by the Council-General, or Assembly of the People. These ecclesiastical ordinances were farther remodelled, and the final vote of the people took place on the 2nd of January, 1542. "It is," says Bungener, "from that day that the Calvinistic Republic legally dates." [3]

We shall briefly consider this ecclesiastical order and government, — the inner organisation of the Reformation; — the instrument for the regeneration, first of Geneva, next of Christendom. Calvin and the Council are seen working together in the framing of it. The Reformer holds that the State, guiding itself by the light of revelation, can and ought to make arrangements and laws conducive to the maintenance of the Church of God on the earth. He at the same time made what provision the circumstances permitted for the separate and independent working of the Church and the State, each within its own sphere. His plan of Church order was borrowed avowedly from the New Testament. He instituted four orders of men for the instruction and government of the Church — the Pastor, the Doctor, the Presbyter or Elder, and the Deacon. We have here strictly viewed but two orders — the Presbyter and the Deacon though we have four names. The Presbyter embraces those who both preach and govern, as also others who govern but do not preach. By the Deacon is meant the officer who administered the Church's financial affairs.

The city clergy, the professors of theology, and the rural pastors formed the body known as the Venerable Company. The election of pastors was conducted in the following manner: — When a pulpit fell vacant, the Company united in a deputation to the Council. In presence of the magistrates the ministerial candidates were subjected to a severe examination, especially as regarded their ability

to expound Holy Scripture. The magistrates then retired, and the Company, by a majority of votes, elected one as pastor. The newly-elected, if approved by the Council, was announced to the congregation from the pulpit next Sunday, and the people were invited to send in their objections, if they had any, to the magistrates. The silence of the people confirmed the election, and eight days afterwards the new minister was ordained as pastor, the moderator of the Company presiding at the ceremony. The triple action of the government, the people, and the clergy in the election was a sufficient guarantee against intrigue and favor. [4]

The ecclesiastical authority was wielded by the Consistory, or tribunal of morals. The Consistory was composed of the ministers of the city and twelve laymen. These twelve laymen were elected by the Little Council, confirmed by the Great Council, and finally approved by the people with whom remained the power of objecting to any or all of them if they saw cause. The Consistory met every Thursday. It summoned before it those reported as guilty of immoralities. It admonished them, and, unless they promised amendment, excommunicated them — that is, deposed them from membership in the Church — and in consequence thereof withheld from them the Sacraments. The Consistory had no power to compel attendance before it, and no power to inflict a civil punishment. "It was," says Ruchat, "a purely ecclesiastical chamber, possessing no civil jurisdiction whatever, which it left entirely to the magistrate." [5] It "gives notice" to the Council, and the Council "sees to it." In the infliction of its censures it exercised a rigorous impartiality. It knew nothing of rank or friendship, "punishing," says M. Gaberel, "with equal severity the highest magistrate and the meanest burgess, the millionaire and the peasant." [6]

If the action of the Consistory effected the reformation of the offender, he was straightway restored to his place in the Church; if he remained incorrigible, the case came under the cognisance of the civil jurisdiction. The Council summoned him to its bar, and inflicted punishment — it might be imprisonment, or it might be banishment. The Spiritual Court, looking at the act as an offense against the ecclesiastical ordinances, had visited it with an ecclesiastical censure; the Council, looking at it as a breach of the civil laws, awarded against it a temporal punishment. We ask why this double character of the same act? Because in Geneva the nation was the Church, and the ecclesiastical ordinances were also the laws of the State. They had not only been enacted by the Senate, they had been twice solemnly and unanimously voted by the people. "The people could not afterwards allege," says M. Gaberel, "that they were deceived as to the bearing of the laws they were sanctioning. For several weeks they could meditate at leisure on the articles proposed; they knew the value of their decision, and when twice — on the 20th of November, 1541, and again on the 2nd of January, 1542 — they came to the Cathedral of St. Peter's, and, after each article, raised their hands in acceptance of it, the vote was an affair of conscience between God and themselves, for no human power could impose such an engagement. They were 20,000 citizens, perfectly free, and masters of their own town. The Genevese people were absolutely sovereign; they knew no other limit to their legislative power than their own will, and this people voted the ordinances from the first chapter to the last. They engaged to frequent public worship regularly, to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord, to renounce all debauchery, all immoral amusements, to maintain simplicity in their clothing, frugality and order in their dwellings." [7]

It is asked, is not this discipline the old regime of Rome over again? Do we not here see an ecclesiastical court investigating and passing sentence, and a civil tribunal coming in and carrying it out? Is not this what the Inquisition did? There are, however, essential differences between the two cases. At Rome there was but one jurisdiction, the Pontifical; at Geneva there were two, the ecclesiastical and the civil. At Rome simple opinions were punishable; at Geneva overt acts only. At Rome the code was imposed by authority; at Geneva it was freely voted by the people. If it was the Inquisition, it was the people who set it up. But the main difference lies here: at Rome the claim of infallibility put conscience, reason, and law out of court; at Geneva the supreme authority was the Constitution, which had been approved and sanctioned by the free conscience of the people.

What was established at Geneva was a theocratic republic. The circumstances made any other form of government hardly possible. The necessities of the city made it imperative that in its legislation the moral should predominate; its very existence depended on this. But even the genius of Calvin could not find means, in so small a State, to give free expression to his views touching the distinction between things spiritual and things secular, nor could he prevent the two jurisdictions at times overlapping and amalgamating. It is strange to us to see blasphemy, unchastity, and similar acts visited with imprisonment or with banishment; but we are to bear in mind that the citizens themselves had made abstinence from these vices a condition of citizenship when they voted the Constitution. They were not only offenses against morality, they were breaches of the social compact which had been freely and unanimously formed. Those who, while the Constitution existed — and it could not exist a moment longer than the majority willed — claimed to be permitted these indulgences, were logically, as well as legally, incurring expatriation. Calvin made this very plain when, on one occasion, he advised the withdraw, and build a city for themselves. Such a city, verily, would have had neither a long nor a tranquil


"The more this legislation has been studied," remarks M. Bungener, "the more is it seen to be in advance of all anterior systems of legislation. The form sometimes surprises us a little by its quaint simplicity, but the grandeur of the whole is not the less evident to those who seek it, and this was about to manifest itself in the history of the humble nation to whom this legislation was to give so glorious a place in the intellectual as well as in the religious world."

"Neither absorbing nor degrading the Statue," adds M. Bungener, "the Church maintained herself at its side, always free, so far as the Reformer had intended her to be so. This was, indeed, an important, an indispensable element of her influence abroad. A Church visibly in the power of the magistrates of so small a State would have been hearkened to by none. But the Church of Geneva had been put into possession of a free and living individuality. Henceforth it mattered little whether she was small or great, or whether she was at home under the shelter of a small or mighty State. She was the Church of Geneva, the heiress of Calvin. lqone in Europe, friend or foe, thought of asking more." [8]

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Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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