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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 30 — Calvin's work

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Impression made by the News of Calvin's Death—Exultation of Rome— Despondency of the Reformed—Both Mis-calculate—The Reformation is Calvin—Geneva grows still Greater—Luther and Calvin Compared— The Two Reformations One—The Culmination of the German Reformation, the Starting-point of the Genevan—Calvin's Special Service to the Reformation—Theories of Church Government—Luther's Views—Melancthon's—Brentius'—Lambert's—Zwingli's—Calvin Builds on the Foundations of his Predecessors—The Key of his Position—The Two Lessons.

WHEN the tidings sped through Europe that Calvin was dead, the two great parties into which Christendom was divided were very differently affected. The one gave way to unbounded joy, the other was seized with nearly as unbounded sorrow. Rome, hearing in the news the knell of Protestantism, confidently anticipated the immediate return of the revolted countries to their obedience. "The man of Geneva," as she termed the Reformer, was no more. The arm which had so often smitten her legions, and chased them from the field in disastrous rout, would never again be lifted up in battle; and she had nothing more to do, in order to restore her Church to its former glory and dominion, than simply to go forth and summon the Reforming ranks, now left without a leader, to surrender. The Pope went so far as to nominate seven commissioners, who were to proceed to Geneva on this business. [1] This step was taken with the advice, amongst others, of Cardinal Boromeo and the Bishop of Anneci, who seem to have persuaded the Pope that the Council and citizens of Geneva only waited for some such embassage to abandon Protestantism, and bow as penitents and suppliants at the footstool of the Papal throne. In truth they would have done so during Calvin's life-time, they insinuated, but for the extraordinary influence which that heretic exercised over them. The issue of this affair was very far from answering the expectations of the Pope and his advisors.

If Rome thought, on the one hand, that the death of Calvin was her triumph, there were Protestants, on the other, who viewed it as the almost certain overthrow of the Reformation. There was just as little foundation for this conclusion as for the other. It is principles, not men, that keep the world moving. The Reformer, in his short life of not quite fifty-five years, had embodied all the principles of the movement in his writings; he had enshrined them as in a living model in Geneva; through Geneva he had initiated the great work of impressing them on Christendom. This, not the handful of dust in the Plain-palais, was Calvin. The eye truly enlightened could see him still occupying his chair at Geneva, and legislating and ruling Christendom from it as from a throne. While the Reformation was there, Calvln was there; and if at Geneva, it was in France, and in all Christendom. Both those who triumphed and those who trembled, thinking the last hour was about to strike to Geneva and the Reformation, were alike mistaken. The city rose higher than before, though the man who made it fantous was in his grave. The movement spread wider than ever, and if the city was a center and impelling power to the movement, the movement was a bulwark around the city. "The Genevese of the sixteenth century," says an eloquent modern writer, "committed one of those deeds of saintly daring which seem folly in the eyes of men, but which are in reality the safeguard of nations heroic enough to attempt them. Geneva had been the representative of a great right, liberty of conscience; she offered an asylum to all the martyrs of the faith; she had put her hand to the work, and pursued her career without casting a look behind. Politicians and calculators may, if they please, see a sort of madness in a republic, without strength or riches, proclaiming religious and moral liberty in the face of Italy, Spain, and France, united for the triumph of Romish despotism. But the God of the faithful ones who hold fast the truth confounded human prevision, he surrounded our town with that celestial protection, against which the plots and the rage of the mighty broke in vain. Thus Geneva, without arms and without territory, accomplished her perilous mission; and remaining faithful to the principle of her nationality, the city of Calvin saw herself the object of the Divine favor, and enjoyed a prosperity, a respect, and an outward security which the most powerful States in the world do not often obtain." [2]

Now that we have come to the close of Calvin's career, it is necessary that we should pause, and ask wherein lay his distinctive characteristic as a Reformer, and what was it that constituted the specific difference between his Reformation and that of Luther. The answer to this inquiry will help us to understand the unity that belongs to the great drama whose successive developments we are attempting to trace. The work of Luther was needed to prepare for that of Calvin, and Calvin's was necessary to complete and crown that of Luther. The parts which each acted were essential to constitute a whole. Wittenberg and Geneva make between them one Reformation. This can be better seen in our day than when Luther and Calvin were alive, and toiling each at his allotted part of the great task.

Let us first sketch in outline the difference between these two men and their work, and then return and explain it a little more in detail.

By the year 1535, the Reformation in Germany had culminated, and was beginning to decline. The Augsburg Confession (1530) marked the era of greatest prosperity in German Protestantism; the formation of the Schmalkahl League notified the moment of its incipient decline.

That League, in itself, was quite defensible—nay, even dutiful, considering the power of the princes, and the attempts the emperor was making to destroy the political system of Germany. But it exercised, especially after the death of Luther, a depressing and withering effect upon the spiritual energies of the

Protestants, which did more to throw back the movement than would any amount of violence that could have been inflicted upon it. With Luther in his grave, with Melancthon and his compromises, with Landgrave Philip and his soldiers, the Reformation in Germany had closed its period of well-doing. Another center had to be found where the movement might have a fresh start. Geneva was selected. There the Reformation was extricated from the political entanglements with which it had become mixed up in Germany. It was rescued from the hands of political and military men: it was withdrawn from reliance on armies, and committed to those who could further it only with their prayers and their martyrdoms. True, its second cradle was placed on a spot which, of all others, seemed open to attack on every side, and where it was not sure of a day's life; yet around that spot were invisible ramparts; the poise constantly maintained in the ambitions of its neighboring sovereigns— Charles, Francis, and the Pope—was to it for walls.

As new foothold had to be found for the movement, so too had a new chief. And, accordingly, before Luther had been laid in his tomb at Wittenberg, Calvin was fairly installed at Geneva. He was prosecuting his work in quietness by the shores of the Leman, while the princes of the Schmalkald League were fighting on the plains of Germany. Under Calvin the Reformation entered upon a new and more spiritual dispensation. All the incidents in Luther's life are sudden, startling, and dramatic: this form was given them to draw attention and fix the minds of men. But the movement, once launched, needed this array of outward drapery no longer. Under Calvin it appeals less to the senses and more to the intellect: less to the imagination and more to the soul. The evolutions in Calvin's career are quiet, gradual, without the stage effect, if we may be permitted the phrase, which marked Luther's more notable appearances, but they are more truly sublime. Henceforward the Reformation proceeds more silently, but with a deeper power, and a higher moral glow.

The leading stages of Luther's history repeat themselves in that of Calvin, but after a different fashion. In the career of each there is a marked point of commencement, and a marked point of culmination. The nailing of the ninety-five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg has its analogue, or corresponding act, in the publication of the Institutes at Basle. The one manifesto struck and stirred Christendom even as did the other. Each notified the entrance of its author upon a high career. They were two mighty voices telling the world that great instructors had been sent to it, and bidding it hear them. Again, the appearance of Luther before the Diet at Worms has its corresponding act in the victory of Calvin over the Libertines of Geneva, when at the risk of life he barred their way to the Communion-table. The first was the more dramatic, the second was the more evangelically grand. Both were needed fully to define the office and place of the Reformation. The first demonstrated the Gospel's power to withstand kings and armies, and triumph over all the power of the sword: the second showed that its energy equally fitted it to cope with Libertine mobs, and to resist their devastating theories. It would not lay its freedom at the feet of the tyrant, and neither would it surrender its purity at the call of the populace.

Im fact, we see only the one half of the work which Calvin accomplished, when we confine our attention to the blow he dealt that great system which had so long kept the intellect of the world in darkness and its conscience in bondage. The evil he prevented rising up was as great as that he helped to pull down. It is altogether a mistake to suppose that if the Reformation had not come, the Church of Rome would have continued to exercise the sway she had wielded in the past. The hour of her supremacy had gone by. The scandals and dogmas of the priesthood had destroyed belief: the speculations of the schoolmen had sown the seeds of pantheism, and a great tempest lowered over Europe. Loosened from its old foundations, an upheaval of society was inevitable. But for Protestantism, Servetus would have been the Voltaire of the sixteenth century: the Libertine club, on the shores of the Leman, would have anticipated the Encyclopaedists who at a later period flourished on the banks of the Seine; Geneva would have filled the post which Paris did two centuries after, by becoming the headquarters of revolutionary propagandism; and the year 1593 would have been as fatal to the thrones and altars of the Papal world as was the year 1793. Providence postponed the tempest through the agency of Calvin, who grappled with the young giant of pantheistic revolution, and made Geneva the headquarters of a Protestant propagandism, which by restoring knowledge and faith imparted a new life to the European nations, and laid over again the foundations of a world that was dissolving and about to vanish away. And not only was the storm deferred thereby, its violence was mitigated when at last it came, and its devastations restricted to the one half of Europe. The Roman Church may not see the debt it owes to Calvin; that, however, does not make it less the fact that there is no man who ever lived, to whom its priests owe half what they owe to him. The inviolability of person which they continued to enjoy for two centuries after his day was due to the Reformer.

Such were the two men who figured so largely in the sixteenth century, and such is the part accomplished by each in the one work assigned to them. But let us explain a little more fully what we have now briefly stated. The special service that Calvin rendered to Protestantism

was to codify its laws, and organise its adherents so as to conserve their morality and holiness—in other words, the Reformation itself. His first step in the direction of this great end—in his view the standing or falling of Protestantism—was to exclude the profane from the Communion-table. This power he lodged in the Consistory, or body of pastors and elders. He would allow no other authority on earth to exercise it: and in claiming this power—and we have seen at what risks he exercised it—he separated between the Church and the world, and laid the first stone in that system of polity which he afterwards elaborated, and which was ultimately extended to the Protestant Churches of France, of Holland, of Scotland, and of yet remoter countries.

In what he did in this matter, the Reformer of Geneva built upon the foundations of his great predecessors. The more eminent of the Reformers who had been before him, had felt the necessity of drawing a distinction between the Church and the world, and of excluding the ungodly and vicious from the Sacraments, and so conserving the Church's purity; but their theories of Church discipline were elementary and crude, and their practical attempts were to a great extent failures. Still it is beyond doubt that these early and immature experiments helped to eliminate the principles and shape the projects which resulted at last in the establishment of the Genevan polity.

Luther saw, and often mournfully felt, that the Church needed a discipline, but he failed to give it such. When Luther enunciated his idea of a Church as "a congregation of saints, a spiritual assembly of souls in one faith," [3] he laid the foundation of a fabric on which Calvin afterwards placed the top-stone. But the German Reformer proceeded no farther on this fundamental idea than to constitute an office of men to preach the Word and dispense the Sacraments. Scattered through his writings are the germs of a more complete and efficient polity; he could distinguish between the temporal and the spiritual jurisdiction, [4] but how to give these principles effect in the gathering and organising of the Church he knew not. He sorrowfully confesses, in his German Mass and Order of Divine Worship, his inability to furnish what was so much needed—a working plan for the government of the Church. One main obstruction in his path was the low state of practical religion among the mass of the German people. "I have not the people," said he, "whom it requires. For we Germans are a wild, rude, riotous race, among whom it is not easy to set anything on foot unless necessity compel." [5]

Melancthon enunciated his views on this head a little more clearly than Luther. He declared his opinion "that a pastor ought not to excommunicate any man without the concurrence of a body of judges, and the cooperation of some worthy members of the Church." [6] So also taught the four Saxon Reformers—Pomeranus, Jonas, Luther, and Melancthon. In a joint epistle to the ministers of Nuremberg, in 1540, exhorting them to resume the practice of excommunication, they annex the condition that, in this business, elders be associated with the pastor. [7] These projects embrace the elements of the Genevan polity. They fell to the ground, it is true, about 1542, when the system under which the Churches of the Lutheran Communion still are, was adopted—namely, a Consistory, chosen by, and responsible to, the civil powers; but they exhibit a notable approximation on the part of the German Reformers to the plan of ecclesiastical rule afterwards elaborated and set working by Calvin.

Next in order is the scheme of John Brentius. Brentius was the Reformer first of the free imperial city of hall, in Swabia, and afterwards of the Duchy of Wurtemberg. He had the merit of proposing to the Council of Hall, in 1526, a better working plan for the regulation of the Church than either Luther's or Melancthon's, although still his plan was defective. Founding on what, according to his view, was the order followed in the Apostolic Church, he says: "The saints of the primitive Church thought it good to observe the following order in conducting evangelical discipline:— Certain ancient, honorable, and discreet men were elected from the assembly by the Christian people of each locality, to whom charge was given to take the oversight of the congregation; and in particular to admonish such as gave offense by unChristian 'unchristian' behavior, and to inflict excommunication, if admonition proved unavailing. Of these chosen men the one who was appointed to preach the Word, and who was authorised to convene the others for business, was styled Bishop—that is, overseer or shepherd; the rest were styled, in allusion to their age, Presbyters—that is, Councillors. The meeting of the Presbyters and Bishop was designated a Synod—that is, an assembly." Such was the scheme of Brentius; it is a well-defined and independent plan of Church rule, lodging the correction of manners solely in the hands of the Church herself—that is, of her office-bearers.

Brentius appeared on the point of anticipating Calvin as regards his Church polity; and yet he missed it. The existence of a Christian magistracy, in his view, modified the whole question. A pagan magistrate could not be expected to correct Church scandals, and therefore it behooved the primitive Church, unaided by the State, to administer her whole discipline; but now, the magistrate being Christian he was fitted, according to Brentius, to share with the Church the task of correcting and punishing evils; although still there were vices and sins which the civil ruler could not or would not correct, and these the Church herself must see to. Thus he inextricably mixed up the Church's discipline with the State's authority, and he added to the confusion by giving to the magistrate the nomination of the lay-assessors who were to take part with the pastor in the exercise of discipline.

Another scheme claims a

moment's attention from us. It is that of Francis Lambert, ex-monk of Avignon, and Philip, Landgrave of Hesse. It was laid before the Committee of Hornburg in the same year (1526) that saw the scheme of John Brentius submitted to the Council of Hall. It is the most advanced of all. It lodged the administration of discipline immediately and directly in the members of the Church. First of all, so far as human judgment could effect it, a Church of saints only was to be constituted; these were to convene from time to time, "for the public punishment and exclusion of scandalous persons... for passing judgment on the doctrine of their pastor, for electing and, in case of need, deposing bishops and deacons (i.e., ministers and helpers) and guardians of the poor, and for whatsoever other functions pertain to the congregation; for these reasons, we ordain that in every parish, after God's Word shall have been preached for a season, there shall take place a convention of the faithful, wherein all males, who favor the cause of Christ and are reputed saints, shall come together to decide, along with the bishop, on all Church affairs, according to the Word of God. The bishop or minister may by no means excommunicate or absolve by himself, but only in conjunction with the congregation." [8]

This is not so much the Presbyterian as the Congregational polity. It is, in fact, a scheme that blends the two, for it was made to approximate the first, by the institution of provincial Synods, consisting of the pastors and a deputy from every congregation. It is remarkable, when its age and place are considered. A draft of it was sent to Luther for his approval. He advised that for the present the project should not be attempted, but that every effort be made to fill the pulpits and schools with efficient men. Thereafter the plan might be introduced piece-meal, and if it met with general approval might become law; "for to draw a fine plan and to reduce it to practice are two very different things. Men are not constituted as those people imagine who sit at home and sketch fine plans of how things are to go." This constitution was hardly set a-working when it was abandoned. The Church of Hesse, surrounded on all sides by laxer schemes of polity, in a year or two forsook that of Lambert, and adopted that under which Luther had placed the Churches of Saxony.

The plan of Zwingli was intermediate between that of Luther and that of Calvin. The Reformer of Zurich framed a code of laws and ordinances covering the entire field of social life, and committed their administration to a series of judges or courts, supreme over which was the State.

Marriage, the Sunday, and the Sacrament were the three centers of his moral scheme, the three points on which his ecclesiastical code hinged. With Luther, he regarded the power of discipline as vested in the whole body of the faithful; and the provisions he made for the exercise of that power were, first, the Kirk-session, or Still-stand, so called for this reason, that at the close of public worship the members remained in church, still-standing, with the pastor, and in that attitude made their communications to the minister, and to one another, and reproved those cited before them for discipline. [9] Secondly, the half-yearly Synod, which chiefly occupied itself with the doctrines and morals of the clergy; and thirdly, the Board of Moral Control, to which was added, when the discipline of the Church extended, the magistrates of the district. Excommunication—that is, exclusion from the membership of the Church, with all implied in that sentence in Switzerland—was often pronounced by the Still-stand as a temporary measure; but as a final measure it could be pronounced only by the Council. The supreme ecclesiastical authority was thus in the hands of the State, but it was handed over to it by Zwingli on the express condition that the magistrates were Christian men, and were to take the Word of God as their sole directory in all their proceedings. [10] The zeal and promptitude with which the Council of Zurich aided Zwingli in his reforming measures, was not without its influence in molding his scheme of polity, and indeed the Swiss magistrates of those days were amongst the more enlightened and pious of the population. But seeing Constitutions are permanent while men change, in order to be wisely framed they ought to be based, not on exceptional cases, but on great and general laws.

Next to the doctrine of the Church, there is nothing that appertains more to her well-being than her discipline. Without this, her life would ebb away, and she would fall back into the world from which she had come out; whereas, with a suitable organization, not only would her life be preserved, but her vigor and efficiency would be increased tenfold. We have therefore sought to trace the successive stages of the growth of the polity of the Protestant Churches. We see the Church's government, like her doctrine, gradually developing and taking shape. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers we find lying at the foundation of all these schemes. On this idea Luther constitutes the office of preacher of the Word. He feels that this is not enough, but does not see how, in the then immature state of the Church, more can be done. Brentius joined lay-assessors with the pastor, who were to exclude the unworthy from the privileges of the Church; but the better half of this power he gave to the magistrate, who might in the end—this was of course the questionable part of the scheme—usurp the whole of it. Francis Lambert went to the other extreme. He made all the members of the Church judges—a plan that will work with difficulty in any age, and which certainly was unsuited to the age that saw its

birth. The polity constructed by Zwingli was more elaborate, and did much to nourish morality and piety in Switzerland, but its framer seriously endangered it when he surrendered to the magistrate the power, in the last resort, of excluding from the Church and her ordinances.

Calvin, doubtless, had studied all these attempts, and profited by them. There is no reason to think that he reached this scheme of Church polity at a bound; it was rather a reproduction of earlier schemes, avoiding, as far as he could, the rock on which his predecessors had split. His genius detected the one thing which he thought essential in Church discipline; and less concerned about other matters, he tenaciously grasped this, the power namely of admitting to or excluding from the privileges of the Church. It was his strong opinion that he who had this power had the guardianship of the Church's purity, and the control of her govermnent, and that this right must be exercised by the Church herself—that is, by her chosen representatives—to the exclusion of all other authority and power. No one, he considered, can share with the Church, and no one dare interfere with her in the exercise of this right. At great peril and suffering he vindicated this right, against both the Council of Geneva and the Libertine democracy. In this battle he stemmed the rising tide of infidel sentiment and immoral manners which would have been more fatal to Reformation than the arms of the Empire, and he laid the corner-stone of that spiritual dominion which Protestantism was to exercise over the nations.

The Presbyterian of the present day will not admit that Calvin's scheme was faultless. The Reformer's views touching the theocratic character of States prevented him doing full justice to his own idea of the individuality of the Church, and forbade his placing his ecclesiastical polity alongside the State's government, as an independent and distinct autonomy. In the administration of practical discipline at Geneva the Council was greater than the Consistory. But the essential principle, as Calvin deemed it— namely, the sole power to admit or exclude, which was in his mind the key of the position—he combated for, and vindicated with all the force of his mighty intellect. And when he came to apply his theory of Church power to the French Churches, the completeness and consistency of his ideas on ecclesiastical polity were better seen. In France the government was hostile, and there, even if Calvin had wished, he could not have effected the complication that existed at Geneva. But all the more was the fitness of his scheme demonstrated. It gave a perfect autonomy to the French Protestant Church, which enabled her to maintain her place alongside the throne, and to survive a lengthened succession of terrific tempests, which began from this time to assail her.

It is not difficult to see, now that we look back on the epoch, that God was then teaching a great lesson to the world—that a scripturally constituted and scripturally governed Church would, in days to come, be the only bulwark against the tremendous evils which were beginning to assail Christendom from opposite sides. This lesson, we must repeat, was taught twice over, first in the case of Luther, and secondly in the case of Calvin.

In Luther we see the Reformation, undazzled by the blaze of worldly glory, and unterrified by the threats of worldly power, maintaining its ground despite the insolence of authority. In the case of Calvin, in the Cathedral of St. Peter's, we see the Reformation standing before a licentious and furious infidel mob, who hate it not less than the emperor does, and are just as eager to extinguish it in blood, and we behold that mob recoiling abashed and awe-struck before its moral power. Happy had it been for Italy and Spain had they laid to heart the first lesson! and happy had it been for France had she pondered the second!


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the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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