Calvins Geneva: Church & World in ordered tasks Essay

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Calvins Geneva: Church & World in ordered tasks


1) The terms of the question
The political conception of J. Calvin has been subjected to a wide range of
interpretations so that a " communis opinio" appears nowadays very difficult to be
reached. Particularly the contribution of Calvin's theology to the birth of democracy and
liberty has been until now one of the most debated and discussed. It is well known that
the most famous and influential version of the thesis associating Protestantism and
Progress was offered by G. W. F. Hegel, who in his " Philosophy of History" ( trans. J
Sibree, New York, 1956, p.417 and p. 444) pointed out that in Germany the eclaircissement
was conducted in the interest of Theology, in France it immediately took up a position of
hostility to the church. This was possible in part because the protestant world
itself..... advanced so far in thought as to realize the absolute culmination of self
consciousness. This is the essence of the Reformation: Man is in his very nature destined
to be free.

The idea of a kinship between Protestantism and political and social progress has became a
common place among liberal Protestants. The boldest and most prolific representative of
the above point of view was no doubt Emil Doumergue who in his Jean Calvin: Les hommes et
les choses de son temps ( 7 vols, Lausanne, 1899-1927, p 212) , argued straightforwardly
that Calvin deserved the title of founder of the modern world.

The idea of some inner connections between Protestantism and some aspects of modernity was
taken up by Max Weber ( see The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) according
to whom the Calvin's conception of vocation would constitute the basis of the modern
capitalism.

After the Great War the tide of Protestant opinion turned against the fathering of
modernity on the Reformation. The most eminent among these thinkers was Karl Barth whose
"dialectical Theology" or "Theology of crisis" emphasized the infinite distance between a
radically transcendent God and sinful man, in effect constituting a repudiation of the
link between Protestantism and modernity. Among the other representatives of the above
trend it needs to quote Marc Edward Cheneviere who in his La pensee politique de Calvin
(Paris, 1937) insisted that there is no spiritual kinship between the Reformation and
modern democracy , not to mention W. Allen who in his A History of Political Thought in
the 16th Century ( New York, 1928) has observed that if the essence of Protestantism was a
claim to liberty for the individual " then " certainly Calvin was not a Protestant".

In the heap of these different interpretations the reconstruction of the historical truth
can appear to be problematic even because Calvin didn't write an extended formal treatise
on government We find the most systematic treatise on this topic on the 4^ book of the
Institutions of Christian Religion. A preliminary observation springs up immediately about
Calvin's view of government : the brevity of his treatments. It appears almost to be an
afterthought. A glance at the title "The External Means or Aids by which God invites us
into the Society of Christ and holds us therein" can give the impression that Church and
State will be given balanced treatments. On the contrary the Church received 93 percent of
the attention, the State only 7 percent So it appears" prima facie" that Calvin was not
much interested in the State. He was chiefly a theologian devoted to reform the church and
his utterances on the political questions were only incidental and at any rate always
closely connected with his theological basis.

In fact the Calvin's deepest concern was neither the world nor its history, neither the
worldly orders nor the social life, neither the formation of economy , nor conduct of
life. His main concern was only God, God's word, God's authority, God's truth, God's
Gospel. In the light of the above situation that often has been misunderstood, it seems
unavoidable to draw the only possible conclusion: it means we cannot understand the
Calvin's political perspective without taking in account his theological background.


2)The theological leitmotif of Calvin's Theology:"Soli Deo Honor et Gloria"
But which was the leitmotif of Calvin's theology? Calvin scholarship possesses an
abundance of studies which have proceeded to identify it in his doctrine :

of Predestination ( see Schweitzer," Die protestantische Central Dogmen", pp. 1-18 and L.
Boetner, "the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination", Grand Rapids, 1968);

of Knowledge of God (see Dowey, "Knowledge of God in Calvin's Theology", pp. 41-49);
of Church ( see Milner, " Calvin's Doctrine of the Church", pp.1-5).
Generally among the above one the most diffuse answers has been the second; it means the
doctrine of predestination. As a matter of fact a more careful analysis of the coordinates
of Calvin's theology permits to single out another conclusion, that moreover some years
ago H Troelsch singled out in his "The social teaching of the Christian Churches" (New
York:Macmillan , 1931, p.583):


To Calvin the chief point is not the self centered personal salvation of the creature, and
the universality of the divine Will of Love, but it is the Glory of God, which is equally
exalted in the holy activity of the elect and in the futile rage of the reprobate

In our opinion the Troelsch's analysis hits the mark! In fact the common denominator of
Calvin's writings was that one to teach that God's glory extended beyond the fate of the
individual soul and encompassed the whole of creation, as he emphatically pointed out, by
stating

For our salvation was a matter of concern to God in such a way that, not forgetful of
Himself. He kept His glory primarily in view, and therefore, created the whole world for
this end, that it may be a theatre of His Glory" In latin the phrase sounds "Totum mundum
hoc fine condidisse, ut gloriae suae theatrum foret" (Consensus Genevensis C.O. 8:294)

This preoccupation directed at any rate to safeguard Glory and Honour of God was the
constant factor and unifying element of Calvin's theology. The evidences confirming the
above point of view are innumerable. In the Geneva's Catechism, one of the first documents
, we find this meaningful statement to the question What is the chief end of human life?
the answer sounds unequivocal:

We are all created to this end that we may know the majesty of our Creator; and having
come to know it, that we might venerate it above all else, and honour it with all fear,
love and reverence.

Human beings are living not to satisfy their needs of eternity or to give meaning to their
lives, but to glorify God . In the above statement there is a deep rooted truth inasmuch
as desire for personal salvation turns out to be very often a very selfish act Thereof
Calvin was extremely aware to the point that his strong emphasis on the" Sola Gloria Dei"
undercut every act tainted with self-seeking.True morality ought to be directed toward God
alone.

To this connection In his reply to Cardinal Sadolet (O.S. 1:363-364) Calvin wrote :
"It is not very sound theology to confine a man's thought so much to himself, and not to
set before him, as the prime motive for his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of
God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves. As all things flowed
from Him and subsist in Him, so, says Paul (Rom.11,36), they ought to be referred to Him.
I acknowledge, indeed, that the Lord, the better to recommend the glory of His name to
men, has tempered zeal for the promotion and extension of it by uniting it indissolubly
with our salvation. But since he has taught that this zeal ought to exceed all thought and
care for own good and advantage, and since natural equity also teaches that God does not
receive what is His own, unless He is preferred to all things, it certainly is the part of
a Christian man to ascend higher than merely to seek and secure the salvation of his own
soul. I'm persuaded, therefore, that there is no man imbued with true piety who will not
consider as insipid that long and laboured exhortation to zeal for heavenly life, a zeal
which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself and does not, even by one expression, arouse
him to sanctify the name of God.

This doctrine lies on two presuppositions. Firstly we were created for no other end and to
live for no other cause than that God may be glorified in us (C.R. 24:362; 26:270), as
Calvin himself writes:

We are not our own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our
deliberations..... We are not our own; therefore let us, as possible, forget ourselves and
all things that are ours. On the contrary, we are God's; to Him, therefore, let us live
and die. We are God's; therefore let His wisdom and will preside in all our actions.O how
well a man has profited if he has recognized that he is not his own and has taken the
lordship and rule of himself away from his own reason and handed it over God
(Institutions, 3,7,1)

Secondly the fact of our redemption constitutes
the end for which God has chosen us by gratuitous goodness; this is why He maintains and
continues His grace toward us, that we might glorify Him not only with our mouths but in
the whole of our life (C.R.26:225)

In short Calvin did not think of men as a change agents , but as servants of God. The
Kingdom of God, not their personal salvation, the Glory of God, not their welfare, was to
be their only goal.

3)Justification and sanctification; mutual relationships.
But, if the goal of Christian life is the glorification of God, which is its starting
point ? To answer to the above question we have to dwell briefly on the teaching of
justification by grace trough faith that has been always regarded by all the Reformers the
"articulum stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae " and "the substance of piety" ( Institutions,
3,15,7 ).

According to Calvin men throughout the sacrifice of the cross operated by Jesus Christ
have been justified once for all by God and have obtained the remission of sins. Therefore
from now on the dominant motivation of their lives becomes not to strive in order to
obtain salvation but to demonstrate their gratitude towards God.

In fact when a person has been reconciled to God, that person is in position to do good
works. In summary, justification by faith alone becomes the presupposition of the
Christian life and the" conditio sine qua non" of moral life conceived as the human
response to the gracious activity of God. Calvin continually during his life exhorted
human beings to meditate on God's goodness, firmly repudiating servile fear as the
motivation of the Christian life

The above interpretation of Christian life inspired a vigorous and aggressive spirit in
history. In Scotland and in England the Reformed churches sought to build the new
Jerusalem. The puritans who moved to New England were not simply seeking freedom to
worship God as they liked, but they tried to establish a Christian society. In his
relation to God the Christian was a soldier of the Lord in conquest of the world, the
flesh and the devil. He was God's elect instrument to fulfill His purposes. So the
metaphor of the Christian as soldier became the most important and dominant designation
given by Calvin to the Christian life, as he reminded by stating

Now we have a more general doctrine, that we are all soldiers of our Lord Jesus Christ and
that our condition is such that is necessary for us to fight, not only for a day, but for
all our life (C.R.27:612).

The condition of military discipline is such that as soon as a soldier has enrolled
himself under a general, he leaves his house and all his affairs and thinks of nothing but
war; and in like manner, in order that we may be wholly devoted to Christ, we must be free
from all the entanglements of this world..... Everyone who wishes to fight under Christ
must relinquish all the hindrances and employments of the world and devote himself
unreservedly to the warfare (C.R.52:361)

Paul Wernle in his "Der Evangelische Glaube nach den Hauptschriften der Reformatoren"
(Tuebingen, J.C. B. Mohr, 1919) has written that the Calvinist ethic produced a particular
type of person, the "hero" and he was right In fact the word "hero" became the most
frequent earmark of Christian life which was used by Calvin .The believers were called to
cultivate a

spirit of invincible fortitude and courage, which might serve to sustain them under the weight of all calamities.
Nevertheless we must keep in mind that unlike the stoic heroism, who was not touched with
compassion, the heroism according Calvin's interpretation was the human response to God's
gracious activity in human life and in the world, born out of confidence in the promises
of God.



4)The battlefield of sanctification: History as theatre of God's Glory
One important consequence stems from the above accentuation .The battlefield of this
heroic perspective is not restricted to religious area , but to whole daily life.

The believer is not called to leave the world and enter a monastery, but to enter fully
into the life of the world, and thus to transform it. Calvin's insistence that the
believer could be called by God to serve Him in every sphere of worldly existence lent a
new dignity and meaning to history, that from the Reformation on started playing an
important role at least from twofold perspective.

In the first place history was regarded again as the sphere in which God worked .
In the second place it became the sphere in which human beings have to realize the
purposes of God. Every person has been entrusted by God for the performance of a task.
Every work is a sacred trust, because all the Christian life stand under the claim of the
eternal will of God.

In the light of consideration that the all created order functions as "the theatre of
God's Glory", the arena of divine action, the believers were actively involved in God's
purpose for creation carrying on His purposes in history.

The fact that the whole human existence was conceived under the claim of the Eternal will
of God meant that every aspect of life became important No area of life can escape from
the sovereignty of God. In the above perspective the task of the church becomes identical
with that one of the state: it means the upholding of the Honour and the Glory of God. In
this enterprise ministers and magistrates are implied to be partners in a rough equality.



5) The roles of Church and State and their relationships
It is only by keeping in mind the above theological framework that we can understand the
Calvin's steadfast preoccupation to define exactly roles and tasks both of Church both of
State, because at stake was nothing else than the Glory of God. The importance of the
Church for Christian life was in Calvin's perspective at least threefold.

In the first place, the divine acts which constitute the church originate, sustain and direct the Christian life.
In the second place, the Church is the communion of Saints in which the Christian are
united not only with Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, but also with one another.

Finally the Church provides the governmental and disciplinary environment which is
suitable for the work of the Holy Spirit.

In perspective that " the Church could not hold together unless a settled government were
agreed on" the Calvin's Ordonnances intended to legislate for the whole of Church life.
According to Calvin a well ordered Church has to live under the supervision of the
Consistory, (who was composed of 12 elders, two chosen by the Small Council, four from the
Council of the sixty and four from the Council of the two hundred, all nominated by the
Smaller Council) and not by the Church. But what exactly was the task of the Consistory?

This institution has been much criticized, because it has been considered as an
inquisitorial organ with which Calvin imposed an unbearable tyranny on the city. Our own
age has completely neglected church discipline. Believers carry on their lives in an
individualistic fashion and consider that they have to give an account to nobody and are
responsible only to the judgement of God.

The Calvin's perspective was completely different. There couldn't be a watershed between
faith and daily responsibilities and the task of the Consistory was to watch over the
practice of received doctrine, to recall the hesitant, to admonish the weak and the
fallen, in order to win them back rather than to frighten them away.

As Alister McGrath has pointed out in his"A life of John Calvin", p. 113,
The Consistory was the guarantor of the discipline which Calvin's experience at Strasbourg
had led him to recognize as essential to the survival of the reformed church. Its primary
function was to deal with those whose religious views were sufficiently devious to pose a
threat to the established religious order at Geneva. Persons whose behaviour was regarded
as unacceptable for other reasons, pastoral or moral were to be treated in the same way.
Such individuals were in the first instance to be shown the error of their ways; should
this fail, the penalty of excommunication was available as a deterrent. This, however, was
an ecclesiastic rather than a civil penalty; the miscreant might be denied access to one
of the four annual communion services at Geneva, but he could not be subjected to any
civil penalty by the Consistory itself. The city council, perennially jealous of its
authority, had insisted that "all this is to take place in such a manner that the
ministers have no civil jurisdiction, nor use anything but the spiritual sword of the Word
of God....nor is the Consistory to detract from the authority of the Seigneurie or
ordinary justice. Civil power is to remain unimpeded"

In fact Consistory's discipline turned out to be a magnificent cure of souls exerted in
common by pastors and laymen over the weaker members of the church.

Its preoccupation was after all nothing else to safeguard the Honour and the Glory of God.
The body of Christ had not to be infested by rotting members. The enemies of the Church
had not to be able to poke fun at the so-called disciples of Christ. Especially the
Sacrament of fellowship and love had to be preserved from profanation.

The same preoccupation aiming to safeguard God's Glory at all costs underlaid Calvin's
statements on State. The earliest and most notable of these statements, which cover a
period of about twenty five years ,is the letter to Francis I of France, which served as
an introduction to the "Institutes of the Christian Religion" and was written in August
1535.

In this letter, that wanted to be a defence of the French Protestant minority against the
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