Category Archives: Church Government

Two Kingdoms and Two Ages: Why Calvin’s Political Theology Remains Relevant

In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.

In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).

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Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.

Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

Good News for the Poor: John Calvin and Social Justice

When John Calvin became pastor in Geneva most Protestant churches didn’t have deacons responsible for caring for the poor. In the medieval church the diaconate had become an office with largely liturgical responsibilities. Most Reformed churches, following Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, assumed it was the state’s responsibility—not the church’s—to care for the poor.

Calvin decisively rejected all of these views. Identifying the church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom, Calvin insisted that the church must witness to the justice and righteousness of Christ’s kingdom in its own way, in accordance with Christ’s commands. This meant that, as one of the church’s essential ministries, it had to call men and women to serve in the spiritual office of deacon.

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Calvin, like other Christians before him, believed God has given the earth and its resources to human beings. As those made in the image of God, we’re called to share our resources and serve one another. Calvin often used the language of rights to describe this principle. A person is defrauded, he argued, when a need is left unmet by someone with the power to meet it.

Caring for the poor, then, isn’t a requirement of charity but of justice, a basic demand of natural law. God is the “protector and patron of the poor,” Calvin says, the one who hears their cries and “feels himself injured in their persons.” Therefore, he won’t let their afflictions remain unavenged.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

The Kingdom and Its Righteousness: Rightly Defining the Spirituality of the Church

Sean Michael Lucas’s fascinating book, For a Continuing Church, highlights in no uncertain terms the vital importance of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church to the origins of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Next to the authority of Scripture, no other commitment played a more important role in forging the identity of the evangelical Presbyterians who established the PCA. These Presbyterians insisted that the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) had exchanged its spiritual mission of evangelization, summarized in the Great Commission’s call for the church to make and train disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), for the activism of the social gospel.

And yet, Lucas’s book also makes clear just how misleading these evangelical Presbyterians’ self-understanding was. For in point of fact, they were just as concerned about the social and political impact of Presbyterianism as were their progressive rivals, and just as likely to use their religious authority to argue against communism or racial integration as were their opponents to argue against the Vietnam War or segregation. As often as not, it seems, the spirituality of the church doctrine was invoked simply to shut down efforts that were deemed too progressive, only to leave the church free to proclaim the implications of Scripture for a conservative social worldview. In short, many of those who appealed to the doctrine interpreted it through the lens of their own reactionary politics rather than from the standpoint of the gospel of the “kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), biblically understood. The whole church, the right wing as well as the left, was all too politicized.

Read the rest of this article at Reformation 21.

What Are the Elders and Pastors of the Church Supposed to Do?

I once attended a church in which a group of women decided to start a book club as a means of fostering Christian friendship among themselves. The women only saw one another at worship and were looking for further ways of connecting. This is not uncommon, of course. But the book club never got off the ground. The women had selected a book to read and were planning their first meeting when the pastor got wind of it. Without discussion or warning, he announced from the pulpit that the women would be reading a different book, one that he had selected. That sort of sucked the life out of the endeavor, turning what had been a bottom-up affair among women to one that came down from the man at the top. Yet I could not help but wondering, why did this pastor assume he had the authority to take control in this way? I eventually realized that this was not an isolated incident. The pastor was a man accustomed to being in control. He was willing to use his office as he felt necessary in order to accomplish his ‘pastoral’ objectives, without accountability.

Of course, there are few controversies in the church older than that of church government. In the New Testament the pastors of the church are interchangeably described as presbyters and bishops. Not long after the apostles passed from the scene, however, Christian churches began to rally around the authority of particular bishops (such as the bishop of Rome) as focal points of unity and standards of orthodoxy. Bishops took on a whole new array of governmental tasks, overseeing the deacons’ care for the poor and adjudicating conflicts among believers. The church’s emerging hierarchy was a clear imitation of the highly successful polity of the Roman Empire.

By the high middle ages the pope had won widespread recognition of his authority not only as the vicar of Peter, but the vicar of Christ. The pope’s authority in the church was embraced as having been instituted by Christ in his famous words to Peter,

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

The canon lawyers of the medieval church recognized that Christ spoke similar words to the apostles as a group, not simply to Peter, and so they came to distinguish between two types of authority grounded in Jesus’ statement. On the one hand, they argued, Christ gave all the apostles, and hence all priests directly, the sacerdotal authority to administer the sacraments, including penance. On the other hand, Christ gave to Peter alone, and hence to the popes, supreme ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘administration’, the power to govern, to legislate, and to adjudicate specific disputes. In such matters the pope had the ‘fullness of power’; he could not violate articles of faith, but he did have full discretionary authority over the church’s temporal affairs, and – very significantly – that authority was backed up by the powers of excommunication.

The sharpest medieval critic of this view was Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius denied the divine origin of the papacy and insisted that the church is a purely spiritual institution concerned with otherworldly salvation. He vigorously rejected any coercive power on the part of the church, including excommunication, insisting that ecclesiastical affairs of jurisdiction and administration belong to civil government. Marsilius thus became the clear forerunner of the later Protestant theory known as “Erastianism,” in which civil magistrates are placed at the head of the church and the authority of the church’s ministers is limited to the word and sacraments.

The Marsilian or Erastian view became the default view of the early magisterial reformers. To varying degrees, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Henrician reformers in England all not only relied on magisterial power as an emergency source of authority to launch the reformation, but embraced civil government as the rightful overseer of the church’s order and life. On the far extreme was the English Reformation, with Henry VIII’s claim to be the Head of the Church. Much more moderate was Martin Luther, who was always uncomfortable with civil authority in the church, but who struggled to find an alternative.

Most prominent in Reformed churches were the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, who equated the church and civil government as essentially one society with two kinds of power, that of pastors and that of civil magistrates. For Zwingli and Bullinger the tasks of excommunication and poor relief entrusted to the church in New Testament appropriately fell to civil magistrates in the era of Christendom. Now that such civil rulers had converted to the faith, there was no need for ecclesiastical ministers to maintain such functions independently of the city or commonwealth. Ecclesiastical control over discipline and poor relief was associated with the tyranny of the papists.

It was Calvin, finally, influenced by Martin Bucer, who began to navigate a way between the extreme claims of the papacy, on the one hand, and the Protestant Erastians (or Marsilians) on the other. Calvin insisted that as the spiritual kingdom of Christ, the church is called to administer specific spiritual functions without interference from political authorities. These functions do not only consist of the word and sacraments, but of discipline (including excommunication) and of care for the poor. Calvin thus insisted that the church has its own right of spiritual jurisdiction that must be sharply distinguished from the political jurisdiction of civil government.

How was this spiritual jurisdiction to be distinguished from the tyrannical claims of the papacy? Calvin maintained that the church’s jurisdiction is non-coercive. It simply consists in barring a person from the Eucharist and urging him to repent. Just as importantly, he stressed that the church’s right to excommunicate or discipline its members cannot be invoked with reference to any dispute or temporal matter whatsoever, as happened under the papacy, but only with reference to spiritual matters. To put it another way, the church could only discipline a person if she was in direct and clear violation of the moral law of God. Thus the church’s spiritual jurisdiction was not magisterial or discretionary, but ministerial. It was entirely bound up with the word such that church discipline could be said to be an extension or appendage of that word, an exercise of the spiritual sovereignty of Christ.

For Calvin even the church’s care for the poor, an expression of the communion described in Acts 4, is fundamentally spiritual rather than temporal. It is a direct manifestation of the restoration that the kingdom of Christ has begun in human beings.

But Calvin agreed with the other reformers that the outward and temporal matters of the church’s life are to be sharply distinguished from these spiritual matters, and are therefore subject to a different kind of government or polity. Such “indifferent” matters included the appropriate time and day of worship, the speech and attire of women, the forms and postures of liturgy, none of which, Calvin insisted, pertain to the conscience (which does not mean that scripture has nothing to say about them).

Calvin was not very clear about just who should regulate such indifferent things. Clearly he permitted civil government some control here. He submitted to the Geneva government’s decision concerning the frequency of the Eucharist, to its control of the procedures by which the ministers of the church were elected, and to its funding of the church’s ministries (and consequently its control over the church’s finances). Equally clearly, he insisted that civil government could not direct such matters according to its own whim and preference. All the affairs of church life are to be ordered consistent with scripture and for the edification and peace of the body.

Yet it is noteworthy that when Calvin described the offices of church government he did so with respect to the church’s spiritual functions rather than with respect to its temporal or indifferent affairs. For instance, Calvin was adamant in his preaching that the deacons of the Genevan church – which he said should include an order of women – were to be embraced as possessing a spiritual office like that of the pastors rather than that of the civil magistrates. Even more significantly, he always defined the office of elder with respect to the function of spiritual church discipline. He never characterized it as an office of general rule or jurisdiction in the church. In that sense Calvin was no Presbyterian. His office of elder, unlike that of later Reformed and Presbyterian churches, had one specific spiritual function – the function of church discipline. And it is only with respect to that specific function, he argued, that the elders can claim to administer the spiritual government of Christ’s church.

Why did the later Reformed tradition develop a much broader understanding of the office of elder? When Reformed churches were established in Catholic France, under the cross, it was obviously impossible to concede control of even indifferent ecclesiastical affairs to hostile civil magistrates. French churches therefore tended to turn such affairs over to the control of deacons and elders (in some cases the offices of elder and deacon even blended into one). But they were mindful that this was an outward or temporal authority, not a spiritual one. Evidence for this appears from the fact that they (ordinarily) dealt with matters of (spiritual) church discipline at separate meetings from those in which they handled the general affairs of church government.

A similar development, I believe, explains the evolution of church government in the Dutch Reformed Churches. To this day the elders in Dutch Reformed churches are supposed to distinguish their spiritual oversight of the congregation, with which they deal in meetings of the Consistory (pastors and elders), from the matters of general church government, with which they deal in meetings of the Council (pastors, elders, and deacons). Here the Dutch Reformed ‘Council’ (an office of the church) seems to have neatly taken the place of the Geneva ‘Council’ (the supreme authority of Geneva’s civil government) in governing the indifferent affairs of church life.

What worries me is that in some Reformed churches there seems to be little understanding of the difference between the spiritual government of the church, in which the pastors, elders, and deacons administer the kingship of Christ, and the church’s handling of indifferent affairs, in which they are merely representatives of the congregation. In short, I fear that too often elders and pastors think that when they are exercising their authority over indifferent matters they are exercising the authority of Christ! Perhaps that helps explain why many elders devote far more time to such mundane affairs than they do to the vital and spiritual function of church discipline.

Understanding the difference between spiritual and indifferent affairs also has implications for the involvement of the broader congregation in decisions concerning the latter. If Calvin and the other reformers were willing to cede significant authority over the indifferent affairs of church life to civil authorities (a willingness I think we should wholeheartedly reject) because such matters were simply to be conducted for the edification and peace of all believers, how much more should we yield authority over such matters to the very believers whose edification and peace is its objective? This doesn’t mean the church need always operate by majority vote. It does suggest that the general matters of church government might be appropriately handled at meetings and through procedures in which all faithful men and women, in addition to the officers of the church, can participate.

Such a conception of church government would have a twofold salutary advantage. First, it would make the church more sensitive to the gifts, wisdom, and consent of its full membership. Second, it would help people to distinguish the spiritual government of Christ administered by the church’s officers strictly according to the word from those indifferent matters of government appropriately subject to the primary concerns of love, edification, prudence, compromise, and peace. That in turn might help our fragmented churches achieve a greater measure of unity. I believe the Apostle Paul had something to say about that.

Calvinism Thriving in China: is Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine the reason?

In a fascinating blog post in the Guardian (HT: David Koyzis) Andrew Brown points out that the version of Christianity on the ascendancy in China is Calvinism. In Africa and Latin America the Christian surge is largely charismatic or Pentecostal, and its target demographic is the poor. But in China, which Brown suggests may well represent the future center of global Christianity, charismatic tendencies are despised.

Calvinists despise pentecostalists. They shudder at unbridled emotion. If they are slain in the spirit, it is with a single, decorous thump: there’s to be no rolling afterwards. And in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation. Wang Xiaochao, a philosopher at one of the Beijing universities, has translated the two major works of St Augustine, the Confessions and the City of God, into Chinese directly from Latin. Gradually all the major works of the first centuries of the Christian tradition are being translated directly from the original languages into Chinese.

All of this is happening outside the control of the official body which is supposed to monitor and supervise the churches in China. Instead, it is the philosophy departments at the universities, or the language departments and the departments of literature and western civilisation that are the channel.

The unofficial churches, it seems, are younger, wealthier, more intellectual. But what is most interesting about Brown’s report is his explanation of why Calvinism is the theology of choice for so many Chinese.

Dr Tan suggests that this is because it is Protestant: that is to say it can be made much more convincingly native than Roman Catholicism, since presbyterian congregations choose their own pastors. This is, I suspect, enormously important at a time when China is recovering from a century and a half of being the victim of western powers; the pope’s insistence on appointing Catholic bishops is unacceptable to the government and perhaps to the people too.

Calvinism isn’t a religion of subservience to any government. The great national myths of Calvinist cultures are all of wars against imperialist oppressors: the Dutch against the Spanish, the Scots against the English; the Americans against the British. So when the Chinese house churches first emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution in the 80s and 90s “They began to search what theology will support and inform [them]. They read Luther and said, ‘not him’. So they read Calvin, and they said ‘him, because he has a theology of resistance.’ Luther can’t teach them or inform them how to deal with a government that is opposition.”

It’s an interesting argument, and one that fits the classic caricatures of Rome, Wittenburg and Geneva. It also relates fairly closely to a focus of my own recent work, which is the rapid spread of Calvinism during the 1550s and 1560s in Catholic France. A number of leading Reformation scholars have recently argued that Calvinism was equipped to thrive in countries with a hostile magistracy in a way that other forms of Protestantism – such as Lutheranism or the Zwinglian Reformed – could not. Why? Not because Calvinism developed a theory of resistance. That largely came later (after the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), and in fact, Lutheranism and medieval Christianity had their own versions of resistance theory.

Rather, the real cause of Calvinist expansion during its heyday, these scholars argue, was the distinctive Calvinist understanding of the church as an autonomous, self-governing institution distinct (though ideally coterminous) from the state. In contrast to Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and almost all of the other magisterial reformers, Calvin insisted that the church was to maintain its own spiritual government of pastors and elders responsible for the administration of church discipline and, if necessary, excommunication. Less controversially, but not less distinctively, Calvin argued that the church had to maintain an ecclesiastical diaconate in order to administer care for the poor.

While other Protestants encouraged the civil magistrate to handle the functions of discipline and poor relief because they viewed church and commonwealth as essentially one society, Calvin and his followers insisted that even in the context of a Christian society the government of church and state were to be kept distinct. One of the main arguments of my dissertation is that it was Calvin’s unique version of the two kingdoms doctrine that made the Calvinist tradition so distinctive on this point.

What does this have to do with success in a hostile environment such as France, let alone China? Calvinism provided its followers with a model of the church that could easily be translated to any context, friendly or hostile. It did not matter if the French government rejected the true gospel, or even if it persecuted evangelicals, because the Reformed churches possessed all of the theological resources necessary to govern themselves and even to thrive without state support.

In fact, even the later development of Calvinist resistance theory presupposed this basic two kingdoms distinction. While Calvin and most of the other Reformed pastors insisted on the basis of Romans 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages that churches and individual Christians must submit even to unjust civil authorities, the distinction between the two kingdoms enabled these same theologians to argue that different ethical principles applied to lesser civil magistrates. These subsidiary authorities, such as the Estates or the French Princes of the Blood, had the right to oppose tyranny on the part of the crown or its ministers precisely because they were authorities within the political kingdom rather than the spiritual.

The French Wars of Religion that occurred before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre were therefore led by Huguenot nobility rather than by pastors or popular rebels. The pastors supported the Huguenot cause but always ensured that the governing bodies of the church were kept distinct from the Huguenot political or military authorities. The justification for war in these early years was always secular (i.e., the pro-Catholic regency established during the reign of the immature Charles IX was in violation of French legal tradition and therefore should be opposed by appropriate princes and nobility) rather than theological.

Are we seeing a repeat of these developments in China today? Despite Brown’s article, I doubt the Chinese are turning to Calvinism because of its theories of political resistance. If anything, I suspect that the Chinese, like the early French Reformed, want to avoid associations with subversive tendencies that would turn the government against them. Brown may well be on to something, however, when he emphasizes the Calvinist tendency to emphasize the autonomy of the church in a way that is appropriate for hostile contexts and therefore subversive of government tyranny. No doubt the theological and ecclesiological depth of Calvinism is compelling to those young, intellectual Chinese men and women so willing to break with their government and its officially tolerated institutions. In any case, this is a story worth following.

The Scandal of Reformed Division: Daniel Hyde’s challenge to the churches

Reformed churches have made the characteristics that distinguish them from one another into idols that divide the church. Although he does not put it in such terms, that, essentially, is Daniel Hyde’s charge in his important recent address at the 38th meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Hyde, the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in California and the author of numerous books, points out that according to the New Testament the whole church is, in fact, one in Christ. He also points out that already during Paul’s life he had to exhort the church to walk in a spirit of peace and unity. In Hyde’s words:

Paul’s exhortation is evidence that we do not do this anywhere near the level to which God demands and desires and that we need. Simul iustus et peccator is a living reality for the church. The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin. That’s why on a bad day I would say that the Reformed churches are hopelessly divided in the spirit of Corinth: “’I follow Paul,’” or ’I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor. 1:12).

“The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin.” I appreciate it that Hyde came out and said what I believe many among us would actually deny. He goes on to speak in terms that should be as challenging to conservative Reformed believers as they are mystifying to the majority of Christians (who have never even heard of these moments in Reformed history, these concepts and practices that are at the core of our self-understanding):

Let me press this deep into your hearts by saying something that I trust shocks you. We are so divided that we cannot have a Synod of Dort or a Westminster Assembly today. Not shocking enough? Here is why I believe this: we are too carnal and insufficiently spiritual for such an assembly. We are too carnal in holding up “distinctives” as virtually inerrant. We revel in famous dates in our respective histories, as if they are a direct line from the apostles through the Reformation to us. We hold up our church polity issues as being passed down from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).

All of this, I might add, in the context of an age in which Reformed believers make up an infinitesimal fraction of the “holy catholic church” in which we profess to believe (NAPARC makes up about 0.18% of the U.S/Canadian population), in which the gospel is routinely misrepresented or ignored in so many of those organizations that call themselves churches, and therefore in which very few of the people who live around us even know what genuine Christianity (i.e., the Gospel) is.

Family Tree of Christian Denominations

(Incomplete, but even so, notice how small the Reformed/Presbyterian wing is)

Back to Hyde:

We are too carnal with so much infighting over preaching. We cluster in our respective corners and raise our flags: biblical-theological, redemptive-historical, grammatical-historical, experiential, evangelistic, fallen-condition focus, and everything in between. We do this as if preaching methodology trumps what we all confess is the first and primary mark of the true church: preaching the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

I do not want to be disrespectful of anyone’s work or concerns, but you do wonder when bright, sincere Christian people devote their energies to writing ruthlessly polemical tracts (or articles or blogs or speeches) against other equally thoughtful, sincere Christian people, on differences that are rarely as crucial or clear as the authors’ seem to imagine. To be sure, it is much easier to devote oneself to solving relatively manageable problems that are relevant to small numbers of people than it is to insert oneself meaningfully (i.e., in such a way that people will listen to you) into efforts and debates that concern millions of people quite different from yourself. And in a sense, of course, it is appropriate to have a sense of vocation about the people and issues within your realm of concern and influence. But that does not explain the tendency to approach these matters in ways that are divisive and destructive. As Hyde writes,

[W]e are insufficiently spiritual. We do not evidence the fruits of the Holy Spirit that reflect the high calling to which we are called (Eph 4:1). Therefore I believe our once legitimate historical, cultural, circumstantial divisions are now a discipline from the Lord upon our movement. Will we fall on our faces together in repentance? Will we arise and with open arms embrace in charity and humility our brothers who differ with us on lesser matters? Can we not follow the example of our forefathers? Are our distinctives and differences any more important than those that existed at the Synod of Dort?

One example should suffice. On the issue of how to express the extent and intent of Christ’s satisfaction, there was diversity. Some said Christ died for the elect—period—and that the ancient sufficiency/efficiency distinction was useless. Others said that this distinction was useful since Christ’s intent was not to save the whole world, however, his death has an infinite and intrinsic value sufficient in extent to save the whole world. And there were even a few who affirmed an even broader sufficiency, saying that Christ died efficiently with intent to save the elect, but that he also died sufficiently for the whole world, with the intention of establishing a conditional covenant of grace such that everyone who believes will be saved. And as you read the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly what you learn is that in virtually every chapter of its Confession, there was a serious and significant debate.

Hyde gives examples from a work by the Reformation historical theologian Richard Muller.

[Muller] chronicles debates of non or sub-confessional issues such as supralapsarian-infralapsarian debates, non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism, the imputation mediate or immediate of Adam’s sin posterity, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, the nature of the keys of the kingdom, the millennial kingdom, the nature of Adam’s reward, the organization of covenant theology, justification from eternity, and elements of Cocceian theology.

If you are an outsider to the Reformed world reading this blog, these issues are precisely the sort of things that often consume Reformed people in their disputes with one another. This is not a list of obscure matters that are irrelevant or that no one should care about. And yet within the confessional unity that Reformed believers once maintained, unanimity on these issues was not required. Even in the age in which the concern for confessional orthodoxy was at its height (and when most people in the countries involved were members of Reformed churches, Reformed theology being a concern of state politics), our Reformed forbears often had a better sense of what issues are genuinely worth dividing over than we do.

This is a lot to think about. Most of Hyde’s essay is not as critical or provocative as the quotations I’ve highlighted here suggest, but the whole is well worth reading. You can find it at the Aquila Report here.

Part 2 on the Two Kingdoms at Reformation 21

Reformation 21 has kindly published part 2 of my series on the two kingdoms doctrine (Part 1 can be found here). Here are the first few paragraphs:

In the various political theological debates that have raged across the Reformed tradition over the centuries, virtually every group and every theologian has claimed the support of the legacy of John Calvin. When English Puritans and Elizabethan bishops clashed over the royal supremacy in sixteenth century England both sides claimed the support of John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine for their position. In the early twentieth century it became fashionable for liberal scholars to claim that Calvin’s theology of culture was one of “Christ transforming culture,” claiming that theology as a precedent for the social gospel. Resisting this emphasis were those theologians and pastors who picked up on Calvin’s repeated contrast between earthly things and the heavenly life to argue for radical discontinuity between the coming kingdom and life in this world. In the debates regarding theonomy both those who supported the continuing relevance of the Torah’s penal code and those who rejected it found support for their positions in Calvin’s various arguments on civil punishment and natural law.

Given this background, it is no wonder that Calvin has become a battleground in the controversy over the two kingdoms. Yet, as with so many of these controversies, it is both anachronistic and impossible to try to fit Calvin into the contemporary two kingdoms debate. The best we can do is to understand what the reformer himself taught about the two kingdoms, how he fit the doctrine into his broader theology, and to what extent we find it helpful to us today.

Read the whole thing here.

What’s in a name? How the consistory (or session) can alienate a church.

During Calvin’s time in Geneva probably the single greatest area of controversy between the consistory and the people of Geneva revolved around a seemingly very trivial issue: names. To summarize a longstanding Geneva controversy, Calvin and the other pastors (all of whom were French; not a single one was a native Genevan) launched a campaign to prohibit the people of the city from giving their children traditional or familial names associated with Catholic saints or pagan figures, requiring instead that all infants must be baptized with a Christian (biblical) name.

Now while from the perspective of broader history this may seem like a bizarre issue on which to take a stand, some perspective helps us see why people took the matter so seriously. From the viewpoint of Calvin and the other pastors what a person names his child is a big indicator of what is important to that person. Names were important in medieval Christendom, and the pastors were eager to lead their flock away from Catholic superstition and into biblical Reformed piety.

On the other hand it is obvious why this attitude poisoned relations with the people of Geneva. Many of the predominant family names in the city were names prohibited by the magistrates at the urging of the pastors. Many a man named Claude had to be told publicly by the pastors that his own name was unacceptable and could not be given to his son. And Americans should be able to resonate with the bitterness that the problem seemed to originate with people who weren’t even from the city: the French.

Of course, many of the people, including some of the governing elites, refused to oblige. So when they brought their children for baptism they did so presenting them with names prohibited by the city government. The response of the pastors was, in the middle of the baptismal ceremony in front of the whole church, to choose a name themselves. Remember, at the time the baptismal ceremony and Christening was legally binding. Often this sort of clerical heavy-handedness led to public confrontation and repeatedly it provoked riots.

The pastors did not back down. They insisted that the magistrates excommunicate anyone who participated in these displays of defiance and disorder. The issue had escalated to the point that refusing to give your son or daughter a name the pastors approved could get both you and your children excommunicated.

Of course, anyone who is familiar with Calvin’s discussion of the ministry and of church discipline in his Institutes and commentaries should know that this doesn’t exactly fit with Calvin’s own insistence that pastors are to preach nothing beyond the word of Christ and that people are to be excommunicated only for offenses specifically condemned in Scripture. As Calvin often pointed out, pastors who ignored these restraints ceased being ministers of Christ and, like the Roman clergy, exercised tyrannical authority over the church.

To be sure, Calvin taught that Christians were to obey their civil magistrates, and in that sense Calvin could say that those who were excommunicated were condemned for their refusal to submit to legitimate authority and their participation in disorderly conduct, but of course, everyone knew who had persuaded the magistrates to ban the various prohibited names.

What is the biblical precedent for the approach of Calvin and his consistory? It is hard to imagine that Paul and the apostles would have refused to baptize people who had pagan names. There is certainly no evidence for it. The closest analogy seems to be the issue of Christians eating food that had been offered to idols and on that issue Paul is quite clear: Christians are not to judge one another, though it is very good if the strong (i.e., those who eat the food) give up their rights as a display of love to the weak. In fact, it is clear that Paul lays a moral burden on the strong to serve the weak in this way, though given his comments on judgment, it is evident that he believed this service should be voluntary.

From that perspective, it seems clear that Calvin and his consistory were not simply ministering the authority of Christ and encouraging the people of Geneva voluntarily to serve one another in love. On the contrary, they were – in an authoritarian and heavy-handed way that the people no doubt associated with the clerical tyranny of Roman bishops from whom they thought they had been liberated – domineering over their flock in an area of tremendous personal and familial significance. And they were doing so in a way that violated Calvin’s own principles of church government.

I fear that this happens far too often. While Scripture commands believers to obey those placed in authority over them, it also commands pastors and elders not to domineer over the flock. Jesus told the apostles that they were to follow his model of sacrificial service rather than lording themselves over the church. Yet how often do pastors and elders take an issue not clearly addressed in Scripture and seek to force their own wisdom and practice on a congregation?

To be sure, there are certainly decisions of order and edification that bishops and presbyters have to make, decisions not explicitly informed by Scripture but requiring the use of prudence and wisdom. But when the officers of the church use this discretionary authority they are to do so consistent with the overriding principles of love and unity. There is a difference between ministering the absolute authority of Christ and his word (i.e., preaching, church discipline, regulative principle, etc.) and humbly serving the church by ensuring that all things are done decently and in order. Pastors and elders must carefully consider which type of authority they are exercising in any given context, and conduct themselves accordingly.

For Calvin this issue played a major role in contributing to dissension and factionalism in the Genevan church. With hindsight it is hard to see how it could possibly have been worth it. I wonder how many churches today experience the same problem.

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