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Judge Lest You Be Judged: John Calvin on Grace in Church Discipline

“Judge lest you be judged.” This mantra has become so widely accepted in our 21st century western context that even the the church has come to take it as programmatic for church discipline. Even within the church to discipline somebody is seen as being judgmental; and to be judgmental is to commit one of the most “heinous” sins society can envision. This aversion to judgement or discipline is in some ways understandable, after all many people have been hurt by the judgments (fair or unfair) of the church. But we ought to ask, must the discipline of the church necessarily be seen as inherently harmful or can church discipline be seen as something which is uplifting and helpful to growth? It is my suggestion, that contrary to our contemporary aversion to church discipline, which sees church discipline as a necessary evil, John Calvin saw church discipline as something which was not only necessary but also good for the church. In this brief essay I will describe a few cases that occurred in Geneva and were deemed as worthy of discipline. This will give us a better understanding of how church discipline was enacted in Calvin’s Geneva. Following this I will go on to describe what Calvin takes to be the benefits of church discipline.

Church Discipline in Geneva

William Naphy writes that upon his return to Geneva Calvin experienced opposition to his system of discipline. This opposition actually came at the hands of his fellow ministers. (Naphy, 56) Apparently some ministers felt as though too much power had been given over to the hands of the city’s pastors, and that the Small Council ought to beware of giving away power which belonged to itself. These pastors believed that this shift in power would result in “disorder and revolt.” (Naphy, 56) Naphy argues that at the end of the day, Calvin was able to consolidate power under his own Calvinist party (though naturally there were some concessions). This resulted in the system which Jeffrey Watt aptly describes in “Reconciliation and the Confession of Sins: The Evidence from the Consistory in Calvin’s Geneva.” There he argues that the balance of power laid in the fact that the Consistory could not impose secular penalties to those appearing before it (Watt, 105). The Consistory however had influence to impose discipline which would lead to holy behavior. The way the Consistory did this was by referring “miscreants for criminal sentencing to the small council.” (Watt, 105) However, more powerful than their influence over secular means of discipline, the Consistory’s true power laid in the fact that they “had direct influence over the rank and file” to deny the right to participate in the Eucharist. (Watt, 105)

Among those infractions which merited a suspension from the Eucharist, the most significant act of church discipline next to excommunication, the most common were blasphemy, violence, and sexual sins. As evidence of some common causes for discipline Naphy cites that in 1550 twenty-seven percent of cases involved sexual immorality, fourteen percent involved “religious irregularities,” and forty percent involved interpersonal disputes. As one example of a personal dispute, Watt recounts that a certain Jacques Morellet had punched his wife because she had left the door open, which in turn let in a breeze that disturbed his sleep. (Watt, 107). The Consistory forbade Morellet from taking communion. A less extreme case of a personal dispute involved a feud between Pernett Durrante and Claude Jernoz. The dispute between these women led to neither of them receiving communion for four years. This action was decided with consideration of the biblical injunction to not “come to the altar” until reconciled with one’s brother or sister. As an example of sexual improprieties we may consider the case of a landlord named Jean Losserand, who attempted to rape a married woman. (Watt, 109) The Consistory excluded him from the supper and also referred him to the small council for criminal charges. There were also cases of religious impropriety. In April 1562 a large number of people avoided the regularly scheduled pre-communion pastoral visitation. Their punishment was that they needed to appear before the consistory to prove they knew the basics of the reformed faith. There were also cases of Genevan’s performing Catholic practices abroad. In these cases the consistory often recommended that the person not take communion once, but if repentant they could take communion the following time it was offered. Also, “those who renounced the Reformed faith to save their lives were routinely readmitted to the Community of Geneva after being excluded just one time, provided they were truly penitent.” (Watt, 110) As we can see there were manifold reasons for church discipline. Often these cases required wisdom to decide what was the best course of discipline and other times the proper course of action was clear as day to the consistory.

Calvin on Church Discipline

So far we have seen how church discipline was enacted in Geneva. Modern audiences may agree with the Consistory’s decisions in some of these cases, however discipline in some of the controversial cases, like the a man who sold rosaries or a woman who prayed to Mary, may seem overly harsh. Certainly, one would think, these sorts of infractions should not merit exclusion from the Eucharist! To exclude people from the means of grace they need seems harmful and counterproductive. However, this was not Calvin’s opinion.

In the Institutes Calvin outlines three purposes for church discipline. The first is that those who lead a filthy and infamous life bring dishonor to God and corrupt the name of the church and the name Christian. Thus they ought to be disciplined. (Calvin, 1232) The second is that bad company corrupts good character. In other words, impious people, corrupt the good people in the church. (Calvin, 1233) The third purpose, and the purpose which we shall focus on, is that “those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent.” (Calvin, 1233) Calvin is of the opinion that the rod has the power to awaken those who are stubborn to their own evil. Here Calvin cites Paul’s famous words to hand a sinner over to Satan “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1333) Thus to excommunicate someone, or to ban someone from receiving the Lord’s supper for a time, has the power to waken up a stubborn sinner and lead them to turn back to Christ. In this way, discipline is an act of grace, being a conduit for the stubborn sinner for receiving the grace necessary to repent of their sins.

However, Calvin not only believed that church discipline was a gracious act, he also believed that it ought to be carried out in a gracious manner. For instance, he says,

Great severity is not to be used in lighter sins, but verbal chastisement is enough – and that mild and fatherly – which should not harden or confuse the sinner, but bring him back to himself, that he may rejoice rather than be sad that he has been corrected. (Calvin, 1234)

Often times these verbal chastisements came through sermons. Parker notes that in calling out the sins of the congregation (not individuals) “there is not threshing himself into fever of impatience or frustration, no holier than though rebuking of the people.” (Parker, 119) In other words he approached sermonic reproof and exhortation in a gracious manner. The exception to this sort of behavior comes when Calvin dealt with injustice and opposition to the gospel. For example, he specifically indicts some of the Genevan Judges for acting contrary to God’s justice. (Parker, 120)

Great severity is not to be used in lighter sins, but verbal chastisement is enough[3] – and that mild and fatherly – which should not harden or confuse the sinner, but bring him back to himself, that he may rejoice rather than be sad that he has been corrected. (Calvin, 1234)

Here we see the gracious nature of church discipline manifested in several ways. First, the sinner ought to be approached in a graceful manner, showing them the appropriate amount of severity. Not only this, but the tone of discipline ought to be fatherly, that is seeking the best for the sinner, not punishing simply for the sake of retribution. Third, the purpose of discipline is not to harden or confuse the sinner, but to bring the sinner to awareness of his sinfulness. Here Calvin shows, that he understands the ability church discipline has to harden the heart of a sinner. Calvin says, this ought to be avoided. Finally, the goal of discipline is not that the sinner feel bad about their sin, but that they may rejoice that they have been corrected and put back on the right path to godliness.

Elsewhere Calvin writes that severity ought to be joined with “a spirit of gentleness” which is fitting for the church, thus agreeing with the spirit of Chrysostom’s question: “If God is so kind, why does his priest wish to seem so rigorous?” (Calvin, 1237) Church discipline should confirm God’s love towards the sinner. Its intent is to lead the sinner to repentance, so that it may bring spiritual health not only to the sinner but the entire church body. (Calvin, 1240)

Conclusion

Thus far we have seen the way in which church discipline was enacted in Calvin’s Geneva as well as Calvin’s stated goals in enforcing church discipline. The purpose of church discipline is the good of the church and the sinner. Those who are charged with the overseeing of the spiritual well being of God’s people are charged with a duty to warn, reprove and correct evil (Calvin, 1239). They do sinners no favor in allowing them to remain guilty before the Lord. Thus church discipline is necessary, not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary means to awaken sinners to God’s grace towards them. According to Calvin, the church ought to be careful in hurting the flock when disciplining them, yet at the same time sometimes the temporary pain that comes from being publicly or privately reprimanded or being excluded from communion or from the church is the most loving and gracious thing the church can do for sinners.

Calvinism and Democracy

In 2012 a group of scholars gathered at Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference titled, “Calvinism and Democracy.” The purpose of this conference was to reflect upon the neo-Calvinist legacy, to explore its theological roots, and to assess in what ways this tradition might provide resources for democratic criticism and renewal. The Kuyper Center Review (Volume Four): Calvinism and Democracy represents the published proceedings of this conference.

Although this collection of essays covers a wide range of topics there are two themes that tie all eleven essays together: 1) The notion that democracy today is facing a crisis and 2) The fact that neo-Calvinism has always had a complicated relationship with democracy. Despite these unifying themes this variegated collection of essays lacks coherence. Since there does not seem to be a strong organizing principle behind the arrangement of these essays, for the sake of the review I will divide these essays into three categories: historical essays on Abraham Kuyper, prescriptive essays based upon Kuyper’s theology, and essays examining other theologians.

The historical essays include contributions by seasoned Kuyper scholars George Harinck and Harry Van Dyke, as well as an essay by Clifford Anderson. Harinck contributes the first essay in this collection by exploring the reasons behind neo-Calvinism’s complicated relationship with democracy. Anderson makes perceptive observations regarding the logic behind liberalism and democracy. He argues that the Kuyperian notion of divine sovereignty rather than popular sovereignty allows us to hold these two ideologies together. Finally, Van Dyke makes two contributions; the first is a translation of correspondence between Willem Groen van Prinster and Kuyper regarding Kuyper’s election to parliament. The second is an essay addressing the nature of Kuyper’s democracy and his role as an emancipator of the kleine luyden in the Netherlands.

However, this collection does not limit itself to looking back at neo-Calvinism’s historical and theological roots; in the group of prescriptive essays Jeffrey Stout, Michael Bräutigam, and Michael DeMoor look to Kuyper as a resource for democratic criticism and renewal. Stout turns to Kuyper’s The Social Problem and the Christian Religion in order to prescribe a course of action for addressing the problems of poverty, domination, and exploitation. Bräutigam makes the case that Kuyper’s distinction between the church as an institution and as an organism “provides a significant motif for Christian political involvement” (p. 67). Finally, DeMoor calls upon other political theologians to develop a specifically neo-Calvinist conception of deliberative democracy rooted in the God’s sovereignty.

The final group of essays are focused on theologians other than Kuyper. David Little argues that Calvinist theology has made “a significant, if sometimes very ambivalent contribution” to the rise of modern constitutionalism (p. 24). He makes this argument by turning to the political theology of John Calvin, John Cotton, and Roger Williams. In “Distinctively Common,” Clay Cooke utilizes the thought of Herman Bavinck to develop ways to hold on to Christian peculiarity and the common good in the public square. James Eglinton also looks to Bavinck’s theology and shows how Bavinck could support the democratic development of the Netherlands while insisting that churches ought to be organized around principles that differ from democracy. Finally, Brant Himes shows how Kuyper’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology and doctrines of creation enable them live our their convictions that Christianity demands “public discipleship.”

Calvinism and Democracy is a superb collection of essays that will serve to stimulate further theological and political reflection upon its subject matter. Many of these essays provide avenues for further scholarly research. For instance Clay Cooke’s essay suggests that Bavinck sees cruciformity as a political virtue. One might want to further investigate what it looks like in practice to engage in politics in a cruciform manner. Michael Bräutigam’s essay “The Christian as Homo Politicus” explains how Kuyper used new forms of media to stimulate political action among the kleine luyden. It would certainly be a worthwhile project to see how new forms of social media, including twitter and blogs, could be used to continue Kuyper’s legacy of stimulating political action within the church. In addition to stimulating further research, this collection will also serve ministers who are attempting to form their own theology of political action within the church. Clay Cooke’s and Michael Bräutigam’s essays will be especially helpful. Both essays move beyond mere theory and develop practical courses of action for the church.

Despite possessing these strengths, this collection certainly has its flaws. One weakness of the collection as a whole is its lack of organization. There is no apparent logic as to how the individual essays were organized within the collection. Several essays also have major flaws. For instance, DeMoor’s essay does not make any significant contribution to neo-Calvinist scholarship, here merely calls for someone else to develop a neo-Calvinist model of deliberative democracy. The essay would have been stronger if he had developed it a model himself. Little’s essay also has a serious flaw; although he addresses John Cotton’s and Roger Williams’s political theories he never specifically addresses their distinctive Calvinist theology. This certainly undermines his thesis. Despite these drawbacks Calvinism and Democracy is a valuable collection that will stimulate further scholarly work and encourage ministers to develop their own theology of political action.

Reforming the Law: John Calvin and the Use of the Law in Geneva (Pt. 1)

detail-of-john-calvin-by-oliver-crisp-cover-of-his-deviant-calvinism
A Portrait of John Calvin

Addressing “The Pattern of the Law for Piety,” John Calvin states that the law profits believers in two ways: 1) it instructs us about God’s will and 2) it exhorts Christians to obey it. Given these two functions of the law, which are related to its “third use” (McKee, 266), we may wonder what role the law played in the daily life of Christians in Geneva. We may also wonder how important biblical law was for everyday Christians and how the law was enforced. At one point Calvin says,

Now this scriptural instruction of which we speak has two main aspects. The first is that the love of righteousness, to which we are otherwise not at all inclined by nature, may be instilled and established in our hearts; the second, that a rule be set forth for us that does not let us wander about in our zeal for righteousness. (McKee 271)

Here Calvin seems to indicate that the law has two ways of reforming behavior and inculcating a love for righteousness. First, it seems to establish a natural desire in the believer’s heart to obey the law, which prior to regeneration was not there. Second, the law acts as an external form of enforcement,  as a rule that does not let believers wander. In this brief essay I argue that Calvin’s method of instilling of God’s law into God’s people manifests itself in two ways — one, in the organic and unforced social process; the second, externally imposed by legislation. Calvin seeks to navigate between two ways of imposing the law. On the one hand, to leave law-keeping simply up to organic growth may lead to a lack of true enforcement. On the other hand, legislating conformity may create mere external obedience rather than real heart change. As we shall see, both manners of enforcing the law play an important role in Calvin’s Geneva, but both bring potential dangers. We shall begin the discussion of Calvin’s reformation of the use of the law for Christians by highlighting a few examples of how Calvin sees the law play out in Christians’ lives, then  turn our attention to each manner of enforcing the law.

The Pattern of the Law for Piety

Calvin argues that at the core of God’s law there are simply two principles. The first concerns what we owe God, and the second concerns what we own our neighbors. (McKee, 256) Thus all of the law can be considered to fall within the scope of these two concerns. Accordingly, it is the Christian’s duty to learn the law and internalize it. The Christian ought to be like a servant prepared to “search out and observe his master’s ways more and more in order to conform and accommodate himself to them.” (McKee, 266). This is the duty of all Christians, and it  ought to be pursued on a daily basis.

An important aspect of coming to internalize the law involves learning to recognize that other persons are made in the image of God. Learning to see, respect, and honor the image of God in others is a way of owing God what God is due and owing our neighbors wat they are due as well. The recognition and reverence of the image of God imprinted upon each person will keep Christians from shedding the blood of others, stealing from them, and bearing false witness against the. Recognizing the image of God in others will help Christians see the stranger and give them honor and love. The image of God recognized in others will generate a desire to be generous, giving them what they deserve. (McKee, 276) If honoring God and neighbor through the recognition of a shared image of God is the goal of Christian law keeping, we may wonder, how do Christians grow in their desire to follow the law? As mentioned above there are at least two ways. We will jump into these next time…

Calvin on the Injustice of Oppression by Those in Power

But there is still more; that is, that the image of God is engraved in all people. Therefore not only do I despise my [own] flesh whenever I oppress anyone, but to my fullest capacity I violate the image of God. Therefore let us carefully  note that God willed in this passage to point out to those who are in authority and who receive esteem, who are richer than others and who enjoy some degree of honor, that they must not abuse those who are under their hand; they must not torment them beyond measure. They must always reflect on the fact that we are all descended from Adam’s race, that we possess a common nature and even that the image of God is engraved on us…

(John Calvin: Writings On Pastoral Piety, trans. Elsie Anne McKee, 260-1.)

Pastoral Position Opening: Minister of Word and Sacrament in Geneva

The following is a lighthearted (and facetious), but historically realistic, job opening advertisement for a pastoral position in Calvin’s Geneva.

Position Focus:
Minister of Word and Sacrament in Geneva

Why This Position Is Needed

John Calvin’s alternate at St. Pierre’s had recently fallen ill. Although the other ministers in Geneva visited our colleague to pray for him on his deathbed, Pastor Abel Poupin, passed away on March 5th into the Lord’s presence.[1] Thus he leaves his position vacant. In addition to the passing away of Pastor Abel, another pastoral position has opened up. Pastor Jean Fabri has been deposed of his position. There have been claims made that he was making sexual advances (if not actually seducing) a married woman and also accusations have been made against him saying that he has gotten his serving girl pregnant.[2] After further investigation, the consistory has decided to dismiss Jean Fabri. Thus, we have two pastoral positions open.

The Church

The churches in Geneva are a multi-generational, multi-site network of churches located on the banks of of Lake Geneva at the mouth of the Rhone River. Our springs are wonderful, and our winters are bitterly cold. During the summer you and your family can spend time at the lake, but make sure to stay away from it during the winter. Many have died due to hypothermia! If you can ignore the fact that the Bernese, The Savory, and the French are always at odds with each other because of us, and the inconvenience that the plague brings, this is a great town to raise a family.

If you take this position you may be one day be appointed to serve as the pastor of St. Pierre’s Cathedral, Magdeleine, or St. Gervais (though in all likelihood you will probably begin by being appointed to pastor one of the countryside churches.)

Primary Responsibilities

‘The Scriptural office of the Christian minister involves nourishing and instructing God’s people on the divine Word by means of sermon, sacraments, catechism, spiritual conversation, and corrective discipline.’[3] Thus your job is divided into several categories:

Ministry of the Word

  • Preaching and teaching will form a bulk of your weekly work. In accordance with most others within the Reformed tradition your sermons ought to be expository, working through a single book, verse by verse (i.e. lectio continua).
  • Your particular parish will have at least four Sunday services. One of these Sunday services will be a catechesis service. This will mostly consist of children, though some adults who are converting Catholicism or Anabaptism will also attend this service. (You may also get some adults who are technically reformed, but are horribly misinformed about their faith).
  • You will also preach during weekday services (Monday-Saturday) and direct the Wednesday Prayer liturgy.
  • As one of eight pastors in Geneva you will be paired up with another pastor. You will alternate preaching duties with this pastor. On occasion you may be moved to another parish to fill needs.
  • There is an expectation that you will continue your theological and ministerial education. John Calvin lectures at 2pm on a book of the bible, verse by verse in Latin. All ministers are invited to be there.[4] There will also be a gathering of the congregation each Friday. Here you will have the opportunity to preach in front of the other pastors. You will receive feedback on your preaching from the other pastors and hear Calvin give his exposition of the text.
  • You are also expected to meet with the Company of Pastors on Friday afternoons.[5] There you will take part in the business of organizing services, making preaching assignments for specific pulpits at specific hours, examine candidates for ministry, etc.

 Ministry 0f Sacrament

  • The Lord’s Supper happens four times per year (even though we wish it could occur more regularly). The Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the first Sunday of September.
  • All those who have reached the age of discretion and are able to satisfactorily articulate the basic doctrines of the faith are invited to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Thus the week before the Lord’s supper you must examine the catechumen regarding their understanding of the Genevan Catechism.
  • The week before the celebration of the Lord’s supper it is your duty to visit all your parishioners for spiritual examination and preparation. (Some of your parishioners will likely not want to talk to you, they may not even open the door for you! But you should find a way to examine them prior to the Lord’s Supper.)
  • It is your duty to ensure that certain people do not receive the Lord’s supper. For instance, those who wear ostentatious or provocative clothing, those who are insane or mentally impaired, and those who have been excommunicated cannot participate in the Lord’s supper. However, those who are demon possessed can participate as long as they behave peaceably.[6]
  • You will lead the rite of baptism before services. You must not use any superstitious elements which rob baptism from its true meaning (i.e. oil, salt, spittle, wax papers, etc.)
  • You ought to follow the baptismal liturgy which is published in the Genevan Psalter. First you should ask who is presenting this child to be baptized. Then you ought to deliver a five minute baptismal exhortation summarizing the gospel and the meaning of baptism. You also ought to give a defense of infant baptism. Once this is done, sure that those presenting the child for baptism recited the Apostles Creed and promise to instruct the child in Christian doctrine. You shall conclude by sprinkling the child on the forehead in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[7]

 Pastoral Services

  • Funerals
    • Burials generally take place in the afternoon. You ought not do anything which would approximate Roman Catholic masses for the dead. Funerals ought to be austere.
    • Burial must take place within twenty four hours of the death.
    • There is no specific church service, but by custom you ought to visit the home of the deceased before the procession of the gravesite. There you are free to speak some words regarding the faith of the person being buried.
  • Marriages
    • Marriage ceremonies occur prior to services. You must announce the banns for couples seeking to marry. If everything is in accordance with the rules you will follow the marriage liturgy and then begin the time of worship. Please ensure that the wedding party stays for the whole service.
  • Pastoral Visitation
    • The Venerable Company expects that all of Geneva’s ministers would pray for their parishioners…offer them spiritual counsel and consolation, correct their sinful behavior through discipline, and visit them in their homes.[8]
    • The Ecclesiastical Ordinances stipulate that every year before Easter pastors ought to visit all the households of the parish in order to examine the members of the household for the Lord’s Supper. As Beza has taught, ‘As a minister of the gospel it is our duty to fulfill all the duties that our office required, which includes chiefly the consolation of poor sick people.’[9]
    • You are also expected to conduct less formal visits throughout the year, especially when parishioners are suffering bereavement and extreme poverty. (The family of those suffering are expected to notify a pastor of any pressing needs.)
    • You are also expected to join a rotation of pastors who visit our local prison, the Evesche, on Saturday afternoons. Here you will preach a brief sermon, and help take care of the needs (spiritual and physical) of the inmates.
    • You are also expected to visit the sick and dying in the hospital, even though they may be suffering from the plague. We understand this can be a frightening thing. Some of our pastors have contracted the plague and died after visitations. However, we believe this is part of our pastoral duty.
  • Pastoral Services Towards Exiles & The Oppressed
    • At times you may have to follow Calvin’s lead in offering pastoral care to those who are suffering for their faith. This includes exiles who escaped from persecution and are seeking refuge in Geneva. You may also have to write letters to Christians undergoing persecution. You ought to encourage these brothers and sisters[10] reminding them of the great call that is upon their life to suffer for Christ. Remind them that he will give them strength to fulfill their duty.
    • Although Calvin was in the habit of writing letters to government officials and even going on journeys to other cities to lend support to persecuted protestants we do not expect you to go to the same lengths as Calvin did in offering these brothers and sisters pastoral care.[11]

Prior to Being Hired:

In addition to having the ability to fulfill the duties prescribed above you must be able to sign on to (with good conscience) the Genevan Catechism and the Ecclesiastical Ordinances. Also you must meet the following requirements, based upon Calvin’s theology of calling and ordination, prior to being hired:

All Christians have received a calling to glorify God and seek the well being of their neighbors. However this does not mean that Christian ministers do not receive a special calling in which they are entrusted with being “the chief sinew by which believers are held together in one body.”[12] Those who are called are ordained to govern the church through the act of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. These are the means by which God’s people are instructed and nourished. In order to take this job, you must agree that this is your primary vocation. You also must be able to describe the subjective aspect of your twofold calling. All those who are called to be ministers receive a conviction in their heart that one ought to aspire to ministry, not for personal gain, but out of a fear for God and a desire to edify the church. If you can testify that you have received such a call, the Church will determine whether you are objectively called as well. Once this is met, your theology and way of living will be examined by your fellow ministers. Second, the magistrates will give their approval of your ordination. Third, the congregation will give consent to our choice. Fourth, you will take office by the laying of hands. We sincerely believe that the church should seek the candidate, and not the candidate seek a church,[13] thus if we have a sense that you are the right candidate for this job we will extend an offer to you.


[1] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 69.

[2] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 74.

[3] Manetsch, 72

[4] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 65.

[5] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 73.

[6] Manetsch, 279.

[7] Manetsch, 258-9.

[8] Manetsch, 280.

[9] Manetsch, 287.

[10] McKee, 321 and 330.

[11] McKee 315-20.

[12] Manetsch, 71.

[13] Manetsch, 81.

Practicing Scripture, Christ, and the Church: John Calvin’s Agenda for the Eucharist

What is “practical” theology? Often, practical theology is thought to consist of the explicit practices of the church, such as church discipline, preaching, leadership, types of worship, etc. Is this the sort of practical theology Calvin is engaged with in his Eucharistic theology? Although a good portion of Calvin’s practical theology of the Eucharist surely is focused on explicit practices, such as those mentioned above, Calvin also concerns himself with at least three implicit practical consequences that emerge from Eucharistic theology. These three concerns revolve around: 1) faithfulness to scripture, 2) Christology, and 3) ecclesiology. Here we shall see how these three themes emerge in Calvin’s work and result in a theology of the Eucharist that is eminently practical. But first we shall begin by outlining some of the explicitly “practical” comments Calvin makes regarding this sacrament.

lords-supper2

The final twelve sections of 4.17 are Calvin’s theological reflections on how to practice the Eucharist. Here he emphasizes the necessity for communicating the communal implications of this sacrament. He points to Augustine’s work as a precedent for using this practice as a goad to arouse mutual love in a local church. (1415) Calvin also teaches that the sacrament must be offered together with the preaching of the word. To do otherwise is to promote superstition. He also addresses the topic of who ought to be able to take communion. He then devotes several pages on the proper celebration of the Eucharist, explaining how often it should ideally be taken (often) and in what manner (in both kinds). A cursory reading of this section reveals how concerned Calvin is with the actual practice of this sacrament. This sort of reading would prove instructive to those wanting to emulate Calvin’s practice; however, to simply read these twelve sections and ignore the thirty-seven sections that precede them would mean ignoring other important reasons why Calvin is so concerned with practicing the Eucharist properly, namely, his scriptural, Christological, and ecclesiological concerns.

Calvin’s thought regarding the importance of reading Scripture faithfully emerges in the section where he deals with the basis of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Thus the battle over how to practice the Eucharist appropriately appears to be a battle over how best to read scripture. He cites his Roman Catholic opponent’s use of the Exodus story in which Moses’s rod is changed into a serpent as an example of reading scripture improperly. He also cites their reading of Jeremiah as evidence that they misread scripture. According to those who argue for transubstantiation, the fact that the prophet complains that wood is put in his bread signifies that Christ’s body was allegorically affixed to the wood of the cross. (1378) Calvin  disdains  this “disgraceful” sort of allegorical reading because it occludes the prophet’s true meaning. (1378) In fact, Calvin calls those who read these passages this way “enemies” of the prophet’s true meaning. Hermeneutical concerns are not reserved to his Catholic opponents alone, he also takes aim at Lutheran readings of Scripture. In a section dealing with the use of the word “is” in the words of institution he shows his hand again, revealing how he feels about those who accuse the reformed of reading scripture improperly. Here Calvin says,

 

Now I think I have made my point, that to sane and upright men, the slanders of our enemies are loathsome when they broadcast that we discredit Christ’s words, which we embrace no less obediently than they, and treat with greater reverence… our examination of the matter ought to be a witness of how much Christ’s authority means to us. (1387-8)

Later on he says that his opponents imbue the “simpleminded with the notion that we discredit Christ’s words, when we have actually proved that they madly pervert and confound them but that we faithfully and rightly expound them.” This passage reveals something important about Calvin’s Eucharistic theology, namely, that a faithful reading of scripture is at the forefront of his mind when doing Eucharistic theology. Knowing Calvin, this should come as no surprise. However, this observation has far-reaching practical implications beyond the Eucharist. In Calvin’s mind the authority of Christ comes to us through scripture, and to read scripture in a way other than it was intended to be read discredits Christ’s authority. To read allegorically or to add to scripture diminishes the authority of Christ, which is something Calvin is loathe to do.

Another one of Calvin’s concerns is also related to Christological features, not necessarily Christ’s authority, but the metaphysics of Christ’s presence. Concern with the metaphysics of the Eucharist would seem to be a theoretical concern rather than a lords-supper1practical one, but it is eminently practical, for the very gospel hinges upon it. The metaphysical issue Calvin is concerned with is the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ. The Lutherans, according to Calvin, want to enclose Christ under the bread, and “to meet this necessity they have introduced the monstrous notion of ubiquity.” (1401) Calvin counters this “monstrous notion of ubiquity” by showing from Scripture that Christ’s body is circumscribed by the measure of a human body, thus he is not in all places. (1401) We may read this as another battle over Scriptural authority, however it is much more than this.[1] According to Calvin, the doctrine of ubiquity (which is grounded in Eucharistic theology) is “plainly in conflict with a nature truly human.” This has profound soteriological implications. If Christ does not have the same sort of human nature that we have how can we say that Christ took on our “true flesh,” suffered in our “true flesh” and also took up that same “true flesh” in his resurrection and brought it up to heaven? (1399) To say that Christ has a different sort of flesh than our own undermines the vicarious work of Christ for us; it also undermines our eschatological hope. As Calvin says, “how weak and fragile that hope would be, if this very flesh of ours has not truly been raised in Christ, and had not entered into the kingdom of God.” (1400)

The final theoretical agenda (if we can call it that) in Calvin’s Eucharistic theology is ecclesiological. In a famous passage in which Calvin argues that participation in the Eucharist makes all who partake  participants in the one body of Christ, Calvin explains how the nature of bread shows us that this is so. He explains that just as bread is made of many grains so that one cannot be distinguished from the other, it is the case that the body of Christ (i.e. the church) is joined and bound together so that “no sort of disagreement or division may intrude.” (1415) This has profound implications for local congregations. In fact, Calvin highlights this, saying that we cannot injure, despise, reject, abuse or offend other believers and not do the same to Christ; we cannot love Christ without loving other believers, and we cannot give ourselves to Christ without give ourselves to one another. However, these ecclesiological implications go beyond the local congregation (though Calvin certainly had local concerns in mind), and the call to unity is a call for the universal church to live in a united manner. This is a matter that seems to be understood across the reformation as a whole. Most efforts that were made to encourage unity throughout the magisterial reformation revolved around the Eucharist. For instance, consider Wolfgang Musculus’s writings on the Eucharist. Craig Farmer argues that substance of Musculus’s Eucharistic theology (i.e. the notion of an exhibitive presence) remains relatively stable, but that he was willing to abandon certain controversial terms in making efforts towards finding a middle ground between Wittenberg and Zurich. (Farmer, 310). Similarly, throughout they years Calvin, makes adjustments to his Eucharistic theology in order to promote Eucharistic concord. According to Wim Janse one would not realize this simply by reading the 1559 Institutes. (Janse, 37) In his article “Calvin’s Eucharistic Theology: Three Dogma-Historical Observations” Janse argues that Calvn’s development of his Eucharistic theology goes through Zwinglian, Lutheran, and spiritualizing phases. The source of these changes came from his desire to find consensus. Thus in Calvin’s development of Eucharistic theology we see a series of compromises and conciliatory formulations. (Janse, 40) Not only do we see his goal of church unity through the Eucharist manifested in his theological development, we see in his actions, for instance the signing of the Augsburg Variata and the Consensus Tigurinus, as well as his cultivation of relationship with Melanchthon.

Calvin’s practical theology of the Eucharist extends far beyond typical “practical” concerns. His Eucharistic theology has far reaching implications for how scripture is read, how the gospel is understood, and how the church expresses its unity. Given that these are not the typical concerns of many practical theologians today, those doing practical theology would do well to pay attention to how Calvin’s “theoretical” theology does not lend itself to the tidy separation between theoretical and practical theology.


[1] For instance, see where Calvin says “They cannot show a syllable from Scripture by which to prove that Christ is invisible.” (1398)

 

Torrance & Scottish Theology

From a Review of Torrance’s Scottish Theology:

Dr. T.F. Torrance is among the immortals of Scottish theology, his work on the trinity an enduring priceless legacy. He has placed the homoousion at the heart of all our belief, reminding us that God has no face but Jesus. Even in his anger there is no un-Christlikeness at all. The electing (and the reprobating God) is non other than the incarnate Son. In Jesus’ sacrifice, God himself becomes the hilasmos. In his indwelling, God himself indwells us.

I and many others embraced these contributions with instant appreciation. But we saw in them no reason to repudiate our past. True, some of these emphases were not explicit in Scottish Calvinism. But they were implicit; or at least easily assimilated. We can welcome the new Trinitarian insights and weave them happily (if critically) into the legacy of Rutherford and Durham, Martin and Cunningham. Dr. Torrance does not need to discredit the past to create space for his vision.

-Donald McCleod EQ 72:1 (2000)