In another recent attack on the “Internationalist” R2K critics, Darryl Hart has afforded an excellent opportunity for us to draw attention to the extent to which anachronistic categories, derived from retrospectively reading back later developments into the early Reformation period, have distorted our grasp of political and ecclesiastical realities in the magisterial Reformation. (See my recent essay here for more on the ways historical hindsight can skew our vision of this period.) One of the most stubborn such anachronisms rests on the old Zurich vs. Geneva dichotomy, which remains a sacred cow of much Reformation historiography, despite the remarkable failure of the supposed irreconcilable adversaries to take much notice of the dichotomy at the time. This dichotomy plays a crucial role in providing a last refuge for the embattled R2K historical narrative, which once proclaimed its two-kingdoms understanding as the Protestant doctrine, then, when pressed, redefined it as the Reformed doctrine in distinction from the Lutheran, and now, when still further pressed, has redefined it as the uniquely Calvinist doctrine in distinction from both the Lutheran and all the other Reformed.
The Zurich vs. Geneva narrative proclaims that Zwingli, Bullinger, and all the churches that followed them can be taken as representatives of an essentially late medieval ecclesiology, perpetuating the idea of a corpus Christianum, the godly prince, and a state church; Calvin, Beza, and all the churches that followed them, meanwhile, represent a fundamentally different ecclesiology, one with a more Anabaptistic concept (though its apologists will rarely speak this way) of the church as a gathered, separated community of the righteous, independent from, and frequently in rivalry against the so-called Christian magistrate. Now, there is no doubt that, by the later 16th-century, a dichotomy very like this was emerging. Neither Bullinger nor his successor Gualter at Zurich nor Theodore Beza at Geneva wanted to risk an open rift by critiquing the other, but proxy battles between the two paradigms were fought out by more zealous and sometimes intransigent partisans in England, the Netherlands, and the Palatinate. But how deep was this divide, how clear-cut was it, and how far back did it go? These questions must be answered before we form hasty conclusions about the ecclesiology enshrined in John Calvin’s Geneva, the chief source of recent debate between The Calvinist International and VanDrunen’s student Matthew Tuininga.
Darryl Hart thus begs the question entirely when he quotes Torrance Kirby (an audacious move indeed, given that Kirby is the leading scholar upon whose work the “Internationalist” account has relied) on the rivalry between Beza’s approach to church polity and Zurich’s in the 1560s and 1570s, in order to prove a point about Calvin. Hart offers the following lengthy quotation from Kirby’s The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology:
The influence of Zurich theology is particularly evident in the theory underpinning the political institutions of the Elizabethan Settlement, chief among them the Royal Supremacy, the lynchpin of the constitution. In his defence of the royal headship of the church in the 1570s against the attacks of the disciplinarian puritans Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers, John Whitgift, then Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, relied closely on the political writings of Vermigli, Bullinger, and two other prominent Zwinglians – Gualter and Wolfang Musculus of Berne. Whigift’s so-called “Erastian” conception of society as a unified “corpus christianum,” where civil and religious authority were understood to be coextensive, takes its name from the Zwinglian theologian Thomas Lieber . . . alias “Erastus” of Heidelberg. The controversy between Whitgift and promoters of the Genevan model of reform in England is in many respects a replay of the dispute on the continent between Erastus and Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. Richard Hooker’s celebrated defence of the Elizabethan constitution published toward the end of the century is an elaboration of the same Zwinglian-Erastian political theology. It is worthy of note that Hooker’s patron while at Corpus Christi College in the late 1560s and early ‘70s was John Jewel, Vermigli’s disciple and secretary who had earlier followed his master into exile at Zurich. . . .
The heart and substance of Bullinger’s prophetical office with respect to England was to defend, to interpret , and to promote the Civil Magistrate’s pivotal role as the supreme governing power in the ordering of religion in the realm. . . Strange though it may appear, the institution of the Royal Supremacy with its hypostatic conjunction of supreme civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Prince, constitutes for Bullinger a vivid exemplar of the unitary character of Christian polity, and also of the distinction and cooperation of magisterial and ministerial power. From the standpoint of Bullinger’s unique covenantal interpretation of history, it is certainly arguable that the Old Testament exemplar is more completely realised under England’s monarchical constitution than under the republican conditions of Bullinger’s own city and canton of Zurich.
Following this quote, Hart triumphantly declares, “In other words, if Kirby is right, contrary to WE [Wedgeworth-Escalante], Hooker is not following Calvin but is tracking with the Erastians, Bullinger and Vermigli.” But of course, Calvin is never mentioned in Kirby’s quote, except in the phrase “Beza, Calvin’s successor.” Kirby has elsewhere argued that Calvin, while clearly taking a somewhat different tack from the Zurich consensus, was not fundamentally at odds with it in the way many of his followers came to be. Indeed, it is striking that, although Calvin had no hesitation in arguing passionately with other leading Reformers, such as Melanchthon and Bullinger, serious conflict does not seem to have ever erupted between them on this question of church polity and the exercise of discipline. This lack of conflict is truly remarkable from the standpoint of the R2K narrative, and can hardly be dismissed as mere irenicism on Calvin’s part. After all, if VanDrunen, Hart, and Tuininga are correct, far more was at stake in this polity dispute than mere procedure; rather, it concerned the very nature of the Church, its relationship to the world, and the right mediation of the means of grace—far more serious matters than, say, the Eucharistic differences between Calvin and Bullinger, which they did not hesitate to voice to one another.
At the root of much of this, it seems, is a remarkably resilient anachronism, one that persists in almost all the secondhand accounts of Calvin and Geneva by its friends and foes alike, but which detailed scholarship has more or less removed the foundation for by now. This anachronism is the idea that in Geneva, Calvin erected something approximating an independent Presbyterian polity, complete with pastors, elders, and deacons, which oversaw its own affairs in contradistinction from all forms of civil polity. To be sure, it is often recognized that Calvin repeatedly insists that ecclesiastical discipline and civil polity are “to complement one another, to dovetail perfectly in a common enterprise of edification, instruction, and discipline of the greater glory of God” but this is read as a sort of complementarity of disjunction—they “complement” each other because they operate in such radically different spheres and for such radically different things that they couldn’t possibly get in the way of each other. A strange way to understand the language of complementarity, and hardly consonant with Calvin’s statements that they serve the same “end,” but in the abstract, almost a conceivable interpretation. It is also often admitted that Calvin could not, because of opposition from the Genevan magistrates, realize his vision entirely, but it is still assumed that, had he a free hand, he would have erected a fully independent Presbyterian polity. To some extent, this assumption is by its nature irrefutable—if one is convinced enough of what Calvin’s true vision, deep down in his heart, was, then all his actual policies can be explained away as compromises.
But when we look at what actually happened in Geneva in detail, it is hard not to be struck by the discontinuity between supposed theory and practice. First, let’s ask what we should expect to find in Geneva on the conventional narrative:
We would find Calvin arriving in Geneva and gathering around him a band of like-minded pastors and laymen, with whom, having studied the Scriptures carefully, he drafted a church constitution. This constitution would provide for individual congregations to elect elders for spiritual government and deacons for more temporal needs, and each group of elders would be presided over by a pastor. Together, elders and pastor would oversee the spiritual and moral lives of their congregants, rebuking them and excommunicating them where necessary; deacons, meanwhile, would gather and manage the alms of the congregation for the needs of its members. Elders and pastors from individual congregations would meet together regularly with all the others within the city of Geneva, and this synod would vote on decisions binding on all the individual congregations, and would hear appeals on disciplinary matters. Calvin and his fellow pastors would have made this constitution without consulting the city council, though, in order to keep the peace, they would probably have sought the city council’s blessing, or at least their permission, to carry through this arrangement among such believers in Geneva who wished to participate in this scheme. And here is the key point—they would not have sought to impose this system on the whole populace of Geneva, since the visible church is a gathered congregation of the truly faithful who willingly submit to discipline, not the whole body of merely outward professors of the faith. Any Christians in Geneva who wished to participate in Calvin’s churches would have done so, and Calvin and his fellow pastors would have had no interest in imposing their discipline on those outside this church (though they certainly might have tried to evangelize them and to convince them to join). Those excommunicated from these churches would lose their access to the sacraments and their membership in the spiritual kingdom, but would remain unimpaired citizens of Geneva and members of the society there.
Unfortunately, almost no piece of this picture corresponds to the reality. What do we find instead?
Instead we find, in 1541, the city authorities of Geneva dismayed at the breakdown of morals and social order, and the chaotic administration of ecclesiastical matters. Seeing the need for a revamped civic order, and recognizing that this could not be achieved without a well-ordered spiritual government, they invited Calvin back to draft the ordinances for them, recognizing his unique combination of theological, legal, and administrative expertise. Calvin accordingly drafted proposals for the moral government and spiritual provision for the city of Geneva, as a cooperative enterprise between the clergy, the ordinary laity, and the magistrates. This was solicited, proposed, and enacted as a piece of civil legislation, which the civil authorities in Geneva were ultimately responsible for putting into practice and maintaining. While it is often assumed that at this early date, there were in fact sharp and irreconcilable differences between Calvin’s vision (an autonomous church) and the magistrates’ vision (a state church), this is considerably overstated.
Gillian Lewis, in her article, “Calvinism in Geneva in the Time of Calvin and Beza (1541-1605),” helps set the record straight. First, she points out,
there was between Calvin and the Genevan authorities a good deal of common ground, about the functions of a clergy, about the suppression of religious dissent, and about the policing of public morals. The broad measure of this consensus deserves more emphasis than it is usually afforded in accounts of the Geneva of Calvin: any amount of ingenuity and zeal on the Reformer’s part would, without it, have been fruitless. It turned out that the Ordinances, in their assumptions and in the details of their provisions, secured from ruling councils and general public not only widespread acquiescence, but genuine support.
There was, for example, agreement about the duties allocated to each category of the new-fangled ministers of the Word, deacons, doctors, elders, and pastors.
Let’s look at these offices, since these are the building blocks of Presbyterian ecclesiology. Although one can read countless accounts by modern Reformed authors attacking government-run welfare on the basis that in the Calvinist tradition, welfare is handled by the church as a distinct institution, managed by deacons, and not by state functionaries, and although many of these accounts will even claim that this is how it was in Geneva, this rests on a fundamentally anachronistic dichotomy. In fact, as Lewis explains,
Deacons proved uncontroversial. It is doubtful, in any case, whether they can reasonably be regarded as a “Calvinist” innovation, in principle or in fact. Procureurs to oversee the finances and hospitaliers to take care of the day-to-day care of the sick and impotent poor had been established in 1535, when the city had amalgamated a crowd of ecclesiastical charities and private funds into the centrally-funded Hopital-General, established in a recently emptied convent. All that the 1541 article did was to confer upon those officials the Scriptural cognomen “Deacon”, and the dignity of being regarded as part of the fourfold ministry. From the outset, however, they were in no real sense ministers, but lay office-holders elected by the civil power. Nor was there anything novel or unconventional in their duties to support the view that we have here an example of a new and specifically “Calvinist” attitude toward the poor.
Deacons, in short, far from being an independently-elected office of an independent “church” were essentially civil functionaries serving the church in the united Christian community.
What about elders? Surely these are the bedrock of Calvinism’s autonomous spiritual government? Well, not really. Again, Lewis:
Elders had to be “decent and respectable men, beyond reproach and of unblemished reputation, above all God-fearing and carrying spiritual weight.” They were chosen from members of the city’s ruling councils. They usually found themselves carrying the burden of the office for years on end. This must surely have contributed to the development of a consistent style and tone in the Genevan church, and to some extent in Genevan public life. As the Ordinances had intended, their co-operation with the pastors did produce some genuine dovetailing of the activities of the spiritual and the civil power.
Indeed, most of the moral issues that the consistory oversaw were a matter of enforcing civil legislation that had been passed before the Reformation even came to Geneva:
Like that of other cities, the commune of Geneva—long before the Reformation—had regularly passed edicts against fraud in commerce, against usury, against excessive luxury in dress, against sexual offenses and prostitution, and against drunkenness and disorderly behavior in the street. There was a spate of such legislation between 1536 and 1541, when the newly sovereign republic was asserting its authority in every sphere. The edicts passed in Calvin’s day, indeed in the whole period from 1541 to the early 1570s, were a continuation of this process, and formed part of a wide program me of clarifying and tidying up some of the anomalies, gaps, and obscurities in the city’s rudimentary legal code. The ordinances concerning public morals reveal the lineaments of what was, in the eyes of the magistrates, acceptable social behavior. They were designed not so much to transform the community so that it became more godly as to protect traditional decencies and preserve the status quo. The Consistory contributed to this end. . . . Ready acceptance of most of the Consistory’s rulings by the community in general suggests that there was a high degree of overlap between the morality the pastors extracted from the Scriptures, and the everyday assumptions about decency and the proprieties and justice which prevailed. The Consistory was a part of this continuum of edification.
Not, that is, that the Consistory exercised coercive jurisdiction in enforcing these laws. Rather, it served as a sort of halfway house, filling the gap between preaching that demanded standards of righteousness, and civil courts that punished unrighteousness. It was, as Lewis puts it, “a tribunal of first resort, sifting out those cases which should properly be passed on to the civil courts,” involved “in infra-judicial settlement of pastoral matters which had got out of hand.” (Given the sheer scope of moral legislation that Geneva had enacted, which would otherwise have remained largely unenforceable, a body like consistory was almost demanded.) The only concrete “punishment” it handed out was excommunication, which, though carrying uniquely spiritual consequences as a restriction from a means of grace, had wider implications as a social and civic disability, a kind of public shaming preliminary to (though often followed by) more concrete civil punishments. This being the case, it is hardly a surprise at all that there was diversity of opinion in Geneva on the question of whether the city councillors could hear appeals and overturn sentences from consistory cases, as they could from other lower courts. The dual function of excommunication proved to be a sticking-point here; from Calvin’s standpoint, a matter of such urgent spiritual importance (and he was concerned chiefly with the judgment that an unworthy receiver might bring upon himself) could not be safely left to anyone but pastors; whereas from the city council’s perspective, a discipline with such dramatic civic ramifications could not be left in the jurisdiction of a wholly autonomous court.
As Lewis describes it,
Disputes arose, however, over denying impenitent offenders access to Communion, which the Consistory regarded as a religious penalty within its right to impose, but which the civil authorities claimed as a civil penalty, improperly wielded by a body with no more than admonitory power. Calvin would not yield on what was for him a point of principle. There was nothing, he argued to warrant the intrusion of the civil power into an area entirely the province of the Ministers of the Word. The Lord’s Supper must not be profaned by the participation of a known unrepentant sinner; the Consistory must not be party to such blasphemy; it could not allow itself to be overruled.
Despite the drama of this disagreement, and its central place in many narratives of Calvin’s Geneva, even this did not really represent a titanic clash between fundamentally irreconcilable visions of the church, and Lewis argues that the dispute was in fact reduced to fairly manageable proportions by sensible concessions on both sides: “After a succession of such cases in the 1540s councillors began to give tacit recognition to the Consistory’s sensitivity on the matter, while the Consistory for its part resorted to actual excommunication less frequently than before.”
Again, this picture of cooperation and interdependence between “church” and “state” in Geneva may be dismissed as an unfortunate consequence of the pressures of circumstance, to which Calvin was prudent enough to accommodate himself, or perhaps to a mere thoughtless perpetuation on Calvin’s part of medieval arrangements which his theology ought to have expunged. But as we have argued elsewhere, there is ample reason for thinking otherwise. Without recapitulating all these arguments here, a few quotes from Harro Höpfl’s John Calvin’s Christian Polity may be apposite. Höpfl regards the close coordination of magistracy and magistracy in Geneva as a consequence of Calvin’s convictions regarding the spiritual nature of the church’s power; the maintenance of its external form then must fall to civil authority:
Since the church’s potestates do not include coercion . . . the church is—in principle—permanently debarred from akin or enforcing laws. In consequence, the legal establishment of ecclesiastical institutions, especially the pastorate and the Consistory, the expulsion or execution of persistent and impenitent heretics, the chastisement of deriders of the ministry and the Word, of contemners of piety, and of those of scandalous immorality of life, . . . the public mobilization of resources for ecclesiastical and charitable works such as the payment of ministers, teachers and officials, and public institutions for the relief of distress, are all activities which would be either quite frustrated or severely handicapped without the use by the magistracy of its particular sorts of powers. Calvin’s view . . . was that these were proper, indeed divinely ordained, functions of magistracy and aids to godliness. Such things cannot, indeed, make anyone righteous, for only the will of God can do that, but they are capable of serving as aids to sanctification. . . .
Calvin’s commitment to evangelical theology means that ecclesiastical discipline too must be understood as operating in the realm of sanctification, so that the two differ not in fundamental nature, but in form:
Ecclesiastical discipline cannot make men righteous either, but this in no sense restricts its competence as an agency which facilitates the task of sanctification. Civil “discipline” (a term which Calvin used in this connection) works in precisely the same way, albeit with different and ultimately inferior implements.
It is noteworthy in this regard that in the 1559 Institutes, the only edition with whose organization Calvin was satisfied, “treated both church and government as ‘external media’ whereby the grace of God is distributed to the world, and it dealt with both of them in the same book.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean Calvin thought magistracy and ministry were simply interchangeable. It would be hard to account for his vigorous campaign for distinctively ecclesiastical institutions in Geneva, were this the case. Calvin did envision “a division of labour between magistrates and ministers,” but it was not, says Höpfl,
one between secular and spiritual matters, between humanities and pietas, between teaching and coercing, between moral instruction and legal enforcement. Instead, both agencies were to use the distinctive resources committed to them by God for the disciplining of the same congregation or body of inhabitants . . . to obedience to the same body of laws which covered both piety and righteousness. The laws of the Christian commonwealth are here understood as directives concerning the external form which righteousness takes.
This account suggests that in fact, the arrangement in Geneva did not really rest on a fundamentally different theological and political foundation from that in Bern or Zurich. In both cases, it was acknowledged that the city was one Christian community, a visible church overseen, in different respects, by ministers of the word and magistrates of the peace. The godly behavior of this body of Christian people was the concern of both minister and magistrate, who must work together complementarity to ensure a well-ordered and disciplined body of Christians. In both cases, the bulk of discipline was handled by laymen. In both cases, the ultimate basis for the ecclesiastical organization rested on civil legislation. To be sure, the precise arrangement and division of powers differed considerably, and there was friction and tension throughout, particularly in Geneva, as there will always be when there is a division of powers within a single body. But the only really decisive point of conflict concerned what was in fact a fairly narrow question, that of excommunication, and this rested primarily on the rather narrow theological question of whether the Table was objectively defiled and Christ blasphemed by the presence of unworthy partakers. Calvin, with a stronger emphasis on the objectivity of the sacrament than Bullinger, considered that it was, and hence considered that the minister had a weighty responsibility before God to attempt to fence the Table; many other Reformers felt less strongly on this question (including Lutherans who shared a high view of the objectivity of the sacrament), and hence felt that, given the inescapable civic ramifications of excommunication in a Christian city, it was best to give magistrates (who, after all, were part of the universal priesthood, responsible before God for the care of their Christian brothers) a say in such decisions.
On this narrow fulcrum, in truth, turned the “Zurichvs. Geneva” dispute, and so it is unsurprising that the difference never loomed large between Calvin and Bullinger themselves. Among their successors, indeed, this narrow chink widened considerably, perhaps constituting in the end two dramatically different understandings of the Church. But recent historiography has suggested that, far from constituting merely a radicalizing of impulses already present in Geneva, disciplinarian and Presbyterian ecclesiologies may have drawn much of their inspiration from other sixteenth-century sources. Their conception of the church as a self-governing gathered body, maintained by strict discipline administered on its own authority drew from the works of Martin Bucer and Jan Laski, who were themselves influenced decisively by encounters with Anabaptism. In the 1540s and 1550s, Laski framed a church order for exile congregations in England, the Netherlands, and Germany which sought to preserve a pure body of the faithful free from the “tares” of worldly Christians. His model proved an ideal blueprint for disestablished Reformed congregations to conduct their own discipline with little need for a magistrate, and as such, exercised enormous influence on the young Dutch Reformed Church, the Puritan movement in England, and even John Knox’s Scottish Presbyterian polity.
Of course, many may understandably argue that such a Laskian vision is far more suited to our times (and perhaps even more theologically appropriate) than the blurring of church and state we find in Zurich or Geneva. We have elsewhere argued that there are coherent, and much more theologically sound, ways of arriving at a more modern division of church and state without adopting the Anabaptist assumptions underlying much disciplinarian Presbyterianism. But regardless of what we decide on such theological and practical questions, such arguments will not be clarified by the obfuscation of the historical record, and the self-satisfying fantasy that Calvin’s Geneva was a Covenanter kirk in nuce.
 After the Zurich reformers, Bullinger and Vermigli, refused to support the Puritan-minded English clergy in the 1560s Vestiarian controversy, many of these Puritans turned increasingly to Theodore Beza for support, holding up a radicalized Genevan model as their ideal for the Genevan church, while establishment defenders such as Matthew Parker, Edwin Sandys, and John Whitgift drew direct support from the Zurich theologians, and their ally Wolfgang Musculus at Bern, in defending magisterial control over an adiaphorous polity.
 Alistair Duke reveals that there was an ongoing debate in the Netherlands between those who yielded control of church discipline to the Christian magistracy as whole cities adopted the Reformation, and those who clung to autonomous disciplinary bodies composed of elders and ministers. This debate played out with remarkable similarity to that going on simultaneously in England, with the two sides both seeking support from leaders in Zurich and Geneva, respectively. (“The Ambivalent Face of Calvinism in theNetherlands, 1561-1618,” in Menna Prestwich, ed., International Calvinism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 109-33.
 The debate in the Palatinate, fought between supporters of Thomas Lieber (Erastus) and Caspar Olevianus, is the main touchstone for the Geneva vs. Zurich paradigm. Bullinger wrote in direct support of his pupil, Erastus, who attacked consistorial excommunication and rested discipline with the magistrates, and Beza wrote a tract against Erastus, in support of his pupil Olevianus, although it remained unpublished until 1589, for fear of alienating Bullinger. (Intriguingly, its 1589 publication elicited a vigorous response from the Dutch “Erastian” Adrian Saravia, then working in England as a supporter of the Establishment there and a friend of Richard Hooker).
 Kirby, The Zurich Connection (Leiden: Brill, 2007). Hart does not cite the page numbers, but the quotes are drawn from pgs. 3, 40-41. Of course, Hart is employing Kirby out of context and, in many ways, contrary to Kirby’s own conclusions.
 See, for instance, W.J. Torrance Kirby, “A Reformed Culture of Persuasion: John Calvin’s Two Kingdoms and the Theological Origins of thePublic Square,” in Richard R. Topping and John A. Vissers, eds., Calvin @500: Theology, History, and Practice (Eugene,OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 52-66.
 Gillian Lewis, “Calvinism in Geneva in the Time of Calvin and Beza (1541-1605),” in International Calvinism 45.
 Lewis 44.
 A particularly egregious example can be found in David Hall and Matthew Burton, Calvin and Commerce (Phillipsburg,NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009).
 Lewis 44.
 Ibid. 45.
 Ibid. 48-50.
 Ibid. 49.
 Höpfl 199.
 Lewis 50.
 See for instance Robert Kingdon, “Social Control and Political Control in Calvin’s Geneva,” in Hans R. Guggisberg, Gottfried G. Krodel, eds., Die Reformation in Deutschland und Europa, 524-27.
 Lewis 50.
 Höpfl 190-91.
 Ibid. 191.
 Ibid. 193.
 See Duke, “Ambivalent Face,” 115-16; also Kenneth R. Davis, “No Discipline, No Church: an Anabaptist contribution to the Reformed tradition,” Sixteenth Century Journal 13 (1982)
 Michael Springer, John a Lasco and the Forma ac Ratio (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).
3 replies on “Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up?”
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