Archive Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

But What About the Consistory? Yeah, Sorta

One response to my essay on CS Lewis and punishment was that Calvinism, and particularly the Genevan Consistory, should also take some historical blame for rehabilitative punishment and coercive disciplinary penance. My reply to this is a bold “Yeah, sorta.” As Hooker pointed out in the preface to his Laws, the Genevan discipline had its own problems. And we have explored the details of this in the past. While the theological safeguards were always there, some confusions and abuses were present, and they were significant. Here’s a snippet:

The Consistory was, in fact, a confusion- but not, as some think, of the two kingdoms. It was rather a confusion of the estates- an imprudent conflation of the two directive estates on the one hand, ministry and magisterium, under their common aspect of guide of morals, together invading the sovereignty of the estate of the household and of civil society. This was peculiarly possible in a small town such as Geneva, and in fact, it was basically an institutionalization of the notorious nosiness and bossiness of small towns anywhere.1 Calvin, whose humanism shared not only the lovely aspects of the school but some of its mistakes, was in schemes of municipal moralizing much  like many other humanist municipal reformers  of the 16th century who tried overidealistic and coercive schemes of social reformation.

The Consistory model was not adopted by the other Reformed communities, and Hooker’s arguments against it in principle, his criticisms of Calvin’s use of equivocal expressions to lend the scheme an air of greater authority than it would have as a policy of prudence,2 and his revelations of what would follow were the consistory model generally adopted, were all accurate. The consistory consistently applied would have aborted the natural development of civil society in evangelically reformed commonwealths.

Calvin could persuade himself that the consistory’s reformation of morals was a common and consensual project of the Christian people of Geneva, but the evidence shows his mistake. The real school of the rising Protestant townsmen throughout Europe, in which they acquired their discipline, was the canonical evangelical doctrine of vocation, not busybody committees for the regulation of morals. Still, for all his equivocations, Calvin did not and could not confuse the two kingdoms in his patterns and policies of lay eldership and consistories. He confused a number of other things, but not the two kingdoms.

  1. Dr. Witte, after having painted a glorious picture of the Consistory model as seedgarden of liberty and rights, rather weakly admits that thing in fact was a busybody police regime which pretty much constantly “breached” all those highminded libertarian-democratic principles upon which it was purportedly founded; op cit, 79 ; Willliam G. Naphy recalls a controversy caused by the Consistory’s admonition of Genevan politicians for dancing at a wedding!; “Calvin’s Geneva” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge University Press, 2004) 31.
  2. Nearly three centuries later Earl Curzon would echo Hooker’s criticism of Calvin exactly, in a remark regarding Gladstone : “I recall a phrase of that incorrigible cynic Labouchere, alluding to Mr. Gladstone’s frequent appeals to a higher power, that he did not object to the old man always having a card up his sleeve, but he did object to his insinuating that the Almighty had placed it there.”

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.