Friday, February 29, 2008

Nelson Price's attack on John Calvin. VIII

So once again we continue with our response to Nelson Price's highly misleading article on John Calvin.

"Calvin used the Consistory, a court presided over by an ecclesiastical hierocracy [sic], to aid his political aims and to maintain control over civil and religious life in Geneva."

This is a blatant falsehood. The Consistory of Geneva was, as the very name suggests, a purely religious court with purely religious authority. It was made up of the pastors and elders of Geneva who sat together to rule the church. Calvin never presided over it, and in fact its president was always an elder, one of the city's magistrates appointed by the democratically elected government of Geneva. The term 'hierarchy', which we presume is what Price was looking for, is singularly inappropriate in this context. It refers to a graduated system of priests or religious leaders, as is found in the Church of England in the protestant churches, and also in the Church of Rome. Now it is notorious that Geneva was the cradle of modern Presbyterianism, the central tenet of which as a system of church government is that all ministers are equal. Presbyterian churches are governed by a system of courts, not of men.
So it was in Geneva, the Genevan Church was ruled over by the Consistory Court. Its sole purpose was to enforce church discipline, and it had no control at all over civil affairs! Of course it could advise the civil magistrates, should they ask its advice, but its punishments were only ecclesiastical. The most it could do was bar a person from the Lord's Table. Those who have made it an inquisition court or a Star Chamber have drawn more on imagination than upon its records. The vast majority f the Consistory's business was mundane in the extreme, dealing with everyday matters of church discipline. No doubt there were some who complained that it was too strict. It will always be the case where there is functioning church discipline, for example, we know of a case today where a man resigned office in a church over his son being disciplined for immoral behaviour. Church discipline is not popular and never has been. That is not to say it is tyranny.
In fact it is necessary that there be discipline in the Church. God willing, we shall be preaching from 'blessed are the merciful' this coming Lord's Day, and we have reflected on the fact that church discipline is supposed to be merciful. Excommunication has as its goal the repentance and restoration of the fallen sinner.

"Jaques Gruet was an opponent who sided with some old Genevans in opposing Calvin. Gruet was tortured into confessing he had issued writings opposing Calvin and was beheaded for doing so."

Gruet was certainly an immoral man who believed that fornication and adultery were not sins. He was, as the historian Carew Hunt says, "an infidel of the shallower kind", whose unbelief was bolstered by attacking the Bible and covered an immoral lifestyle. While Calvin was involved in the prosecution of Servetus, it is a singular fact that he played no part at all in the prosecution of Gruet. Jaques Gruet was arrested, tortured and executed by the Council of Geneva, an elected body over the composition of which Calvin had less control than a humble Genevan shopkeeper - for only citizens could vote in elections, and Calvin was not at that point a citizen of Geneva. Among Gruet's judges were many of Calvin's enemies, men who sought to do everything in their power to humiliate Calvin.
The charges against Gruet were of sedition and heresy, and they were brought and prosecuted by the civil government. Again we must repeat that Calvin's influence in Geneva was that of a pastor. His authority was the authority of the pulpit. Despite the constant misrepresentation he was not the dictator of Geneva.
Once again let us say that we are utterly opposed to the death penalty for heresy. The fact remains, however, that in 16th century Europe every state had laws on its books in which heretics were judged worthy of death. We are thankful that times have changed. Yet it is as a result of those who built on Calvin's doctrine of the separation of Church and State that this has come to pass. Luther made magistrates rulers in the Church, and the English Reformation made the monarch 'Supreme Governor' of the Church of England, thus hopelessly confusing ecclesiastical and civil government. certain of the Anabaptists taught religious toleration and are to be thanked for doing so, yet their doctrinal errors on such vital subjects as Justification and the true humanity of Christ kept them weak. It was out of the Puritans, heirs of Calvin, that the British Particular Baptists arose. From them came the men who ensured complete freedom of worship in the United States.
The Calvinist sees, like Melville, two kings and two kingdoms. Thus he stands against the absolutism of James VI of Scotland (I of England) who wanted to set himself up as king over the Church.

Pierre Ameaux complained about Calvin bringing in inordinate numbers of French priests to support him in Geneva. Calvin said this constituted an attack on his divinely ordered authority by Ameaux. Calvin persuaded the city council to require Ameaux to wear a hair shirt and march through the city streets to the city square where he was to beg mercy.

We wonder why Dr. Price used the word 'Priests' here, when it is strictly only applicable in these circumstances to Roman Catholics. Calvin brought PASTORS, and that was not Ameaux's offence. What happened was that Ameaux got drunk in company and accused Calvin of heresy. His offence was therefore slander, and the punishment was actually very light for the period. What is more, it was the punishment Ameaux would have been given in England for the same offence as late as the 1700s! John Wesley's father Samuel, no friend of Calvin, was notoriously unpopular in Epworth for enforcing the same public penance upon open sinners in the town.
That Calvin ever said it was "an attack on his divinely ordered authority" is absurd. We find no record of such a statement in any reputable source. No, it was an attack on his person. No doubt Ameaux also felt there were too many French asylum-seekers in Geneva. Opposition to immigration is not a new thing!
What would Dr. Price do if one of his church members accused him of heresy in company? We feel that such an accusation would require discipline, for 'an elder must be blameless', and such a serious accusation as heresy cannot be allowed to stand. So where is the Fault in Calvin? We simply fail to see, unless it be in the manner of the public penance.

God willing, we shall continue next time.

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