Saturday, May 19, 2012

John Calvin's idea of bishop, archbishop and patriach in theory and practice

John Calvin's chair at St. Pierre Cathedral, Geneva, Switzerland

Presbyterians distinguish their denominational identity through a polity which centralizes authority to the council of elders or presbyters. It is widely believed that this form of church polity is conceptualized by John Calvin himself and instituted by John Knox in the founding of the Church of Scotland. Today's practice of Board of Directors in the corporate world is a secular counterpart of this polity.

Nevertheless, we shall not confuse the presence choice of polity with the practice of John Calvin's own church governance. Calvin recognized the validity of the offices of archbishop and patriach (which are above bishop or presbyter) though with hesitation to endorse the prevalence of these offices. He emphasized the rarity of such offices and the limitation of their authority:
As to the fact, that each province had an archbishop among the bishops, and, moreover, that, in the Council of Nice, patriachs were appointed to be superior to archbishops, in order and dignity, this was designed for the preservation of discipline, although, in treating of the subject here, it ought not to be omitted, that the practice was very rare. The chief reason for which these orders were instituted was, that if anything occurred in any church which could not well be explicated by a few, it might be referred to a provincial synod. If the magnitude or difficulty of the case demanded a larger discussion, patriachs were employed along with synods, and from them there was no appeal except to a general council. To the government thus constituted some gave the name of hierarchy---a name, in my opinion, improper, certainly one not used by Scripture. For the Holy Spirit designed to provide that no one should dream of primacy or domination in regard to the government of the church. But if, disregarding the term, we look to the thing, we shall find that the ancient bishops had no wish to frame a form of church government different from that which God has prescribed in his word.
(Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Four, Chapter 4.4 in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [USA: Hendrickson, revised edition, 2008], p.712. Emphasis added.)
Calvin' reluctance to thoroughly affirm the hierarchical status of bishop, archbishop and patriach is understandable as he was battling against the Roman Catholic polity at that time (as Chapter 5 to 8 of his Institutes, Book Four, indicate). This was what Calvin wrote in theory. In practice, Calvin's church governance is much subtle. His role as the patriach of Geneva was evident. As Ronald Wallace wrote:
Amongst his own fellow-bishops in Geneva Calvin himself moderated, as a kind of permanent president, at their common meetings. There is on record the report of a conversation in which Beza affirmed that “Mr Calvin who had rejected episcopacy was in fact bishop of Geneva, and that a little before his death he had proposed to Mr Beza to make him his successor, but that the latter had refused the offer.” Beza not only refused the offer, but after actually being forced to hold the office of permanent moderator for sixteen years after Calvin’s death, he became responsible for instituting a rotation of moderators. A letter from Beza to John Knox in 1572 reveals an intense hatred of anything in Church government savouring of episcopacy, and it is to him, rather than to Calvin, that we can trace the abhorrence of even the idea of a bishop which has been found among Presbyterians.
(Ronald Wallace, Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation [USA: Baker House, 1988], p.143. Emphasis added).
It is known by his contemporary that Calvin's bishopric among his fellow-bishops was higher in hierarchical standing. Calvin was no mere 'bishop' (a.k.a. elder or presbyter), but a sort of patriach in his own right.


Martin Yee said...

Sze Zeng,

Haha. Thanks. This is a cool reminder to us that things are not always as clean and neat as we like them to be. As long as humans are involved, things can get pretty complicated.

Btw do you know what is at the distinctive core of Reformed ecclesiology? For Lutherans it is justification by faith.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

I would like to cheekily think that the distinctive core of Reformed ecclesiology is this: "Ecclesia semper reformanda est." (The church is always being reformed.)

In this narrow sense, the church is always on the move, being shaped by the Trinity. :D