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Gestapo Geneva: Caricatures of Calvin and his Company of Pastors

Just a few weeks ago, Carl Trueman introduced me to Scott Manetsch’s new book Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609. While initially interested, I was not expecting to be drawn into this type of historical study. It’s a fascinating book that rests upon careful scholarship.

At Reformation21, Trueman writes that Manetsch’s research into the consistory records demonstrates, “that discipline in Geneva was not the Gestapo-style brutality of popular myth; rather it was nuanced and frequently took much account of the humanity and the individual circumstances of the individuals concerned.” The book reveals just how ridiculous are many of the caricatures of Calvin and his venerable company. The domine of Wheaton directed me to a particularly egregious example in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

[Calvin] was appointed preacher and professor of theology and in 1536 published his Articuli de Regimine Ecclesiae. They contained severe regulations concerning admission to the Lord’s Supper and required from all Genevan citizens a profession of faith approved by the town council, the refusal of which was to be punished by exile. Despite strong resistance all citizens had accepted the oath by 1538; but his next step, the discipline of excommunication, together with his refusal to conform the usages of the Church at Geneva to those of the more powerful city of Berne, led to the expulsion of both Farel and Calvin later in that year. (p. 222)

So far, the entry is relatively tame. Though in light of the following material, we catch a whiff of the agenda.

In 1541 Calvin returned to Geneva, where his party had gained the upper hand, and during the next 14 years he devoted himself to establishing a theocratic régime on OT lines. This was effected by a series of ‘Ordinances’ which placed the government of the new Church in the hands of four classes of men, called pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. They were assisted by a ‘consistory’ of ministers and laymen which, under Calvin, was chiefly a tribunal of morals. It wielded the power of excommunication and had far-reaching powers over the private lives of citizens. (p. 223)

Interesting—I didn’t know Calvin was a militant Old Testament theocrat. How then did Calvin execute this plan?

These were enforced by new legislation, which inflicted severe punishments even for purely religious offences and prohibited all pleasures such as dancing and games. This régime was resisted by a party incorrectly described as ‘Libertines,’ which Calvin succeeded in overcoming by force. Among the opponents executed after torture were Jacques Gruet (1547), Raoul Monnet (1549), and, best known, Michael Servetus (1553). By 1555, however, all resistance had ceased and Calvin was the uncontested master of the city. (Ibid.)

This brings new meaning to “militant church.” It gets even better:

From 1555 to his death he was the unopposed dictator of Geneva, which, through him, had become a city of the strictest morality. (Ibid.)

Manetsch’s book paints a different picture of Calvin and the pastors of Geneva—one backed up by years of painstaking research in Geneva. Calvin’s Company of Pastors lacks neither empirical detail nor readability. It’s a delightful read, and I encourage pastors to consider obtaining a copy. If you require additional persuasion, look for the forthcoming episode of Christ the Center on the subject. Trueman was kind enough to participate in an interview with Dr. Manetsch on the book. The conversation was insightful, and I only regret that we weren’t able to cover more of the material at hand. Even within the constraints of a one hour interview, Manetsch shines, and I trust listeners will see the usefulness of his study for contemporary pastoral practice.


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