John Calvin And Genevan Presbyterianism -- By: Mark J. Larson

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 60:1 (Spring 1998)
Article: John Calvin And Genevan Presbyterianism
Author: Mark J. Larson

John Calvin And Genevan Presbyterianism

Mark J. Larson*

*Mark J. Larson is a doctoral student at Calvin Theological Seminary.

I. Introduction: The Question of Calvin’s Church Polity

The Geneva consistory held a crucial place in the thinking of John Calvin. Doubtless, Calvin never would have returned to Geneva apart from a concession on the Genevan government’s part that he be allowed to establish a consistory.1 Theodore Beza, his successor as the moderator of the Company of Pastors, wrote about the centrality the consistory in Calvin’s philosophy of ministry in his biography: “Or afin que on entende comment Calvin s’y est porté: premierement d’entré il protesta de n’accepter point la charge de ceste Eglise, sinon qu’il y eust consistoire ordonné et discipline ecclesiastique convenable: pour ce qu’il voyoit que telles brides estoyent necessaires et qu’il n’estoit point question de dilayer.”2 Clearly, it was Calvin’s deep conviction that he could not properly fulfill his ministry apart from the establishment of a consistory with full ecclesiastical authority.

Scholars such as Lefferts Loetscher and Robert Kingdon have recognized the significance of Calvin’s church polity when it comes to Presbyterian church government. Without hesitation, Loetscher declares, “John Calvin. .. was the chief formulator of Presbyterianism.. .. Calvin more than any other one man gave to Presbyterianism its distinctive character.”3 As to the form of government which Calvin established in Geneva, Loetscher asserts, “In Geneva, Calvin developed one of his most distinctive achievements—Presbyterian church government.”4

The proof which Loetscher offers for this statement is succinct: “He provided for four types of church officers: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. The clergy were equal, without superior bishop over them, and the lay elders, twelve in number, were elected. .. to share with the clergy in church government.”5 This indeed is the traditional understanding of what constitutes Presbyterian government in contrast to Episcopalianism

(which places authority in a higher clergy, the bishops) and Congregationalism (which gives governing authority to the local congregation). Since the Genevan church was neither ruled by a bishop nor the congregation, but by a consistory comprised of pastors and elders having ecclesiastical authority over multiple congregations, it follows ...

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