Final years

When Calvin returned to Geneva, his first sermon was a continuation of the last. He acted as if there had been no break. Calvin picked up seemlessly from his time in 1538. But his position in Geneva was now inevitably more powerful – he had been called back to order the town and church.

Calvin could not, however, achieve all this. He did not succeed, for example, in getting the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated every Sunday. The Bern regulation was adopted, according to which it only took place every quarter of a year.

There were conflicts in other respects as well. Calvin wanted to introduce church discipline further and to see it more widely practised. That is, for the consistory to have the possibility to summon and question the members of the community who were guilty of an offence against the doctrine or morality, and if necessary to rebuke them, using excommunication at the extreme. The town council, however, thought that that was going too far, fearing a jurisdiction besides the political leadership. After some argument, Calvin won through, but not without concessions and only fully in 1555.

Today we find such kinds of church discipline problematic. For the rights of the individuals seem thereby to be limited. This was not what concerned Calvin. He was of the opinion that a community that knows who it is must also respect how those who belong to it should behave, and that in the event of flagrant infringements it must be asked whether real community can be maintained. Incidentally, Calvin felt led and supported in this respect by Matthew 18, where it speaks of the handling of offences of members of the community.

The question of church discipline also led to the most conflicts with the Geneva council. More important in The Church Constitution, however, is the way in which the community itself is led. And in this regard, Calvin’s understanding of the fourfold office became influential in the life of the church. The church rule consists of four offices: the pastors, teachers, elders and deacons.

1. The pastors are first of all to preach and teach, second, to administer the sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) and third, to visit the sick. Once a week the assembly of the pastors of the area met, interpreted the bible together and practised reciprocal censorship.

2. The teachers have the task of “instructing believers in the salutary doctrine.” In the narrowest sense this is the explanation of the bible, both Old and New Testaments. Because this involves both knowledge of the languages and general education, such instruction is also the task of the teachers, in order that “this instruction brings gain.”

3. Twelve elders were chosen each year by the two councils. Together with six pastors chosen by their colleagues they made up the consistory.

This consistory had the task of keeping an eye on church order amongst the members of the church. The consistory and its members were to “admonish in a friendly manner those who they see slipping up or living in an disorderly manner.” The members of the consistory were thus concerned for the community’s way of life, but nevertheless also for participation in the services and doctrine. When they detected contempt or abuse, they were in the first place to admonish in all friendship. If this were not enough, they could effect excommunication and the reporting of an offence with the worldly authorities. Both happened extremely rarely, however. Most often the consistory was occupied in settling arguments, often between those who were almost allies. The consistory met once a week on Thursdays. The Church Constitution defines the spirit in which the consistory was to act, as follows: “All this should always be so moderate, however, that no oppressive severity can prevail, and equally the rebukes should be nothing other that a means of salvation, to lead the sinners again to our Lord.”

The consistory was neither supposed to intervene in the sphere of worldly power, nor in the general customary jurisdiction.

4. The deacons have two tasks: support of the poor and caring for the sick. The first activity consisted in the organisation of alms and its distribution to the needy. To this there also belonged the feeding of the poor. The second consisted in the running of the hospitals and the hostel for foreigners. There was free treatment for the poor and a teacher was employed in the hospital for the children. (All quotations come from The Church Constitution.)

It thus becomes clear that inside the locally existing community there are defined tasks to be to be seen to, such as those belonging to the area of teaching and education, as well as others which touch upon social dimensions. The offices in the community are to be understood by these tasks, and that means in terms of function. This functional understanding of office distinguishes Calvin from all sacramental understandings. This is to be seen in the fact that one only holds office as long as one performs it. The office is not bound to the person but to the community. With this conception, clear distinctions from Lutheranism become nameable. In the latter, there is a concentration on the one ordained office of proclamation and administration of sacraments, which is bound to the person and not to the community.

Besides his activity in Geneva, Calvin was called upon to unite the different Protestant movements. In respect to the Lord’s Supper, he reached an agreement in 1549 with the people of Zurich in the so-called “Consensus Tigurinus” (Zurich Consensus). It was actually here that something like a “Reformed understanding of the Lord’s supper” first arose.