Blog Template Theology of the Body: John Calvin's Bishop Envy

Monday, September 08, 2008

John Calvin's Bishop Envy

I'm reviving this post a) because Taylor Marshall has a cool new blog dealing with political theology, and you should all go check it out, and b) because the ongoing conversation about the Republican's female vice presidential candidate is underscoring ever more the curious mod/Prot idea that there is a kind of sacramentality in the civil sphere...

Broadly speaking, it seems that Calvin speaks in two very different tones when he describes the office of the church's pastor and the office of the civil magistrate. When describing the office of the pastor, Calvin proceeds rather circumspectly, emphasizing the mutual accountability that should exist between the duly elected and communally ordained pastor and his congregation.

On the other hand, when Calvin describes the office of the magistrate, he seems eager to expand on the sanctity of the magistrate’s divine appointment and divine, intrinsic authority.

At the outset of Institutes IV.20.4, Calvin elaborates that when those who bear the office of the magistrate are called gods, let no one suppose that there is little weight in that appellation. It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and in fact, represent the person of God, as whose substitutes they in a manner act.

This language of “divine appointment” and the implicit duty of ready obedience vis a vis the magistrate is not so readily apparent when Calvin elaborates on the divinely invested authority of the pastor, who wields authority in a seemingly more modest sense: he is invested with the authority to preach the Gospel, to oversee the sacraments, and to maintain the conditions necessary for a consensus of belief in his local congregation.

Calvin indicates that the government of both the ecclesial and the secular spheres contribute to human well- being in very different ways: the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government “are things widely separated,” and though they are not adverse to one another, “government is distinct from the spiritual and internal kingdom of Christ.” Furthermore, Calvin urges that “it is a Jewish vanity to seek and include the Kingdom of Christ under the elements of this world.” Why then does Calvin seem to cast the role of the civil magistracy in terms of God’s direct deputies, as “patrons of the pious worshippers of God,” whose tribunals “are the throne(s) of the living God,” “whose mouths are ordained organs of divine truth,” and whose “hands have been appointed to write the acts of God”? While the church’s pastors merely maintain and extend the authority that inheres at large in the Church’s deposit of doctrine, Calvin uses language which resonates with Ignatius of Antioch’s description of the Church’s bishops when he posits that the civil magistrates “in themselves exhibit a kind of image of the Divine Providence.”

As early as AD 110, the early church fathers agreed that the bishop was to be honored and obeyed as God's authorized representative:

I hasten to urge you to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ- that life from which we cannot be torn- is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ. Hence you should act in accord with the bishop’s mind, as you surely do… wherefore, your accord and harmonious love is a hymn to Jesus Christ…thus He will heed you… therefore you need to abide in irreproachable unity if you really want to be God’s members forever. Let us then heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God. Everyone the Master of the House sends on His business, we ought to receive as the One who sent him.”(Ignatius, To the Ephesians)..."you ought to respect (your bishop) as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.” (Ignatius, Letter to the Magnesians)...“When you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ’s way… it is essential therefore to act in no way without the bishop…if we live in union with him now, we shall gain eternal life.” (Ignatius, To the Trallians)

On the contrary, having posited the pastor as mere “dispenser” of extrinsic authority and democratically elected leader, Calvin turns to employ language of God’s direct appointment, mediation, and representation in the person of the magistrate, or “pastor of the people.” In particular, in IV.20.6, the magistrate “judges not for man, but for the Lord;” he is the ambassador of God in a “sacred order.” In IV.20.6, Calvin suggests that the insult of God’s civil servants insults God Himself and the authority and ordinances which He established; furthermore, “the magistrate…acts not of himself but executes the very judgments of God.” Finally, and most significantly, we find in IV.20 notions of obedience to the magistrate as God’s representative, as having been “invested” with intrinsic authority, that are almost entirely absent from Calvin’s discussions on the office of the pastor. In IV.20.22, Calvin insists that obedience with reverence is due even to unjust rulers, recognizing their “delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God.” In the same passage, Calvin continues that the king is “joined” with God, and hence appears as the image of God, and is “invested with a kind of sacred veneration and dignity.”

Having admitted the eternal authority of the Church, “the pillar and ground of God’s truth,” Calvin then proceeds to deny intrinsic power and consequent obedience to her ministers and governors, and locates direct divine representation in the civic ruler instead. While the ministers of the Church derive their authority from the authority of the Church’s deposit of faith, civil magistrates “derive their power from none by (God).” While the church’s ministers are democratically elected for ordination, civil magistrates are “raised up by God.” Having been commissioned for their respective offices, the church’s ministers are not granted an intrinsic capacity for their ministry, while the civil magistrates …all alike posses that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power… even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honor, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice...

What's going on here? Why are the ministers of Christ's Kingdom in the Church cast as bureaucrats, while the mere civil magistrate sounds like a demigod in Calvin's thinking? Is it possible that Calvin is seeking to fill a kind of vacuum in his Reformed ecclesiology by elaborating on the civil ruler as being, in a sense, in persona christi? Is Calvin desperately searching for Christ’s vicar- albeit in the secular locale? In the absence of catholic bishops, is Calvin compensating by (unduly) enhancing the role of the magistrate? Is Calvin suggesting that the civil magistrate mediates between God and the people...?

For the record, even Calvin is not supposed to be proposing that the Church of the living God= the fallible secular state.