14 November 2004

calvin's confessionalism

John Calvin was no despiser of churchly creeds and confessions. Not only did he have a hand in writing several confessions and catechisms for use by Protestant churches in Geneva and France, but he also maintained that the teachers God has ordained for his church possess a necessary ministry and significant authority from God, individually and in council "to lay down articles of faith...and to explain them" (Institutes 4.8.1; cf. 4.3.2-3). Moreover, while Calvin goes on to criticize how the church's teaching authority has been often been exercised and abused, he insists that this "does not mean that I esteem the ancient councils less than I ought, for I venerate them from my heart, and desire that they should be honored by all" (Institutes 4.9.1).

Indeed, Calvin goes on to say,
...if any discussion arises over doctrine, the best and surest remedy is for a synod of faithful bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church agree in common, invoking Christ's Spirit, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it...And the very feeling of piety so instructs us that, if any disturb the church with a strange doctrine, and the matter reach the point where there is danger of greater dissension, the church should first assemble, examine the question put, and finally, after due discussion, bring forth a definition derived from Scripture which would remove all doubt from the people... (Institutes 4.9.13)Calvin insists that any such decisions made in the past and appealed to in the present should be diligently pondered and given their proper weight (Institutes 4.9.8).

Nevertheless, Calvin also maintained a strong doctrine of the liberty of conscience of the Christian under God and in submission to Scripture, even if placing this liberty in a context that emphasizes the due submission of the Christian to those authorities God has ordained. Regarding liberty of conscience, Calvin notes three aspects: freedom from the condemnation of the law; freedom to obey God with a willing heart; and freedom from religious obligation with regard to things indifferent (adiaphora; cf. Institutes 3.19.2-8). It is with the third aspect that the issue of ecclesiastical authority is pertinent since church authorities may propose creeds and confessions for the expression of the faith of the church.

Calvin, as we shall see below, does not think that the authority of the church itself can bind our consciences to a particular formulation of doctrine stated in extrabiblical terminology and categories, even if such formulations are theologically necessary, as well as edifying and useful to the church (cf. Institutes 3.19.8). Still, as we have seen, Calvin does not think this sort of liberty gives us freedom to disregard ecclesiastical authority with regard to either doctrine or customs, which would then allow such liberty thereby to devolve into an individualist subjectivism. Rather he always places such freedom of conscience within the context of a pious submission of the mind to the teaching authority of the church.

All of that being said, it is also of great interest to note how Calvin actually handled the authority of ecclesiastical traditions - including the ancient Creeds - when it came down to the binding of the Christian's conscience in the face of church authorities.

It should be evident that Calvin was no despiser of the ecumenical Creeds and that he was an insistently orthodox trinitarian in the face of certain Renaissance anti-trinitarianisms (not the least, that of Servetus). Nevertheless, when his interlocutor, Pierre Caroli, required that Calvin subscribe to the precise language of the ancient Creeds in order to prove his trinitarian orthodoxy, Calvin refused.

Calvin's point was not to reject the Creeds, of course. He himself states, "I never had any intention of depreciating these creeds or of derogating from their credit" (Calvini Opera 7:315). Rather, in commenting upon this episode in Calvin's disputes with Caroli, B.B. Warfield writes:
...he refused to be coerced in his expression of the doctrine by present authority or even the formularies of the past...Calvin refused to subscribe the ancient creeds at Caroli's dictation, not in the least because he did not find himself in accord with their teaching, but soley because he was determined to preserve for himself and his colleagues the liberties belonging to Christian men, subject in matters of faith to no other authority than that of God speaking in the Scriptures. ("Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity" in Calvin and Calvinism, Oxford University Press, 1931:206-7)The issue was not one of whether the Creeds were correct in their doctrine - Calvin readily admitted that they were. Nor was it a matter of the authority of the Creeds and the submission and reverence a Christian ought to pay to them - Calvin often expressed such pious deferrence.

Rather, it was a matter of a theologian insisting that the extrabiblical language of the Creeds was the only acceptable and authoritative language in which to express one's faith in the holy Trinity and that a Christian was compelled, as a matter of faith and orthodoxy, to confess in precisely that language. This is was what Calvin deemed unacceptable. B.B. Warfield's comments here are again apt when he writes that Calvin's "sole design was to make it apparent that Caroli's insistence that only in words of these creeds could faith in the Trinity be fitly expressed was ridiculous" (211). As Calvin writes in his Institutes, "I have long learned by experience, and that over and over again, that those who contend thus pertinaciously about terms, are really cherishing a secret poison" (1.8.5).

Warfield summarizes the matter well when he writes that:
[Calvin] considered it intolerable that the Christian teacher's faith should be subjected to the authority of any traditional modes of statement, however venerable, or however true; and he refused to be the instrument of creating a precedent for such tyranny in the Reformed Churches by seeming to allow that a teacher might be justly treated as a heretic until he cleared himself by subscribing ancient symbols thrust before him by this or that disturber of the peace. (208)This perspective, articulated by Calvin, the Geneva Reformer, and reaffirmed by Warfield, that great expositor of Old Princeton, is one we would do well to keep in mind.