"I Now Take Thee" Weddings in Calvin’s Geneva

Wedding 2

Here is another post on Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. 

Eloping or getting married without a public wedding ceremony has become a trend of late. As the value of our wedding vows have diminished through divorce and fornication so too have wedding themselves become passe. Weddings are still big business, but many couples are choosing to avoid ceremonies all together.  In Geneva there was no eloping.

In Geneva “Marriages without weddings were invalid.”  You could not be married without a public ceremony presided over by the pastor and witnessed by the congregation. “Marriages that had been secretly contracted or improperly celebrated elsewhere had to be announced and celebrated anew in a church wedding in Geneva.” The couple, the church, and the magistrate all had to consent to the marriage before the wedding was performed. Here was the process: Continue reading

Cold Feet in Calvin’s Geneva

Groom Running
I am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. 
 

In a previous post I looked at what happens when people get too excited about marriage and up sleeping together before their wedding. As with all periods of history, this problem was common in Geneva. However, there was another issue that Geneva faced that is not a problem in 21st Century America; desertion before marriage. Today an engagement is not binding therefore this is not an issue. If a couple is engaged, it is assumed they will get married. But if they do not wish to get married all they have to do is break off the engagement.  Nothing more is needed.  Continue reading

Marriage in Medieval Canon Law

Warrior and his LadyThis is the second in a series of posts on Kingdon and Witte’s excellent book Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Vol 1.

In an earlier post I mentioned some general findings from the book Courtship, Engagement and Marriage in Geneva. Now I will work through the different chapters of the book. I find these studies fascinating for two main reasons: it puts the Reformation in context and it forces me to go back to the Scriptures to evaluate why I believe what I believe.

In the first chapter, the authors give an introduction to Roman Catholic theology of marriage and then use Geneva’s Marriage Ordinance of 1546 to show how Geneva changed prevailing theology and practice. This post will briefly look at the Roman Catholic view on marriage prior to the Reformation.

The Marriage Tradition at the Time of the Reformation
Here are some of the key ideas which dominated Roman Catholic marital theology and practice of the time. As we move through the book we will see that some of these ideas carried over into the Reformation, some were modified, and some rejected altogether. Continue reading

Berkhof on Knowing God Through Scripture

Here is a short quote from Berkhof’s Systematic Theology on how we learn about God.

The only proper way to obtain perfectly reliable knowledge of the divine attributes is by the study of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. It is true that we can acquire some knowledge of the greatness and power, the wisdom and goodness of God through the study of nature, but for an adequate conception of even these attributes it will be necessary to turn to the Word of God. In the theology of revelation we seek to learn from the Word of God which are the attributes of the Divine Being. Man does not elicit knowledge from God as he does from other objects of study, but God conveys knowledge of Himself to man, a knowledge which man can only accept and appropriate. For the appropriation and understanding of this revealed knowledge it is, of course, of the greatest importance that man is created in the image of God, and therefore finds helpful analogies in his own life. In distinction from the a priori method of the Scholastics, who deduced the attributes from the idea of a perfect Being, this method may be called a posteriori, since it takes its starting point, not in an abstract perfect Being, but in the fulness of the divine self-revelation, and in the light of this seeks to know the Divine Being.

 

Three Goals of Church Discipline

More from Scott Manetsch and church discipline in Geneva.

Geneva’s ministers believed ecclesiastical discipline had three primary purposes or goals. First, moral correction helped preserve the purity of Christ’s church and protected the Lord’s Supper from being profaned. Second,  church discipline was intended to protect Christians from the bad influence of wicked people. Third, moral discipline was intended to shame rebellious sinners, thereby hastening their repentance and making possible restoration to the Christian community.

Two notes on this.

The primary goal of church discipline is always to honor Christ and his church. While we want to see sinners restored that is not the primary aim. Christ is honored when ministers consider his church, which he shed his blood for, precious enough to remove those who through heresy or wicked living flagrantly dishonor Christ. A refusal to do this is a refusal to love Jesus.

Second, the loss of shame across our society has made church discipline much less effective. Even in churches shame is considered a bad thing, something to be avoided. How can a sinner be brought to repentance without being ashamed of his actions? The only goal of discipline is not to shame a person. Nor is the shame to exceed the nature and gravity of the sin. Still, without shame excommunication loses its power. It is a terrible thing for men’s souls when they can go down the road, head held high, and join another church after having been excommunicated.

The Keys to the Kingdom in Geneva

Reformers 1

Man, am I enjoying Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors. I have decided to describe it as a pastoral theology disguised as history. Here is Manetsch’s summary of the ways Calvin and his successors believed ministers exercise the power of the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19).

First, the spiritual authority to “bind and loose” was exercised in a general way when ministers preached the gospel in their sermons, announcing God’s righteous judgment upon the wicked and God’s promise of salvation to those who turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Second, the power of the keys was employed more particularly when pastors and lay elders conducted annual household visitations to examine the character and doctrine of church members, or when they admonish sinners in private conferences. Finally, ministers and elders employed the power of the keys through the ministry of the Consistory as they confronted people who were guilty of moral failure and excommunicated from the Lord’s Table those who refused to repent of their error. At each stage of discipline, church leaders needed spiritual discernment to apply the appropriate measures of rigor and gentleness to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner. Wise pastors, Beza [Calvin’s successor] once observed need “not only to discern the illness, but also the best medicine to prescribe, preaching the Law to the hardened, and the gospel of grace to those despairing. In brief, let us always condemn the sin, but try to save the sinner.” This was Calvin’s view as well. The power of the keys needed to be exercised with wisdom and gentleness in hopes of rescuing the sinner.  Otherwise discipline might degenerate into “spiritual butchery.”

Just a couple of notes from this paragraph.

First, church discipline is often understood only as excommunication. This is a serious mistake and fails to recognize that a majority of discipline in a church occurs from the pulpit in a general fashion or one on one either through visitation or counseling.

Second, the lost art of visitation is one of the reasons why sin among the congregation is not more quickly recognized and dealt with. Visitation does two things: it creates a stronger relationship between the minister/elders and the members so when rebuke is necessary there should already be a bond of love. And it gives the minister a chance to be in the home and ask questions about how the member is doing. If the only time a minister/elder speaks with a member is before or after a regular meeting or when there is crisis then sin will not be adequately dealt with.

Third, discipline in all it forms, preaching, private meetings, and excommunication requires great wisdom on the part of ministers. It is easy to make mistakes, especially in our age where the congregation usually does not want anyone exercising authority in their lives, whether from the pulpit or in their living room, and the pastors have rarely seen spiritual authority exercised well, if at all.

What Traditions to Avoid

TraditionIn chapter X of his Institutes John Calvin is explaining what types of human traditions and laws should be accepted and which ones should be rejected. In section 16 of that chapter he gives a nice summary of his thought.  He asks, “What are those human traditions of all times that should be repudiated by the church and by all godly men.” He then gives a list.  First, he says,

All laws apart from God’s Word, laws made by men [that]

  • either prescribe the manner of worshiping God
  • Or to bind consciences by scruples
  • As if they were making rules about things necessary for salvation.

In other words, the Bible must dictate our worship and what is necessary to be saved. Men cannot make up a laws about worship and make those mandatory or equate them with God’s Word. Nor can man add to God’s Word what is necessary to be saved. Obviously, there is a lot more that could be said about this. He then goes on to give other practical considerations when implementing traditions in the church. What if the tradition is not doing any of the above? Is it automatically okay? Calvin says no. He encourage us to ask the following questions:

  1. Do these rules “obscure by their multitude the clarity of the gospel?”
  2. Are “they in no sense constructive but are useless and trifling occupations rather than true exercises of piety?”
  3. Are “they calculated for sordid and base gain?”
  4. Are “they too difficult to observe?”
  5. Are “they befouled with shameful superstitions?”

Of course reading this list our mind runs straight to Roman Catholicism or perhaps mega church pastors who twist the Word for financial gain. But I want to apply to the reformed world. There has been a liturgical renewal among reformed folks over the last couple of decades. This has led to a closer examination of liturgical traditions, including the church year, robes, kneeling for communion, processionals, recessionals, etc. Many of these traditions have been implemented to various degrees in reformed churches. Those of us who have adopted or are moving toward a more liturgical worship style would be wise to keep Calvin’s list in mind.   The goal of any man made tradition is to make the gospel clear, to increase piety/holiness, to be functional, to avoid all manner of superstition, and to not line the pockets of the shepherds. Too many ministers do not consider things like this carefully enough.

Here is one example where I think liturgical churches are in danger. Many liturgical churches are too complicated. And they get more complicated as time goes on. In other words, they lack functionality.  Why do we need to keep adding things to our worship service? Since what I am talking about are not Biblical commands, but rather traditions we put in place to help people worship, they are contextually dictated. We don’t live in 500 or 1500 or 1800. Some of the traditions in our worship services need to be jettisoned in order to make our worship services more functional for 21st century Americans. This is not a cry to be relevant at the expense of truth. I am not encouraging polls of unbelievers to determine what we do and don’t do. Nor do I think a modern evangelical should walk into our worship and immediately get it. But I am encouraging to us to make sure our traditions are “not too difficult to observe.”

There are other ways we can encourage superstition with our baptismal or communion practices or simply have traditions that are of little value for holiness. I am grateful for the liturgical renewal of the last few years, but that renewal is not problem free. Without restraint, caution, and wisdom some might find themselves closer to 1450 than 1550 in their approach to tradition and worship.