Calvin’s Institutes, Book 4 Chapter 9
Under what government is the church to be run? Who makes the final decision and decrees in regard to sound doctrine and teaching? The Israelite nation operated under a number of different systems – ancestral tribal leaders (e.g. Jacob); charismatic judges (so called “Kritarchy”); divinely anointed monarchs (e.g. David) and hereditary monarchs (e.g. Solomon). All of these were under the broad dominion of a theocratic system, where the Word of the Lord was (in theory) supreme over the decisions and decrees of men. But what is the government of the church age? Are we still under a theocracy? If so, how does this represent itself, and if not what replaces it? Do we look to our leaders for a final ruling or is it every believer for themselves, as each seeks to understand and interpret the scriptures?
It is to this issue that Calvin turns in Chapter 9 as he probes ever more deeply into the issue of authority. He asks whether the councils that had determined orthodoxy since the fourth century actually had the right to final authority in questions of doctrine. This is remarkably bold from Calvin as the Roman Catholic Church viewed these councils as having the ultimate say in biblical interpretation and church practice. Moreover, these councils were graced by many of the most influential church fathers. Nevertheless, Calvin is unrelenting in his pursuit of defining the limits and jurisdiction of firstly the church (see Chapter 8 ) and now the councils.
Calvin makes sure that his opponents understand his examination of councils does not spring from a lack of respect, for “it is not because I set less value than I ought on ancient councils. I venerate them from my heart, and would have all to hold them in due honour.” But he immediately adds “there must be some limitation” as to their rule, for “it is the right of Christ to preside over all councils” and they must never become a law unto themselves.
Calvin then asks what scripture says about the authority of councils – have they always been viewed as they are in his day? Well, the examples of councils in the New Testament are pretty disturbing – in John 11.47 we see that the Jewish ruling council condemn Jesus to death – not the type of decision you would want from your upholders of truth. Moving away from Jewish councils, Calvin then demonstrates that the early Christian councils were sometimes in opposition to each other, for example the councils of Nice and Constantinople disagree on the use of images in the church – meaning one of them must have been wrong. While his opponents did agree that, in theory, councils may error in areas not essential to salvation, in practice they denied this. For they sought to use the power of the councils “as a pretext for giving the name of an interpretation of Scripture to everything which is determined by councils.” Thus, they seek to justify “purgatory, the intercession of saints and auricular confession”.
Thus, if we cannot demonstrate a biblical mandate for the establishment of infallible councils, what then should be the principals by which the true bounds of authority should be defined? Calvin argues that we should examine each council’s decree on its own merits, seeking to examine: “what time it was held, on what occasion, with what intention, and who were present; next I would bring the subject discussed to the standard of scripture.” For support of this view Calvin quotes Augustine who stated that the bishops were not bound by the authority of previous councils, arguing instead – “let thing contend with thing, cause with cause, reason with reason, on the authority of scripture.”
Throughout this chapter Calvin repeatedly brings the decrees of the church and councils to the bar of the scriptures as a final examination. Just like a lawyer who relies on the country’s legal rulings for the prosecution of their case, so Calvin draws upon the bible to assess the rules of his day. For while both a judge and a pastor may be misguided, the law that underpins their decisions and doctrines remains uncorrupted. Calvin would be well used to the idea of a written code of practise against which decisions must be referred from his days training to be a lawyer. The only difference being the scriptures can be relied upon as infallible, while all human legal systems have some areas of imperfection.
So what is the result of all this on our church governance? Well, while we recognise that God has appointed pastors and shepards to oversee the flock, and they have been entrusted by the church with leading us wisely, they must always bring all their decisions and decrees against the bar of scripture. Only the scripture is authoritative, not the will of a pastor, the wisdom of a denominational leader or consensus of a local church. Yes, there is an important point to make about the potential risk in this of entrusting the interpretation of scripture to fallen men and women, but if God was willing to take that risk then shouldn’t we?
It is interesting to see Calvin’s use of church history, particularly Augustine throughout the Institutes. While Calvin and Luther are considered champions of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Calvin goes to great pains to demonstrate that his teachings are nothing new. In fact he traces them all back to the early church fathers and shows that he is the one who is being most faithful to early church tradition. Perhaps it would be better to speak of Ultim Scriptura – “scripture final” rather than alone, as the reformed faith never seeks to sever biblical interpretation from church tradition, but faithfully build upon the orthodox interpretation of believers right back to the time of Christ. Thus, just as in the law illustration above, Calvin uses the biblical equivalent of legal precedent in examining the bible – that is, what have hundreds of years of biblical interpretation made of this verse? How has the church understood it and applied this teaching? Only then does the scripture’s final authority come into its own and it alone is the final authority, not tradition. We must never lose sight of this as the only authoritative test for church doctrine.
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” Psalm 19.7-11
Father, may you grant that our biblical interpretation would be pure, untainted and Spirit-led. May we not lose sight of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before and grappled with your Word to interpret it faithfully, may we draw deeply from their wisdom. Amen.