See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page; also the online version of the Institutes. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
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OF THE STATE OF THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH, AND THE MODE OF GOVERNMENT IN USE BEFORE THE PAPACY.
1. The method of government in the primitive Church. Not in every respect conformable to the rule of the word of God. Three distinct orders of Ministers.
Hitherto we have discoursed of the order of church government as delivered to us in the pure word of God, and of ministerial offices as instituted by Christ (chap. 1 sec. 5, 6; chap. 3).
And we have discoursed on the shortcomings and deficiencies of said discourse . . .
Now that the whole subject may be more clearly and familiarly explained, and also better fixed in our minds, it will be useful to attend to the form of the early church, as this will give us a kind of visible representation of the divine institution. For although the bishops of those times published many canons, in which they seemed to express more than is expressed by the sacred volume, yet they were so cautious in framing all their economy on the word of God, the only standard, that it is easy to see that they scarcely in any respect departed from it.
Calvin always contends that his new "church" more closely resembled the early Church than Catholicism did. This is a myth that I will attempt to refute at every turn. In cases where Protestantism has more resemblance to the early Church, it also resembles (or plainly agrees with) Catholicism, so that it is a moot point. The self-justifying task for both sides is to find affinity between their distinctives and early Christianity.
Even if something may be wanting in these enactments, still, as they were sincerely desirous to preserve the divine institution, and have not strayed far from it, it will be of great benefit here briefly to explain what their observance was.
Note the tacit assumption that Calvin determines what the true interpretation of Scripture is, by which to judge the early Church insofar as it reflects that. This is, of course, more circular reasoning and dubious assumed premises.
As we have stated that three classes of ministers are set before us in Scripture, so the early Church distributed all its ministers into three orders. For from the order of presbyters, part were selected as pastors and teachers, while to the remainder was committed the censure of manners and discipline.
It's interesting how Calvin seems to avoid the use of the term "priest." But perhaps this is a translation issue.
To the deacons belonged the care of the poor and the dispensing of alms. Readers and Acolytes were not the names of certain offices; but those whom they called clergy, they accustomed from their youth to serve the Church by certain exercises, that they might the better understand for what they were destined, and afterwards come better prepared for their duty, as I will shortly show at greater length. Accordingly, Jerome, in setting forth five orders in the Church, enumerates Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons, Believers, Catechumens: to the other Clergy and Monks he gives no proper place (Hieron. in Jes. c. 9).
No particular comment . . .
2. First, the Bishop, for the sake of preserving order, presided over the Presbyters or Pastors. The office of Bishop. Presbyter and Bishop the same. The institution of this order ancient.
All, therefore, to whom the office of teaching was committed, they called presbyters, and in each city these presbyters selected one of their number to whom they gave the special title of bishop, lest, as usually happens, from equality dissension should arise. The bishop, however, was not so superior in honour and dignity as to have dominion over his colleagues, but as it belongs to a president in an assembly to bring matters before them, collect their opinions, take precedence of others in consulting, advising, exhorting, guide the whole procedure by his authority, and execute what is decreed by common consent, a bishop held the same office in a meeting of presbyters.
In other words, Calvin posits a scenario akin to the Orthodox opinion of popes: a sort of honorary figurehead or symbol of unity, while having no real power of veto or preeminence. We shall challenge this as Calvin proceeds with his reasoning.
And the ancients themselves confess that this practice was introduced by human arrangement, according to the exigency of the times. Thus Jerome, on the Epistle to Titus, cap. 1, says, “A bishop is the same as a presbyter. And before dissensions were introduced into religion by the instigation of the devil, and it was said among the people, I am of Paul, and I of Cephas, churches were governed by a common council of presbyters. Afterwards, that the seeds of dissension might be plucked up, the whole charge was devolved upon mendatory rescripts, preventions, and the like. But they all conduct one. Therefore, as presbyters know that by the custom of the Church they are subject to him who presides, so let bishops know that they are greater than presbyters more by custom than in consequence of our Lord’s appointment, and ought to rule the Church for the common good.” In another place he shows how ancient the custom was (Hieron. Epist. ad Evang.). For he says that at Alexandria, from Mark the Evangelist, as far down as Heraclas and Dionysius, presbyters always placed one, selected from themselves, in a higher rank, and gave him the name of bishop. Each city, therefore, had a college of presbyters, consisting of pastors and teachers. For they all performed to the people that office of teaching, exhorting, and correcting, which Paul enjoins on bishops (Tit. 1:9); and that they might leave a seed behind them, they made it their business to train the younger men who had devoted themselves to the sacred warfare. To each city was assigned a certain district which took presbyters from it, and was considered as it were incorporated into that church. Each presbyter, as I have said, merely to preserve order and peace, was under one bishop, who, though he excelled others in dignity, was subject to the meeting of the brethren. But if the district which was under his bishopric was too large for him to be able to discharge all the duties of bishop, presbyters were distributed over it in certain places to act as his substitutes in minor matters. These were called Chorepiscopi (rural bishops), because they represented the bishops throughout the province.
Calvin makes out that St. Jerome was some sort of proto-Baptist or proto-Presbyterian in ecclesiology. That runs contrary to other clear statements of his:
1. Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord, “woven from the top throughout,” since the foxes are destroying the vineyard of Christ, and since among the broken cisterns that hold no water it is hard to discover “the sealed fountain” and “the garden inclosed,” I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ. The wide space of sea and land that lies between us cannot deter me from searching for “the pearl of great price.” “Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed corn is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats. In the West the Sun of righteousness is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer, who fell from heaven, has once more set his throne above the stars. . . .Though Jerome exhibits (in what Calvin cites from him: his Letter to Evangelus) a certain "democratic bent" in ecclesiology, regarding both priests and bishops, this doesn't prevent him from giving Rome preeminence in the Church, and from accepting her decisions in contested matters (in other words, he believes in a hierarchical, episcopal, papal Church). That is real authority, and it is Catholic authority, and certainly contrary to Calvin's conception. Therefore, Calvin ignores this and cites only what is most agreeable in Jerome, to his own position. But a half-truth or a selective truth is little better than a falsehood. This is a very frequent theme in Calvin's methodology in citing the Church fathers. I'm delighted to be able to give readers a bit more balance, in providing from the fathers what Calvin omits.
2. Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. . . . He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist.
(Letter XV. To Pope Damasus; NPNF 2, Vol. VI)
The untiring foe follows me closely, and the assaults that I suffer in the desert are severer than ever. For the Arian frenzy raves, and the powers of the world support it. The church is rent into three factions, and each of these is eager to seize me for its own. The influence of the monks is of long standing, and it is directed against me. I meantime keep crying: “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” Meletius, Vitalis, and Paulinus all profess to cleave to you, and I could believe the assertion if it were made by one of them only. As it is, either two of them or else all three are guilty of falsehood. Therefore I implore your blessedness, by our Lord’s cross and passion, those necessary glories of our faith, as you hold an apostolic office, to give an apostolic decision. Only tell me by letter with whom I am to communicate in Syria, . . .
(Letter XVI. To Pope Damasus, 2; NPNF 2, Vol. VI)
3. The office of Bishop and Presbyters. Strictly preserved in the primitive Church.
But, in regard to the office of which we now treat, the bishop as well as the presbyters behoved to employ themselves in the administration of word and sacraments. For, at Alexandria only (as Arius had there troubled the Church), it was enacted, that no presbyter should deliver an address to the people, as Socrates says, Tripartit. Hist. Lib. 9. Jerome does not conceal his dissatisfaction with the enactment (Hieron. Epist. ad Evagr.). It certainly would have been deemed monstrous for one to give himself out as a bishop, and yet not show himself a true bishop by his conduct. Such, then, was the strictness of those times, that all ministers were obliged to fulfil the office as the Lord requires of them. Nor do I refer to the practice of one age only, since not even in the time of Gregory, when the Church had almost fallen (certainly had greatly degenerated from ancient purity), would any bishop have been tolerated who abstained from preaching. In some part of his twenty-fourth Epistle he says, “The priest dies when no sound is heard from him: for he calls forth the wrath of the unseen Judge against him if he walks without the sound of preaching.” Elsewhere he says, “When Paul testifies that he is pure from the blood of all men (Acts 20:26), by his words, we, who are called priests, are charged, are arraigned, are shown to be guilty, since to those sins which we have of our own we add the deaths of other men, for we commit murder as often as lukewarm and silent we see them daily going to destruction” (Gregor. Hom. in Ezek. 11:26 ). He calls himself and others silent when less assiduous in their work than they ought to be. Since he does not spare even those who did their duty partially, what think you would he do in the case of those who entirely neglected it? For a long time, therefore, it was regarded in the Church as the first duty of a bishop to feed the people by the word of God, or to edify the Church, in public and private, with sound doctrine.
No disagreement here . . .
4. Of Archbishops and Patriarchs. Very seldom used. For what end instituted. Hierarchy an improper name, and not used in Scripture.
As to the fact, that each province had an archbishop among the bishops (see chap. 7 sec. 15), and, moreover, that, in the Council of Nice, patriarchs were appointed to be superior to archbishops, in order and dignity, this was designed for the preservation of discipline, although, in treating of the subject here, it ought not to be omitted, that the practice was very rare. The chief reason for which these orders were instituted was, that if anything occurred in any church which could not well be explicated by a few, it might be referred to a provincial synod. If the magnitude or difficulty of the case demanded a larger discussion, patriarchs were employed along with synods, and from them there was no appeal except to a General Council.
But this is already clearly Catholic authority. Calvin does his best to minimize it, but it is unmistakable. Nor is it possible for him to be unaware that issues of orthodoxy are also involved, as St. Jerome alluded to, in my citation of his words, two sections above. Why, then, if this was early Church polity, does Calvin not seek to emulate it? I think it will be seen in due course that the reason is simply this: it clashes with his novel rule of faith: sola Scriptura and private judgment. When that innovation is introduced, an infallible Church, or at least one with binding, final authority, necessarily must be dispatched. It's like oil and water: they cannot coexist and be harmonious with each other.
To the government thus constituted some gave the name of Hierarchy—a name, in my opinion, improper, certainly one not used by Scripture.
Trinity doesn't appear in Scripture, either. The term is irrelevant. What matters is if the concept is present.
For the Holy Spirit designed to provide that no one should dream of primacy or domination in regard to the government of the Church.
Then it is quite odd that Petrine primacy is such a strong theme:
50 New Testament Proofs for Petrine Primacy and the PapacyBut if, disregarding the term, we look to the thing, we shall find that the ancient bishops had no wish to frame a form of church government different from that which God has prescribed in his word.
The Biblical, Primitive Papacy: St. Peter the "Rock": Scholarly Opinion (Mostly Protestant)
The Biblical, Primitive Papacy: St. Peter & the "Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven": Scholarly Opinion (Mostly Protestant) (+ Part II)
Inspired Prophets as a Biblical Analogy to Papal Infallibility
That's right. And this government was hierarchical, episcopal, and papal. Calvin can't force the historical reality into being something other than it actually was. The fact is that he is in radical dissent from early, patristic, medieval, and Catholic ecclesiology. He can pretend all he wants that this is not the case, but the historical facts contradict him at every turn. This is especially the case with regard to the papacy. Protestant historian J. N. D. Kelly makes it abundantly clear that Roman primacy was quite evident in the early Church:
Everywhere, in the East no less than the West, Rome enjoyed a special prestige, as is indicated by the precedence accorded without question to it. . . . Thus Rome's preeminance remained undisputed in the patristic period. For evidence of it the student need only recall the leading position claimed as a matter of course by the popes, and freely conceded to them, at the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). We even find the fifth-century historians Socrates and Sozomen concluding . . . that it was unconstitutional for synods to be held without the Roman pontiff being invited or for decisions to be taken without his concurrence. At the outbreak of the Christological controversy, it will be remembered, both Nestorius and Cyril hastened to bring their cases to Rome, the latter declaring that the ancient custom of the churches constrained him to communicate matters of such weight to the Pope and to seek his advice before acting. In one of his sermons he goes so far as to salute Celestine as 'the archbishop of the whole world' . . . It goes without saying that Augustine [c. 354 - 430 AD] identifies the Church with the universal Catholic Church of his day, with its hierarchy and sacraments, and with its centre at Rome . . . By the middle of the fifth century the Roman church had established, de jure as well as de facto, a position of primacy in the West, and the papal claims to supremacy over all bishops of Christendom had been formulated in precise terms. . . . The student tracing the history of the times, particularly of the Arian, Donatist, Pelagian and Christological controversies, cannot fail to be impressed by the skill and persistence with which the Holy See [of Rome] was continually advancing and consolidating its claims. Since its occupant was accepted as the successor of St. Peter, and prince of the apostles, it was easy to draw the inference that the unique authority which Rome in fact enjoyed, and which the popes saw concentrated in their persons and their office, was no more than the fulfilment of the divine plan.
(Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row, fifth revised edition, 1978, 406-407, 413, 417)