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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Was John Calvin Ordained?

Recently I heard an assertion I have heard once before, that John Calvin had never been ordained. I pondered this possibility and wondered if it was true. And if it was true, how could Calvin have been consistent with his doctrines of ordination, & the ministry of the Word and Sacraments?

Therefore, I embarked on a bit of a cyber-excursion, and found a few items worth pondering, and reasoning with.

“After some hesitation, Calvin agreed and took the office in Geneva of “reader” (lector) of Holy Scripture. Calvin began his activity with lectures on the letters of Paul. He also participated in the Lausanne Disputation in October, 1536, between reform theologians and those faithful to Rome. The latter must have felt defeated when Calvin, quoting patristic texts from memory, refuted the allegation that the “evangelicals” disregarded the teaching of the church fathers about the Last Supper. [...] On the other hand, Calvin was able to see that the sacrament of ordination – especially as it was connected at the time one-sidedly to the priestly function of sacrifice – was not an indispensable requirement for serving God’s Word and leading the community. Calvin himself never wanted to be an ordained pastor, even though he knew he was called to the pastoral office through the Word and sacrament as the content of his reform activities. This interpretation is also consistent with the theological viewpoint that distinguishes all the writings of Calvin: the exact determination of the ontological status of a person or a thing is not crucial, but rather its function under the working of God’s Spirit is key.” The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin - Edited by Donald K. McKim; Cambridge University Press [Emphasis mine - MWP].

From the above excerpt, it appears that if Calvin was ever ordained, he did so grudgingly. This doesn’t preclude him from having been ordained, because not wanting to be a pastor, and not being ordained are not the same thing. But his initial reaction to ordination was reluctance.

“After much persuasion in 1536, Calvin became a leader of Geneva's first group of Protestant pastors, even though he was probably never ordained a priest. In 1538, Calvin and some of the other Protestant pastors were banished for their strict doctrines. While Calvin was banished from Geneva he became the pastor of a French refugee Protestant church in Strasbourg, Germany. There he met Martin Baucer who greatly influenced him. Calvin adapted many of Baucer's ideas on church government and worship.”‑calvin.php (Emphasis mine - MWP)

Calvin was never ordained as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Though controverted by some, it does seem from other sources that he was appointed as a sub-deacon for a period of time. But be that as it may, notice that he was the pastor of the church in Strasbourg. Though we are never told if there was any ceremony, still there was some kind of appointment (ordination) to the office. Calvin’s silence may have been only out of modesty.

“Calvin at first declined (G. Farel’s offer), alleging as an excuse his need of securing more time for personal improvement, but ultimately, believing that he was divinely called to this task and that God had ‘stretched forth His hand upon me from on high to arrest me,’ he consented to remain at Geneva. He hurried to Basel, transacted some business, and returned to Geneva in August 1536. He at once began to expound the epistles of St Paul in the church of St Pierre, and after about a year was also elected preacher by the magistrates with the consent of the people, an office which he would not accept until it had been repeatedly pressed upon him. His services seem to have been rendered for some time gratuitously, for in February 1537 there is an entry in the city registers to the effect that six crowns had been voted to him, since he has as yet hardly received anything.” (Emphasis mine - MWP)

Here we see, then, that he was duly elected and called to office in the Church in Geneva. So the problem appears to be, NOT that Calvin wasn’t ordained, but that (1) he was never ordained a Priest in the Roman Catholic Church; (2) he never wanted to be a pastor; (3) very likely, due to his reluctance and modesty, he never made a big deal about the actual appointment/ordination.

All of this fits in with the high view he had of ordination, and the whole ministry of Word & Sacrament, which is laid out beautifully in his Institutes Book 4, Chapter 3, Sections 2-16. All of these sections are worth perusing, while asking the question: “How could Calvin have written these sections, unless he felt he had satisfied these Biblical requirements?”

The compendium of quotations above, my accompanying analysis, and my conclusion fits in well with Calvin’s own statements in Institutes 4.3.1o, where he wrote: “Now seeing that in the sacred assembly all things ought to be done decently and in order, (1 Cor. 14: 40,) there is nothing in which this ought to be more carefully observed than in settling government, irregularity in any respect being nowhere more perilous. Wherefore, lest restless and turbulent men should presumptuously push themselves forward to teach or rule, (an event which actually was to happen,) it was expressly provided that no one should assume a public office in the Church without a call, (Heb. 5: 4; Jer. 17: 16.) Therefore, if any one would be deemed a true minister at the Church, he must first be duly called; and, secondly, he must answer to his calling; that is, undertake and execute the office assigned to him.”

Lastly, notice the use of the plural in section 11, when he writes of ministers receiving the internal call: [...] “that we undertake the offered office neither from ambition nor avarice, nor any other selfish feeling, but a sincere fear of God and desire to edify the Church. This, as I have said, is indeed necessary for every one of us, if we would approve our ministry to God.”

In conclusion, it appears quit clearly that John Calvin was duly elected and called by the leaders and people of the Church, and though he was very reluctant, he answered the call and undertook the task to which he was appointed.


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matt boulter said...

I cannot help but object to your post by saying, "Yes, yes ... all well & good, but the fact remains that Calvin was never ordained a presbyter." Which is a real problem for Reformed Churches & Reformed ecclesiology, it seems to me.

Mike Philliber said...

Matt, as much as you may reject it (& I am assuming you reject it because it doesn't fit into your notion of Apostolic Succesion), Calvin was ordained. I emphasized he was never ordained a presbyter (priest) in the Roman Church, but the evidence is there, nonetheless, that he was ordained a presbyter (pastor) of the Reformed churches of Geneva & Strausborg. Cheers, Mike