Kingdom Coffers: Rabbit Trail on Government and Reformation

Yesterday, I concluded my post by promising to give you “more on the government’s ability to inhibit Reformation later . . . ” Well, it’s later. The following passage from the following book, coupled with the interesting historical summary on tithing in the Wikipedia entry I recommended yesterday, is the source of my thinking in yesterday’s post. Tell me what you think. For until someone gives me better info to correct my thinking, that’s what I’m going to think. Happy reading!

By Thomas M. Lindsay, D.D., LL. D. Principal, The United Free Church College, Glasgow, Scotland.


4. The Reformed Ideal of Ecclesiastical Government.

This similarity of published creed was the one positive bond which united all those Churches; but it may also be said that all of them, with the doubtful exception of the Church of England, would have nothing to do with the consistorial system of the Lutheran Churches, and that most of them accepted in theory at least Calvin’s conception of ecclesiastical government. They strove to get away from the medieval ideas of ecclesiastical rule, and to return to the principles which they believed to be laid down from them in the New Testament, illustrated by the conduct of the Church of the early centuries. The Church, according to Calvin, was a theocratic democracy, and the ultimate source of authority lay in the membership of the Christian community, inspired by the Presence of Christ promised to all His people.

But in the sixteenth century this conception was confronted and largely qualified in practice, by the dread that it might lead to a return to the clerical tutelage of the medieval Church from which they had just escaped. Presbyter might become priest writ large; and the leaders of the Reformation in many lands could see, as Zwingli did in Zurich and Cranmer in England, that the civil authorities might well represent the Christian democracy. Even Calvin in Geneva had to content himself with ecclesiastical ordinances which left the Church completely under the control of les tres honnores seigneurs syndicques et conseil de Geneve; and the Scottish “Supreme Governor of this realm as well in things temporal as in the conservation and purgation of religion.” The nations and principalities in Western Europe which had adopted and supported the Reformation believed that manifold abuses had arisen in the past, directly and indirectly, through the exemption of the Church and its possessions from secular control, and they were determined not to permit the possibility of a return to such a state of things.

The scholarship of the Renaissance had discovered the true text of the old Roman Civil Code, and one of the features of that time of transition–perhaps its most important and far-reaching feature, for law enters into every relation of human life–was the substitution of civil law based on the Codes of Justinian and Theodosius, for canon law based on the Decretum of Gratian. These old Roman codes taught the lawyers and statesmen of the sixteenth century to look upon the Church as a department of the State; and the thought that the Christian community had an independent life of its own, and that its guidance and discipline ought to be in the hands of office-bearers chosen by its membership, was everywhere confronted, modified, largely overthrown by the imperious claim of the civilian lawyers.

Ecclesiastical leaders within the Reformed Churches might strive as they liked to draw the line between the possessions of the church, which they willingly placed under the control of civil law, and its discipline in matters of faith and morals, which they declared to be the inalienable possession of the Church; but, as a rule, the State refused to perceive the distinction, and insisted in maintaining full control over the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Hence it came about that in every land where the secular authorities were favourable to the Reformation, the Church became more or less subject to the State; and this resulted in a large variety of ecclesiastical organisations in communities all belonging to the Reformed Church. While it may be said with perfect truth that the churchly ideal in the minds of the leaders in most of the Reformed Churches was to restore the theocratic democracy of the early centuries, and that this was a strong point of contrast between them and Luther, who insisted that the jus episcopale belonged to the civil magistrate, in practice the secular authorities in Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Palatinate, etc., kept almost as tight a hold on the Reformed national Churches as did the Lutheran princes and municipalities. In one land only, France, the ecclesiastical ideal of Calvin had full liberty to embody itself in a constitution, and that only because the French Reformed Church struggled into existence under the civil rule of a Romanist State, and, like the Christian Church of the early centuries, maintained itself in spite of the opposition of the secular authorities which persecuted it (pages 7-9).

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