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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

117 who had taught it to Farel


Calvin's

thought moved on another plane. He was distinguished among the Reformers for his zeal to restore again the conditions which had ruled in the Church of the first three centuries. This had been a favourite idea with Lefevre,[117] who had taught it to Farel, Gerard Roussel, and the other members of the "group of Meaux." Calvin may have received it from Roussel; but there is no need to suppose that it did not come to him quite independently. He had studied the Fathers of the first three centuries more diligently than any of his contemporaries. He recognised as none of them did that the Holy Supper of the Lord was the centre of the religious life of the Church, and the apex and crown of her worship. He saw how careful the Church of the first three centuries had been to protect the sacredness of the simple yet profound rite; and that it had done so by preventing the approach of all unworthy communicants. Discipline was the nerve of the early Church, and excommunication was the nerve of discipline; and Calvin wished to introduce both. Moreover, he knew that in the early Church it belonged to the membership and to the ministry to exercise discipline and to pronounce excommunication. He desired to reintroduce all these distinctive features of the Church of the first three centuries--weekly communion, discipline and excommunication exercised by the pastorate and the members. He recognised that when the people had been accustomed to come to the Lord's Table only once or twice in the year,
it was impossible to introduce weekly communion all at once. But he insisted that the warnings of St. Paul about unworthy communicants were so weighty that notorious sinners ought to be prevented from approaching the Holy Supper, and that the obstinately impenitent should be excommunicated. This and this alone was the distinctive thing about Calvin's proposals; this was the new conception which he introduced.

Calvin's mistake was that, while he believed that the membership and the pastorate should exercise discipline and excommunication, he also insisted that the secular power should enforce the censures of the Church. His ideas worked well in the French Church, a Church "under the cross," and in the same position as the Church of the early centuries. But the conception that the secular power ought to support with civil pains and penalties the disciplinary decisions of ecclesiastical Courts, must have produced a tyranny not unlike what had existed in the mediaeval Church. Calvin's ideas, however, were never accepted save nominally in any of the Swiss Churches--not even in Geneva. The very thought of excommunication in the hands of the Church was eminently distasteful to the Protestants of the sixteenth century; they had suffered too much from it as exercised by the Roman Catholic Church. Nor did it agree with the conceptions which the magistrates of the Swiss republics had of their own dignity, that they should be the servants of the ministry to carry out their sentences.[118] The leading Reformers in German Switzerland almost universally held that excommunication, if it ever ought to be practised, should be in the hands of the civil authorities.

Zwingli did not think that the Church should exercise the right of excommunication. He declared that the example of the first three centuries was not to be followed, because in these days the "Church could have no assistance from the Emperors, who were pagans"; whereas in Zurich there was a Christian magistracy, who could relieve the Church of what must be in any case a disagreeable duty. His successor, Bullinger, the principal adviser of the divines of the English Reformation, went further. Writing to Leo Jud (1532), he declares that excommunication ought not to belong to the Church, and that he doubts whether it should be exercised even by the secular authorities; and in a letter to a Romance pastor (Nov. 24th, 1543) he expounds his views about excommunication, and states how he differs from his _optimos fratres Gallos_ (Viret, Farel, and Calvin).[119] The German Swiss Reformers took the one side, and the French Swiss Reformers took the other; and the latter were all men who had learned to reverence the usages of the Church of the first three centuries, and desired to see its methods of ecclesiastical discipline restored.


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