Molly Worthen on Mark Driscoll (and Calvin)

You should probably read Molly Worthen’s essay on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill (HT: Justin Taylor). I don’t know if she gets Driscoll right. If (that’s a big condition. It means if the condition isn’t met then what follows is irrelevant) what she says about how they practice discipline is true, however, I suggest they look into a Reformed church order. Reformed Churches do not practice discipline that way. It usually takes us a couple years before someone is actually excommunicated and shunning is an Anabaptist practice. We have local, regional, and national assemblies to hear appeals and to give advice on matters of discipline. In our polity, our consistory cannot proceed to the final steps of discipline without consulting the regional assembly of ministers and elders!

More to the point, she resurrects the worst caricatures of Calvin. I suppose her resuscitation of them a good reminder that we have to keep repeating the history. I admit, I don’t remember hearing or reading any story about Calvin making “a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness.”  As far as I know the polity in Geneva, he didn’t have that sort of authority. Typically the Consistory fined people. I’ve never seen any instances of this sort of discipline. If everyone who criticized Calvin in Geneva was made to do this there would have been no place to walk!

Update

As a follow-up, I admit that I don’t know much about Mark Driscoll. As a historian I’m generally much more interested in dead people than the living. I do think, however, that the R&R folks need to dig a little more deeply into the Reformed confession. We have a theology, a piety, and a practice. I’m glad that folk are enthused about aspects of the Reformation but welding those aspects to American revivalism and pietism and evangelicalism will probably create a monster. If these emerging/R&R guys want to be “Reformed” why don’t they identify themselves with the Reformed Churches? I have my guesses as to why not but it says something about folk who like Calvin’s soteriology but who reject his church.

Ms Worthen was kind enough to respond to a query about her about this passage:

The Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. [Benedict cites the Calvini Opera 21:21, 367, 370-77 and several secondary texts as evidence for this episode].

In fairness, Worthen has a word count and an editor so things get compressed. Nevertheless, this compressed account of Calvin’s authority in Geneva reinforces the old and false stereotypes about Calvin, Calvinism, and the Reformed Churches as inherently authoritarian and tyrannical.

Here’s the text of my reply:

Hi Molly,

I won’t detain you long.

Thanks for the quick reply and the lead. I appreciate the difficulties and compromises required by editors! You can imagine, however, that my concern is that the sort of shorthand you used feeds what P. E. Hughes called “the popular fantasy” of Calvin as tyrant of Geneva. Calvin was more refugee than tyrant. At any rate, church-state relations in Geneva were fluid and complex.

I have Benedict (Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed) in front of me (very good memory you have!) and on p. 103 he says,

“When Ameaux’s words found their way to Calvin, he demanded action from the council. It decided to have Ameaux apologize on bended knees to Calvin before the assembly of the Two Hundred, but this was not a public penance enough to suit the minister. He refused to present himself for the ceremony and was not satisfied until the council condemned Ameaux to process through the city, kneeling at every major square or intersection to proclaim his regret at having dishonored the Word of God, the magistrates, and the ministers.”

Yes, it happened because Calvin insisted, but technically it was the city council who effected the sentence and, more importantly, it was part of a metaphorically bloody political fight, dating to the mid-40s, over the direction of the city and the church. This was less about Calvin’s person than it was about the authority of the church to make ecclesiastical policy. Ameaux was a member of a party contesting the Consistory’s authority and especially Calvin’s. Benedict’s account, in this respect, is a little overdrawn. In a survey a certain amount of nuance goes by the boards.*

As to authoritarianism and Calvinism generally, there’s a serious argument, that Bruce Gordon, I, and others have advanced that Calvinism in the period was a religion of refugees not tyrants. After all no other group suffered more martyrs in that period than the Reformed.

As to Driscoll and Mars Hill, he would not be admitted as a member of most [confessional] Reformed Churches much less as a minister. He’s a typical evangelical religious entrepreneur, part of a long line of such going back to the 18th century, but he’s hardly Reformed. The Calvin-Driscoll link, in that respect, is quite tenuous.

Thanks for your time,

Best,

Scott

ps. I see Gordon has a biography of Calvin appearing in May. I expect it will be terrific.

*I should add that this followed a legal and an ecclesiastical case (Register of the Company of Pastors, 1.309-10) concerning Ameaux’s wife, so there was some history there. Further, Ameaux wasn’t just “some guy.” He was a member of the city council (i.e., a member of either the Petit Conseil or the Two Hundred, it’s not clear) and a leading member of the “Libertine” party seeking to discredit Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva. Pierre Ameaux was a businessman who manufactured playing cards. According to Bernard Cottret, Calvin, 187, “he was sentenced to make a circuit of the city, his head bare, a lighted torch in his hand.” This is a translation CO 21.377, Registres du Conseil 41, fol. 68.

Here is the text of the French:

Ameaulx. Ayans vheu le contenuz de ces responces par lesquelle nous appert que il a meschamment parle contre Dieu le magestral et M. Calvin ministre etc. comment amplement est conpensez voz que ce pays soyt vostre? il est a moy tenus en ces responces: Ordonne qui soyt conet a mes compagnyons et serez gouvernés par nous dampne a debvoyer fere le tour a la ville en chemise teste nue une torche allumee en sa maien et dempuys devant le tribunal venyr crie mercy a Dieu et a la justice les genoulx a terre confessant avoyer mal parle le condampnant aussy a tous despens et que la sentence soyt profere publiquement.

Surely it strikes us as severe today—It wasn’t for nothing that Calvin was called “The Accusative Case” by his fellow students—but remember the times and the context. See Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, 99. According to Parker, what was at stake was the authority of the Word. Was it a confusion of the two kingdoms for Calvin to demand civil penalties for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely! From the perspective of the 2 kingdoms, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Two Hundred.


This post first appeared in two parts, in 2009, on the Heidelblog.