Calvin’s Company of Pastors by Scott M. Manetsch: A Review Article

Glen J. Clary

Ordained Servant: March 2015

Church Membership

Also in this issue

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Ordinary by Michael Horton

On the Brink by Clay Werner

The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham

The Common Offering

Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536–1609, by Scott M. Manetsch. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 428 pages, $74.00.

Scott Manetsch has done a tremendous service to the church by providing a detailed account of pastoral ministry in Geneva from 1536 (the year of Geneva’s political and religious revolution) to the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century. Calvin’s Company of Pastors is brimming with scholarly research that considerably advances our knowledge of religious life in Geneva during these crucial years of the formation and maturation of the Reformed church. Both the academy and the church will benefit from this work, which was clearly the author’s aim.

Manetsch distills essential pastoral lessons from his research and suggests various applications to the modern church. Without any romantic notions of recovering and reliving the glory days of Calvin’s “perfect school of Christ,” Manetsch urges Protestant churches to renew their commitment to the theological vision of the Company of Pastors for the sake of the health and wellbeing of the church. I will have more to say about this at the end of the review.

The central purpose of the book, writes Manetsch, is “to examine the pastoral theology and practical ministry activities of [the] cadre of men who served as pastors in Geneva’s churches during nearly three-quarters of a century from 1536 to 1609” (2). In so doing, Manetsch hopes to “to trace out in detail Calvin’s pastoral legacy and the efforts of his successors on the Venerable Company who were committed to preserving it” (8). By using the Reformers’ own writings; the registers of the city council, the Company of Pastors and the Consistory; and other archival material, Manetsch is able to create a rich mosaic of the color and texture of “religious life in early modern Geneva, offering intriguing insights into some of the particular difficulties, dilemmas, and demands that Geneva’s pastors encountered as they proclaimed the Word of God and shepherded their Christian flock” (2).

The book is divided into two sections. Part One (chapters 1–5) “explores the history and nature of the pastoral office and details the personnel who belonged to the pastoral company from 1536 to 1609” (9). Here one finds intriguing information about the pastors’ family relationships, their financial conditions, and the general rhythm of pastoral work in the three city churches and in the dozen countryside parishes surrounding the city.

Part Two (chapters 6–9) examines in more detail the specific duties of Geneva’s pastors including preaching, church discipline, writing books, and providing pastoral care to their members through the sacraments, catechesis, visitation, and spiritual consolation. The members of the Venerable Company conducted worship, preached the Word, baptized infants, catechized children, examined youth for admission to the Lord’s Table, conducted household visitations, comforted the sick, and consoled people preparing to die (306). In their weekly consistory meetings, they also endeavored to apply the “medicine” of “church discipline in the hopes of achieving repentance, healed relationships, Christian understanding, and spiritual growth” (306).

The Company of Pastors consisted of eight to ten ministers from the three city parishes, four professors from the Genevan Academy, and another ten to eleven ministers “who served the small parish churches in the surrounding villages under Geneva’s jurisdiction” (2). During the 1540s,

Calvin organized this group of ministers into a formal church institution known as the Company of Pastors [or the Venerable Company] which met every Friday morning to examine candidates for ministry and discuss the theological and practical business of the church, both locally and internationally. (2)

[B]y the final years of his life, Calvin had succeeded in creating a pastoral company in Geneva that was intensely committed both to the reformed faith and to his theological leadership. More than simply the architect and recognized leader of the church, Calvin had become both a theological guide and a spiritual father to many of Geneva’s ministers. (300)

From the beginning of Geneva’s reformation in 1536 to the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century, more than 130 men belonged to the Venerable Company. The overwhelming majority of them were French refugees, and most of them “have received little scholarly attention and are all but forgotten” (2). Next to Calvin, the most well-known member of the Company is Theodore Beza, who succeeded Calvin as the recognized leader of the group and perpetuated Calvin’s theological legacy. The ministers of Geneva (including Calvin and Beza) recognized and advocated parity of ministerial office, though Calvin and Beza were clearly the most influential members of the Company.

Though, in principle, all of Geneva’s ministers possessed equal authority within the church, in point of fact Calvin’s star was the brightest light in Geneva’s ecclesiastical firmament during his pastoral career, serving as moderator of the Company until shortly before his death in 1564 without election or serious discussion. (62)

At the same time, “Calvin’s authority within the Company was never absolute, and he routinely submitted to the collective will of his colleagues on daily matters of lesser importance” (62). Calvin’s Company of Pastors “was never Calvin’s per se” (63).

After Calvin’s death, Beza persuaded the Company to choose its moderator by an annual election to “protect the church” from “ambitious men who might aspire to become perpetual bishops” (63). The Company elected Beza as moderator for a one-year term and reelected him each year for the next sixteen years (63). The civil magistrates would have had Beza continue as moderator permanently because they found him easy to work with, unlike some of the other ministers, including Calvin, who lacked Beza’s irenic spirit and political wisdom. “Whereas Calvin by temperament had been brilliant, uncompromising, independent, and decisive, Beza was more cultured, sympathetic, collaborative, and politically astute” (63). Under Beza’s leadership, the Company enjoyed “a more constructive, less combative, relationship with Geneva’s magistrates” (64). This did not always sit well with certain pastors who had a more prophetic edge to their preaching and who often criticized the magistrates from the pulpit.

On April 28, 1564, as Calvin lay dying of tuberculosis, he summoned the Venerable Company to his residence to give them final instructions (1). He warned them “to be on guard against all religious innovation in the future” (1). Calvin begged them to “change nothing” and to “avoid innovation” not because he was “ambitious to preserve” his own work but because “all changes are dangerous, and sometimes even harmful,” explained Calvin (1). The Company of Pastors was eager to defend and preserve Calvin’s theological vision and over the next four decades successfully resisted “efforts to modify church doctrine and practice” (301). One of Manetsch’s goals is to explore “the degree to which Geneva’s ministers after Calvin obeyed his admonition to ‘change nothing’ ” (3).

Manetsch demonstrates that “no change was permitted [by the Company] to Geneva’s public theology as expressed in the Confession of Faith and Calvin’s Catechism” and that “though revisions to Geneva’s liturgy and practice of worship were sometimes proposed, they were rarely adopted” (301). The Company even resisted changes to homiletical forms that deviated from Calvin’s unadorned style of preaching. Thus, Beza and his colleagues were defenders and preservers of Calvin’s theological, liturgical, and homiletical legacy.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to see them as mindless imitators of Calvin. They did, in fact, introduce some changes in custom to religious life in Geneva, but those changes were in keeping with Calvin’s theology. They were more than mere defenders and preservers of an established tradition, for they endeavored to work out the practical implications of Calvin’s theology for ecclesial ministry. They were, as Manetsch put it, “more consistent than Calvin himself in working out the practical entailments of the reformer’s pastoral theology” (301). Manetsch writes:

[R]eligious life in Geneva and the texture of pastoral ministry did change during the generation after Calvin due to a variety of political, religious, social, and polemical factors. In some cases, Geneva’s magistrates forced religious change upon the Company of Pastors through negotiation, or even intimidation, in an effort to extend their jurisdiction over church policy in the city. On other occasions, reforms were initiated by the ministers themselves, as they attempted to work out the implications of Calvin’s ecclesial program and theology in the face of new religious contexts and challenges. Even if Calvin’s legacy loomed large over Geneva’s church throughout the period, the theory and practice of pastoral ministry changed in subtle ways during the half century after Calvin’s death in 1564. (3)

The first wave of Reformed pastors in Geneva consisted mostly of foreigners who received their theological education in other parts of Europe, but after the founding of the Genevan Academy in 1559, the majority of Geneva’s pastors “received at least part of their theological training in Geneva where, in addition to studying reformed doctrine at the feet of Calvin and Beza, they were shaped by a common religious culture that included daily preaching services, academic disputations, and rigorous moral discipline” (300). To maintain unity in theology, liturgy, and polity, all ministers were required to subscribe to Calvin’s Confession of Faith, Calvin’s Catechism, and the Ecclesiastical Ordinances and to follow Calvin’s liturgy. Even Calvin’s Institutes was eventually given quasi-confessional status (75, 300).

Each Friday morning, the pastors met to study Scripture together in a meeting called the Congregation. One of the ministers would read a selected passage of Scripture in its original language, translate it into French, and give an exposition of the text. The other ministers would then evaluate his exegesis and discuss the theology related to the passage. Thus, the Congregation “served to regularize the ministers’ interpretation of Scripture” and “forged a common theological outlook” among them (300, 305). Calvin and his colleagues believed that biblical interpretation and theological development should take place in community. Calvin even used the weekly Congregation to vet his interpretation of Scripture before publishing his commentaries on the books of the Bible. Thus, Calvin’s commentaries do not represent his own private interpretation of Scripture, but the interpretation that was hammered out by the Venerable Company as they met in the weekly Congregation.

The Company also participated in a quarterly meeting known as the Ordinary Censure, which was tied to the quarterly celebration of Holy Communion.

Four times a year, on the Friday before the Lord’s Supper, the ministers of the city and countryside, and professors from the Academy met behind closed doors to air their grievances and offer fraternal correction on matters of doctrine and personal moral character. As a visible sign of their unity, the ministers concluded the Ordinary Censure by sharing a meal of soup together. (128)

Just as the Congregation promoted collegiality and unity in theology and biblical interpretation, the Ordinary Censure promoted collegiality and unity in ministry by “providing a regular venue for Geneva’s ministers to air doctrinal disagreements and address interpersonal conflicts” (305). Thus, each member of the Venerable Company was accountable to the Company as a whole, just as the members of the church were accountable to the Consistory, which met every Thursday at noon “for the purpose of overseeing public morality and doctrine, and admonishing and disciplining people guilty of flagrant sin” (29).

Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances established the office of lay elder. And the civil magistrates held an annual election to choose twelve men “from among the three levels of Geneva’s civil government: two from the Small Council, four from the Council of 60, and six from the Council of 200” (29) to serve as elders on the Consistory for a one-year term. Thus, the Consistory was made up of these twelve elders (who were civil magistrates) plus the city pastors. The Consistory had “no power to impose corporal punishment; it had authority to wield only ‘the spiritual sword of the Word of God’ ” (29). The ecclesiastical discipline carried out by the Consistory was “intended to serve as a form of pastoral care, administering spiritual ‘medicine to bring sinners back to our Lord’ ” (29).

The fact that more than half of the members of the Consistory were councilmen chosen by the magistrates is indicative of the close relationship between church and state in Geneva. One of the biggest battles Calvin faced in Geneva was over the balance of power between church and state. After Calvin’s death, Beza was able to relieve some of this tension, but it was not uncommon for conflicts between the Company and the magistrates to flare up during the remainder of the sixteenth century, usually due to the overreach of the magistrates in governing ecclesial affairs. Soon after Beza’s departure, the magistrates “commenced an aggressive campaign to expand their jurisdiction over religious life” (303). They insisted on having the right to appoint ministers to vacant pulpits rather than allowing the Company to choose new ministers. The magistrates even went so far as to reverse the Consistory’s excommunication of certain members “effectively breaking the Consistory’s monopoly over church discipline—a prerogative that Calvin had worked so hard to achieve fifty years earlier” (303).

Manetsch does a superb job of demonstrating that preaching was the primary task of Geneva’s pastors. On Sundays and Wednesdays, the sermon was part of the full service of worship outlined in the Genevan Psalter. On the other days of the week, the sermon was not accompanied by the Psalter or the long prayers of confession and intercession in Calvin’s liturgy. The average city pastor preached around 250 sermons per year. New Testament books and the Psalms were preached at the morning and evening services on the Lord’s Day (catechetical sermons at the noon service), and Old Testament books were preached on weekdays. Preaching was always lectio continua except during Christmas or Easter when ministers sometimes interrupted their series “to preach weekday sermons from gospel texts related to Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection” (151).

Manetsch also covers other aspects of pastoral ministry including baptism, prayer, catechesis, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, and home visitation. I was particularly impressed by how much emphasis the Company placed on the necessity of pastoral visitation. For example, Beza said:

It is not only necessary that [a pastor] have a general knowledge of his flock, but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick. . . . In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd. (281)

Manetsch concludes the book by endeavoring to glean some insights from his study of the Company of Pastors for ecclesial ministry today. First, he observes that since pastoral ministry is often a difficult vocation that entails heavy workloads, financial constraints, incessant criticism, congregational apathy, and various other hardships, to be an effective pastor requires “courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith” (304–5).

Second, Manetsch agrees with the Company of Pastors that no minister should hold preeminence in the church but that all ministers should be accountable to the collective judgment of their colleagues (305). Collegiality and mutual accountability in pastoral ministry is beneficial both for the ministers and for the church as a whole. The church would benefit from having a culture where ministers depended on one another, learned from one another, were subject to one another, and forgave one another (305). This is one of the great insights of the Venerable Company that we seek to embody in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. We agree with Manetsch that “Contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church” (305).

Third, Manetsch urges the modern church to recover the primacy and centrality of the Holy Scriptures in worship and in Christian living. The “path to spiritual renewal for moribund churches and tired saints in the twentieth-first century involves, at least in part, recovering the central place of Scripture in the church’s ministry” (306). Since the role of preaching played such a prominent role in Manetsch’s treatment of the Company of Pastors, I think he could have developed this third application a bit more. It would have been especially encouraging to see him argue for a recovery of Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture as well as his theology of preaching, as the path to ecclesiastical renewal.

Finally, Manetsch urges the church to recover the practice of pastoral care, which the Venerable Company valued so highly. The wholehearted commitment of pastors to personally shepherd each member of the flock from cradle to grave is a glaring omission in current pastoral ministry. Manetsch writes, “in our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears especially relevant and important” (306).

In Calvin’s Company of Pastors, Manetsch does a superb job of describing pastoral ministry and religious life in Geneva from 1536 to 1609. His scholarship is first-rate. One rarely finds such meticulous research in a book that’s so engaging and enjoyable to read. I was happy to discover that Manetsch encourages his readers to consider the vital lessons that one may learn from the Company of Pastors and apply them to pastoral ministry in our day. The application section of the book, however, is pretty weak and needs to be fleshed out considerably. It is left to the reader to struggle with how to apply the numerous insights into pastoral ministry to his own ministry context. I strongly encourage all ministers and elders in the OPC to study Calvin’s Company of Pastors and consider areas of ministry in their local churches and presbyteries that might be enhanced by recovering the Reformed customs and traditions of the Venerable Company.

Glen J. Clary is associate pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Pflugerville, Texas.

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Ordained Servant: March 2015

Church Membership

Also in this issue

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Ordinary by Michael Horton

On the Brink by Clay Werner

The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham

The Common Offering


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