A 19th-Century Consensus on the Spirituality of the Church

While Europeans were figuring out what to do with Edgardo Mortara, church law, and papal power, other parts of the Christian world (okay, Protestant) were also struggling to sort out the temporal and spiritual realms. In 1834 the Afscheiding rejected the Dutch ecclesiastical establishment and opted for a church free from the constraints of political compromise. (Of course, many of these Dutch Calvinists still wanted a return to the Dutch republic of Dort’s Synod’s fame.) A similar secession occurred among the Scots when in 1843 the Free Church abandoned the comforts of the Kirk for an ecclesiastical existence free from state control. (Of course, Thomas Chalmers was loathe to call this a voluntary church – despite the name “Free” – and repeatedly affirmed that the Free Church stood for the establishment principle; this meant that the Free Church still preferred ecclesiastical establishment but only on orthodox terms.) And then there was the case of the Old School Presbyterians, who had no ecclesiastical establishment to repudiate but did reject the blurring of nationalism and Presbyterianism on display among the New School Presbyterians. This rejection involved the doctrine of the spirituality of the church – the idea that the church is a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends.

In each of these cases, Reformed Protestants were coming to a clearer understanding of the church’s spiritual character thanks to the lessons taught by church entanglements with temporal power.

The Vatican, thanks to the case of Edgardo Mortara and a European consensus, needed also to come to grips with a church vacated of temporal power and limited to spiritual authority. Italian republicans attempted to their best efforts to teach this lesson to the papacy when in 1849 they drafted an Italian Constitution that included these articles:

1) The papacy’s rule and temporal power over the Roman State is declared over.

2) The Roman Pontiff will have all the guarantees necessary for his exercise of spiritual authority.

3) the form of the government of the Roman State will be pure democracy, and will take the glorious name of the Roman Republic. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 22)

What conservative Reformed Protetants adopted freely with some minor discomfort, the conservative papacy had imposed on it by European politics.


7 thoughts on “A 19th-Century Consensus on the Spirituality of the Church

  1. It’s worth bearing in mind that the Establishment principle of the Reformed churches is not a belief that the church should rule society, in a theocratic sense. Rather, it states that the church and the state each have their own competences, and neither shod interfere in the other. It is the duty of the state to uphold the established church, and to order society in a way conducive to the exercise of true religion (e.g. Sabbath observance). But the courts of the state are civil and do not have the authority to grant or bar access to the sacraments, for example; and the courts of the church don’t have the authority to put law breakers into prison.

    The church ruling over the civil government is the error of Popery; the civil government ruling over the church- what the Free Church and the seceders rebelled against- is the error of Erastianism.

    Whereas both the state and the church working in co-operation is the Establishment principle. Alas, today the only place we see this work out as it should is in marriage.

    This is the Establishmeny principle of the historic Reformation Church of Scotland, and it is still the principle taught by those who still hold to the historic Reformed principles and doctrines in Scotland.


  2. I should have said: marriage WAS the area where the principle operated as it should. Now, even that is all topsy turvy.


  3. Alexander, but this is simply a theory. It never worked out well. Hence the Covenanters, Seceders, Free Church. Why not give up and let the church be the church, say what the state will.


  4. Alexander – It is the duty of the state to uphold the established church, and to order society in a way conducive to the exercise of true religion (e.g. Sabbath observance).

    Erik – Interesting that the fourth commandment isn’t what animates most 21st century Neocalvinists & Theonomists.


  5. Dr. Hart: I agree that in practice this is not what happens, but the fact the government of the land neglects its duty is not a reason for the church to abandon a Biblical doctrine.

    Erik- I completely agree! Believe me, the Fourth Commandment (and the Second) is very much a primary concern of my church and all those Christians in Scotland who have an inkling of knowledge of spiritual things. I am no theonomist. Their apparent brazen disregard for the Sabbath exposes them for the snake oil salesmen they are.


  6. What conservative Reformed Protetants adopted freely with some minor discomfort, the conservative papacy had imposed on it by European politics.

    The papacy was a real temporal entity. “Conservative Protestantism” was never a coherent socio-political entity* unless you go back to Calvin’s Geneva.


    The interesting thing there–and we in the 21st century overlook, is that ecclesiastical courts also had jurisdiction over bad social behavior, a “theonomy” if you will, the second tablet of the Ten Commandements. The “spheres” of the Two Kingdoms were not delineated the same way they are today–the

    [Ecclesiastical] Ordinances provide two specific examples which the consistory would respond to because they clearly fall into the category of a spiritual issue: “If anyone is negligent to come to church in such a way that a serious contempt of the communion of Christians is apparent, or if anyone shows himself to be scornful of ecclesiastical order, he shall be admonished. . . .” Both of these examples may be classified as “religious” behavioral problems. Kingdon contends that the consistory in the early days gave much attention to religious deviations:

    In the beginning, particularly, it devoted much of its energy to wiping out vestiges of Roman Catholicism. It stopped such practices as the saying of traditional prayers in Latin. It punished those who left Geneva to receive Catholic sacraments. It complained of acts labelled “superstitious” to which Catholic authorities had not objected. For example, a number of Genevans were disciplined for going to a country spring to collect samples of water believed to have miraculous ability to cure certain diseases.

    The consistory in Calvin’s time (1542 to 1564) was also committed to dealing with “moral” behavioral problems. The consistory registers (as delineated by Kingdon, Monter, and Watt) show that the spiritual jurisdiction of the consistory embraced such moral aberrations as domestic quarrels, disagreements between neighbors, fornication and related sexual offenses, the sin of lying, stealing, vandalism, public insults to the pastors, rebelling against the authority of the consistory, and many other sins as well.78

    Having established that the jurisdiction of the Geneva consistory was spiritual, it remains to be demonstrated that it was in fact a church court, possessing the authority of summoning sinners before it, conducting trials, and censuring the guilty. The evidence shows that the Geneva consistory was, in Kingdon’s words, “a quasi-judicial body, whose members . . . were expected to function in part as judges.”

    WTJ 60:1 (Spring 1998) p. 58
    *Ibid, : As to Lutheranism, he writes, “In practically every one of these areas. . . . Lutheran attempts to establish ecclesiastical institutions of discipline failed . . . discipline, including all attempts at control of morals, remained the sole responsibility of secular governments in almost all Lutheran lands.”

    Zwinglian Christianity was quite similar. Kingdon cites the Repub lic of Bern, which favored the Zwinglian variety of Protestantism, as an example of a bastion of Protestant religion which opposed significant disciplinary power being given to church officers:

    Bern complained repeatedly about the way in which individual “children of Geneva” had been treated. And Bern made it absolutely clear that it did not want the principle of consistorial excommunication, which it felt undermined its own plenary powers to control law, to be adopted in any part of the territories under its control.

    Clearly, Calvin’s reform program in Geneva, featuring discipline at the hand of church officers, was exceptional in terms of Protestantism as a whole.


  7. Tom, why so Geneva-centric? Calvinism existed in other parts of the world and was much more variable which in some ways supports your point. But Geneva is not the test case that proves anything. The Germans, French, Dutch, Scots, English, Hungarians — not to mention Zurich, the birthplace of Reformed Protestantism — all made their contributions.

    Get over Geneva, bra.


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