Calvin: Who Run The Church?

Girls! Girls! I know this one. Calvin spends Book 4 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion expounding upon the proper structure of the church. We talked about it a bit last week, with his idea that the one unified church has a bunch of shitbags in its ranks. This week, he’s talking more specifically about the differing levels of authority held by different elements of the faith – that is, the authority of the Bible vs the authority of councils or individual pastors. What’s striking about it, to me, is the basic inoffensiveness of what he’s saying. That’s not like ‘haha he’s a shithead’ – I just think the strength of his view here has largely come to dominate our global understanding of the faith. We might disagree with him on whether certain groups are right or wrong on particular points of doctrine, but I can’t imagine any Christian questioning the hierarchy of authority that he lays out.

So this is Calvin’s thing. It’s the whole of the Reformation in one short little burst of text. The first authority is the Scripture. Everybody else, from councils to bishops to popes to fuckin whatever – the correctness of those figures hinges on their interpretation of the Scripture. It’s not that Calvin hates councils – as he says, “I venerate them from my heart” (4.9.1). But they have to interpret the Bible correctly. If they are interpreting it correctly, they are authoritative, and if they’re interpreting it incorrectly, they can fuck off. I don’t think anyone would really disagree with that. Even with the Catholics – they’re the ones you kinda expect to go in the hardest on the authority of the papacy, but I don’t believe that any Catholic would come out and tell you that the word of the papacy is somehow more important than what it says in the Bible. In that sense, Calvin’s kinda won. The Reformation has achieved its goal: the Bible is the supreme form of authority within global Christianity. There is of course still a great deal of debate about what the Bible means – that’s what I said earlier, different groups are obviously going to contest the meaning of the Bible, or even the identity of the most reliable interpreters of the Biblical text. I can imagine some Catholics arguing that the papal hierarchy are the most accurate interpreters because they carry the inheritance of Peter (and Calvin actually addresses that concern in 4.9.14). But I can’t imagine the Catholics arguing that the word of the papacy supersedes that of the Bible. The Reformation has been too successful: like it or not, the Catholics are Calvinized now.

There are a couple of points that hinge on that shift towards the Bible. First, there’s a really radical breakdown in the hierarchy of the church. When we start believing that a minister’s preaching can be judged against these external standards, we get saddled with the responsibility of knowing those external standards and holding the minister up to scrutiny. In other words, we end up responsible for reading the Scripture and coming to an understanding of who God actually is ourselves. The minister’s word is not good enough: at best, it’s maybe pretty accurate, and at worst, it’s a bastardisation of the Biblical text designed to lead you away from the truth. It’s interesting to relate that idea to a very familiar phenomenon in our 21st century capitalist hellscape; that is, ‘the customer is always right’. There might not be a direct genetic link, but if nothing else it’s interesting to think about the way in which market logic has infected our thinking. We can conceive of Calvin’s arguments in very straightforward market terms. We don’t know which interpretation is truly true, and everybody has to seek truth themselves, and a bunch of different truth-vendors are hawking their shit in the free marketplace of religion. Some vendors, like the ones I grew up with, lean heavily into the marketing side of things. Pop music, lights, disco ball, smoke machine, bubble machine – I actually saw one of those once, and, uhh – anyway. In that context, truth is a matter of market value. It’s not even something more traditional churches can get away from – if your church is traditional and several hundred years old, it’s just a different brand. It’s authenticity, history, wisdom accumulated over time. It still fits into a marketing framework.

The other thing we’re shifted towards is the holy book itself. When our knowledge of God hinges on His self-revelation in Scripture, the role of interpretation becomes enormously inflated. Our ability to interpret, to read, becomes the key to knowing God. It’s the great gift of the Reformation – a deep, spiritual, existential urgency attached to the literacy project. There’s relevance there to our society today too. Massive increases in the flow of information mean that we don’t have time to sift through everything as closely as we might like. Misinformation is running rampant, Australia’s still on fucking fire, and through all the government twaddle we’re left asking ourselves – do words even mean anything any more? All the facts, all the scientific research – how does that hold up against the spin doctors when they’re the fuckers with the biggest microphones? What is the power of the truthful word in the face of a morally compromised political leadership? Here I think Calvin offers us some solace – fuck me, that is not a sentence I thought I’d ever say.

“But the pope, with the whole crew of his bishops, for no other reason but because they are called pastors, shake off obedience to the word of God, invert all things, and turn them hither and thither at their pleasure … These stupid men understand not that they are just chiming in with those of ancient times who warred with the word of God.” (4.9.5)

The corrupt and evil have always existed. They have always laid claim to the mantle of truth, sometimes quite successfully. But the truth remains. Calvin and the Reformers made it accessible to everyone, in the hopes that it would dethrone a pack of fuckwits. That work is not yet completed. Fuckwits remain. And so we continue Calvin’s legacy. Read. Learn. Teach. Carry that legacy forward.

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