Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Calvin and the English Episcopate, 1580-1610

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Calvin and the English Episcopate, 1580-1610

Article excerpt

When congregations in Geneva regulated and formalized their faith in the Geneva Confession of 1536, they stated their opposition to episcopal government.1 Confessional statements indebted to Calvin's writings and sometimes to his direct participation in the affairs of individual communities developed this opposition to episcopal jurisdiction. In Scodand, Lords of the Congregation declared that episcopacy was unscriptural and saw episcopacy as being an embodiment of incomplete reform.2 Theodore de Beze, a continental theologian, condemned the "domination" of die episcopate, a circumstance for which he could find no scriptural precedent.3 In England, John Knox gave a practical demonstration of these theological principles when he turned down Edward VI 's offer of the bishopric of Rochester.4 Calvin himself commented on the apostolic succession of the episcopacy as being "frivolous and plainly ridiculous."5

Yet Calvin's ideas on polity and church authority were refracted by his churchmen in divergent directions. An examination of a range of writings by two English churchmen, John Whitgift and Richard Bancroft, reveals a common logic to the influence that Calvin exerted on them and which underlay their approach to the impact of evangelical reform on episcopacy. This paper identifies Calvin's influence on the English episcopate and suggests insights about the presence of godly doctrines within rather than beyond the structures of the Church of England. In the 1570s the evangelical dieologian Theodore de Beze had spoken of "setting up the discipline of the Church of Geneva here in England."6 The writings of English archbishops from the 1580s subverted de Beze's intentions, as English prelates held that Calvin, dead for over twenty years (he died in 1564) had already expressed approval for the status quo of English church discipline.

Some early modern English bishops engaged actively with international Calvinist ecclesiology, including participating in the Synod of Dort, a major international gathering of Calvinist theologians. Under the Elizabedian regime, the episcopate functioned within a framework that some bishops claimed Calvin himself would have endorsed. John Whitgift, the archbishop of Canterbury (in office 1583-1604) published a series of tracts which defined the terms upon which Calvin approved of the English episcopate.8 His tracts dealt with a complex interplay of ideas relating to the privileges of the royal supremacy, the role of episcopacy as a force of spiritual authority, and the separation between bishops and civil rule.

Whitgift's successor, Richard Bancroft (in office 1604-1610) was an active opponent of clergy indebted to Calvin's writings. His modern biographer, Stuart Barton Babbage, suggests Bancroft was widely known as an opponent of Calvin's followers in England.9 Tracts by Bancroft including Davngerovs Positions and Proceedings, published and practised within this Hand were in some measure anti-Calvinist, but it is little recognized in modern scholarship that they also posited alternative interpretations of Calvin as endorsing rather than condemning episcopacy. Davngerovs Positions and Proceedings, while concerned with contemporary religious issues in England, looked back to the recent history of the Genevan consistory and illustrates Bancroft's processing of the history of Calvin's thought to show how it concurred with episcopal audiority. Whitgift and Bancroft merit attention together as they pursued a similar strategy in integrating Calvin with the English episcopate. They are not of course the only writers (or bishops) of this period to have argued that impeccably reformed authorities (not only Calvin, but Phillip Melanchthon, Beza, and others) approved of English episcopacy. Their appeal to Calvin, however, is distinguishable from many other writers of the same period by a shared preoccupation: the necessity to distinguish between Calvin's intentions for godly civil rule and the responsibilities of bishops. …

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