Sin and the Calvinists: Morals Control and the Consistory in the Reformed Tradition

By Graham, W. Fred | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Sin and the Calvinists: Morals Control and the Consistory in the Reformed Tradition


Graham, W. Fred, The Catholic Historical Review


Sin and the Calvinists: Morals Control and the Consistory in the Reformed Tradition. Edited by Raymond A. Mentzer. [Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, Vol. XXXII.] (Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, Inc. 1994. Pp. ix, 206. $35.00.)

Mentzer, who teaches at Montana State University, has for a couple of decades been one of our best sources for the inner working of the French Huguenot churches. Central to French Reformed thought and practice was Calvin's famous "third use of the Law," as the guide and norm for the Christian life. Luther concentrated on the first two uses--driving the sinner to God's grace by realization that the Law was impossible to fulfill, and as the principle of order in the hands of the state. This meant that the Calvinists sought stronger means to edify and bring to maturity the simple and boisterous Christians who came into the Reformed churches, and that means was primarily the church Consistory or (in Scotland) the kirk Session. These consistories were ordinarily a mixed body of lay and clergy, usually made up of the pastors of an area together with elders, often elected by the people, but sometimes (as in Calvin's Geneva) selected from among their own number by the city council.

The study consists of six essays, each based on archival study of consistories hard at work reforming people's morals in the sixteenth century. Heinz Schilling and his students have been working the materials at Emden in East Friesland and the Dutch city of Groningen for a decade now, and he uses that material well in showing how church discipline contributed to the transformation of the institution of marriage in early modern Europe. Philippe Chareyre looks at the great difficulties the consistory at Nimes in France encountered in order to strengthen family ties and pacify congregations who were restive when ancient traditions were disturbed even if they had chosen to be Reformed, and thus to avoid festivities associated with local saints. The editor himself looks at the use of excommunication in ten French churches (including Nimes), especially "major excommunication," which not only denied persons Holy Communion, but also cut them off from Christian society. …

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