In God's School

We learn and grow, are challenged, and grow, take a step backwards, receive strength from God, and begin to grow again.  This sounds like seminary life to me.

At the Wheaton Theology Conference in April, “The People’s Book: The Bible in the Reformation,” I was pleased to learn that this was John Calvin’s concept of the Church.  Dr. Randall Zachman (professor of Reformation Studies at Notre Dame) said that Calvin was moved by the idea that the church is “God’s School.”  Christians live together, and learn together with God as teacher.  Pastors teach God’s ways, his gospel, his Word, his Christ. But Zachman went a step further: for Calvin, “the students become teachers and the teachers become students.”  This simple, and somewhat obvious thought got me thinking—people grow, mature, and grow some more.  Everyone does.  Why?  Because God is teaching us all.  We are all brothers and sisters, and we have one teacher, “the Christ” (see Matthew 23:9-10).

Zachman tied this in to Calvin’s concern about church authority.  “There is never to be unaccountable authority anywhere.”  Calvin would never have a church in which a person who exercises authority is not accountable to those whom he serves.  He argued against the practice of a priest hearing private confession where church discipline is at stake.  (It bred a culture of secrecy, one ripe for abuse.)  Of course, pastors may and must assure believers in private conversation.  But if there is a question about one’s standing before God, there must be the “safety of numbers” (Proverbs 11:14).  Frightening as it is to us, if we ever have to “appear” before a body of elders, it is much safer.  The sun shines in. 

In Geneva the elders dealt with all manner of basic pastoral problems.  (See Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church).  But when anyone was accused of sin, the very first question the elders asked was, “do you know why you are here?”  Today, we still have the written minutes of the “consistory” (elders’ meetings) of Geneva.

This is a rather different picture than what we may envision of John Calvin.  Wasn’t he the authoritarian tyrant of Geneva?  As a matter of fact, he was not.  He established regular pastors’ meetings where the brothers would question each other, and encourage each other.  He was the leader, but he participated as an equal.  No one received pride of place, why?  Because the church is God’s church.  The Bible is God’s Word.  The people are God’s people.  The Bible is the people’s book.  And God’s purpose is that all grow in his rich grace.  That sounds like a very good model of Seminary life too.

Howard Griffith, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

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