Book Review: Calvin’s Company of Pastors, by Scott Manetsch
Scott M. Manetsch. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church 1536-1609. Oxford University Press, 2013. 448 pps, $35.00.
The name John Calvin elicits all sorts of associations: great reformer, father of modern Protestantism, the Institutes. Or maybe for you, you think of things like negligent evangelist, ivory-tower theologian, cold predestinarian, father of automaton anthropology, a dead guy I’d rather read than meet, an academic who can’t possibly know what I deal with as a pastor.
Well, with Calvin’s Company of Pastors, Scott M. Manetsch has invested ten years to prove at least this latter group wrong.
LOTS TO LOVE, LITTLE TO LAMENT
There’s a lot to love and little to lament here. Manetsch has an admirable knack for putting painstaking research into enjoyable and even entertaining prose. The table of contents alone makes you salivate: Geneva and Her Reformation; The Company of Pastors; The Pastoral Vocation; Pastors and Their Households; Rhythms of Ministry; The Ministry of the Word; The Ministry of Moral Oversight; Pastors and Their Books; The Ministry of Pastoral Care.
In part, Manetsch wants to disprove the common misconception that Calvin and his posse were either ivory-tower types or ecclesiastical kingpins. He also wants to show how Calvin’s successors in Geneva both preserved his legacy and made changes to the way he left things when he died. That’s why he extends his treatment through 1609 even though Calvin died in 1564. This is the scholarly lacuna Manetsch ably fills, since “historians have never systematically studied the manner in which Calvin’s vision for preaching and pastoral care was implemented and modified by Geneva’s ministers during the final decades of the sixteenth century”(8).
He admits those modifications are “subtle” (10), and as you read through the book, you wonder if documenting those subtleties takes a back seat to painting a humanizing portrait of these pastors. The emphasis seems to fall on the implementation of the pastoral tradition more than its modification after Calvin’s death. In this sense, Manetsch may seek to bridge part of the gap between Calvin and the Calvinists that some scholarship might stretch, though much of that scholarship focuses on doctrine, whereas Manetsch traces practice.
Today’s young, restless, and reformed pastor may be inclined to lionize Calvin and his Geneva, and Manetsch himself remains more sympathetic than critical. But what emerges is a canvas of ministry in Geneva splotched with pastoral problems, personal disappointments, intramural conflicts, sin, and suffering—with both good and bad examples of how to handle each. Manetsch has researched this volume so meticulously that primary source material stuffs the endnotes, yet he’s chocked the main text so full of juicy quotes and anecdotes that the pages seem to turn themselves.
Still, his account is neither hagiography nor exposé. Rather, Manetsch presents these brothers as “men of enormous complexity who, even as they frequently displayed courageous commitment and unbending moral conviction, were subject to the the same moral frailties, pettiness, and pride that they so scrupulously attempted to correct in their parishioners” (10).
LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM CALVIN
Leadership lessons abound. Here’s a nibble. Early on, in 1542, Calvin confided to a friend: “Our other colleagues are more a hindrance than a help to us. They are proud and self-conceited, have no zeal, and less learning. But what is worst of all, I cannot trust them, even though I very much wish that I could” (39). Calvin’s not in the tower; he’s in the trenches, but when he looks around, his band of brothers is anything but.
Yet both Calvin and Beza labored to limit their own authority by sharing it with men who weren’t as gifted. Although “Calvin’s star was the brightest light and he was the unquestioned leader,” he nevertheless “routinely submitted to the collective will of his colleagues on daily matters” (62). And “one of Beza’s most notable political achievements was, paradoxically, to secure a method of shared leadership in Geneva’s church that effectively limited his own power” (65). Pastor, what are you doing to limit your own power?
It’s worth looking for a band of brothers like this to share the sacrifices and sorrows, to strategize for gospel growth, to sharpen your own skills, to get godly counsel, and especially to keep yourself accountable—even if that band of brothers is less than ideal. Calvin said, “The fewer discussions of doctrine we have together, the greater the danger of pernicious opinions. . . . Solitude leads to great abuse” (134).
As Calvin’s Company matured, they critiqued each other’s sermons, such that in 1563, Michael Cop finished preaching and said “I beg the brethren to whom God has given much greater gifts than me to supplement my deficiency, and I ask for assistance as each one is pleased to help me” (135). How’s that for inviting godly criticism?
PASTORAL PERSPECTIVE CENTURIES PAST
Good pastoral theology from the vantage point of centuries past provides a perspective check on the present, and Manetsch delivers. For example, we lament biblical illiteracy as if it just became a problem in the 1960’s, but “Marguerite Danelle, the wife of a pin maker, announced to the Consistory in 1561 that there were three commandments in the Law of God: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and . . . she could not remember the third” (271).
Disgruntled members are not new, either. The Company visited homes to pray, instruct, correct, counsel, comfort, and encourage (281). Yet they rarely received a warm welcome. Manetsch writes: “It was relatively common for townspeople to hide in their houses . . . when the minister and elder came to visit. . . . An armor polisher named Pierre Vanier mocked the minister and elder who visited him and quoted Scripture against them” (282). Such vignettes from yesteryear wake us from our western evangelical daydreams about “achieving” evangelical celebrity.
In fact, the suffering some of these guys endured makes you embarrassed that you’ve ever complained to your dear wife about what people have said or done to you. If you’re not physically getting dragged out of bed, having your property confiscated, and getting sued, as it went for Jean Gervais (142-143), then you might have it better than you realize.
When we read a straight-up biography of Calvin, we come away admiring the man, maybe even a bit inspired and humbled. But we also feel a little under the pile because we can’t possibly imitate him. So it helps that, in this book, Manetsch trains his camera not just on the inimitable Calvin, but on his company of pastors, who are much more . . . normal, like you and me.
Manetsch even provides a peek into a few of their family rooms. He writes, “Many had households that included a quiver full of children, a couple of student boarders, and at least one or two servants who needed to be clothed, fed, and instructed” (99). Or: “The salary of a countryside minister was roughly equivalent to the annual income of a cobbler’s assistant” (119). (Not the cobbler . . . his assistant.) Ultimately, “This God-intoxicated manner of life needed to be expressed within, and accommodated to, an everyday world full of leaky roofs, rising prices, critical neighbors, misbehaving children, sick spouses, and modest wages” (121-122).
If you’re looking for wistful nostalgia about a golden age of perfect pastors who engineered a New Jerusalem from the ground up, then off you go. You won’t find that here. Manetsch rightly refuses to hide the failures of what Calvin would have called “a true Christian commonwealth.” Even Calvin himself once complained, in a sermon no less, that attendance disappointed him. “If there be one day in the week reserved for religious instruction when they have spent six days in their own business, they are apt to spend the day which is set apart for worship, in play and pastime; some rove about in the fields, others go to taverns to quaff; and there are undoubtedly at this time as many at the last mentioned place, as we here assembled in the name of God” (131). In some ways, Calvin’s Geneva was a hot mess, and he knew it, which may serve as an oblique corrective to the modern Reconstructionist impulse.
Brother, there’s encouragement and wisdom waiting for you here in this volume. If you’re the suspicious type asking “can anything good come from Oxford?” then you’ll be glad to know that Manetsch faithfully includes a crystalline gospel summary that spans a couple pages (75-76). This book deserves to become required reading in pastoral theology classes. I’d especially like to see it sneak onto the nightstands of weary pastors vexed with local church problems so complex that you’d have a hard time making them up if they didn’t actually happen. It’d be a great pastoral internship assignment, and I’ve already suggested it as one of the next books for us to read in the local ministerium I attend.
At $35, it’s not quite cheap, but hey, neither was your iPhone. Despite the “prestigious” publisher, this is a pastoral book; and if you’re a faithful but discouraged pastor, it’s especially for you, because it proves you’re in good, well, company.