On Denominations as Provincial Councils
John Calvin writes about provincial councils in the context of the general councils of the whole church and their authority in his Institutes, Book Four, chapter nine.* These provincial councils, geographically limited expressions of the larger church, can help us understand the similarly limited nature of denominations in the church today.
Of the "ancient councils," the general ones, Calvin professes, "I venerate them from my heart, and I desire that they be honored by all" (IV.9.1). And yet, he is willing to be "rather severe" with them. "Here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ. Now it is Christ's right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity. But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit" (IV.9.1). That is to say, any teaching even of a general council falls under, and is overruled by, the higher authority of the Scriptures. And while the authority of councils rests in Christ's promise of his presence where two or three are gathered in his name, this qualifier of "his name" disqualifies all councils which take it upon themselves either to add to, or to take away from, his Word (IV.9.2).
Calvin elaborates for some pages on the problem of councils consisting of evil pastors, and he concludes from this that we certainly must not make the mistake of thinking that the church consists of its councils (IV.9.2-7). And while Calvin willingly embraces and reverences as holy some of the ancient and general councils, such as Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, and Chalcedon, "for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture" (IV.9.8), he goes on to show how subsequent councils have contradicted each other and were marred by serious human failings--even Nicaea suffered from accusations and "foul recriminations" flying back and forth among its participants and presented in writing to Emperor Constantine--so that Calvin finally infers this: "The Holy Spirit so governed the otherwise godly and holy councils as to allow something human to happen to them, lest we should put too much confidence in men" (IV.9.11).
This critique of general councils leads to Calvin's observation about provincial councils which is of interest today: "There is now no need to make separate mention of provincial councils, since it is easy to estimate from general councils how much authority they ought to have to frame articles of faith and to receive whatever doctrine pleases them" (IV.9.11). This is downright dismissive! What the church as a whole did poorly acting through its representative general councils, provincial churches did even more poorly acting through their merely provincial councils. And while it would be anachronistic to ask Calvin questions of our denominations as a way of structuring the life of the church, his lack of regard for provincial councils at least provides a point of entry for us to explore the question.
If today's denominations--typically defined by geography as well as by confessions and often limited by language, race, and class--if today's denominations can be understood to be a limited part of the church of Jesus Christ but not the whole of the church of Jesus Christ, should we not be as cautious of their status and of their decisions in our day as was Calvin of that of provincial councils in his day?
*John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. from the 1559 Latin ed. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., in Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), cited by book, chapter, and section.