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An Unusual Encounter

The following fictive scenario is indebted to Tony Woodlief’s piece, “Election,” found in Image (Summer 2012, 74). It is also the result of the special kind of sleep deprivation that other first time parents know so well.

Last Friday afternoon, I was experimenting with Pandora stations under the pretext of working on my sermon. Suddenly, a church bell rang three times, which was very odd because the church I serve does not have a belfry. Then I heard a shuffling of footsteps down the hall, coming closer and closer.

A man strode purposely into my office. I noticed his funny looking black shoes, which had buckles across the top and looked positively ancient. He wore a three-quarter length cape around his skinny frame and had a long, long beard like ZZ Top. On top of his head perched a strange, three-cornered hat. I looked into his eyes, which smoldered with intelligence, and realized that he, too, was sizing up me.

“Yes sir, um, may I help you?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew this man from somewhere. Perhaps a presbytery meeting? Was he a guest lecturer at the seminary?

“Are you the minister of the Word at this church?” He spoke with a French accent, very unusual for the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

“Yes, I am Rev. Taylor-Troutman. Please call me Andrew.”

“My name is Jean Calvin. You can call me John.”

“Oh my God!” Calvin narrowed his eyes at me. “I mean, oh my goodness!”

“Perhaps you heard of me, no? I am a lawyer by training, and a theologian by practice. I’ve written many books. Have you heard of the most important one?”

“Of course I have heard of you!” I exclaimed, a little too eagerly. Quickly I swiveled around in my desk chair to the bookshelf behind me and, after a brief and frantic search, pulled down my two volumes of Institutes of the Christian Religion. When I placed the heavy books on my desk, a dust cloud powdered up from the covers, clearly visible through the sunlight streaming through my window. I smiled sheepishly. Calvin grimly tightened his lips.

“I am here because it has come to my attention that many unlettered men in your society do not notice how great a difference and unlikeness there is between ecclesiastical and civil power.”

I blinked at him uncomprehendingly. Calvin sighed.

“I believe your Thomas Jefferson spoke of the separation of church and state . . .”

“Ah yes, I’m with you now! It’s true; we just had a national election in which this issue was very important.” I nodded in what I hoped was a sagacious fashion and waved my hand to clear the dust from the air.

“Let us begin here,” Calvin clasped his hands behind his back and began rocking slightly back and forth, “Undoubtedly evinced from many clear proofs of scripture, the church does not have the right of the sword.”

“Huh?”

“I speak of the power to punish or compel, the authority to force, imprisonment, and the other punishments which the magistrate commonly inflicts.”

“Oh sure,” I added, “That power of the sword.” I think Calvin may have rolled his eyes.

“So then, the church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate. But shall the church stop there?”

I hoped that was a rhetorical question and remained silent. Calvin resumed his rocking back and forth.

“Suppose a man is drunk. In a well-ordered city, imprisonment will be the penalty. So will the laws, the magistrate, and outward justice be satisfied. Yet he may happen to show no sign of repentance, but, rather, murmur or grumble . . .”

“Complaining of a hangover,” I quipped. Calvin’s glare told me not to do that again.

“So the minister of the Word, in turn, ought to help the magistrate in order that not so many may sin. Their functions ought to be so joined that each serves to help, not hinder, the other. They must have a mutual obligation to bond for the glory of God.”

“Well, I think you have a good idea there, but as we say around here, ‘The devil is in the details.’”

“I do not see the profit of your expression,” he intoned, “Details, as with all of creation, are manifestly part of God’s sovereignty.”

“Ah, well, you see, some of our magistrates, called politicians, want to use their, um, power of the sword to bend the will of people towards the views of their church.”

“This cannot be. As Ambrose wrote, ‘A good emperor is within the church, not over the church.’”

“Does this Ambrose have a blog? I’m kidding, only joking with you . . .”

“The state of affairs in your country is no laughing matter! It behooves us to identify the abuse of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, in order that we may know what is to be abrogated and what of antiquity is to be restored.”

“Okay, okay; go on.”

“First, this is the aim of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: that offenses be resisted, and any scandal that has arisen be wiped out. In its use two things ought to be taken into account: that this spiritual power be completely separated from the right of the sword; secondly, that is be administered not by the decision of one man but by a lawful assembly. Both of these were observed when the church was purer, as in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5.”

“But John, other people would say that the church should direct the affairs of the state, and that it is the duty of ministers to point this out. Last Sunday, some preachers were telling their congregation to ‘Vote the Bible!’”

“I do not blame the individual faults of men, but the common crime of the whole order of priests, the veritable plague, since it is thought to be mutilated unless it be decked out with opulence and proud titles.”

“Whoa, say that again, in English, please.”

Calvin gazed at me in silent confusion, or judgment, or both. “I was speaking in English.”

“I mean, can you make yourself clearer?”

“Humility, Andrew, pure and simple. If we seek the authority of Christ in this matter, there is no doubt that he wished to bar the ministers of his Word from civil rule and earthly authority when he said, ‘The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . but you do not do so,’ for the church does not have the power to coerce, and ought not to seek it.”

I tried in vain to think of something to say.

“Let the ministers of the Word in your country know my position on this issue.”

With that, John Calvin spun around, cape snapping in the air, shoes emitting an audible clap, clap as he made his way down the hall and out of the church.

 

Author’s note: All quotes from Calvin are taken directly from Institutes . . . except, of course, when they are not.

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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