Calvin's Company of Pastors
May 6, 2016
Scott Manetsch, Calvin's Company of Pastors, Oxford University Press, 2013. 428 pp. HB: $75 PB: $30
Of all the books that I have read in preparation for ministry none have been able to claim the title of personal favorite, until I read Calvin's Company of Pastors. This book has been out for several years now, but, until recently, has been hidden behind an intimidating $75 price tag. That has changed with the release of a recent paperback publication. The reader should bear in mind that I am evaluating this book neither as a historian nor as an expert on Genevan history. Rather, I am offering this as a student on the verge of a life of pastoral ministry. As such, this book has meant a great deal to me. This review is an attempt to make the case for why I believe that this work should be required reading for seminarians, elders, and pastors everywhere.
During the period of the Reformation the city of Geneva became one of the most important centers of theological and pastoral development in the world. At that time, under John Calvin's leadership, the pastors (over 130 from the city and countryside surrounding Geneva) were gathered together into what was called the "Company of Pastors." Manetsch explains that the purpose of the Company was "to examine the pastoral theology and practical ministry activities of this cadre of men" (pg. 2). Over the course of about 300 pages (and about 120 pages of footnotes) Manetsch gives us cameos of many of these pastors. He discusses every imaginable aspect of the life of Geneva's ministers.
While touching on various subjects of interest to historians, the aspects of the book that I found to be of most helpful were (1) the observations Manetsch makes about the daily life of ministers in Geneva and (2) the helpful lessons that Manetsch draws from those events. Manetsch's observations are drawn from his careful readings of primary documents from the Genevan councils and consistory from the period of 1500-1609. If you don't read French, you will, no doubt, have a sense of indebtedness to Manetsch for making these documents accessible for modern readers. Whether explaining how many people were excommunicated for incest, or the complex relationship between the consistory and the small council, none of the details that Manetsch offers ever come across as extraneous or like mere filler. Not a word is wasted; rather, each detail gives the reader an intimate glimpse into the complex times in which Calvin and the Company ministered.
The members of the Company of Pastors are fascinating in their own right. Those who have read multiple biographies of Calvin himself will be grateful to know that Manetsch manages to keep Calvin's presence in the book appropriately restrained. While Calvin loomed large in Geneva, Manetsch is more concerned to introduce the reader to those who ministered in the wake of the greatest of the Reformers. The book successfully introduces and maintains an ensemble cast--Calvin being merely one among many. Almost all of the characters in Manetsch's 16th century Geneva are sincerely fascinating. Among the most interesting are Charles Perrot (who shared his misgivings about the reformation in a private journal), Jean Le Gaigneux (whose ministry only lasted nine years because of his violent temper), Pierre Des Préaux, (who shamefully fled his village because of the plague, and who was also reprimanded by the Company for inviting himself over for too many free meals at his parishioners' homes), and the most hated minister in Geneva, Raymond Chauvet (who despite his violent temper and bitter manner in the pulpit still managed to serve in Geneva for 25 years). Manetsch has no shortage of compelling pastors to discuss. Rather, one gets the sense that many stories had to be left on the cutting room floor.
The reader is also introduced to the humanity and limitations of Calvin himself. Manetsch speaks of the importance of a sense of calling to the pastoral ministry and relates how even Calvin's own sense of call was challenged by a close friend named Louis Du Tillet. Tillet sent Calvin the following letter: "I know very well that our Lord has given you a lot of gifts that are useful for a person working in church ministry, but in my judgment this does not mean that you have been established in this ministry or called to it by God." Even Calvin was not immune to the painful barbs of doubt; as Manetsch adds, "Calvin was wounded deeply by Du Tillet's insinuation that his vocation was the product of presumption and personal ambition rather than divine will" (pg. 78).
The heartbreaking examples of the sorrow and pain that the Genevans often experienced--as well as the Company's genuine, yet often inadequate. attempts to deal with such immense suffering--are among the most valuable inclusions in this work. The failures of the pastors are just as helpful to the readers as are their successes. For instance, Manetsch's discussion of the Company's pathetic and cowardly initial response to the arrival of the plague in 1542-1544 guarantees the reader that this book is far from hagiography. The much more noble correction of this episode later under Beza's leadership forms a comeback story that leaves the reader joyful and surprised.
In his final chapter, Manetsch looks at how men like Simon Goulart and Theodore Beza ministered to dying men struggling with practical questions of assurance. He includes the anecdote of a man being hanged who repented in Beza's presence and asked Christ's forgiveness mere seconds before being hanged. The episode is conveyed with respect and beauty by Manetsch's gripping narratival hand. The reader constantly benefits from author's liberal use of anecdotes, personal letters, prayers, and journals.
Many of us, like the pastors of Geneva, may find ourselves in the presence of pain, disease, loss, poverty, and despair, making the experiences related in this book eminently practical. For Genevan pastors, sin wasn't only something that was "out there," but was something even in their own homes. Manetsch effectively shows that these men often served God's people while lacking materially and experiencing familial brokenness of their own. The need for the Gospel permeated all of pastoral ministry, within the pastors' own lives as well as in the lives of the people who God entrusted to their care.
By the end of this book, the reader is left with the sense that the problems that churches face today are really not all that unusual or unique. People are hurting, sin is real, death comes to us all, man's duty is to live each day in repentance and faith before the face of God, and no one gets an exemption from the agonies and brambles of life this side of the return of Christ. These realities transcend cultures and centuries.
I wish I could talk more about this book. It is a bottomless well of fascinating anecdotes and insights into the ups and downs of pastoral ministry. Scott Manetsch has truly done the Church a great service by investing his diligent labors into writing this important book. You can now purchase an affordable paperback version of Manetsch's work. Pastors everywhere should add this extremely useful work to their libraries.
Adam Parker is a M.Div student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS. Adam is the Assistant Editor of Reformation 21.