Church Government - John Calvin

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The Genevan Book of Order

The Form of Prayers and
Ministration of the Sacraments, etc.
Used in the English Congregation
at Geneva (1556)


To our brethren in England, and elsewhere, which love Jesus Christ unfeignedly, mercy and peace.

It is more evident and known to all men, than well considered and thankfully received of many, with what great mercies, and especial graces God endued our country of England in these latter days;[1] when from idolatry he called us to the knowledge of his gospel, and of no people made us his people, a holy people,[a] the people of God; sending us a king most godly, learned, zealous, wise, and such one as never sat in that royal chair before. God's word universally spread over all the land, repentance preached, Christ's kingdom offered, sin rebuked; so that none could excuse himself, either that he had not heard, or else was not taught God's holy gospel. Yet it came to pass, and this day that is verified on us, which the Lord reproved Israel for, saying, I have stretched forth my hands all the day long unto a people that believeth not, but rebelleth against me, and walk after their own imaginations.[b] For whose ways were not corrupt? Even from the highest to the lowest, from top to toe there was no part sound.[c] Such contempt of God's word,[2] as well on their behalf to whom charge of preaching was committed, as on the other side, negligence to hear, and learn to frame their lives according thereunto; that if the Lord had not hastened his plague and prevented, it would certainly have come to pass, which those wicked men of Anathoth said to the prophet Jeremiah: Speak no more to us in this name of the Lord.[d] The which unkindness and contempt, would God we could as earnestly repent as we now feel the lack of these accustomed mercies. For now the day of our visitation is come,[e] and the Lord has brought the plagues upon us,[f] whereof before we were admonished, and most justly menaced. For the false prophets are sent forth with lies in their mouths[g] to deceive England; and the scarcity of God's word is so great, that although they seek it from one sea coast to another, yet they cannot find it,[h] but as men famished devour the pestiferous dung of Papistry, to the poisoning of their own souls.

Let us therefore, brethren, turn wholly to the Lord by repentance, fasting and prayer,[i] earnestly beseeching him to receive us once again to favour,[3] who wills not the death of a sinner (but his amendment), offering himself to all them that in their necessity seek unto him, and like a most merciful Father proves all remedies for our bettering;[k] not cruelly punishing to destroy us, but gently chastising to save us.

Beware then you harden not your hearts against this merciful Lord,[l] and tempt him as the stubborn Jews did, whom he therefore delivered up into their enemies' hands, to perish with the sword, hunger, and pestilence. For God will not be mocked,[m] but like a consuming fire will destroy as well the wicked contemners of his word as the crafty dissemblers,[n] which go about to measure God by their fantasies; not considering that they heap damnation against themselves in the day of his anger[o] ­ which now already is kindled, and begins to flame, to the condemnation of their souls and bodies ­ who knowing Jesus Christ to have once fully satisfied for our sins,[p] cease not daily, either in heart, mouth, or outward consent to blaspheme his precious death, and (as much as in them lies) crucify him anew.[q] Do you not remember that idolaters have no portion in the kingdom of God,[r] but are thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where their worm shall never die? Cannot the examples of God's fearful judgments move you,[s] who spared not his very angels when they trespassed, but hitherto reserves them in hell chains, to be tor mented in the day of the Lord? And will he then favour idolaters, dissemblers, blasphemers, mockers, contemners? and not rather in this life verify that which the Holy Ghost pronounces against the children of God's wrath, who because they do not receive the truth for their salvation, are led by lies to their endless condemnation?[t] At the least, let God's forewarning somewhat move you to pity your own state, who for your instruction suffers your own brethren amongst you to die so terribly, some in despair, others to kill themselves, and many uttering most horrible blasphemies, even to their last breath. The which things are so fearful for us to hear, that we tremble in thinking thereupon.

If you will therefore be counted in the number of God's people, and be so in deed; look not backward from the plow, return not to your vomit, bow not your knee to Baal, pollute not the temple of the Holy Ghost, in presenting yourselves to that most wicked and blasphemous Mass,[4] with such like idols;[u] but either stand in the truth, and so rather obey God than men;[x] else follow God's calling, who has so mercifully provided for you, moving the hearts of all godly rulers and magistrates to pity your state, and do you good, so that at Emden, Wesel, Frankfurt, and in this city [Geneva], he has appointed godly churches, wherein you may learn to fear him, repent [of] your sins, amend your lives, and recover again his favour and mercy.

And because there is no way more ready or sure to come to him, than by framing our selves altogether to his blessed will, revealed unto us in his word;[y] we, to whom though God has given more liberty, yet no less lamenting your bondage than rejoicing in our own deliver ance from that Babylonian slavery and Antichristian yoke, have earnestly endeavoured, amongst other things which might bring us to the worthy consideration of God's word,[z] to frame our lives, and reform our state of religion in such sort, that neither doubt of the certainty thereof should make us fear, nor yet man's judgement discourage us, and cause us [to] shrink from this enterprise most acceptable to God, comfortable to his church, and necessarily appertaining to every Christian man's duty.

We, therefore, not as the greatest clerks of all, but as the least able of many, do present unto you which desire the increase of God's glory, and the pure simplicity of his word, a form and order of a reformed church, limited within the compass of God's word,[a][5] which our Saviour has left unto us as only [alone] sufficient to govern all our actions by; so that whatsoever is added to this word by man's device, seem it never so good, holy, or beautiful, yet before our God, who is jealous and cannot admit any companion or counsellor, it is evil, wicked, and abominable.[b][6] For he that is the wisdom of the Father, the brightness of his glory, the true light, the word of life, yea truth and life itself,[c] can he give unto his church (for the which he paid the ransom of his blood) that which should not be a sufficient assurance for the same? Can the word of truth deceive us? the way of life misguide us? the word of salvation damn us? God keep us from such blasphemies, and so direct our hearts with his Holy Spirit, that we may not only content ourselves with his wisdom, but so rejoice in the same, that we may abhor all things which are contrary.

The which considerations, dear brethren, when we weighed with reverent fear and humility; and also knowing, that negligence in reforming that religion which was begun in England,[7] was not the least cause of God's rods laid upon us; having now obtained by the merciful providence of our heavenly Father a free church for all our nation in this most worthy city of Geneva, we pre sented to the judgment of the famous man John Calvin, and others learned in these parts,[8] the Order which we minded to use in our church: who approving it, as sufficient for a Christian congregation, we put the same into execution, nothing doubting but all godly men shall be much edified thereby. And as for the Papists, or malicious men and ungodly, we have not laboured to satisfy them, because we knew no sovereign medicine for their cankered sore, except it may please God, by our prayers, to be merciful to them, and call them home, if they be not already forsaken.

But yet, forasmuch as there are some, which through continuance in their evil, rather de lighting in custom than knowledge,[9] cannot suffer that men should once open their mouths against certain old and received ceremonies, we thought good in this place somewhat to touch that scrupulosity. For as ceremonies grounded upon God's word, and approved in the New Testament, are commendable (as the circumstance thereof does support), so those that man has invented (though he had never so good occasion thereunto), if they are once abused, import a necessity, hinder God's word, or be drawn into a superstition, without respect ought to be abolished.[10]

For if Hezekiah was commended by the Holy Ghost for breaking in pieces the brazen serpent,[d] which Moses had erected by God's commandment, and now had continued above 800 years (which thing of itself was not evil, but rather put men in remembrance of God's benefit); yet because it began to minister occasion to the people to commit idolatry, was not to be borne withal: how much more ought we to take heed, that through our occasion men commit not idolatry with their own imaginations and fantasies? It was not without great cause, commanded by Almighty God, that the places, and other appurtenances, which had served to idolatry should be utterly consumed,[e] lest babes and children, through occasion remembering the same, should fall into like inconvenience. And think you that we ought to be wiser? and not rather take heed, that those things which the Papists and other idolaters have invented, or else observe as invented by man, may not enter into Christ's church ­ as well to the end that the weak may not be confirmed in their error,[f] as that we may altogether separate ourselves from that idolatrous Babylon and temple of Belial,[g] wherewith Christ has no concord nor agreement?

There was no one ceremony more ancient, nor yet of better authority, than the washing of the disciples' feet, which was observed a long time in the church, and instituted by Christ himself.[h] Yet when some were persuaded that it was a portion of the Lord's Supper, and others thought it served instead of baptism, the godly churches in St. Augustine's time[i] thought it better to leave that which was ordained for a good use, than by retaining the same, confirm an error or superstition. The Corinthians, for the relief of the poor, and to increase brotherly amity together, did institute a feast,[k] immediately after the Lord's Supper.[l] But how sharply St. Paul did reprehend the same, condemning in comparison, that men should add anything to the Lord's institution, it appears by that he says, I have received of the Lord that which I gave you.

We read also, that Hezekiah and his nephew Josiah restored the use of the Passover,[m] which had been a very long time discontinued; but in the ministration thereof, they observed no other ceremony than God had left to Moses from the beginning.[n] Circumcision, likewise a sacrament, was evermore after one sort ministered, even as the Lord commanded it.[o] But such is the nature of the flesh, it will be wise, and have a stroke in God's doings; yea, and how willfully it causes man to maintain his own fantasies, it is manifest to them which have perused the ancient records of the church. For beginning at Jerusalem, and so coming to the rest of the churches, as Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, he shall see plainly, that their greatest disturbances and overthrow, chanced through ceremonies.[11] What conflict was at all times betwixt the Latin and Greek churches for the same, no Christian can consider without tears. And was there anything more objected against St. Paul, both of the Galatians and also of others,[p] than that he would not observe the ceremonies as the chief apostles did? And yet he kept them while any hope was to gain the weak brethren, and therefore circumcised Timothy;[q] but when he perceived that men would retain them as necessary things in the church, he called that which before he made indifferent, wicked and impious, saying that whosoever was circumcised, Christ could nothing profit them[r] ­ fearing also, lest he had taken pains amongst them in vain, which joined Christ with beggarly ceremonies.[s] Therefore, dear brethren, being hereby persuaded, and with many more reasons confirmed (which opportunity permits not here to write), we have contented ourselves with that wisdom which we have learned in God's book, where we are taught to preach the word of God purely,[t] minister the sacraments sincerely, and use prayers and other orders thereby approved, to the increase of God's glory, and edification of his holy people. As touching preaching, forasmuch as it is allowed of all godly men, we may at this time leave the probation [proof] thereof. And also for the ministration of the two sacraments, our book gives sufficient proof.

But because prayers are after two manner of sorts ­ that is, either in words only, or else with song joined thereunto ­ and this latter part, as well for lack of the true use thereof, as due consideration of the same, is called by many into doubt, whether it may be used in a reformed church; it is expedient that we note briefly a few things pertaining thereunto. St. Paul giving a rule how men should sing, first says, I will sing in voice, and I will sing with understanding. [u] And in another place, showing what songs should be sung, exhorts the Ephesians to edify one another with psalms, songs of praise, and such as are spiritual, singing in their hearts to the Lord with thanksgiving.[x] As if the Holy Ghost would say, that the song did inflame the heart to call upon God, and praise him with a more fervent and lively zeal. And as music or singing is natural unto us,[12] and therefore every man delights therein; so our merciful God sets before our eyes, how we may rejoice and sing to the glory of his name, recreation of our spirits, and profit of ourselves.

But as there is no gift of God so precious or excellent, that Satan has not after a sort drawn to himself and corrupted, so has he most impudently abused this notable gift of singing, chiefly by the Papists his ministers,[13] in disfiguring it, partly by strange language, that cannot edify, and partly by a curious wanton sort, hiring men to tickle the ears and flatter the fantasies, not esteeming it as a gift approved by the word of God, profitable for the church, and confirmed by all antiquity. As, besides other places, is most manifest by the words of Pliny,[y] called the younger, who, when he was deputy in Asia unto the Emperor Trajan, and had received charge to inquire out the Christians to put them to death, wrote among other things, touching the Christians, "That their manners were to sing verses or psalms early in the morning to Christ their God."[14] If any, peradventure, would doubt, when, or by whom these churches or assemblies were instituted, it is likewise evident, that St. John the apostle,[z] who, although in Domitian's time he was banished in the Isle Patmos; yet when Nerva his successor, and next before Trajan reigned, returned to Ephesus, and so planted the churches, as the histories report. Seeing therefore God's word does approve it, antiquity bears witness thereof, and best reformed churches have received the same, no man can reprove it, except he will contemn God's word, despise antiquity, and utterly condemn the godly reformed churches.

And there are no songs more meet than the Psalms of the prophet David,[15] which the Holy Ghost has framed to the same use, and commended to the church, as containing the effect of the whole scripture, that hereby our hearts might be more lively touched, as appears by Moses, Hezekiah, Judith, Deborah, Mary, Zacharias, and others,[a] who by songs and metre, rather than in their common speech and prose, gave thanks to God for such comfort as he sent them.

Here it were too long to treat of the metre; but forasmuch as the learned doubt not thereof, and it is plainly proven that the Psalms are not only metrical, and contain just cesures [ metrical pauses; divisions], but also have grace and majesty in the verse more than any other places of the scriptures, we need not to enter into any probation [proof]. For they that are skillful in the Hebrew tongue,[b] by comparing the Psalms with the rest of the scriptures, easily may perceive the metre. And to whom is it not known, how the Holy Ghost by all means sought to help our memory, when he fashioned many Psalms according to letters of the alphabet; so that every verse begins with the letters thereof in order. Sometimes "A" begins the half verse, and "B" the other half; and in another place, three verses, yea and eight verses with one letter, even the Psalm throughout; as if all men should be inflamed with the love thereof, both for variety of matter, and also briefness, easiness, and delectation.

Now, to make you privy also why we altered the rhyme in certain places of him [Thomas Sternhold], whom for the gifts that God had given him, we esteemed and reverenced, this may suffice: that in this enterprise, we did only set God before our eyes, and therefore weighed the words and sense of the prophets, rather considering the meaning thereof than what any man had written. And chiefly being in this place [Geneva], whereas most perfect and godly judgment did assure us, and exhortations to the same encourage us, we thought it better to frame the rhyme to the Hebrew sense, than to bind that sense to the English metre; and so either altered for the better, in such places as he had not attained unto, or else where he had escaped part of the verse, or sometimes the whole, we added the same, not as men desirous to find faults, but only as such which covet to hide them, as the learned can judge.

It remains last of all that you understand the reasons which moved us to choose out and follow this catechism of Geneva rather than any other;[16] for considering that the true use of a catechism is to instruct a Christian fully in all points of belief and Christian religion; and wherein this is most easily, orderly, and perfectly taught, that to be the best; we could find none in so great a number which either for facility is equal, or else for the perfection to be compared. Moreover, the dangers which hang over Christ's church in these days moved us very much; for as men may see present signs of certain barbarousness, and puddles of errors which are likely to chance in the church of God, so there is no better preservation against the same, than if all godly churches would agree in one kind of doctrine and confession of faith, which in all points were agreeable to God's holy word, that our posterity might be confirmed[c] by the universal example of Christ's church against all heresies, persecutions, and other dangers; perceiving that it is not only the doctrine of one man, but the consent of the whole Christian church, and that wherein all youth have been brought up and trained in. The which thing, seeing none has so far performed, nor yet is in such towardness [readiness] to the same as this catechism is, being for the worthiness thereof already translated into Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and English,[17] we could do no less but willingly and gladly embrace the same.

Wherefore we being now under the same cross of affliction that you our dear brethren are, and yet altogether the children of God our merciful Father through Jesus Christ, desire you, in his name, with judgment to read our doings,[18] trying them only by the touchstone of his word, that either if they be found faulty, they may be rejected, or else if they be profitable, God may be glorified, his church edified, and the malicious confounded. Farewell, dear brethren, and let us all pray to our loving God, that he would be merciful unto us, restore his holy word, comfort and strengthen his children, and finally confound Satan, Antichrist, and all his enemies. At Geneva, the 10th of February, Anno 1556.

a. Hosea 2:23; Rom. 9:25-26; 1 Pet. 2:9-10

b. Isa. 65:2; Rom. 10:21

c. Isa. 1:6; Jer. 2:4-13

d. Jer. 11:21

e. Luke 19:44

f. Lev. 26:21; Deut. 27-30

g. 1 Kings 22:22; 2 Chron.18:21; Ex. 14:11-12

h. Amos 8:12

i. Joel 2:12-13; Ps. 69:10-11; Jonah 3:5-10; Jonah 4

k. 2 Chron. 36; Isa. 5; Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-11; Rev. 3:19

l. Heb. 3:8-9; 4:7; Ps. 95:8-11

m. Gal. 6:7

n. Heb. 12:29; Deut. 4:24

o. Rom. 2:5; Jam. 5:3

p. Heb. 9:11-12; Rom. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 3:18

q. Heb. 6:6; 10:26-29; 1 Cor. 6:9-10

r. Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:8; 22:15; Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:43-48

s. 2 Pet. 2; Jude; Job 4:17-21

t. 2 Thess.; 2:10-12; John 3:19

u. Luke 9:62; 2 Pet. 2:22; Prov. 26:11; Rom. 11:4; 1 Kings 19:18; 1 Cor. 6:19

x. Luke 12:4-5; Acts 5:29

y. 1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 17:5 [?]; John 9:31

z. John 5:39; Luke 1:68-79; 2 Pet. 1:16-21

a. Gal. 1:8-9,; 1:11-12; 3:15-17; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Rom. 10:17

b. Luke 16:13

c. 1 Cor. 1:24; John 1:4,9; 14:6; Heb. 1:3

d. 2 Kings 18:2-4

e. Deut. 12:2-3, 30; 13:6-18; 2 Kings 18:4

f. 1 Cor. 8:9 ff.; 10:32; Rom. 14:13

g. 2 Cor. 6:15-17; Isa. 52:11

h. John 13:4-17

i. Epist. 119,; ad January

k. Cor. 11:23

l. Chrysostom,; 1 Cor. 11; Te tul lib.; ad uxorem

m. 2 Chron.; 30:1 ff.; 2 Kings; 23:21-23

n. Ex. 12:14; Lev. 23:5; Deut. 16:1-8

o. Gen. 17:9-14; Josh. 5:2-8

p. Gal. 1-2; Acts 21:21

q. Acts 16:3

r. Gal. 5:2; Acts 15:1-2

s. Gal. 4:9-11

t. Acts 2:42; Matt. 26:26-30; 28:19-20

u. 1 Cor. 14:15

x. Eph. 5:19; Jam. 5:13

y. Epist., lib. 10

z. Eccl. Hist.; book 3, ch. 22

a. Ex. 15:1-19; Isa. 38:10-20; Judith 16:1-22; Judges 5; Lk. 1:46-55; 1:68-79

b. Read Moses' Chabib, in his books called Psalms in Metre in the Hebrew Tongue.

c. Ps. 89:1

Notes for Preface

1. God's great benefits bestowed upon England. [marginal note]

2. The cause of God's plagues in England. [marginal note]

3. The only means for England to recover God's favour and mercy. [marginal note]

4. The Mass wicked and blasphemous. [marginal note]

5. The word of God the only foundation of this book. [marginal note]

6. To mingle man's dreams with God's word is wicked. [marginal note]

7. Religion was not perfectly reformed in England. [marginal notation]

8. The approbation of the godly learned. [marginal note]

9. Custom preferred to knowledge. [marginal note]

10. Certain causes why ceremonies ought to be abolished. [marginal note].

11. Great contention in Christ's church, in all ages, for the maintenance of unprofitable ceremonies. [marginal note]

12. Singing natural. [marginal note]

13. Singing abused by the Papists. [marginal note]

14. Singing used in the primitive church, even in the apostles' time. [marginal note]

15. What songs we ought to delight in and use. [marginal note]

16. The cause for the which this catechism is to be preferred to others. [Marginal note ­ a reference to Calvin's Catechism, which was ordinarily published with the Book of Order. In the 1556 edition of the Genevan Book, the psalter and Calvin's Catechism were inserted after the Order of Ecclesiastical Discipline, prior to the household prayers. Ed.]

17. It is translated almost into all languages. [marginal note]

18. Judge our doings by the word of God. [marginal note]

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