Glenn S. Sunshine, Reforming French Protestantism: The Development of Huguenot Ecclesiastical Institutions, 1557-1552. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2003. 193 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 1-9311-1228-2. $49.95.
What factors influenced the institutional development of the French Reformed church during the 16th century? Glenn Sunshine argues that the typical perception of these churches as nothing more than miniature Genevan colonies fails to do justice to the innovative ecclesiastical model that arose in the French church as a result of their unique situation in Catholic France (10-11). In fact, Sunshine's central argument is that the institutional development of the French Reformed church was not primarily the result of an imported Geneva ecclesiology, but rather was more attributable to original structural innovations that occurred in response to their own unique circumstances. Furthermore, Sunshine argues, these French Reformed ecclesiastical features subsequently spread to other Reformed churches abroad and became an integral part of the Calvinist tradition in Western Europe (167). To support his thesis, Sunshine's book documents the complexities of the institutional development of the French Reformed church in France during the 16th century.
Departing from the socio-economic models typically used to explain this expansion, the book begins by detailing the growth of French Protestantism and argues that the movement drew from a diverse range of social and economic classes in different locales. As this emerging diverse French Protestant church grew, the need to adopt a unified doctrinal statement and a common system of church polity became increasingly apparent. The result was the production of the Gallican (or French) Confession (1559) and the Discipline ecclésiastique. The author argues that although Calvin played a part in crafting the Gallican Confession, the Discipline (which was more dynamic and subject to change than the confession) was the product of internal dynamics unique to the situation faced by the French Protestant churches (as evidenced particularly by many innovative elements contained in the Discipline). Sunshine notes that the greatest challenge the Discipline faced was how to develop a system of collective church government without the support of the civic authorities (since the officers of the French magistrate were often Catholic) and without creating any hierarchical relationship among the churches. In contrast to other Reformed churches (which adopted an essentially hierarchical structure at the synod level), the French church was the first to systematically apply the principle of ministerial and ecclesiastical equality at the collective governmental level (37). Thus the "presbyterial" polity that emerged was primarily the result of applying the basic principles of Reformed ecclesiology to the unique situation facing the French Protestant church. The result was a system that prevented any locale from becoming the regular meeting place of a synod or any person from becoming either the permanent moderator of a synod or having permanent oversight of churches.
An additional challenge that the French churches faced was how to appoint and manage local pastors. This task was believed to be too important to be entrusted solely to the laity of a local congregation without sacrificing the important principle of congregational autonomy (since the French resisted the Genevan tendency toward centralization). Eventually, the Colloquy emerged as a formal part of French Protestant polity; it would become the primary instrument of pastoral selection and oversight.
Sunshine also argues that French Protestant church polity evidenced an eclectic blend of Reformed and non-Reformed elements at the local church level (especially evident in the features of the diaconate). The French deacons differed from their Geneva counterparts with respect to their liturgical and catechetical duties (features that they shared in common with the Catholic diaconate), but also with regard to their participation in the consistory (119). In light of the unique situation of the French churches (especially the shortage of qualified people to fill ecclesiastical offices), the deacons of the French church were included in the consistory (they were not participants in the Genevan model). Deacons increasingly took on the responsibilities of elders, until the two offices became practically indistinguishable and the diaconate (as defined in the Confession) essentially disappeared (170).
Sunshine then discusses the important place that the house churches of the nobles played in France, especially their independent status with regard to the collective governmental structure of the synods (which they often disregarded). Additionally, he describes the tenuous and fragile relationship between the Reformed consistories and the civil magistrates, since in most cases the magistrates were controlled by Catholics who were hostile to the Reformed cause (not to mention the natural tensions that arose with regard to competing claims of jurisdiction). In addition, since the French king was also hostile to the Protestant cause, the primary liaisons the Reformed churches established with the royal court was the representation afforded by the Protestant nobility.
This book provides an interesting account of the institutional development of the French Reformed churcha history that is made all the more interesting in light of the hostile environment from which it emerged. Sunshine ably documents the differences between the structural ecclesiology of the Genevan and French Reformed churches at both the local and collective governmental levelsdifferences which are too significant to ignore. As a result, his thesis appears to be established that the institutional development of the French Reformed church must be considered in light of their attempt to apply Reformed ecclesiastical principles in the context of the unique circumstances they faced.
C. Ryan Jenkins